A blog about tabletop hobby and or strategy games, with a side order of electronic turn based goodness here and there. Now with tons of retro gaming content both electronic and tabletop. Also with 20% more self loathing douchebaggery!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mechanics of Electronic RPGs.

Over at : Gamespite, there is a REALLY long article about the mechanics of electronic RPGs and their flaws.  Being that Gamespite is one of the usual electronic game websites where the NES or SNES is largely considered the ONLY SYSTEMS THAT EVER EXISTED/MATTER in retro times, the article skews VERY heavily towards the JRPG side of things.  Which sort of misses the point that many problems in electronic RPGs have either been solved by a computer based RPG, or were things designed to work in tabletop games that were just sent straight over to digital without wondering if it actually WORKS in an electronic environment where there isn't any GM to referee, and players are mostly limited to whatever the game understands.

(This is pretty much why I just cannot enjoy the Adventure Games genre.   The games basically insist on each problem having one solution.  In the Text Adventure days, this not only meant knowing what to do, but typing it in the correct format the game's "Parser" understood.  So to get by a nasty Orc guarding a chest might not accept "Kill Orc", "Hit Orc", or "Fight Orc", but ONLY wants you to "Use Sword on Orc", even though its all the same thing.  The later point & click games fixed the parser problem, but then turned into pixel hunts for objects/environmental objects to be used, but came up with ridiculous puzzles such as putting tape on a mouse hole to get mouse fur to make a fake mustache to get by an NPC.  In an RPG players could come up with dozens of ways to get by the same NPC.)

See the electronic RPG genre has ALWAYS had flaws.  The earliest games were basically fun because they were replicating the simplest parts of a tabletop RPG, though usually with an electronic GM who was hidebound at following the RULES BY THE BOOK the way Gary said it MUST. BE. DONE. in AD&D.

(As opposed to the way most people really played it.)

For a time this was enough.  Then the JRPG genre began being birthed with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.  They made the games a LOT more user friendly, and were in general a lot easier and simpler than their more draconian CRPG parents/competitors.

Dragon Quest never autosaved your PC dying.  Not even a "Game Over".  You just lost half your cash, but kept everything else you had accomplished including Experience Points and finding that nifty Sword of Facebreaking.

Which lead to increasingly boring games as all you did was wander around fighting easy, pointless random combats you needed to do to have enough money and levels to take on the next dungeon's end boss.  Who was usually in a room just after a save/rest point where all the resources you expended to get to that point were recovered, removing even any resource management challenges.

And then the boss was the usual "Immune to all status effect spells, fighters should hit, mages should cast buffs/obvious direct damage spells, healers heal party every turn possible" strategy that will guarantee you to defeat 90% of all JRPG bosses out there.

Of course this lead to JRPGs BEING MORE ABOUT THE STORY/CHARACTERS TO LUST AFTER WITH DIRTY COMICS AND FANFIC, and all the level gains and even the sheer joys of exploring a new world being little more than time sinks and busywork to the point most JRPGs are 50 hour games with 40 hours of filler content and anything semi meaningful being the other 10 hours.

Now this is not to say Computer RPGs haven't found their own sins, though they have mostly become action games with Adventure Game dialogue trees.  Except the action is half controlled by the RPG part, which annoys BOTH groups.  The RPG player doesn't get the strategic itch scratched, while the action player has to deal with resource management and character building and his or her skills are only about half the equation.

Both sides are sort of leading towards why RPGs are becoming a smaller and smaller segment of the marketplace.  Now this leaves out the market's increasing desire to sell to the biggest demographics (which they sort of have to given the insane budgets most games have these days), and how the mass market is generally only interested in being a virtual sociopath (Grand Theft Auto type crime games), virtually teabagging someone after shooting at them (First Person Shooters), or the "Casual" game which are for non gamers mostly.  (Stuff like Peggle, Wii Sports, Bejeweled, Tetris.  Basically the pick up and play games the "Hardcore" gamer market seems to loathe, but was most of the game market in the early 80s.  Pac Man and Donkey Kong would be classified as Casual games now.  Clearly Casual is a term which SHOULD NOT BE CONSIDERED A BAD THING.  I may one day do a discussion of this term.  It really can apply to tabletop games too.  Some times you want Advanced Squad Leader.  Other times Ogre fits the bill.  And you really aren't getting ANY ASL players without them getting into Ogre first.  But again, topic for another time.)

What follows is some more of my thoughts on Electronic RPGs as I had posted to Gamespite, but with some edits to be blogpost worthy.

As if the above pile of text wasn't enough additions..

The problem with electronic RPGs, both C and J types is that they are based off of tabletop RPGs without actually using the lessons of tabletop RPGs.

Take the mentions of level grinding and such.

In a tabletop game the GM can put the odds in the player's favor or properly warn the PCs if they go places they shouldn't. Players can also do creative actions and things no electronic game can really be prepared for. (Well except for some of the Roguelikes...)

Not to mention the game mechanics in tabletop RPGs have been bastardized into electronic ones without actually understanding them much. In general Dragon Quest and much of the JRPG family seems to use the gameplay mechanics of Tunnels & Trolls over D&D.

The problem is T&T is designed for tabletop games where the GM can officiate things and actually INSISTS players and GMs houserule and use creative thinking.

This doesn't work as mentioned on an electronic device.

As an example, in the most recent T&T ruleset they explain using a battle between 2 goblins and a troll. Mechanically the goblins CANNOT WIN. EVER. The troll's stats are too high. Much like JRPGs level and stats mean all, and 10 level 1s are no match whatsoever for 1 level 10. Not even a speedbump.

(Some systems like older D&D editions, or Basic Roleplaying are nowhere near as bad. In Basic Roleplaying a master swordsman will still probably die if outnumbered just like in real life. In older D&D the high level is just going to be injured, but will still probably win.)

But T&T has a Saving Roll mechanic where you take an attribute, and make a Saving Roll to do things. (GM tells you which attribute to roll against and maybe gives a penalty/bonus.) In the T&T rulesbook example it has one goblin making a kick to the troll's groin. The Saving Roll succeeds and the GM decrees the troll is stunned and can now be beat on for a couple rounds till Mr Troll gets his senses back.

Obviously electronic RPGs can't plan for this stuff.

But they kept the long amounts of monster bashing without really understanding WHY it was in the tabletop games. Because a GM and players can make even the most irrelevant random encounter an entertaining night's play.

Heck, I had a weekly 6 month Dragonlance campaign built on a minor encounter taking on a life of its own due to player actions. (And me rewarding the players for cleverness. Which also made up for the initial encounter being too tough for them. A PC got captured, and due to some smart RPing turned a one shot baddie into the grand villain of a whole campaign. That the 6 month mark was really only 1/3rd of the total story.  It was never continued due to a mix of a self absorbed player constantly forcing scheduling changes on us, causing many people to stop playing, and myself not really wanting to continue it with half the group no longer with us.)

This sort of thing is why I have always wished e RPG makers would stop the grinding and make more meaningful encounters. I'd rather have shorter games without the time wasting killing the 1000th Slime. Instead of a 60 hour game with 1000s of 1 minute speedbump fights I would much rather have a 30 hour with 100 carefully preplanned encounters where I could do more and have more strategies and actions.

This is probably the reason I love the SRPG genre so much. In the best games' cases the battles ARE the game, and tend to be epic, interesting, and cinematic.

I have seen games that have covered some of the other flaws in RPGs as well.

Fallout 1-2 keeps the random encounters on the overworld map as you explore, with all the genuine combat and encounters mostly being prebuilt setpieces with a variety of solutions.

Most of the early Ultimas used a form of level scaling and play time length timers which gradually scaled up the number and power level of the random encounters on the overworld map (which you could avoid fighting entirely if you spotted them far enough off, sometimes leading to dozens of monster hordes chasing you around the map. Course you could usually get vehicles to shoot at enemies from afar if you needed to clean house.), and many hand crafted strategic battles in the dungeons.

Older games handled level scaling pretty well too, usually going with the classic D&D paradigm of "The lower the dungeon level the tougher the monsters", which made for a nice risk v reward scenario. Sure the first level of Werdna's dungeon has easy to kill monsters. But the XP gain will be slow, and the treasure sucks. Once you hit level 3-4 this level stops being the slightest threat, and is just.. BORING.

What I think electronic RPGs need to do is look at what tabletop games have done since 1980, and try to figure out what can be applied to them.

Its not enough just to be a simple emulation of the basic tabletop RPG elements any more.

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