Nocturnal Rumination: Central Elements of RPGs (reposted)

08 Jan

From and the Fortress of Doors blog comes an interesting and attempted educational piece on what “suckage” is and how it pertains to your game.  Boiling it down to five salient points,  Lars Doucet writes that RPGs are prone to suckage due to player perception (“things that we perceive as real become so in their consequences” – Thomas theorem from sociology),where suckage is best defined as the perception of design failure, when the reality is that a strongly negative opinion was formed by the player (see the article for this discussion, it is interesting).  These points about the challenge of developing RPGs are: 1.) that they touch a raw nerve; 2.) they are traditionally billed as “EPIC!”; 3.) they are complex games; 4.) they are divided into strong sub-genres; and 5.) they have no centrally defined mechanic.  In this, I hope to express counterpoints to these arguments, and provide how I wish to demonstrate these, to an extent, with the Cultura game system.

1.) RPGs touch a raw nerve?

RPGs do touch a raw nerve, in the same exact fashion that a proponent of listening to indie music tends to irritate everyone in the room around them.  Hell, talk to someone enough and I’m certain that you’ll find something they say touches a raw nerve. Yet, that’s not exactly the point.

The term “fan” is merely a shortened version of “fanatic.”  That is the exact reason why RPGs touch raw nerves; people love them, they are immersed by them, and when they perceive something that breaks their attention, immersion, or gear-gathering it induces a gut-wrench fit of nerdrage not seen since that 13-year old lost his head a few years back after being told he was quitting WoW.  They are a source of enjoyment, a means to relaxation, and centrally something in which you strive to make your character better.  And, like a person with a favorite baseball team, the RPGamer becomes a fanatic.  Regardless of that which we are speaking, things become either sacred or profane to groups of people.  When something violates the sacred, a visceral response is to be expected.

Case in point: Dragon Age 2.  A wonderful narrative, featuring wonderfully produced voice-acting, reasonable graphics, and intense gameplay, that emotionally invested the player.  Not a day later than its release, you see from Metacritic,, and other gaming opinion sites that DA2 is nowhere near as engaging as its antecedent.  Why was this?  Even though it featured the above mentioned laurels, it violated a specific rule about sandbox RPGs: each dungeon should be an uniquely, and epic, designed thing.  Instead, Bioware did the opposite by using a Copy & Paste feature.  The response from members of this community was mixed and mostly accurate; however, some howled and gnashed their teeth while declaring that they wasted 60 USD, they want their life back, or that the game was terribly designed.  At this point, no matter if you are BioWare, Wizards of the Coast, or even some indie publisher in the middle of nowhere , you should expect this.  You will never provide a game that 1.) lives up to every single expectation of the player base; and 2.) will universally be intended for every single audience of the face of the planet (I’m looking at you WoW, Rift, and other MMOs).

2.)  Epic?  Epics?  Or just way too damned much?

It is inherently true that most RPGs are billed as being epic.  Japanese RPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series, seem to find a fascination with slaughtering a god, a concept of evil, or a character so insanely corrupted that they become inhuman in their quest to “get back Mother” (was I the only one that wanted to vomit when Kadazj says that in Advent Children?).  Even paragons of the Western RPGs follow a similar model of corruption and god-slaying.  It is and has always been too much.  Even in World of Warcraft, who did a moderately good job through Vanilla and the Burning Crusade, you will almost always see this trope: look at Kael’thas, look at Deathwing, look at Arthas, look at Celebrius, et al.

It comes directly from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and our own want for these types of epics.  Humans enjoy epics to which they relate and from which they can learn. If this were not the case, then Homer would have never written the Illad, a Singr would have never told Beowulf, and Gilgamesh would not be the first story ever written by human hands.  The seed of understanding from all this: people like to ascribe to that which they cannot or do not understand fantastic qualities; people enjoy hearing stories of heroes that are able to master and/or defeat these fantastic qualities; and finally, people learn from the mistakes and successes of the main characters as they go through the epic.

Therefore, the problem is not with the EPIC itself.  Instead, the problem is with HOW the narrative fails to deliver the epic, which is the failure of the story team.  When you have to resort to killing gods or corrupted/misguided boss number 185, you have a story team that is in need of beer or something else for their inspiration.

3.) They are complex

I disagree with this entirely.  Traditional role-playing is a form of acting, whether the individual is playing the voice of the Wind Spirits around the campfire or someone is ad libbing a scene.  The only rule of the game is to stay in that character. Conversely, a game like Mount & Blade is very simple as well: you are a near penniless drifter, starting off in a cruel world of politics, armies, brigands, and economics.  The only rule in that game is to push forth and either succeed or fail.

While I understand and respect the point that RPGs typically have a great number of systems and moving parts (they have to by nature, see below), I disagree that they have to be perceived as complex.  In fact, I tend to believe that the simplest perception possible offers the greatest means to success.  The higher the degree of complexity, the more the parts have to work in concert.  You do this by focusing the systems on RPGs central elements: 1.) Character Development, and 2.) Player Choice.

4.) Strongly defined subgenres

This is a given and related to point 1.  People prefer stories offered from a particular genre, and you’ll never make everyone happy and nor should you try.  Tabletop RPGs offer a greater degree of freedom for people to find their niche than do video games, because of the necessary constraints of the video game.

5.) No Central Mechanics?

This is the point with which I find the most contention as RPGs have two central elements or mechanics: Character Development, and Player Choice.

Character development is the hallmark of role-playing games, whether its a campfire narrative, yet another heroic run in WoW (you’re there for gear, which development), or if a character’s narrative takes them into a political foray that leads to their inevitable downfall.  Experience, level, gear in video games, achievements, and point in narrative are all points of progression/development.  Over the course of a player’s character’s career/life, they gain experience through their hardships, become involved in story lines with a definite beginning and end, gain all the pieces of Tier seven hundred and forty-three, or is granted the Noobsmasher achievement. These are all examples of character development!  To that end, it is the Cultura Game System’s goal to offer substantial character development through the abolition of levels, classes, and other interfering systems; instead, character development focuses on the Player’s Choice and the direction their narratives and play styles take.

Player choice determines character development intrinsically: if you, as a Player, do not want to fill X role, you will not play X role or create X role.  If you, as a player, want your character to be a licentious prick, you will have your character act as such.  Yet at the beginning of it all, you as the Player know the playstyle you prefer, want, and enjoy.  In the end, you will determine the direction, through play and through your own perception, of your character.  To do this, Cultura offers the Interactive Story Guide System in which players must take responsibility for understanding their characters’ abilities, while the Story Guide worries solely about the challenges and narratives.

All other systems in roleplaying games, regardless of genre and of style, revolve around those two mechanics.  Gear/loot often represents character development; class choice, character race, and selection of abilities demonstrates player choice.  The problem with current games is that they often offer these as avenues of interest, yet fail in delivering substantial development or choice.  WoW is a wonderful example, what with its “you can pick any talent you wish, but you should probably spec like everyone else” trees.  As is D&D with this idea: “sweet, you’re a rogue! BACKSTAB!”  In any case, those are not substantial choices.

I agree with the sentiments of other developers from games such as Magicka, companies such as White Wolf, et al. that attempt to offer unique and meaningful play experiences where my choice and my perception of my character’s development are key.


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