213: Roleplaying: Evolved

More Fun To Compute

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What I see as a problem isn't that some games have statistics as much as they have a kitchen sink design ethic. Everything goes into the model and the model is poorly adjusted so that it can do everything. I don't like this as I see it as a sort of unthinking way of designing that has an answer for everything but doesn't care if the design is a good fit for purpose.

In the Neverwinter Nights mod scene there was a design discussion about how riddle solving should be implemented in a game. One solution in the D&D world is to say that the player character has a lore stat so they should get a hint to solve the riddle based on how high their lore stat is. Most NWN players don't like riddles so this is the best solution for all. My argument is that, firstly, if most of your players don't like riddles and you care about their wishes then don't have any. Secondly, solving a riddle by your character just knowing the answer isn't that satisfying and does not communicate the riddle solving process well at all. If most parties have a character with high lore there is also not much challenge in configuring a party.

If you have a good riddle to put in your game then put it in and let the players try to enjoy it as well as they can. If you need a game mechanic that re-creates the triumph of solving a complex riddle without demanding that the player is actually able to solve complex riddles then make something yourself that actually works. Don't just think that the character sheet has a stat that fits so all I need to do is to check that. Let the player do something other than sit back and let the game play itself.

Going to the concept of health points, these are used in a large number of computer games from Super Mario Galaxy to Call of Duty. Their use is constantly evolving and being reinterpreted in increasingly stylised and unrealistic ways to keep the genre interesting. Regenerating health like in Call of Duty 4 could be done in a table top game but it would be harder to manage but it is very much a video game solution to the problem that would be absurd in reality. The fact that in practice it seems more natural than having a health meter that you can refill by using medical kits is pretty surprising.

There must be other solutions out there that would be even better in some ways but other conventions like the player being a one man army who takes hundreds of direct hits in the course of a game will hold back innovation.
 

Oolinthu

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Alex_P said:
The Random One said:
I haven't looked at the Dogs in the Vineyard resources, but do you think a computer could be programmed to run it smoothly?
I think this is the wrong question to ask.

D&D-derived RPG video games (the vast majority of all RPG video games) aren't replicating the exact same play experience as D&D, after all. They're using part of the formula and modifying some things to suit the medium.

The thing is, pretty much all of these D&D-derived video games tend to rehash the same kind of D&D-like story: a zero-to-hero fantasy bildungsroman full of combat, treasure, and black-and-white morality. That's... getting really old.

-- Alex
What do you suggest as an alternative?
 

Muphin_Mann

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Your need stats and levels in games. They are absolutly required.

If you start your days battling rats or something like that and hope to end them doing anyhting else then your character needs to grow not just as a person but also as a being within the computers number based brain. Thus you have levels. It tells the computer (and you) how far your character has come so he can leave the basement and stop killing rats.

Stats are less important but more enjoyable. You dont need them. RPGs could become like Halo where the only differance between your hero and the next guys is the weapon he has in his hand at the time. That would do away with tweaking your Str and Cha stats around. And also make character creation pointless. Why write an involving backstory for your DnD character if all his time spent in the Slave Pits hasnt made him tougher or stronger or less/more emotionaly vulnerable than that halfling guy who spends all his time fishing?

Removing these (both of them) would reduce each character to just a name, a backstory, and a weapon. If that wepaon is magical you can fight dragons. If its not you fight rats. The game could only make your character grow in power and prestige by giving him a better sword. The story would be the same every time you played it because you would have no differances in stats to give you alternate conversation options or anyhting like that.
 

Alex_P

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Grampy_bone said:
You're talking about the adventure game genre, which died a horrible death and is now lurching around like a zombie.

Face it, take away the stats, numbers, levels, and combat and the result isn't much fun except to a tiny niche.
I'd say that's because their approach to "gameplay" was nonsense puzzles and pixelbitching.

-- Alex
 

More Fun To Compute

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Alex_P said:
Grampy_bone said:
You're talking about the adventure game genre, which died a horrible death and is now lurching around like a zombie.

Face it, take away the stats, numbers, levels, and combat and the result isn't much fun except to a tiny niche.
I'd say that's because their approach to "gameplay" was nonsense puzzles and pixelbitching.

-- Alex
I still can't accept explanations like that for adventure games not being as popular. If murder mystery novels stopped being popular could I get away with saying that it was because the same person committed the crime no matter how you read it and it is only a mystery because of some bullshit that is only revealed at the end of the book?

I'd rather look to the economics of production and changes in technology for an explanation. A large factor in the trends in game design is what seems interesting or fashionable to the creators anyway.
 

Alex_P

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Muphin_Mann said:
If you start your days battling rats or something like that and hope to end them doing anyhting else then your character needs to grow not just as a person but also as a being within the computers number based brain. Thus you have levels. It tells the computer (and you) how far your character has come so he can leave the basement and stop killing rats.
That's exactly the thing: constant massive "character growth" through level-ups only fits a particular kind of story: the kind that starts with some teenage loser crushing rats and ends with a gold-draped champion fighting dragons with his Vorpal Flametongue Holy Avenger. That's not actually a very versatile story structure, and, thanks to decades of tabletop and video-game RPGs, it's horribly freakin' overplayed.

Look at Mass Effect. Do levels represent anything within the narrative of the game? Why is an elite commando who already has a long and storied career behind him/her quadrupling his/her abilities over the course of the story? Why the hell is the universe filled with rifles that look and work the same way but hit ten times as hard as other rifles?

Look at how everything in the game levels with you because that's the only way the designers could think to maintain some semblance of interesting gameplay while telling the story they were trying to tell. The whole game, you're fighting the same stupid robots but now they're level 40 instead of level 3. That tells me the story really wasn't written for "levels"; they're just an RPG sacred cow that had to be shoehorned in, either because it's what the fans want or because Bioware couldn't come up with anything else.

-- Alex
 

The Rogue Wolf

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Alex_P said:
The Rogue Wolf said:
This article would have been helped immensely if it had given me any clue at all as to what Dogs in the Vineyard actually does differently, to replace those base stats like Strength and Level.
Very true.

I've read it and played it. Let me fill you in a bit.

Dogs in the Vineyard is an independently-published roleplaying game written by Vincent Baker. It came out in 2004. It's part of an "indie" design movement that generally emphasizes focused rules that help the players address the game's subject matter.

So, to understand why it works how it works, you have to understand the overall thematic focus of the game.
Here, take a look at these excerpts [http://www.lumpley.com/dogcerpts.html].
Fundamentally, DitV is a game about community in crisis. The player characters find towns in trouble -- in trouble because pride and sin have disrupted the community and opened the door for calamity to strike. It's the Dog's job to clean things up.

The Wikipedia article summarizes the mechanics and setting a bit [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogs_in_the_Vineyard].
The game mostly relies on player-created traits.
Every character has four main stats: Acuity, Heart, Body, Will. Which ones you use depends on the conflict.
The player-created stuff falls into three categories:
- Traits describe your character. "Good Shot", "Book-Learning", "Short Temper",
- Relationships describe your character's attachments to other people.
- Belongings describes your signature stuff. Every Dog has a coat, for example, created by the people of his or her home town to represent the trust and pride of the community.
These are all rated in dice, like d4 or 2d8. As you play, you'll raise and lower these stats and occasionally add new ones.

Players don't really make "skill checks" or anything. You're either engaged in free narrative or a game-mechanical conflict.

A conflict is about something. You define what's "at stake" and then take turns narrating stuff, using the dice from your attributes to back them up (see the Wikipedia article for an overview of the back-and-forth).
Essentially, every turn we take is about proposing a consequence. The other player then averts it or "takes the blow" depending on how he uses his dice.
If you run out of dice, you lose. If you're low on resources, you can try to call on additional attributes to shore up your hand. You can also "escalate" the conflict -- for example, if you're losing an argument, you can try to turn the tide by pulling a gun. (But it means you pulled a gun! That's not something people do lightly. Remember that you're not dealing with monsters here -- you're dealing with people you're supposed to help and save, many of them your own kin!)
You can always choose to lose the conflict. People do this in play a lot. Why? Usually because they'd rather lose the conflict than suffer the consequences of sticking it out.

"Taking the blow" can be worthwhile, too. That's how you improve your attributes and gain new ones. Unless "taking the blow" means getting, y'know, shot in the face -- that's how you lose attributes or get killed.

To summarize:
- Characters are defined in terms of aspects that their players consider important to the character and the story.
- Players engage in conflicts to achieve a goal. The mechanics are about seeing how far your character will go for that goal.
- Characters grow over time, chiefly by learning from their losses.

Generally, if the Dogs all work in concert and they don't care how much bad stuff they cause, they'll pretty much always win a conflict. In other words, a group of canny and coordinated young people with rifles or big-ass Dragoons can massacre a bunch of town people in the streets to get their way. Usually you don't want to do that. ;)

Now, I'm kinda ignoring some of the bits that make the game awesome here, in favor of keeping the description kinda short and mechanics-focused.

The Rogue Wolf said:
What bounds do the characters have, if any? How does anyone know what they're capable of?
You have the stats described above. Everybody's supposed to point out weak conflicts or poor ideas.

The players define the tone of the game in play. See the excerpt on supernatural stuff, linked above.

The Rogue Wolf said:
Or are the games simply an extension of two children running around in a parking lot, yelling "I shot you!" "No, I shot you first!"?
I think you can see from the conflict rules that it's not just, err, arbitrary.

The whole "I shot you!"/"No you didn't!" thing is kinda a red herring, anyway. While a lot of RPG players and a lot of RPG books mention this as an example of "why we need rules", Baker is quick to point out that many, many people actually play freeform games all without ever running into this problem; as such, he thinks it's trivial.

The Rogue Wolf said:
Not a single word here has told me, and nothing here has given me the slightest impetus to go looking for myself.
When I want to "sell" someone on "indie" games, I usually show them this little story about actual play -- it's not about DitV but it really summarizes what this style of RPG is all about. If you only read one link, this is the one:
[Trollbabe/Conan] AP: The Heart Ripper [http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=250634]

-- Alex
Well. You definitely answered the questions I had. Thank you! I actually do better understand the reference now.
 

Alex_P

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More Fun To Compute said:
I'd rather look to the economics of production and changes in technology for an explanation.
It wasn't an explanation. It was a counter to the claim that adventure games died because they didn't have enough game mechanics yoinked from D&D.

-- Alex
 

Alex_P

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Oolinthu said:
What do you suggest as an alternative?
I'd like to see "hybrid" games that don't force RPG mechanics on you just because they have an RPG-like approach to character dialogue. Mass Effect didn't need levels and it definitely needn't need the constant shuffle of incrementally-improving loot. Deus Ex didn't really gain a lot from having a skill system that mostly served to make you use more multitools and handicap your aim.

I'd like to see games that don't take ever-increasing stats for granted. It's not always appropriate to the theme and genre of the story.

I'd like to see games that better relate character growth, even if it is just the usual "you get more powerful" kind of thing, to fictional events within the game. Going out and learning new martial arts and magic in Jade Empire was a lot more interesting than incrementally buffing them up with points from level-ups.

I'd like to see games avoid the use of RPG-style items and levels as a design cop-out, too, a trick to dangle a shiny future in front of the players so you can distract them from how humdrum and clumsy the moment-to-moment gameplay actually is. (This is something that I think Fallout 3 and Mass Effect are deeply guilty of, for example.)

-- Alex
 

Muphin_Mann

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Alex_P said:
Muphin_Mann said:
If you start your days battling rats or something like that and hope to end them doing anyhting else then your character needs to grow not just as a person but also as a being within the computers number based brain. Thus you have levels. It tells the computer (and you) how far your character has come so he can leave the basement and stop killing rats.
That's exactly the thing: constant massive "character growth" through level-ups only fits a particular kind of story: the kind that starts with some teenage loser crushing rats and ends with a gold-draped champion fighting dragons with his Vorpal Flametongue Holy Avenger. That's not actually a very versatile story structure, and, thanks to decades of tabletop and video-game RPGs, it's horribly freakin' overplayed.

Look at Mass Effect. Do levels represent anything within the narrative of the game? Why is an elite commando who already has a long and storied career behind him/her quadrupling his/her abilities over the course of the story? Why the hell is the universe filled with rifles that look and work the same way but hit ten times as hard as other rifles?

Look at how everything in the game levels with you because that's the only way the designers could think to maintain some semblance of interesting gameplay while telling the story they were trying to tell. The whole game, you're fighting the same stupid robots but now they're level 40 instead of level 3. That tells me the story really wasn't written for "levels"; they're just an RPG sacred cow that had to be shoehorned in, either because it's what the fans want or because Bioware couldn't come up with anything else.

-- Alex
Thats just one game. What about something like Oblivion where as you advance you fight bigger more interesting more varied opponents.

And while i suppose you could tell a story without the character growing more personaly powerful you would have to be a very very good story teller to keep someone interested until the end (since every bit that isnt pure story will be the exact same cookie cutter sequences).

Heck, even books often have characters grow in power as the story goes on. Look at Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.
 

Alex_P

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Muphin_Mann said:
What about something like Oblivion where as you advance you fight bigger more interesting more varied opponents.
Oblivion is full of D&D-isms through and through. Of course it's going to have a D&D-like zero-to-hero bildungsroman plot.

(Also, I don't really know how to describe Oblivion's approach to skills and levels as anything other than "botched".)

-- Alex
 

brenatevi

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Ah, the beauties of the English language, and the human mind's need for labels. Honestly, I think what Alex is suggesting (taking out the "numbers" [levels and stats and such]) would fail miserably if it was labeled as an RPG. Consider

Alex_P said:
Muphin_Mann said:
What about something like Oblivion where as you advance you fight bigger more interesting more varied opponents.
Oblivion is full of D&D-isms through and through. Of course it's going to have a D&D-like zero-to-hero bildungsroman plot.

(Also, I don't really know how to describe Oblivion's approach to skills and levels as anything other than "botched".)

-- Alex
In his own words, an RPG that tried something different was "botched." Once you take out the stats from an RPG, what do you end up with? A first person shooter. Now, the FPS might have layered dialogued and choices, like Jedi Knight and JK2, where you chose new Force Powers after each mission, but in the end, it is still considered a FPS.

Why is that? Because of human expectations. We label something, and then people expect certain things from that game. JRPG, Western RPG, those words evoke certain things, to the point that people will dispute that certain games even belong in those categories. Why? Because it doesn't live up to their expectations.

In the end, the "blame" lies both with the designers, and with the audience, because the audience expects something when a label is applied, and the designers try to live up to those expectations (and make money doing it; never forget the money at stake.) If you want something different, just ignore the label and make what you want.
 

Alex_P

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brenatevi said:
In his own words, an RPG that tried something different was "botched."
A "level" system which directly penalizes you for advancing your class' central skills [http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Oblivion:Leveling#The_Leveling_Problem] is a design mistake. It really is that simple.

-- Alex
 

More Fun To Compute

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It's not that "taking out the stats" wouldn't work, although anyone saying that video games can work without any numbers is either naive or trolling. Most video games are heavily influenced by D&D without sticking to many of it's conventions.

Take somebody like Sandy Petersen who went from being a D&D fan to working on Call of Cthulu before ending up in the video games industry. He worked on games like Darklands, Pirates and Quake. Darklands is a "proper RPG" as purists would have it but then his career takes more interesting turns. In Sid Meier's Pirates, concepts like health point and levels are not so important and are exchanged for concepts like wealth and fame. Instead of resolving situations with stat checks there are mini games. He then goes on to work on level design in Quake which does have health points but character levels are exchanged for player skill and weapons. The level design and combat in Quake was a richer experience for the player than the typical RPG. Quake didn't have the same scope as an RPG but what it did, it did well.

I'm not saying that Sandy Peterson is the main man on all of this but his career does have an interesting path.

The fact is that video games have already gone through the process of abandoning D&D conventions just for the sake of sticking with the conventions. Games like Oblivion and Mass Effect are stylised throwbacks that use the old conventions to play on peoples expectations, as said above.
 

brenatevi

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Alex_P said:
brenatevi said:
In his own words, an RPG that tried something different was "botched."
A "level" system which directly penalizes you for advancing your class' central skills [http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Oblivion:Leveling#The_Leveling_Problem] is a design mistake. It really is that simple.

-- Alex
I stand corrected. :)

But still my point stands that the reason game designers don't "throw out" the D&D style systems is because we the player expect them.
 

Muphin_Mann

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Alex_P said:
brenatevi said:
In his own words, an RPG that tried something different was "botched."
A "level" system which directly penalizes you for advancing your class' central skills [http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Oblivion:Leveling#The_Leveling_Problem] is a design mistake. It really is that simple.

-- Alex
Making something more challenging and penalizing are two very different things, my friend.

And even if it was a failed attempted the issue wasnt with the core concept (you practice somehting, you get better at it) so much as how quickly it scaled and how useful some things where versus others.

Also, you ignored my point about other mediums, such as books or movies.


Has there ever been an RPG with no stats at all? WOuldnt that just be people telling a story together. Its impossible to make a game like that (i think) because you cant program enough depths and possible story paths to simulate every possible story a group of people could make. Or even a tiny fraction of those.
 

Alex_P

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brenatevi said:
But still my point stands that the reason game designers don't "throw out" the D&D style systems is because we the player expect them.
There's significant room for innovation even in stuff that players think of as genre-defining.

There was a time when FPSes had to have med kits strewn around. It wasn't until recently that we've seen games offer an alternative. Before you scoff and say that's trivial, remember that gaining and losing health basically defines the shooter' cycle of play; changing that changes everything.

"Tower defense" has considerably broadened what form "micromanagement" can take in an RTS.

MMORPGs used to be all about "camping" the same monster spawn. Instancing and other gameplay innovations have altered that radically. This is an absolutely monumental change in how these games are actually played.

-- Alex
 

brenatevi

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Alex_P said:
brenatevi said:
But still my point stands that the reason game designers don't "throw out" the D&D style systems is because we the player expect them.
There's significant room for innovation even in stuff that players think of as genre-defining.

There was a time when FPSes had to have med kits strewn around. It wasn't until recently that we've seen games offer an alternative. Before you scoff and say that's trivial, remember that gaining and losing health basically defines the shooter' cycle of play; changing that changes everything.

"Tower defense" has considerably broadened what form "micromanagement" can take in an RTS.

MMORPGs used to be all about "camping" the same monster spawn. Instancing and other gameplay innovations have altered that radically. This is an absolutely monumental change in how these games are actually played.

-- Alex
Valid points, but you just can't overthrow human expectations overnight. It takes a lot of time and effort (which in a lot of cases equals a lot of money) to get players to think differently, and often there is great risks in trying something differently.

Yet, with the Internet and browser games, there is still the opportunity to try different paths like you suggest, the tower games you brought up is the perfect example. They cost little to produce, therefor little risk of loss. Too bad their image among "real gamers" is so bad, because maybe the next revolution in RPGs is happening there.
 

Grampy_bone

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Alex_P said:
Muphin_Mann said:
If you start your days battling rats or something like that and hope to end them doing anyhting else then your character needs to grow not just as a person but also as a being within the computers number based brain. Thus you have levels. It tells the computer (and you) how far your character has come so he can leave the basement and stop killing rats.
That's exactly the thing: constant massive "character growth" through level-ups only fits a particular kind of story: the kind that starts with some teenage loser crushing rats and ends with a gold-draped champion fighting dragons with his Vorpal Flametongue Holy Avenger. That's not actually a very versatile story structure, and, thanks to decades of tabletop and video-game RPGs, it's horribly freakin' overplayed.

Look at Mass Effect. Do levels represent anything within the narrative of the game? Why is an elite commando who already has a long and storied career behind him/her quadrupling his/her abilities over the course of the story? Why the hell is the universe filled with rifles that look and work the same way but hit ten times as hard as other rifles?

Look at how everything in the game levels with you because that's the only way the designers could think to maintain some semblance of interesting gameplay while telling the story they were trying to tell. The whole game, you're fighting the same stupid robots but now they're level 40 instead of level 3. That tells me the story really wasn't written for "levels"; they're just an RPG sacred cow that had to be shoehorned in, either because it's what the fans want or because Bioware couldn't come up with anything else.

-- Alex
The important part is in bold. I like how you said that; you implied that making a game for the fans tastes was somehow a bad thing.

Face it, the experience of going from weak to powerful is one of the most compelling mechanics in all of gaming (just look at the success of MMOs). I'm sorry that you have suffer all this annoying gameplay to get in the way of your beloved narratives and dialogues, but some of us expect our interactive entertainment to be, well, interactive. You want something 100% focused on story? Don't play videogames for it.
 

Alex_P

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Grampy_bone said:
The important part is in bold. I like how you said that; you implied that making a game for the fans tastes was somehow a bad thing.
Sometimes, fans are stuck in a rut.

MMORPGs are a great example. When the recent generations of games first came out, fans bitched up and down about certain mechanics that they were used to being absent from WoW and its contemporaries. One of those mechanics was sitting (to rest, not just an emote), which was a very poor attempt to translate D&D's resting mechanics that only served to bog down play in MMOGs. Then, very quickly, they forgot about it. Because it really was useless and irrelevant even though they had come to expect it.

I don't think levels are as useless as sitting. They're more like medkits. Every FPS used to have medkits. A lot of them still do. But, well, you don't need medkits to create compelling gameplay in an FPS.

Giving up conventions stats and levels doesn't mean giving up "gameplay" any more than stepping away from Armor Classes and Spell Slots means making it "freeform". But, jeez, I can see the games themselves struggling confusedly to shoehorn levels in where they don't fit. That means it's time to actually think about another path.

-- Alex