Wednesday, November 27, 2013

RPG notes: There is just no making some people happy

And by some people I mean ME.

I've discussed the wizard thing before and focused on elements such as not having swords or not being able to read a spell from a book, but something occurred to me today and I think it is the root of my annoyance.

The source of all RPG is competition.  It's true.  The FIRST GAME* was created from a tabletop wargame by tabletop wargamers.  The hobby evolved into a cooperative experience but its roots began with Player Versus Player (PVP) conflict.  The thing that divides RPG from wargaming more than any other, more than the amateur dramatics, the leveling, the puffed corn based cheese snacks, carbonated beverages, geekdom and all night playing sessions is simply that RPG is, unlike its venerable ancestor, a game about cooperation.  In order to play it, enjoy it and get the most out of it the players, including the Game Master (GM) must work TOGETHER to do it.  The conflict is, thus, sublimated.  This does not mean there is not some competition, friendly and otherwise (I've thrown my fair share of dice at a group member in my time), but it is not the sole purpose of the game.  Part of working together is seen in the way the classes interact with one another and the game world.  Today it is fashionable to refer to roles, which I call metaclasses, such as tank, healer, DPSer and the like.  These are terms that evolved naturally through observation and now developers design classes to meet these roles, but it was not always the case.  A look at the original three classes from OD&D (fighting man, cleric, magic user) does not show strict adherence to a metaclass model.  The melee fighting abilities of these three classes were much closer to one another from the start, the cleric's healing ability is minor compared to a modern MMO and the wizard's magic is more subtle for the most part (no direct damage spells until level 5) and the hit points and fighting abilities cease improving earlier than one might expect today.  As gaming evolved the classes found their niches within the party.  This is important because the heart of the RPG game is the party itself.
Look at Lord of the Rings.  The Fellowship of the Ring is the party and it is their interactions with one another within the world Tolkien wrote for them that ultimately leads to success.  At times this means working together to solve a problem and at other times an individual's special talents solve the conflict at hand.
This looks like a job for an Istari!  
In the Mines of Moria as the Fellowship flees from the Balrog only Gandalf has the qualifications to stand on the bridge and face it, for the Balrog is a Maia, as is Gandalf.  We would not expect Gandalf to be able to fulfill the prophecy that recruits the dead men of Dunharrow for that required the heir of Isildur.  Similarly in the tales of King Arthur, Lancelot is a champion among men, unbeaten in war or tournament, but he cannot achieve the Holy Grail.  Authors craft their stories to give characters appropriate conflict and resolution; a GM/Developer should do the same.  No one wants to play and feel useless or not needed, for from this stems boredom and dissatisfaction and from that destructive impulses are given free rein and the whole thing falls apart.
Which brings me closer to my point.  In the classic RPG model, and indeed in board games that adapt it well (e.g. HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest, Advanced HeroQuest) each class (or model or character in a board game) is designed to fulfill a role within the adventuring party.  This is not a rigid straight-jacket of a role, for there is freedom to play around with it, but it is a vital role and when everyone is working together well success follows.  In a board game you can set absolute victory conditions such as "find the lost treasure of Kinothos" and if your team does so you win.  In an RPG victory is not so absolute and indeed in a campaign style dungeon crawl board game each victory is a milestone leading forward to greater challenges and rewards.  The measure of success is not simply whoever kills the most enemies, although depending upon the game it might be.
MMOs, however, seem to have forgotten when they were MMORPGs and lost the RPG format that created their initial success.  RPG is a social event, honestly, it is.  I know it looks like a bunch of antisocial nerds, but dammit that is a society right there.  Bunch=many, nerds=social category.  The essence of the game is the social interaction and early on that is what the MMORPG offered, only on a global scale via the magic of the internet!  While classes might seem a bit archaic, they are part of a balanced party which is part of the magic of the game itself.  Think of the cereal commercials where they told you that Fruit Loops were part of a well-balanced breakfast and then they showed this table full of food with toast, milk, juice, bacon, eggs, a black pudding, a mimosa and maybe a bloody mary.  Balanced.  Just a bowl of Fruit Loops won't cut it.  Without the full party you are just eating Hot Pockets and I think we know what happens when you just eat Hot Pockets, don't we?
Thus in the glory days you had your fighter, you had your cleric, you had your thief and you had your mage and metaclassing aside, each had his or her job to do in the party, and they did them together.  You didn't just measure victory by kills.  As much as I loathe Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition (and make no mistake, I do loathe that bastard MMO on paper) the developers designed it with the PARTY in mind.  Their spin on the tank, healer, DPSer, etc. was DEFENDER, CONTROLLER, LEADER, and STRIKER.  Leaders, which include clerics, have a host of abilities mostly centered on helping teammates.  Without teammates these are just wasted abilities.  Think of it in terms of the Avengers, since that was a popular movie and a pop culture reference seems to be the only damn way to get through to anybody these days, Captain America was the star and hero of his own movie, but in the Avengers he is the field captain, the battle leader.  Cap is the one that keeps a cool head, assesses the situation and gives orders.  It is not his job to take down Loki single-handed.  I'm pretty sure that is not even an option.  However he organizes the team to do the job, take out the boss, and bring order out of the chaos of battle.  Each class has its place, or at least it did.
The current trend seems to be individuals loosely organized to do what?  Seek individual glory?  Too many games these days seem to be nothing but combat.  No dungeons, no puzzles, no clever and deadly traps, only wave after wave of respawning enemies to kill, kill, kill in a lather, rinse, repeat fashion.  What is the purpose of having classes when each of them exists solely to kill monsters?  It becomes a race to kill and sadly the metaclassing works well enough to prevent the tank from making kills while the bloody stealthers and DPSers (into which group stealthers usually fall) get kill blow after kill blow.  By the end of the night all the accolades the game has to give go to those bastards.  What other way do lazy developers have of programming their pointless games to rack up scores, so to speak?  Kills and loot.
Thus why group at all?  And the trend seems to be to move to more and more solo play options.  This leads to an annoying dichotomy where the game is either simple stupid for solo play or deadly hard for dungeons where you MUST have a group, but then when the group is together it is not balanced for team play because everybody is built for solo play else they'd never get to the damned dungeons in the first place.
This is as annoying as getting stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel and having the four bacon chili dogs and the prune smoothie you had for lunch decide they have to come out NOW.  And you are on a date.  First date.  Oh yeah.
Now all of this would not be so bad if it wasn't for that damned balance issue.  Even if you give a wizard a sword or a stick the law of aggregate bitching** says that he won't be able to use the bloody thing anyway.  His total lack of hit points, armor, strength and melee skills means that should some blood simple monster (you thought I forgot where this started) get past the spells, now all optimized for killing (because nobody is going to put points into strength as a wizard when the strength does not benefit them even a tenth as much as it would a warrior and the intelligence is providing the magic damage buffs anyway) any melee attempts will be laughable.  I am talking about Jerry Lewis laughable.  And for all of you younguns out there (if you really are a youngun you won't even know what that means so younglings, okay) Jerry Lewis was a comedian that commanded big bucks in the black and white days partnered with Dean Martin (go ask your grandparents) and then had a stellar solo career before semi-retiring to work on a charity near and dear to his heart.  Today he is known, if he is known at all, primarily for being famous in France.  So go to Netflix and stream The Nutty Professor (1963, NOT the 1996 version with Eddie Murphy, but that's funny too, and if you want to see an Eddie Murphy film let me recommend The Adventures of Pluto Nash from 2002 but to understand that you will need to watch The Maltese Falcon from 1941 first know what; fuck it, just, just never mind, go watch Family Guy reruns or something you little bastards) to get an idea of what I am talking about.
This is the problem then: if you make the wizard too survivable for solo play, that is armor, weapons, fighting skills and magic blasting things all to Hell you ruin group dynamics and thus RPG.  Wizard don't need no party and party, being made up of other solo players, don't need no wizard.  If you make him balanced for party play, inevitably he is destroyed in PVP and possibly PVE and the party don't want him around.  Just giving him a sword solves nothing because everyone thinks, nay BELIEVES, nay KNOWS IN THEIR HEART that THEIR class, regardless of what it is, should be able to solo the whole damn game and always win in PVP all the time.
I think I hear another Balrog falling to a 3rd level rogue.  What is that, 500 this week?

*Dungeons and Dragons, published by TSR in 1974, oftentimes referred to as 0e, 0 edition and OD&D

**The Law of Aggregate Bitching: Within a free and democratic society the voice of the individual is heard, but rarely heeded, commensurate with the size of the society itself.  When multiple individuals agree upon an item or course their voices join together to create a larger, and thus more audible, sound.  When enough of these voices aggregate they will be heeded by the powers that be.  Thus those who bitch the most vociferously become, by dint of the mob rule, those in the right.  The powers that be will capitulate to the aggregate vociferous minority simply because they bothered to show up and bitch loudly while the more productive members of the society were busy doing actual work.  The correctness of the vociferous minority will not be measured against any logical or realistic benchmark and the powers that be will say they are enacting the will of the people for they have the mandate of the people.  In MMO terms this means that the DPS and Stealthers will always get the best from a new patch while ensuring that all other class types get nerfed by the developers such that tanks will do no damage, healers will not be allowed to heal any sort of stealth or burst damage and wizards will be completely unable to wield weapons to any good effect, use protective magic, or walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.