Wednesday, August 28, 2013

First Rule of RPG Fight Club: Everyone Talks about RPG Fight Club

Welcome to the final part of my Big 4 talk. This time we are going to cover the last and oddly most and least important element of roleplaying. FIGHT, or fighting. Combat is critical to how you handle situations when things go bad in a game. Or maybe that's the point of the game.

One think to keep in mind out of the Big 4, Fight is rarely EVER the primary focus of a game. Earlier editions of D&D danced between Take and Fight, and games like Deathwatch dance between Fight and Talk, but in the end Fight is a tool to support the other 3 elements of roleplaying, Take, Talk, and Make. When games make Fighting and Combat the unipolar element of their entire experience usually they are considered weird and overly fixated. Mind you, a lot of (once mini's war games turned RPGs) tend to feature more Fight than anything else: D&D OE, Deathwatch, Warhammer Fantasy, Only War, Iron Kingdoms, and MechWarrior all feature more combat focus over the other mechanics. Social, logistics, and character development options are under featured or are require a little GM TLC to make it work. Take a look at Iron Kingdom's skill system, or D&D's early non-weapon proficencies as primary examples.

Sometimes a development team comes up with a game as Fight focused from the get go. Riddle of Steel is one such case, but it features a lot of Fight/Make with it's magic rules and character advancement in their martial techniques. Still, it's not for everyone.

I say combat is the most and least important because 90% of the time when people gripe about a RPG it's talking about combat rules. Combat rules can be downplayed and easy, but badly written rules can make or break a game in the eyes of the market. SCION for example is a game with a fantastic idea, playing the children of the gods in modern day, but it's combat rules are Exalted 2E with the rails off that made Exalted 2E work. No keywords for powers, no balance for dexterity supremacy, and defence trumps offense equals frustrated GMs and players. And SCION while popular is also in bad need of a new edition where someone fixes the explode die problem of the storyteller system first befor they take another attempt with the game. It was one of the primary motivators behind Exalted 3E and it's Errata bigger than the book!

When you sit down and look at a lot of RPGs that claim to feature fast and easy combat mechanics look at what they did the achieve it. Did they abstract combat into the same raw mechanic they handle skill usages with? Did they turn combat into game that rides besides the raw mechanics of the rest of the game? Was the combat engine the core mechanics and everything else was abstracted to fit that combat dice mechanic. However the game is altered to "speed up combat" the most effective way to control combat is to a: Give the GM a system easy enough to internalize logically, because 50% of game speed issues is GM judgment down time. And b: Player understanding of their option, because the other 50% if player choice paralysis.

Let me give you an example of a game where the development team refocused the game towards combat options over Take/Make/Talk and what happened.

I'm of course talking about Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.

Disclaimer: I'm not bashing 4E, this is a criticism and some analysis on how the change of focus benefited and hurt them. It is my opinion and I don't HATE 4E, I just felt perhaps the team working on it went a little to far in the sake of speed. FIGHT above all else.

First off 4E in combat terms was SMOOTH. Like silky smooth, in the early up to Players Handbook 2 days. I really only think the game ran into problems when they got away from the core logic of how Fighters worked around Essentials well, that and the volume of "Living Errata" and over focus on online tools to make the game work. But when combat was running, newbie players picked up on the powers focus of character builds pretty fast and the player side choice lock up rarely happened.

This extended to the GM side as well, the NPCs were way easier to handle and were built from 'what they do' standpoints which really helped making quick judgement calls. So mechanically D&D 4E had combat solid. This was great. But they gave up a LOT of the other play options to pull this off.

The TAKE half of the game was abstracted greatly. Skills in total were burned back to a handful of broad categories what made the GM and players shoehorn all sorts of situations into only loosely related skills. Dungeonering the Skill was great, but when rogues loose the option to be more than a generic rogue-thing vs pickpocket, lock picker, assassin, etc something has been lost from the earlier joy of TAKE gameplay. Same goes with the treasures themselves. Many of the magic items have very generic effects to prevent over itemization and balance issues when tactically minded players exploit loop holes in the game. But suddenly you are punishing players who's joy was finding those loopholes, or their minor (or major) exploits. There is a whole level of meta gaming fun that can be found in that style of play. TAKE gamers feed on that kinda stuff.

MAKE gameplay was turned into a treadmill. The whole concept of residium gave me personally issues. I disliked the concept of magic items always returning X value all the time, and the ability to churn items down into abstract dollar amounts took the feeling of customization on a character and item level away. the DMG 2 gave the option of giving 'magic' bonuses as story rewards and that was a nice option, but I feel the damage was done at that point. However, it did make some things like Rituals (a good idea in some ways) interesting. I liked the idea that some magic really should be taken out of the realm of combat. I didn't like that some of the spells that DID have combat related uses were nerfed to remove any 'outside the box' uses. That I think was my biggest sticking point. Artificers during beta had a very powerful 'building' option that jokingly was called LEGOmancy. It remained in the final version of the rules, but they cut away some of the more 'over powered' uses. They were not over powered, they just allowed the players to break the convention of grid combat in interesting ways and it disrupted the oh-so overly controlled tactical combat the game professed to love.

I could talk about TALK gameplay but D&D was never very good at that. I will finish up by saying that 4E was daring and did a few things really well. The setting fluff was a fun reimagination of the D&D brand. The backstory of the gods and primordials was fun, and the revaped planes while a bit generic didn't give me too many problems. But the devs of 4E made a choice. They cut down the 2 other primary elements of the D&D experience to address an issue with the 3rd. Combat WAS D&D's bread and butter for years, but I don't think since the days of Planescape, and the d20 boom to be sure, that it was only about that. The dungeon crawl abstraction works in something like Dungeon World because the game is about that abstraction. D&D is so much more these days, and I think perhaps the 4E team forgot that. Just took at 13th Age, one of 4E successors, to see 4E mechanical concepts DO work if married to an interesting MAKE (in this case background, character relationship, and unique thing) elements and TAKE (much more interesting magic items) options.

Is it perfect? No. But gaming was never about being perfect.