Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal

Syp asks “Progress?”, comparing character screens of Fallout 2 to Mass Effect 3. Spoiler: the answer is “yes”. Particularly as, in the comments on Wilhelm’s piece on talent trees, Syp clarifies: “I’m not huge on talent trees either. What I want are clear, meaningful choices for my character — and lots of them.”

I like a nice bit of character creation far, far more than the next man, unless the next man also has a vast army of pencil and paper characters not dead, but sleeping in dusty folders of photocopied character sheets. Computer RPGs aren’t great at options and choices, though, every possibility has to be considered by the developers and implemented within the constraints of the game, an increasing burden as time moves on from 2D sprites and a bit of typing to complex 3D graphics, voice acting and the like. From another older post:

The journey from pencil and paper RPG to computer RPG to MMO has generally been one of convergence. There’s an Encampment of Generic Monstrous Humanoids threatening the local Village of Friendly Villagers, Neville the Mayor wants you to take care of it. In a pencil and paper RPG, your actions are limited only by your imagination (and that of the gamesmaster, and possibly the rulebook). You could kill ‘em all, or sneak in and assassinate the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and hope that panics the rest of them, or try and reason with the Chief, or threaten him, or you could poison the river they use for fresh water, or pose as a manifestation of their deity and command them to leave, or embark on a far-reaching campaign to psychologically unbalance the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and convince him there are elements within the encampment working against him, causing a bitter and divisive civil war which you and the villagers can easily mop up after.

In a computer RPG, you’re limited by the imagination of the designers and the capability of the game engine. Maybe you’re down to about three of the options, Reason With The Chief (charisma check), Sneak In And Assassinate (stealth check), Kill ‘Em All (god will know his own, check).

In a typical MMO… well, it’s going to be Kill ‘Em All, isn’t it? Or Kill Ten Of ‘Em (then ten slightly different ones, then ten other different ones, then the named one), or possibly Kill ‘Em All, Wait For ‘Em To Respawn, Then Kill ‘Em All Again ‘Cos The Boss Didn’t Drop The Right Loot Last Time.

So particularly in MMOs, skills, choices, talents etc. tend to be related to combat, either your main role within it (tank, healer, crowd control etc.), or more subtle choices in how you fulfil that role (avoiding or absorbing damage, single target or AoE damage/heals etc.), which (very broadly, massive generalisation etc.) makes many choices a problem of maths/logic; “If two rogues take three minutes to kill seven goblins, how low does it take nine rogues to kill twelve goblins? If a wizard sets off at 9.03am in a fight casting instant-damage magic missiles against a boss with 1200hp, and another wizard sets off in the opposite direction casting damage-over-time acid arrows, does a 5% mana reduction in the cost of a magic missile benefit the first more than a 2% increase in damage over time for the second? For extra credit write a 12,000 word forum post explaining to the developers why this is RIDDICKYEWLESS, and mathematically proving you have been slapped in the face.” Some people love that sort of stuff; I quite enjoy a maths teaser myself now and again, especially if presented by Dara O’Briain, but I’m not desperate to break out a spreadsheet every time I level up in a game.

There’s a clear line from Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate series that (broadly) use AD&D 2e rules through the Knights of the Old Republic games using D&D d20 rules run through the fantasy-to-sci-fi-o-tron (replace “sword” with “lightsabre”) on to the Mass Effect series; in the original Mass Effect you can just about see the vestige of the rogue/scoundrel type class in the form of the Decryption skill, required to open certain doors and containers. Was it a meaningful choice, to be able to open a few extra crates or be a bit better in a fight? To once again quote Stephen Fry:


I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’

Undoubtedly the “RPG” elements of the Mass Effect series have been either dumbed-down or streamlined, depending on your outlook, over the three games, if using the “stats and skills and inventory management” definition of “RPG”; Rock, Paper, Shotgun suggested “guns and conversation” might be a better genre description. If you want meaningful choices, though, I submit there are few better examples. On one level, everyone is doing pretty much the same things, visiting pretty much the same planets, battling the same threat. On another level, though, everything is completely different, in Mass Effect 3 different characters are alive or dead, friend or foe, lover or ex-lover-in-really-awkward-demonstration-of-the-problems-with-workplace-romances. The class you choose, and the skill points you assign, affect how you fight (and do make a major difference in combat), but you don’t need to have put points into Charisma before a companion will talk to you, nobody is imprisoned in a cell and can only be freed if you happen to have picked a class that can space-lockpick, options in conversations depend on your general reputation and previous decisions rather than rolling dice against your Persuasion skill. I’d say that’s progress.

7 thoughts on “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal

  1. spinks

    I got to this point after one of my early experiences in Pen and Paper playing Champions. They had an intricate point based character building system where everyone started with the same number of points to spend. Someone who was really expert with the system could build a much more powerful character for the same points score.

    I eventually gave up trying to do this and just gave a vague character description to the minmax master in our group who would then happily go off and mess around with his character building spreadsheet for awhile and come back with a character for me.

    And I thought — wouldn’t it be cool if I could skip the stage where I have to ask someone else to build MY character and just put it together myself without having it hopelessly underpowered because I cba to memorise all the minor rules?

  2. darkeye

    Was playing a druid in the DDO beta, and there is no templates in yet, so was completely at a loss for creating a character, especially since I’ve not gotten very far in the live game, newbie island. But the thing about the in-game templates is that you can go to the forums and find adapted ‘more correct’ versions of the templates and that’s what I’ve been using trying to get a start in the main game. And they are going to be adding talent trees ‘epic destinies’ on top of their point system character creation, oh my.

    Same with templates in Rift, they are good and popular builds but could be better, some mispent and wasted talents, and will probably get outdated quickly if the system is not maintained. I think that’s the big little idea in the waiting, an in-game template system (Rift’s is really neat and informative) where the community can input builds to share and can be voted on.

  3. Zoso Post author

    @spinks That rather chimes with a post about character creation on Monte Cook’s journal that Redbeard pointed out in a comment on the Melting Pot. Good old superhero systems as well, nothing like trying to come up with rules that can handle “blokes quite good at punching people” all the way up to “gods”…

    @darkeye DDO’s a great example where the massive array of choice (skills, feats, talents, cross-classing and the rest) seems to boil down to 99 ways to really bugger your character up for every 1 that works well… Melmoth’s theory on templates is they’re a warning, “Look, even these templates, created by the developers of the game, are open to scorn and derision by our community.”

    Some sort of in-game crowdsourced build advice sounds like a good idea, let the people who love building go crazy, then by votes, popularity or something let others browse and pick builds to use. Not vastly different to searching forums and guides at the moment, but hopefully less need to check post dates to work out whether a major game update rendered all the advice meaningless…

  4. spinks

    My absolute favourite RPG chargen was in a game called Over the Edge where you just wrote a sentence about each sort of thing your character could do. And it could be as broad as “Is a spy like James Bond” or as narrow as “Talk about obscure prog rock bands.”

    I once played in a prewritten game (the writer was French) where one character had the skill, “Offers to show you her genital piercings.”

  5. Pardoz

    I don’t particularly see “arriving at exactly the same point by a somewhat different route” as “progress”, m’self.

    The problem is the issue’s being presented as binary – “you can have (semi)-meaningful choices in character design (within the limits imposed by the game) or you can have (semi)-meaningful choices in character action (within the limits imposed by the game).” I want both, damn it, and a lot *more* of both. I want games I can’t free the prisoner because I didn’t invest in the lockpicking skill *and* I can’t sweet-talk the warden into releasing him because I was mean to him in an earlier conversation *and* where that will have actual repercussions twenty hours later that go beyond “He doesn’t show up in the final cinematic.”

    Oh, and Over the Edge’s character generation was brilliant, when played with the right people. (Or disastrous when played with the wrong ones, but sometimes that’s the price you pay.)

  6. Zoso Post author

    @spinks From the wiki page, it sounds like Over the Edge has some similarities in setting with The Secret World; wonder if they’ve got any piercing-related skills in that…

    @Pardoz “I want both, damn it, and a lot *more* of both.” I think a lot of people do, but I’m not sure how it’s possible without something like an AI acting as DM with a massive library of assets. Maybe something Storybricks with a clever team of authors, but when a single conversation with a single character needs the amount of work outlined by the Alpha Protocol team (plus voice work, graphics etc.), massively branching complexity doesn’t seem very feasible.

  7. Pardoz

    @Zoso – granted, it’s a lot of work to do both. I’m just not convinced that going from a strong character creation/progression system and a half-assed conversation system to half-assed character creation/progression and strong conversations can really be classified as progress.

    Not sure if The Secret World has any piercing-related skills, but apparently they make up for the lack with smiley-face nipple pasties.

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