Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
 
How it went

MMORPGs are fun. Even if we sometimes complain about this or that, overall we end up spending hundreds or even thousands of hours with these games, which we presumably wouldn't do if there wasn't any fun to be had. But just like any relationship, there are some compromises that have to be made. MMORPGs have their limitations as well as their strong suits. Lots of object or NPCs in any virtual world can't be interacted with at all, others follow relatively simple scripts that make their actions quite predictable. We would like to feel like Bilbo entering the cave of Smaug the dragon, full of excitement, anticipation, and some fear of the unknown danger. Instead we end up shouting at each other because on the 37th attempt to kill the dragon the huntard still didn't manage to step out of the fire fast enough and caused the group to wipe. Somehow MMORPGs have ended being games of exciting adventure, and have become games of excellence in execution through repetition. That is fine for some, but probably not what attracted many to the fantasy genre in the first place.

Pen & paper roleplaying games have a very different set of limitations. They are comparably slow, don't reward fast reactions, require a lot of preparation from the DM, and are more complicated to set up. But pen & paper games are often strong in the areas where MMORPGs are lacking: Every adventure is new, and the range of possibilities of what can happen is endless. As the story evolves through the interaction between real people with real intelligence, the outcome isn't easily predictable. Even in the best prepared adventure, the players might come up with different solutions than those foreseen by the Dungeon Master, which makes the game interesting for everybody.

My first Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition session yesterday was quite a success. I think everybody had fun, and we played until past midnight. Because it was the start of a campaign, and at level 0, I could use a rather restrictive story hook, the kind I would never use in the middle of a campaign: The players got drugged and sold into slavery, and start the game chained to the wall in the hold of a ship. Not very original, and not giving lots of degrees of freedom, but the adventure was deliberately designed to run a bit on rails. The main purpose was for everybody (me included) to get acquainted with the D&D 4E rules, the combat system, the skill system, and all these things. In the next session we will finish the adventure and spend the rest of that evening to transform the players' characters into proper level 1 characters. As creating a level 1 character involves lots of choices, it is better to make these choices after having played a bit, and seeing what is useful and what is not.

We had 2 combat encounters that evening, which I think is pretty much the maximum if you still want some story-telling and role-playing to happen. The first fight pitted the 6 level 0 characters against 2 level 1 pirates, and was well balanced. The second fight was a against a level 1 goblin leader with 5 minions, which ended up being a bit too easy. No biggie, for this specific adventure I prefer to err on the easy side, as it is more about learning the fight mechanics than posing a big challenge. I guess balancing the fights is something I'll learn over time. That part is very specific to the rules system used, and requires some practice. The general dungeon-mastering part was something which I had very little problems to pick up again after over 15 years.

The various maps I prepared came in handy. One permanent danger in a pen & paper roleplaying game is that different players have different degrees of "drive" or whatever you want to call it. Thus if you leave the game very free form, some players will hog the limelight, and do all of the talking, while others will slink into the background on not say much at all. In a combat, which is turn-based, you don't have that problem, everybody gets his turn. But by running non-combat encounters on a battle map as well, it is easier to get into some sort of pseudo-turn-based mode for them as well. The more active player simply can't be everywhere at once if his figurine is on the map, and that gives you good opportunities to ask the otherwise less active players what they are doing. The D&D 4E rules for skill challenges also help getting everybody involved in non-combat encounters.

Right now I'm quite pleased how well everything went, and how enthusiastic everybody was. I'll try to keep that level of enthusiasm up, even past the point where the new game shine wears off. In the end a pen & paper game can have the same problems of longevity as a MMORPG.
Comments:
Tobold,

Congratulations, and I hope the following sessions continue to go well.

Reading your summary against the backdrop of the previous post about combat "density", I yearn back to games like the original Valkyria Chronicles, with slow and rich tactical combat. I wonder if that could ever be translated into a functional MMO system. But there are people who play games like Civilization online, so I suppose nothing is impossible.

That part about the huntard in your post also got me thinking (my first character in any high fantasy RPG setting is always a dwarf hunter...). I know "realism" is not something that should be an end unto itself in any game and even less so a MMO. But like you say: we often wipe in raids because someone fails to step out of the fire fast enough. So here I am, plugging away at some mean bastard when a fire breaks out under my feet. Do I spontaneously jump aside (and considering that I am a hunter, I would have extraordinarily high agility/dexterity figures to boot) to avoid it? No, I stand there like a moron for an extra two seconds and die, of course!

As I said, I fully understand the case against realism, but doesn't this just expose laziness in encounter design? I am not necessarily arguing against twitch gaming, but at least let our toons respond to obvious external stimuli.

(/rant off)
 
As I said, I fully understand the case against realism, but doesn't this just expose laziness in encounter design? I am not necessarily arguing against twitch gaming, but at least let our toons respond to obvious external stimuli.

So you would want the character by itself jump out of the fire, without your input, because it is so obvious that he would do it? There is a certain logic to that, but then what exactly would be the challenge of the raid encounter?

I very much like the D&D 4E combat, because the challenge of the encounter is how to use positioning and tactics to bring your powers to bear with optimum efficiency. A World of Warcraft raid is more about doing extremely obvious things fast enough. If you could automate that (and I believe a computer would be a lot better than any player in responding to obvious external stimuli), the challenge is gone.
 
Tobold, you said:

"We would like to feel like Bilbo entering the cave of Smaug the dragon, full of excitement, anticipation, and some fear of the unknown danger. Instead we end up shouting at each other because on the 37th attempt to kill the dragon the huntard still didn't manage to step out of the fire fast enough and caused the group to wipe"

The reason we do not feel Bilbo's excitement is that we have the possiblility of making 37 attempts. Bilbo could only make one.

If, instead of 37 wipes, we had 1 wipe followed by some sort of resurrection quest, or starting again with new characters, we would be more careful about who we attacked, and more excited when we attack, knowing that there are real consequences for failure, and that this isn't just a loot piñata that will eventually give up its treasure if only people would get with the program.

When playing D&D, none of our players' characters ever survived death, unless other characters took specific and arduous steps to revive them. Then again, none of the mobs rematerialized again, after we killed them!
 
"We would like to feel like Bilbo entering the cave of Smaug the dragon, full of excitement, anticipation, and some fear of the unknown danger. Instead we end up shouting at each other because on the 37th attempt to kill the dragon the huntard still didn't manage to step out of the fire fast enough and caused the group to wipe. Somehow MMORPGs have ended being games of exciting adventure, and have become games of excellence in execution through repetition. That is fine for some, but probably not what attracted many to the fantasy genre in the first place."

man what have you done? I really miss that feeling..when I first played wow I had this feeling for every step I made , for every cave I walk through, in every turn, in every tomb...

but really is it possible to feel this again?Is it a game problem or is it us that changed?Is it the hundreds websites providing info for every corner of the world before even the game goes to beta?
 
So you would want the character by itself jump out of the fire, without your input, because it is so obvious that he would do it?

In fact, I was thinking exactly that. Obviously, a reaction that is automated is not challenging. But that's why the fire example is so good, particularly against the pen-and-paper alternative. It makes no sense that my character should remain standing in fire for seconds, so let's not design challenges like that. Still, burning ground obviously looks cool, so by all means go ahead and design such attacks and create challenge around it. Example: Incendus, burning master of all elements blabla, sets the ground underneath your feet ablaze. You take [x] instant damage and jump aside. The jumping means that you lose your sure footing for a second, which you will have to regain, possibly even improving the recovery by taking some sort of remedial action. Although I understand it is thoroughly unfashionable to actually use stats in computer RPG:s, your dex/agility could even affect your chances here.

What I'm saying is that I have a hunch that challenges would feel fairer if the challenges thrown at the player were more cerebral. Put it this way: let the computer deal with what would be reflex stuff if any of this were actually happening and let us, the players, deal with what would actually require some involvement of actual gray matter. Let our fingers be our brains!
 
What I'm saying is that I have a hunch that challenges would feel fairer if the challenges thrown at the player were more cerebral.

I have a hunch that this is only true for more cerebral players. It is my understanding that there are quite a lot of people out there who very much enjoy the jumping out of the fire fast sort of gameplay. To be somewhat snarky I could say they maybe enjoy it *because* it isn't cerebral. But just because you and me would like more thinking men's games doesn't mean that everybody would like them.
 
You're such a killjoy! ;)

But maybe we can trick them into thinking that it is twitch gaming! It's not like my fingers are much smarter than the average Joe anyway.
 
It's refreshing to hear something nice about D&D 4E. All of the hardcore D&D players I know personally seem to love to talk about their dislike of it and it's mechanics. Over all I agree with your point how pen and paper vs mmorpgs are similar in the aspect of longevity- and I've been in many heated discussions about that topic lately. Over time everything get's tiresome doesn't it? I guess it just depends on the type of player and their personality! :)
 
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