Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Busted Game Theory

I was having coffee with Friend Ian yesterday, and discussing the future of Dungeons & Dragons, and perhaps more importantly the history of Dungeons & Dragons and some of it’s queerer idiosyncrasies. In particular, we got onto the topic of the current development and the slight air of panic we’ve picked up on from the folks at Wizards of the Coast. Our conversation had turned from more general game design discussion to more focused questions about where we are in the development timeline. I know people have playtested the game. Is it done? Is the playtesting they’re doing to fix the niggly wiggly bits? Or do the folks at WotC really have no idea what their players want?

This brought us to an interesting point about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, something that has been sitting in the back of my head for a long time: Fourth Edition solved every problem in 3.5, and people didn’t like it. I liked it, but I’m not the game’s core audience, really. I’m an aficionado, the sort of person who revels in GNS theory and Glass Bead Games. I deeply appreciate great design, and Fourth Edition – at its core – had that. And, y’know, it solved every problem that 3.5 had.

Admittedly, this came with its own stack of problems, but D&D Fourth Edition is easily the cleanest design in the game so far. It was basically… perfect. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, really. Nothing about the game was dangerously exploitable, it was balanced and clearly written, there was some real thought put into how each part of the game was going to interact with every other part. It did what it did perfectly, but for some reason that made it feel “wrong.”

Maybe games don’t have to be perfect. Maybe they shouldn’t be.

RIFTS is an incredibly popular game, and it is – to be entirely fair – garbage. Really. Really really. It’s system is trash. Even the world, the world that is tossed around in the infamous RIFTS-only argument “I don’t like the system but I like the world” is a derivative hodge-podge of speculative fiction tropes taken from all over the nerd spectrum. Objectively, as a person who has had a lot of fun playing RIFTS, looking at the design of the thing is painful. The attributes have nothing to do with the rest of your abilities, how good you are at fighting is determined by a skill which is entirely different from how the rest of the skill system works in the game, the skill list is hyper-specific to the point of obtuseness, there is a type of damage that could kill one section of player characters with a single shot but barely scratch another set, armor has two different sets of rules depending on what sort of armor you’re wearing… It’s brutally bad.

Other great examples include Exalted, Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu. None of these games are particularly well designed, but they are incredibly popular with players all over the world. So… Why?

Games with design flaws, games that have large, glaring errors in their rules systems, provide certain psychographics of gamers a way to leverage those system problems to their advantage. These are the Johnny players of the role-playing game world, and they represent a fairly hefty chunk of our playerbase. And everyone has a bit of that in them. Even if you’re not looking to min-max your fighter to the Nth degree, everyone likes finding those synergies and occasionally getting to exploit them to do something that is particularly cool with the game’s crunchy bits.

And very well designed games don’t tend to offer a lot of exploits like that. The best designed games in the industry right now are likely Greg Stolze’s Reign and Steve Long’s HERO. Neither game really offers players a way to break the system in half. Which is sort of what you’re aiming at with your game. Neither game is as popular as RIFTS, either.

And maybe this is something we’re missing right now. Maybe it’s part of the Lonely Fun of a roleplaying game system, figuring out how to beat the rules into submission. Maybe, sometimes, you need to hack at bits of system until they scream. Maybe, sometimes, the fun of the game isn’t so much about the game, but about That Cool Thing you can do that shows off how clever you are. Maybe it’s about fixing a broken game and making it playable because you enjoy the challenge of making a bad system work (which is, I think, why most game designers get into the industry). Maybe, sometimes, the roleplaying games that are the most fun are the ones that aren’t very good at all, because you get a chance to make them good, and that’s what you’re really looking for. And maybe, sometimes, the old busted game is just more fun to fuck around with.


centauri said...

It has been observed that what people often seemed to like about older editions of D&D is that you could (had to) change them. Rulings & houserules were required & people have fond memories of this, so a game in which houserules aren't required & stand a chance of making things worse is jarring.

A good point about the 4e characters being hard to break. People have complained about them all being alike, or being "cookie cutter" which perhaps is a way of saying that a player had no clear way to make his or her character considerably better.

Maybe the next version will deal with this, letting those who need to peak out in some area do so yet still keeping balance. I could see that working.

Brent P. Newhall said...

Excellently-put! That's a very interesting idea.

I've added this post to the "Weekly Assembly" roundup of RPG blog articles at http://gamerassembly.net. It should get posted out on Monday.

Hope to see more cool stuff from you!

Anonymous said...

"Nothing in the game is broken?"

Are you talking about the same game that had an INFINITE DAMAGE LOOP BEFORE RELEASE? The same game with the orbizard? The same game where, even though they nerfed the orbizard to not have save penalties for more then a round, they released a power (Slumber of the White Court) which knocks enemies unconscious for 1d4 hours on the first failed save? The game where the cleric gets an infinite army of undead anything the party kills?

Yeah, sounds balanced. Way more balanced than 3e.

Bosh said...

Um, skill challenges? Skill challenges anyone?

Anonymous said...

Your vast ineptitude in assessing games in comparison is both shocking and depressing.

4E solved a handful of things while introducing dozens of new problems, meanwhile removing any sense of feeling, spirit, or anything at all to make it avoid feeling like repacked videogame rules in the guise of a RPG.

Justin Alexander said...

"Fourth Edition solved every problem in 3.5, and people didn’t like it."

4E also "solved" a lot of 3E's features. The fact that many of the "problems" it was solving were also not being experienced by a significant number of people at their actual game tables (for a variety of reasons) only made the matter worse: Destructive "solutions" to problems that people aren't having won't be popular.

"There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, really."

A somewhat questionable assertion given the amount of errata the game has received. This included, notably, major errata that completely rewrote one of the core mechanics of the game within 6 weeks of release. 2 years later, all of the math at the heart of the system's encounter design was completely revamped.

tpc said...

there was no problem with ad&d 1st ed other than that the company couldn't think of a way of making any money. 1st ed was complete. so let's remake the game with more books for the chumps to buy. hey, then we can remake the game every 5 years and all the players will buy all the books we make even though 1st ed covered all of those rules. how sad. people still buy the new editions of dnd.

James O. said...

Good points.

Also, Frostcheese on the nothing being broken in 4e.

Zak Sabbath said...

it's always odd to me when i notice hits on my blog coming in from people who clearly don't read it or, if they do, don't talk to me at all when they disagree with what I write

SlurpeeMoney said...

Zak: I'm a lurker more than a shit-disturber. I agree with you more often than not, and when I don't I'm generally happy to keep my opinions to myself. The way you game and the way I game are very different, but that doesn't keep me from finding your blog interesting or enlightening.

I just don't think it's my place to shit in your kitchen.

Zak Sabbath said...

I don't put stuff on line to see it on line I put it there so that I can get reactions from thoughtful people and something new can built on top of it.

It isn't your job to help out on that, of course but if you read what I write and then go:

-4E is mechanically "perfect"
-WOTC shouldn't release the old TSR pdfs, or
-"sexiness is not something D&D needs" Or imply that sexualization is in itself "sexist"

and just ignore the counter-arguments _that you must be aware of if you read other peoples' blogs_ then you're not really building anything new.

And I don't know why anyone would bother to do that.

If I was going to write about any of those things, I would try to take into account every counter-argument I'd heard and address it and make sure anyone presenting those counter-arguments heard me so that if I was missing any assumption or evidence I didn't know about I could hear about it and think about it and understand how my assumptions are not theirs and then the whole world gets smarter.

If you aren't going to bother to do that then it's like saying "Hey I like pickles! Who's with me?"

And that's it.

You have no obligation to address conflicting viewpoints, but you can't pretend to be doing anything helpful or enlightening to anybody if you don't.

embracingbrenda said...

Get out of your Grandmas basement playing D&D and come play a real game and then say games shouldn't be perfect.

embracingbrenda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Javed said...

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that.
ld hardas