Friday, June 10, 2011

Are We Having Fun Yet?

So, playing the PnP version of the The Temple of Elemental Evil put me in the mood for other media.  I've started reading the novel, and I've reinstalled the old PC game.  It's not that I'm going nuts over the story or anything, it's just that I figure I'm going to read/play them eventually, so now it's the perfect time.  When we're playing the PnP module, it helps me see everything more vividly after playing the PC game.  It also helps me remember the names of the NPCs when I've learned more about them in the book.

I was a little concerned about the possibility of spoilers, and the temptation of metagaming.  But I've always been very good about not acting on out-of-character knowledge.  Besides, at the rate I'm going, I doubt I'll pass our PnP game in either format.  I only get to read for about an hour each week, and I'm taking my time in the computer game as well.

By the way, is it just me, or does Burne look like Nathan Fillion?

Playing the PC game, which is based on D&D 3.5, one thing that's struck me is how much I appreciate 4e.  I've played this game before (though I didn't get very far the first time), and I also put many hours into NeverWinter Nights (which is also based on 3rd edition).  I liked them a lot at the time.  Heck, I still enjoy them now.  But it amazes me how much crap gamers put up with before Fourth Edition.

I've got a wizard in my party, and I can't stand how few spells she can cast per day.  I'm sorry, if you can only cast a few magic missiles a day, you're not really a wizard.  You're just a weak crossbow enthusiast who dabbles a little in magic.  Heck, I didn't even understand it at the time, and I do remember ranting about this well before 4e came out.  If so many pre-4e wizards end up carrying a crossbow, which does 1d6 damage, why not just give them an unlimited-use "magic bolt" spell which does the same damage?  Just work it out so the math is the same (maybe even make it a full-round action to make up for the reloading), and let them have the flavor.  It's much more exciting, and the game loses nothing.

So, I'm adjacent to three enemies, I switch targets, and... I provoke an OA?  What's that about?  I'm required to attack the same enemy each round, even if others are adjacent to me?  Were the designers of 3e actively trying to discourage combat strategy? It's like that annoying rule in checkers that says you have to jump someone if you can.  I despise rules like that, because it encourages people to think less.  When you limit the number of things someone can do on their turn, it's like you're designing a game that plays itself.  If you're really so keen on not making decisions during battle, then stop playing games and watch a movie instead.  It's obviously what you were really in the mood for.

I might be wrong on some of this - I don't remember all of 3e's rules that well, and I might be misinterpreting what I'm seeing in the game.  But it seems like there's an insane number of things that provoke OAs.  Standing up from prone, reloading crossbows, drinking a healing potion, sometimes even just running straight up to an enemy to attack them.  And of course the normal stuff that still provokes in 4e - moving away from an enemy, using a ranged attack or spell next to an enemy, etc.  Even some spells that are designed for close range seem to provoke attacks - specifically Burning Hands, which is a blast attack so it ought to be safe.  Oddly, switching out weapons does not provoke (but it does use up your movement).

And movement gets used up pretty quickly.  There never seems to be enough time in a round.  I don't feel like pulling out the 3e books again to confirm it, but instead of standard/move/minor, it seems more like standard/move (with minors taking up movement time).  Personally, I think I ought to be able to move, reload my crossbow, and fire it in one turn.  I don't care if it's unrealistic; it's heroic.

I've found that some undead can't be damaged unless you have at least a +1 magic weapon, and those magic weapons are pretty rare (at least early on).  So what happens if my level 1 party gets surrounded by undead?  Well, we pretty much have to flee.  Or keep taking our lumps until the one party member who can actually damage them has had enough turns to kill them all.  Yay, that's so exciting.  *yawn*

And healing.  NeverWinter Nights did a smart thing by realizing it was a video game, and letting you heal by resting for about 10 seconds.  But the ToEE game goes a bit more by-the-book.  You can still heal by resting at the Inn, but it often takes a week or more to get you back to full hit points.  This would make sense if hit points represented actual injuries, but - and I hate to repeat myself here - hit points should represent stamina more than damage.  While movie characters often shrug off shots to the shoulder, in real life any significant injury tends to end the battle.  If that first hit doesn't kill you, it at least makes it easier to land the rest of the hits.

Instead, I usually envision you blocking the first few hits, which uses up your stamina.  When you get bloodied, that's the first hit that actually broke the skin.  When you hit 0, that's the hit you were too tired to block, the one that lays you flat.  Again, 4e has spoiled me here, but I have a hard time respecting any system where hit points are supposed to represent lacerations and broken bones.  Unless there's a plot reason to give me a broken leg, I'd like to be able to fight again after a few minutes rest.

Maybe part of that spoilage is that I always expect to start each battle with max hit points.  To me, it's common sense:  max hp means "ready for action".  I suppose in the old days being down a few points is the 4e equivalent of being down a few surges - you keep exploring until they're almost gone.

No matter what you do, some people are going to complain that it isn't realistic.  I'm not a huge fan of realism, as reality has little use in a game where people throw fireballs at bugbears.  Like most people with double standards, I only use the phrase "it's more realistic" when it helps me win the argument.  A lot of the time, people complaining about realism have no idea what realism actually means.  The fact is, everyone has a different reality threshold. Some people want to describe every meal their character eats, but skip things like bathing or using the chamber pot.  Some gamers like to count their arrows, and even roleplay collecting arrows after each battle and fixing them up.  Hey, if that's what you find fun, more power to you.  But other players consider that a waste of time that could have been spent killing things. 

In our current campaign, when the time came to start making a map of our environment, everyone around the table suddenly shouted, "Not it!"  When you have a game element that is so universally avoided, this should be a clue - to players and game designers alike - that something about this game isn't fun.

Note, I'm not saying this to complain about my role as mapper. While there have been some communication issues over the length of some hallways, overall I don't mind drawing the maps. And I definitely think I'm the logical choice, since I tend to repost our progress on the blog.  But it can be frustrating and time consuming.  My ideas for improving our mapping system:

1. Have the DM do it. I don't like giving the DM extra work, but he's got the map right there. If we used some semi-transparent graph paper for our map, the DM could just grab it and trace the next room real quick whenever we look around the corner. It might make it easier for him as well, because he wouldn't have to spend as much time telling us the boring directional details of the hallway, when he would rather be describing the aesthetics of the masonry and architecture.  He would spend less time saying "no, turn it the other way" when we're laying down tiles, too.

2. Just give us the damn map. Maybe early on, our party could find a parchment map of the Temple. The map wouldn't contain any actual info, just the layout of the hallways and rooms, with some letters or numbers here and there. Then we could just tell him, "We're going down hallway H, and peeking into room J." Then he could tell us what we see. Obviously hidden doors and secret rooms wouldn't be on the map.  As we clear out the rooms, we'd put X's or other notes in the rooms we've visited.  I understand this can be a little spoilerific, since it shows us the size of the Temple.  But most of us already have a pretty good idea of the Temple's size.

Some purists might consider mapping to be part of the challenge, but if it's a challenge nobody wants, why is it in the game?  I look at it this way:  my character would be much better at map-making than I am.  For one thing, they're actually there, seeing it with their own eyes, while I'm just having the room described to me.  Also, my character does this kind of thing for a living.  In real life, I'd get lost in downtown Nashville (a city where I've spent most of my life) with a map and a GPS.  So having a simpler, more accurate way of generating our map would actually be more in-character.

Okay, once again I may have wandered away from my point, if I ever had one to begin with. (Point? What's that? Must be something they do on other blogs.)  Oh, yeah, games should be fun.

One problem I have with serious, hardcore roleplayers is this concept of, "It's not supposed to be fun, it's a game!" Okay, nobody actually uses those exact words, but I have run into a lot of gamers who seem to follow the philosophy. For example, I used to play on a NeverWinter Nights server called "The Silver Marches". It was a fun module, with a lot of interesting areas to explore, and it had a large player base consisting of many exceptional roleplayers. The problem was that the owner was a bit anal about realism and Forgotten Realms lore, resulting in a lot of strict roleplay/gameplay rules. I won't go into detail, but these rules made the server a lot more realistic and a lot less fun. If they'd spent a bit of time studying the concept of Acceptable Breaks from Reality, they might have kept more players.

I don't spend $100 on a game and all its expansion packs if I'm not going to have fun. Nor do I give up my Saturdays to drive across town to play D&D if I'm not going having a good time. The #1 rule for all game designers (whether video game or PnP RPG) should be the Rule of Fun. For every element of gameplay, from character creation to boss fights, the designers should test it out and ask themselves, "Am I having fun?" Okay, so some people have different ideas of what's fun, but they should at least try to weed out the stuff that they know everybody hates. For example, it's been universally understood for years that everybody hates escort missions in video games, so I'm absolutely floored when I still see them in new games. I can't tell you how many time I'll get past a certain point in a video game, save my game, and think, "I'm so glad I'll never have to do that level again." Games are for fun; you should never have thoughts like that about any level.

While writing this blog, checked the "Rule of Fun" link above, I was very pleased to find that D&D 4e was listed as an example. To quote, for those who don't follow links (or those who are afraid of being sucked into the TVTropes vortex):

The goal in overhauling the rules for the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was to strip out the tedious elements and focus on the fun simplifying character builds and fight mechanic while retaining options and even expanding tactical opportunities. The debate comes from stripping out mechanics that supported non combat/adventure situations and limiting certain character build decisions. Roleplayers argue that this either removes support for anything aside from combat or frees them from the constraints of things like mechanics based parley.

Basically, if you're a gamist, 4th edition is probably a move in the right direction, if you're a simulationist, you're less likely to be happy.
So apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Confession time:  This actually started out as two separate blogs.  One was going to be about playing the computer game, the other was going to be about mapping the Temple.  I think the "fun" thing tied them together pretty well, but it occurs to me that I don't really know how to end the thing.  So I was thinking, maybe - What the hell is that behind you!  *hides*

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