Thursday, July 21, 2011

Star Wars, MMO's, Old School, and player choice in RPG's

Note: This one is a long one but I promise you that it's worth every penny you paid for it...

A few weeks back it was announced that Star Wars Galaxies, the MMORPG, would be shutting down at the end of the year. The game just had its 8th anniversary but with a dwindling player base, a license renewal coming up in 2012, and a new Star Wars MMORPG launching later this year the developer decided that it was time to wrap things up. Now I never played Galaxies but I watched it a lot over the years as I came close to giving it a try several times. It was a controversial game and went through several major changes that I think mirror some of what today's RPG's have to consider when they are in the design phase.

When it launched SWG was a "sandbox" MMO which means that players can do pretty much anything they want. There is a certain segment of MMO players that want to see a virtual world take shape and they are quire happy to play a "normal" inhabitant of that world - a musician, a crafter, a merchant, a moisture farmer. Now why someone wants to pay $15 a month of real money to do virtual work for virtual money is something I leave up to them - it's not my idea of fun, but it is for some people as evidenced by the community that formed in this game. It was a classless system so that whatever skills a player focused on, those are the skills that would improve, whether it was shooting things or crafting boots out of krayt dragon hide. Between this mechanical approach and the aforementioned sandbox player crowd, a virtual economy formed where hunters would bring hides back into town to crafters who would pay them for the hides, then craft them into wearable items to sell to other players. It got more complex than this but you get the idea of how things started out and then grew organically. Now I think this is a very cool thing but the flip side of it is that some people just want to run around and shoot stormtroopers. If they are willing to spend enough virtual cash to look good doing it then you have an interesting and potentially sustainable economy that keeps all types of players happy. The only probelm was that there weren't enough sandbox players to keep the publisher happy, so they decided to change the game in ways that they thought would attract more players.

As an example of this kind of change let's talk about Jedi. The Jedi are one of the unique elements of Star Wars and it's natural to expect that people playing a Star Wars RPG might want to play a Jedi. The problem was that Galaxies was set during the Galactic Civil War (the first trilogy) when Jedi are rare, at best. So the designers put in a long complicated process to allow players to unlock a Jedi character type. This is an example of good intentions and something that looked good in a meeting ending up as a the worst possible answer as it annoyed both types of players: The sandbox crowd looks around 6 months into the game and finds 50 Jedi walking the streets of Mos Eisley and says "what the heck is going on here?" while the more action/heroic type players log in for the first time after watching Attack of the Clones, look at the process for unlocking a Jedi character and say "this sucks". I think a part of this was timing as launching a GCW era computer RPG with rare unlockable Jedi when the prequels full of saber-swinging masters are in full swing is a tough thing to do.

In an effort to attract more players the publisher implemented the "New Game Experience" or "NGE" which is an infamous event in Star Wars Galaxies history and in MMORPG history in general, comparable to New Coke in the 80's but one that was never reversed the way that one was. A class system was implemented. Entire skills & professions were eliminated. Jedi were included as just another class without the extensive unlocking process that had been required previously. It was a remarkable example of making most of the exsting playerbase unhappy about at least one major change (in particular those who had put in the time and effort to unlock their Jedi option and who felt shafted when it was made available to everyone from the start). The resulting blowback frightened off some new players who might have been interested before all of the bad word of mouth - let's rememeber it's not free to play - it's money every month, so why spend it on a game that so many people are unhappy about?

Bringing this back into tabletop RPG's let's start with Star Wars RPG's. First off look at the d6 Star Wars from West End vs. Saga Edition Star Wars from WOTC. WEG started off with Jedi as a rare, "unlockable" type character and no one could officially begin as a full-on Jedi. That made sense in an era when the original trilogy was all we had. It made a lot less sense in the prequel era once we've seen large numbers of Jedi running around fighting and leading armies. It's one of the things that turned my younger players off about the d6 version as they were not able to make effective Jedi, partially because of the era and partly because of the system (which was built to reflect that era). Their expectation was that Star Wars means they should be able to play Jedi that have a lightsaber and some skills right from the start. Jump to Saga Edition and look - there's a Jedi class and even starting out as a padawan you don't suck! This was much more in line with their expectations and they have been much happier playing that game. Considering that it was released 20 years later and included the 3 most recent movies this makes a lot of sense but it's more than just timing.

Broadening this out, early RPG's tended to make character creation part of the game by using random rolls to determine class eligibility. Sitting down to play AD&D one really couldn't decide in advance to play a Paladin because it was unlikely you would roll well enough to "unlock" the class. To a degree this was true of Rangers and some other classes as well. Then to unlock the real "uber" class, the Bard, there were all kinds of hoops to jump through.  Even back in the 1E days some people realized that maybe that shouldn't really be a part of the game. Even without using various alternate methods, there were a lot of Paladins running around back then. DM's over time learned that being a stickler for this kind of thing could mean a slimmer table, as in general people that are sitting down to play a game for 4-12 hours need to have a character they are interested in playing, regardless of how the dice rolls fell. Letting the fighter have an 18/00 strength or the M-U have an 18 Int didn't really break the game and it made the players a lot happier to have the chaacter they wanted to play.

Looking at other early RPG's increasing this element of player control about their character is one of the first thigs we see popping up - Runequest stayed with random stat rolls but went with individual skills instead of a class, letting a player customize their abilities. Traveller stayed with random rolls too but had a whole career system where those rolls could influence other rolls and the whole thing ended up with skills and a past for the character that was likely going to be different even if two characters followed the same path. Eventually you get to Champions (a few years later) where every element of the character is directly controlled by the player and that's about as far as you can go down that road mechanically.

Back to D&D - 2E mostly stayed with the early 1E conventions and although it did add more choices (specialty priests, specialist wizards, kits) it also took some away (assassins and half-orcs - annoying a lot of existing players) and it still stuck with the idea of random rolls to qualify for a class. People got a lot more casual with it in this era - at least in the circles I ran - by implementing things like "4d6 drop the lowest" to improve ability scores to the point that you could pretty much qualify for anything. It was still dififcult to plan ahead for it though.

Later 3E comes along and now there is an official point-buy system to go along with the random rolls. Now there's a part of me that still thinks that D&D means rolling for your stats and taking what you get. There is also, however, a part of me that has seen the practical implications of that approach when the person who wanted to play a Ranger ends up with a Wizard because that's how the dice turned out. No one wants to run with an unhappy player for 6 hours so the point buy option at last gives an official, accepted way out of this box - make what you want! Yes it had been around for 20 years in Champions and for 15 or so in GURPS but for D&D to finally come around to this way of thinking was a huge thing. Now it also gave us the tyranny of the "optimized build" but that's a rant for another time. Letting people play the type of character that they want to play is a major shift in thinking from the early days of RPG's and when D&D implements it I think we can call it "mainstream" at least as far as tabletop RPG's go. The concept has shifted from "making a character is part of the game" to "the game is what you do with the character, so make sure you have one you're happy with".

4E carries on this concept - you can even change which ability scores your character uses in combat! No longer is Str the sole determiner of melee damage! There are numerous classes all of which are mechanically balanced with one another.Ability scores are pre-set or point-bought, so random rolls are not even part of the discussion anymore. The player chooses what kind of character they want to play and the rest of character creation flows from there.  Champions is still around and still the ultimate game for player choice and control over their character. GURPS is still around too. Mutants and Masterminds does the same thing in a different framework. Savage Worlds does too. Pathfinder carries on 3E's traditions of any race, any class, and unlimited multiclassing for a high degree of flexibility. Traveller rolls on in Mongoose format with a refined version of the original career system that allows even more player control when it comes to skill selection. I think it's safe to say that this is the current expectation in tabletop RPG's - the player should always start with a character that a) they like and b) is capable in some way. No more Str 9 Fighters!

As a player who started out on games like 1st Edition AD&D and Gamma World and Traveller it's easy enough for me to slip back into those games because that's the way they worked. It feels normal to me, to the degree that when I step back and look at the degree of player control in more recent designs I am just amazed. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate many of the things that have changed in the years since then,  but having lived through it I can see the trend. When I see some a new game come out that either intentionlly or not features next to no player control when it comes to characters I understand the reasoning (usually) and I think it's perfectly fine when going for a deliberately retro feel, but I think it's usually a bad choice from a "business" point of view.

Example: Mutants and Masterminds 3E starts with a point-buy system - ultimate customization - and then adds a random character generator in the DM Screen package. I think that's a cool approach. ICONS, in contrast, assumes random character generation and then mentions point buy somewhat later and suggests a very low point level for that approach. Being an old Gamma World/MSH/V&V player I appreciate the creative exercise in melding a random set of powers into something coherent but the reaction towards the two games could not be more different: M&M 3 debuted to massive appreciation and the only people who didn't have high praise for it seemed to be some who were highly invested in M&M 2E and didn't like the changes made for 3E - that's understandable. If you think 2E is nearly perfect then odds are that any change from that is going to be less favorable to you. ICONS was pretty widely appreciated too as a lighter, faster system for supers play but many many comments included a line about "except for the random aspect of character generation"  and included a suggestion to just ignore it and use the points. This was common enough that I believe many modern players just cannot stand the idea of random character generation or giving up any control over playing what they want to play.

I'd like to blame some of that on D&D finally giving in, so I will - we have a generation of players raised in the 3E era that spent a lot of time online or with friends learning about "builds" for certain character types and most of that kind of discussion assumes a point-buy approach. So the random roll was already endangered during the 3E era. We also have a generation of players raised on MMO's where there are a lot of classes and races to choose from and where there is zero random element to character generation, not even the amount of coin you have to spend at start*.

In this environment it was interesting to see a new edition of Gamma World (home of the utterly random character). I saw that they attempted to reflavor the random element with cards, because hey, cards are cooler now than tables or charts. Even wargames have embraced cards (take a look at Command and Colors Ancients or Combat Commander) as a replacement randomizer over tables recently. I don't know how well it did for WOTC, but I am curious about it. I suspect it fell into the double-whammy of 4E mechanics annoying the old guard who might get excited about a new edition while at the same time the random character element turns off a new generation who wants total control over character creation. I'm not sure, but that's my suspiciion. I haven't seen it in the bargain bins yet so maybe I am wrong there.

To tie this back up with some Star Wars again, the Knights of the Old Republic MMORPG is supposed to release later this year. It does not feature unlockable Jedi - you can play several different types of Jedi right from the start - again notice the catering to increased player control over the character. When you assume from the start there will be lots of Jedi (and you set the game in an era when the Jedi are plentiful) then it makes sense to let players pick from more specialized types. Heck, you can even choose to play a Sith, so you can play a BAD Jedi in the new game, anathema to every previous iteration of the tabletop RPG at least.  If you thought letting the Drow into D&D as a playable race was a bad idea, you can sit back on watch the fireworks on this one. There's a certain type of player that is really only happy when they can play the rebel outsider or just a flat-out bad guy, and now they get to do it with a lightsaber - wheeeeee!

I don't have some profound insight to share about this, it's just something that I dug into a little more deeply while reading some of the SWG shutdown articles and then looking back through older D&D material and seeing some similarities. The trend towards increased player control over character creation has not been a directly linear one but it does look to me like a solid overall progression. One of the most-noted trends over the past decade or so has involved the lack of time to play, so more games have been streamlined to cater to shorter sessions or faster play  like ICONS or Savage Worlds. I think this trend is more important because it has more of a direct mechanical impact on the game and player satisfaction/interest level and I think the younger set still has plenty of time to play when they want to. Schools still have summer vacation after all. It's just us older types that have to schedule it like a meeting to have a chance to actually roll dice regularly. Even if it's not so much for character generation anymore.

*Boy could that be crippling as a fighter - visions of plate mail and two-handed sword shredded by the tyranny of the starting money roll! Now you have leather, a shield, and a shortsword and maybe a short bow. All the more incentive to get ahold of that first loot, or even strip the first orc bodyguard of his smelly, punctured chainmail, because Real Fighters Don't Wear Leather.


Greg Christopher said...

epic post

Blacksteel said...

Thanks GC!

Cygnus said...

I'm happily amazed that a long post like this could be written without injecting a huge dose of opinion about the matter! ;-) If I were to tackle something like this, it would probably be full of snide comments about how an affinity for point-buy character creation is akin to the sense of over-entitlement felt by the whippersnappers regarding grades, jobs, money, cellphone service, and so on... (Hmm, maybe I already came pretty close to this kind of rant...)

Blacksteel said...

Hi Cyg - just remember that point buy character construction dates back to 81 with Champions so it's not all that new, it just took a while to leak into D&D.

As for the opinion part, well, I never saw the build em vs roll em approach as a conflict back then. They were just different approaches in different games and they were both fun. I still feel the same way.

I read the post you linked and that podcast sounds a little off. I'm fine letting a skill check determine some degree of character knowledge but using what sounds like a 4E skill challenge to play out haggling with a merchant over price is overkill. That kind of system is really intended for tense situations where failure has some consequences - beyond paying more for some gear. I've used them in my current campaign for talking their way past a hobgoblin guard station, infiltrating past hostile patrols, and negotiating for information with a night hag. In all of those cases failure leafs to some difficulty and severe failure leads to a fight the party didn't want to have. That's what I think the skill challenge system is for.

The other part of that discussion is why I always like to start a new campaign off with characters who are new to the starting area. It gives them a reason to explore AND it shuts down the skill-roll-in-place-of-interaction problem because I'm pretty clear up front - I don't care what you're skill level is, you've never been here before so you don't KNOW much of anything specific to the area. Skills will give you a lead, but they don't replace actual experience. Knowledge nature will tell you while looking at a map where a kind of plant would most likely be found but it's not a GPS coordinate - it's "we should go towards these mountains as it looks like the most favorable area, but the Druid rumored to live in these woods over here might be able to guide us better." At that point it's an adventure hook,
and a lot more fun for everyone.

gdbackus said...

Great post, very thoughtful. I prefer random roll character generation personally, but I am mostly a GM, so perhaps I tend to think of PC's as being NPC's that I do not control - and the stats of any NPC (if there is a need for them) are always randomized.

I played Champions back in the day, and thought that it was cool, and it made sense in terms of the game. Superheroes ARE specific - but a common assumption in early D&D (common Joe gets sick of farming and decides to try to strike it rich in a dungeon) - specifics did not matter so much - and particularly in the earliest versions of the game, where stats had little relevance as regards modifying dice rolls, or determining what a character could/could not do. It is interesting to note (as you are aware) that D&D itself evolved over editions to make stat values more and more 'meaningful' (+10% experience points -> +3 to-hit/+6 damage, for example).

Anyway - great post!