Thursday, September 1, 2016

Where Experience Points Went Wrong - Part 3: Rise of the Machines

People like to characterize D&D in general as a Hack and Slash game. It certainly can be that kind of game but it doesn't have to be. Depending on the group and the time period outsmarting the enemy (and the game in a way) can be just a big a part of play. Sure, I've seen plenty of frontal assaults but I've also seen disguises adopted to sneak into temples. I've seen deals cut with leader type enemies in order to secure aid against a different enemy. I've seen flat-out Stealth aplenty. I've seen rivers re-routed to flood out a problem location. The first time I saw a truly well-played illusionist in AD&D was a revelation - he was like Green Lantern in a pointy hat! Creative players thrive in a game where magic is a part of the toolbox.

I've talked about killing monsters for XP, and fixed numbers of encounters and the problems they can cause. But if in the early days XP was awarded mainly for gold, how did we get XP for monster kills all the time and the hack and slash rep of the game?

For one, there were plenty of people focused on killing monsters even in the early days. I mean, having a way that "you" can fight a minotaur or a hydra is a pretty cool thing. This was even more true before video games were a real thing.

By the late 70's though you have another factor than how people played the game: computers. Apples and TRS-80's were coming out alongside the college mainframes that generated a lot of the early games. Games like Wizardry where the focus was on what? Going into a dungeon and killing monsters. There was no real interaction, no thinking outside the box - there was rolling up a party of characters, buying gear, and smashing your way through each level, drawing a map along the way, triggering traps, and hoping you came out with most of the party alive.

Sure, it looks primitive now but I can't tell you how awesome it was when it was new.

For the 80's this is pretty much how computer RPG's worked: create character/party, gear up, go into dungeon and fight, rest, level up, continue. All of the wizardry games and their clones, the early Ultimas, the Bard's Tale games, the early Might & Magic's, the Gold Box games all pretty much worked this way. The later Ultima's are worth noting as they started exploring morality by including some choices that had an impact on the game. For most there still wasn't much of a story other than "fight your way through a series of levels to fight the big boss enemy".

That's pretty much the problem in a nutshell

The 90's were mostly more of the same with better graphics but we started to get games like Betrayal at Krondor, Ultima 7, and later Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment where there was a real story beyond just "kill things and loot".  There was still character progression and a lot of combat  to make that progression, but there was more going on too.


Then the online RPG's swept in and we saw the return of "advancement by combat" in a big way. Everquest was huge and that's pretty much how it worked.

Sure, it looks primitive now but I can't tell you how awesome it was when it was new.

So to me, at least part of the "must kill monsters to advance" mentality was driven by computer games through the 80's and 90's and was then canonized into the game with D&D 3rd edition where that was the standard, stated method of awarding experience in the DMG:

Now there is a roughly half-page section at the end that talks about story awards, bonuses for good roleplaying, and noncombat encounters. That is after 3 pages talking about monster XP and a big chart showing the numbers for monsters by level.A few pages later there's another 3+ pages on building encounters. It's not hard to see where the emphasis was and it's not a surprise that became the standard. In contrast the 2E DMG only spends 6 pages on the whole topic of experience and the first 3 topics discussed are fun, character survival, and improvement, and story awards are discussed through the entire section. It's a difference of emphasis in many ways. I think the increasing popularity of computer games through the 90's, along with the back-to-the-dungeon mentality of 3E, made this an easily assumed new standard for the game. Pathfinder and 4E both branched off from this and carried it forward to today. People say 4E was the MMO/computer game edition and while I can disagree for multiple reasons here's one you don;t see a whole lot: The computer game influence was already there years before 4th Edition was conceived.

Why is this a negative? Why is a heavy influence from computer game a bad thing? I'll go with one example: consider the Dig spell. In AD&D this was not a spell the new player cared about at all because it wasn't flashy. Experienced players though knew it was an awesome tool to have in your bag of tricks. Setting an ambush? Instant pit! Getting ambushed? Cut off part of the attackers with a moat! Need to direct enemies into a particular area? Dig out part of the road or path you expect them to follow! Fortifying a camp? Dig! Need to re-route a creek? Dig a new channel! Want to capture a big animal? Dig! Need to hide in a desert? Dig + an illusion of more desert! Fantasy blender? Dig + Blade Barrier = pain you can't escape from easily. There are a ton of uses for the creative player!

Yet it rarely shows up in a computer game because they can't account for all of the interesting uses for it. If it does show up it's usually only in the "does damage to earth creatures" aspect - the least interesting part of the spell.

And that's a fairly mundane bit of magic. Think of what an illusionist can do with an arsenal of deceptive spells. In a computer game though they tend to be limited to invisibility and "make an illusion of one of the monsters in the game". Those things can be fun but are only scratching the surface of what a good illusionist can do.

This is the effect that the killing-monsters-is-the-way-to-gain-XP mentality can have. Things are only important if they do damage or stop damage. Creative thinking is "how can I do more damage" and not much else. If it doesn't have a number on it then it's useless. Combat utility is the only measuring stick and DPS rules all.  I'm looking to do it better now in my games. I'll let you know what I come up with.

No comments: