Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Thoughts on Gaming: Things I Just Downright Dislike

As I'm on a break from gaming, I'm thinking a lot about what I want when I come back to it (I have at least determined there must be a 'come back to it', if only to see if it's still a hobby I want to be involved in). A thread over at RPG.net (here) made me think of what puts me off in terms of games, as things that are written or designed rather than things that are played. Of course there's behaviour at the gaming table that's off putting but here I'm focusing on things that designed into the games themselves rather than the annoying things players do.

1) Gear Porn

As I get older, the more I just want to play, or create. I find that I don't really care about equipment, and that nothing really annoys like an equipment list that runs to several pages because you have descriptions, tables and so on. This is especially egregious where the differences between pieces of equipment are so slight that, arguably, the choices could be boiled down to light, medium and heavy or small, medium and large weapons. I don't want to have to spend half an hour waiting for people to build their perfect character at the best of times, let alone wait for them to get the perfect gear. Gear porn takes this even further - it makes the gear you have one of the defining parts of the character. Never mind having a cybernetic arm, that appendage is part of who your character is, often in lieu of an actual personality.

I have a particular beef with cybernetics, because the game I know them from (Shadowrun) is set up in such a way that the more metal you have the more your 'essence', or 'soul', is nibbled away. Which sounds great, if wishy washy in theory.  Except that, in practice, if you're a big scary street samurai/cybered up killing machine then why do you give a damn about how much soul you have? Surely that's the least of your concerns. I may be wrong but I don't think there's any other penalty for turning yourself into a knockdown version of B&Q either - no social penalties or checks for wear and tear. It's essentially a free super power in a game where all the other super powers come with some sort of a problem attached. I can't help but contrast the situation with other games where your super powers have a cost - they drain something and make you less effective over the long run; for instance in White Wolf's  Vampire or Werewolf using your powers can push your character closer to frenzy and the dangers that you'll turn on your comrades. It has a price, in other words.

2) Heavy Combat Systems

Combat is probably my least favourite part of roleplaying, it's as if all the fun dribbles out of the game and suddenly nobody's saying anything apart from 'I shoot  him' or 'I stab him' unless its stuff to do with moving or looting bodies. And it always seems to take ages too, even with the best system it feels like you're looking at a twenty minute plus commitment that could be better spent building the story or interacting with the world. Worse still is when the combat is really just a speed bump, something to make the game longer rather than serve an actual function.

The other problem is that whilst every other action in gaming is sorted out by a single roll of the dice or the GM just saying 'yup you did it' and moving on, combat is dragged out to the Nth degree. I'm sure that there's a way to speed things up, I just don't know what it is.

3) Special Snowflake Character Types

Every game has at least one of these, a type of character that's either been over written or is a one note add on because a developer thought it was 'cool'. The thread I linked above talks about Dragon Lance's Kender  or Runequest's Ducks, two types of character I can't really comment on because I haven't played either game. For me, and I don't think I've ever seen one of these in play, it's the Daughters of Cacophony from Vampire the Masquerade. They just seem so pointless and unnecessary; a bloodline of singing vampires...

To balance this of course, it must be admitted that, particularly, with White Wolf's games there were always groups you could be part of that were open to abuse. I sometimes wonder how many Malkavians were ever played seriously, and how many as 'fish Malks', who had colourful derangements rather than serious ones, and how many Ragabash spent more time pissing off their packmates than actually 'questioning the ways' as the designers intended. But these are ideas that ring true to their games and don't feel tacked on the way some of the stranger ideas out there do.

4) The Work for Hire Structure

Ah the plucky adventurer, out on the road taking jobs for people and working for money and treasure. It's an idyllic situation isn't it? Except... nearly every game uses it. It doesn't matter if you're playing fantasy, space opera or even horror; the default assumption is that you're actually a sell sword, in it only for the cash/credits/gold.

And it's just dull.

It robs player characters of agency, because all they do is other people's dirty work, sets the game up to be reactive as players respond to what the GM doles out and, as I said, it's all over the place to the extent that it's considered the norm.

I find this extremely limiting; for one thing it allows player characters to simply be sketches, without hooks or ties to the outside world. It also limits what plots can be used and, as the characters are frequently nomadic, means the setting itself becomes disposable. Far from having people to rely on they become ever more closed off and non player characters become stooges, enemies or employers (who are invariably a mixture of the first two categories). In fact it creates a self perpetuating cycle, after all if NPCs are all stooges or enemies why would you befriend them? And why would they help you when you need it? Or stand up for you?

In short it creates a Libertarian stance where the only people you can depend on are your group and everyone else is either someone you can take on now or someone you have to be scared of because they are too tough to defeat. This is not limited to games like Dungeons and Dragons of course; much of Vampire is based on doing things for the Elders because they're older, tougher and more paranoid than you.

It also means that huge swathes of possibilities are lost, which in a hobby that's all about imagination, seems pretty stupid.

5) Treasure Tracking

I have not played much Dungeons and Dragons but treasure tracking is a chore in any game. Who wants to play Abacus the Accounting - there's enough belt tightening and worrying about money in real life and in an escapist hobby it's one of the last things I want to do.

I'm also not that keen on the idea that the sole motive for adventuring is money (see above), so the lure of dungeons is somewhat lost on me (and then there's the reality of the situation - wouldn't all that loot just crash the economy or be unusable - 'I'm sorry mate but that coin's not legal tender on account of being so corroded I can't even see the King's head'). 

6) The Kludge

This is somewhat related to the point about the work for hire problem - it feels as if there are too many games covering the same ground, with only the barest of differences between them. Take Shadowrun and Victoriana for instance. They're essentially the same game, only divided by time period and technology - player characters will still be running around taking on odd jobs and trouble shooting. The same could be said for the thick wodge of fantasy games out there - which of them don't work on the basis of killing monsteres and getting treasure? And then there's the dark science fiction games, which again all look suspiciously similar. The problem with this is that it means that when we talk about something being 'different' what the hell does it actually mean? A game can read differently, look differently, even have different ideas down at its core and play the same as a hack and slash murderfest (which makes me think that it's only with a lot of conversation between players and GMs that we can shift away from the same old, same old and into new areas).

Obviously this is a business decision, developers and publishers want players to be able to connect to their games quickly and easily. A game set in a 'high school of the damned' sounds great, but would we know what to do with it if it landed in our laps? Possibly not (or maybe we would - after all games like Candlewick Manor cover the children's mystery genre quite well), but it's something I suppose they have to keep in mind when publishing new games.

So I suppose my next challenge is to find new games that address these concerns. I can think of a few off the top of my head but I'd love to hear your thoughts too (basically the more fuel for the fire the better).