Thursday, August 25, 2011

Taking Action and Playing Roles: The Skill/Luck Divide

RPGs are fickle beasts. On the one hand, RPGs purport to be the most character-driven genre of games, whether tabletop or electronic. On the other hand, RPGs offer one of the lowest levels of character control in gaming. The fact that most RPG systems are turn-based and/or tactical means that, rather than the player doing something as the character, the player is usually issuing an order to the character and expecting the character to carry it out. In an action game, the player is on some level directly doing something, even if it's highly processed through the game's controls. Reflexes and skill are involved more than planning and percentages.

The role of "skill" with regard to the player character has a different meaning than "skill" with regard to the player. In a traditional RPG (which is to say "rolling dice"), a character's skill affects the likelihood of passing a check, but it doesn't change the fact that the dice are all that decides it. A character may have a better or worse chance depending on their skill level, but ultimately it's down to the dice. This ought to create an attitude of acceptance; it's down to the dice, they're what decides whether or not someone lives or dies. Yet I find that it often does not, and this is largely connected to the fact that, again, RPGs purport to be primarily about character-driven narratives. How can a narrative be character-driven if said characters can die at any moment for reasons outside the player's control or influence? Hence, the divide.

In contrast, action-RPGs can include skill systems that naturally reflect a character's abilities. A character with more experience using guns might reload faster and aim more steadily; a character who's better at a mechanical or electrical skill might simply complete the job in a more timely fashion. However, these are a blend of "the character" and "the player". The limitations of most games mean that the things that the character influences are subtle things that the player does not directly control. The player hits R to reload, they don't actually go through the motions of removing the magazine and putting in a new one. The player holds down a button to hack a computer, they aren't expected to know the coding. Hence, the game becomes divided between "the player's job" and "the character's job". A theoretical game that was wholly player-based would have no room for RPG skills, because there would be nothing left for the player to influence.

I'll use an example scenario. Three characters are attempting to swim across a river. The first character is from a luck-based system and has a low skill level. The second character is from a luck-based system and has a high skill level. The third character is from an action game and has a variable skill level. The first two characters, despite their differences, are dependent entirely on luck; unless there are provisions or ceilings in place that say either the high-level character can't fail or the low-level character can't succeed, they're both equally vulnerable to a naturally high or naturally low roll. The third character may have an easy or hard time of it depending on their skill level, but it's the player's skill that does it - the character's natural ability just makes it easier or harder for the player. Yet the player in this scenario would be contributing a certain part of the skills, thus making it less "character-based".

Now, naturally, I'm making it sound like the player doesn't do anything in a turn-based RPG, and that of course isn't true. The player makes tactical and social decisions; it's simply a smaller set of responsibilities, and generally players dislike it when those things are taken from them. For example, many RPGs have a charisma stat and social skills of one kind or another, but the player generally expects to pick what is said. While a lot of the "charisma" process can be considered minor, but important, details (body language, tone, visible confidence and self-esteem), the player expects to be in charge of the major decisions regardless of the difference between their own charisma and their characters'. This becomes even more clear when talking about intelligence or wisdom, where the limitations of human malleability are tested simply by their nature.

In essence, skill tests are divided between the player and the character. If the action requires manual intervention, it's the player's job. If not, the character takes care of it. The more control is given to the player, the less important the character is. A true "character", if such a thing was possible, would be an autonomous individual with their own skills and abilities. Certainly a wise sage, a veteran soldier, or an experienced thief should handle their own jobs better than some fumbling player, and freed of the constraints of the player they ought to make better decisions. Yet the player must play a role, and this is a conundrum I've discussed before: where should the player end and the character begin?

Now I'm going to try to bring this back to one of my earlier points, to wit, the nature of failure and death in an RPG. RPGs are designed around the idea that one player plays one character, which contrasts with wargames and tactical games where the player has many expendable or semi-expendable subordinates. Loss in such games can be handled acceptably, because the unit can continue while the individual does not. Players may not be happy about a character's death, but the game goes on regardless. This applies to TV shows as well; characters died or were wounded in Band of Brothers, but the show was about the unit and thus the story continued. RPGs are stories about individuals (albeit multiple individuals grouped into loose affiliations), and if an individual dies permanently, that individual's story is over.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I'm surprised how many "role playing games" still center on the assumed survival of the individual and the related focus on long, winding, relatively linear story paths. Death and failure are part of a story, and yet in order to reliably complete the stories laid out by the developer or the GM, those things must be ignored or marginalized. This isn't to say that action games don't have failures as well, but a failure in an action game is usually the fault of the player, and not just bad luck. No matter how you skew the odds - larger dice, bell curves, dice pools - failure is going to be inevitable, and there's nothing the player can do about it other than hope it doesn't happen in a critical scenario.

When we're talking "believability" in this scenario, the idea that characters simply can't die isn't going to enter into it. Once predestination and the assumption of safety is brought into a game's story, the game is guaranteed to either be rigged or to be derailed. Rather than building the story as it progresses based on pre-existing tools, characters, and events, the "do all these things so you can unlock the next part" approach means that the risk of un-removable failure (which is a major part of life, to be frank) simply can't exist. I'm not going to try to suggest what should be done about it, I'm just going to note that having one character in a combat-intensive scenario is basically putting all your eggs in one basket, and also you can't do anything to stop the basket from breaking other than hoping really hard that it doesn't.


  1. I think I personally would love to see a game where it is actually possible to lose one or more of the 'major' characters of a party, including the 'main' character. I doubt heavily though that the modern game industry with their heavy reliance of voiced dialogue and animated scenes that this will happen. Too much is invested in time, money, and talent to lose even one of the major characters.

    But the concept that losing a key member of the party and either being assigned a new character by some organizational overlord or having to go out and recruit a new person to fill a needed role within the group might add a new layer of dynamic to any game. Especially if that person had skills that were needed and now a new solution to the problem will have to be found.

    Which might force the designers of worlds to put multiple solutions and paths to a problem. Would this be easy? I don't think so but it might be worth the effort.

  2. The problem with that in terms of a linear RPG, or an RPG with any sort of overarching goal, is that you can end up cutting off the potential for actually winning the game if you do stuff like that. Fallout 1 had allies who could die permanently, but mostly because they weren't technically important - they were just another gun. Games like Suikoden and Valkyria Chronicles give you a lot of party members, but for completionism's sake generally make it hard to actually lose them. Overall I'd say the adaptable story of a tabletop game is best for it, but then players and DMs tend to shy away from "non-dramatic" character deaths.

  3. Regarding RPGs "still" centering on central characters and narratives: RPGs started out as "group stories" and the consistent trend has been to move away from that.
    Early RPGs were all party-based, often with no central character (e.g. Bard's Tale), and thus no one character who had to live (the dividing membrane between RPGs and strategy games was nonexistent at that point). The games were simple dungeon hacks, and the only real narratives came out of playing the game ("Character x died, but the dragon was slain.")
    As RPGs become more elaborate, story, central characters and scripted events were an increasing part of the games by necessity. It was here that the difference between strategy and RPG developed; strategy continued to be group-based. As you point out, once you have any sort of fixed goals or narratives (even if they're branching or otherwise multiple), character deaths break the game. Spoken dialog obviously creates further, significant constraints, but the nature of the modern RPG (the narrative is character-driven) versus strategy games (the narrative is group-driven) has already set the design in basic ways.

  4. That may be the case with certain computer RPGs, but tabletop RPGs at least have always been about characters if for no other reason than death = you start all over again from level 1. Even in AD&D and so forth, the death of a character was a reasonably large event, though it depended on the level of the character how big an influence it was. As long as games have had narratives, the death of the main character (or characters) has always negatively impacted that narrative, and while tabletop can accommodate it, linear storylines cannot.

  5. it is my goal to have games with manual reload, but the auto must still be present, perhaps motion controls would be optimal for this, you could also rotate and view any objects you weild.

  6. @J. Shea:
    It's true that I was mainly addressing the CRPG part of the discussion, but there was an equivalent shift of focus from groups to individuals in pen&paper RPGs as well. p&pRPGs derived from tactical miniature games which in turn came from miniature war games. As a result we see, if we follow the evolution of p&pRPGs, a shift from the focus on group dynamics in the mechanics of early RPGs to more elaborate rules that focus on the individual and their back-story, personality traits, etc. CRPGs have, in many ways, recapitulated the evolution of the p&pRPG in their own development. In both cases, the act of the RPG distinguishing itself from strategy games meant a shift of focus from narratives around a group to narratives around an individual character (who may be part of a group), making character deaths more problematic in both.

    Obviously what it comes down to is the ability of the system to create narratives on the fly. p&pRPGs include GMs as part of their systems, but the ability of a p&pRPG to accommodate a character death is only as strong as the GMs skills. It still comes down to complexity of character and scenario. I've seen games "crash" when the GM saw their carefully crafted scenarios go up in flames due to a player foolishly getting their character unexpectedly offed. CRPGs obviously are limited, but with sufficiently simple scenarios and/or characters, they can deal just fine with character death (e.g. roguelikes, "Infinity Blade," "Sociolotron," etc.) As you increase the focus on (and the effort required to build up) the individual it obviously creates an increased desire for the survival of the individual. As p&pRPGs evolved, there was an assumption that the GMs were getting more skilled too, and skilled GMs have become necessary to maintain the juggling act of story-driven p&pRPGs. Early p&pRPGs made few assumptions about the GM's abilities. Their scenarios encouraged impersonal dungeons, and characters in were easily replaceable - they were archetypes, randomly generated, who filled a tactical function within a group as to counter certain types of threats. An additional issue to the ability of the game system to be flexible in the face of character deaths is also the player's willingness to put up with character deaths. Again the p&pRPG has greater flexibility as the GM can judge that willingness while a CRPG has to make assumptions in its very design, and is likely to err on the side of caution.

  7. re: randomness: I don't think a percentage chance of succeeding is bad, it just means you're playing a different game. The outcome of an individual test if fairly random, but after swimming across several rivers, it becomes clear which character is better.

    I like dice in p&pRPGs because it adds a nice element of unpredictability, forcing you to be a bit more humble about your character, and maybe putting you in an interesting new situation.

    I've been playing in a campaign of marvel superheroes recently, and kept having shit dice rolls for my agility tests - this led to the narrative justification of my stabilization software (I'm an android) not being properly calibrated, which added some nice flavour.

    Also: there's a lovely mod for mount & blade - mount & musket - where you go at each other napoleonic style. (This is purely multiplayer by the way.) The muskets are terribly inaccurate, but it adds a nice element where you're not trying to hit every single shot (and indeed there's no way you'll even get close) but to just put down a high volume of fire on the enemy. It's interesting/I like it.


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