Sunday, June 14, 2015

D&D Rant: Our gameplay does not fit the mood

One of the biggest pieces of news in the video gaming fandom is the trend of designers using the KickStarter platform to make spiritual successors to beloved franchises.  This is the case for Castlevania creator Koji Igarashi.  Like others he turned to his fans when current major developers repeatedly turned him down, saying that side-scrolling Metroidvania games are a thing of the past.  Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was a resounding success, raising over $5.5 million dollars as of today!  As a major fan of Symphony of the Night, I've been keeping up with the news on this spiritual sequel on his YouTube channel and elsewhere.  While watching one of his Ask Iga videos I found one of his answers (3:08 mark) particularly intriguing:

For those who can't see the video, one of the initial abilities for the character to learn would allow her to climb up walls by growing an extra pair of arms out of her back.  However, this proposed move would change the core dynamics of the game exploration-wise as well as not gelling with the gritty tone they had in mind for their world.

And Now for Table-Top

This hit on something which has been sticking in my craw; ideal games have gameplay and story integrated to make the entire experience feel seamless rather than disjointed.  Done well, a proper setting takes into account how the rules and abilities of characters can affect the world and the game.  Done poorly, it can throw the player out of the experience as the inevitable questions come up: "what's this doing here?" or "how hasn't this item or class fundamentally changed things?"  Sad to say, I often feel that a lot of D&D settings fall short of this mark, and this is especially the case for cross-Edition conversions and third party material going for a specific theme without consulting how the mechanics can strengthen it.  The prime offender in a lot of these cases is magic spells and items.

There's a lot of settings out there trying to do many different things.  Ravenloft for gothic horror, Dark Sun for grim survivalism, Forgotten Realms for high-octane magic and epic power, and ultra-lethal "zero to hero" retro-clones such as Dungeon Crawl Classics.  And that's not counting the myriad licensed games out there such as D20 Call of Cthulhu, a Pathfinder conversion for Earthdawn, or even Mongoose Publishing's D20 Conan.

I don't think we've learned our lesson from the days of the D20 glut, when Wizards hailed the system as a truly universal engine and we ended up with poor matches.  OSR and Pathfinder's popularity in the D&D fandom means that we're seeing a lot of people applying the skeletal framework of a themed world without even seeing if the bones will fit in their RPG body-suit in the first place.  Would the themes and mood of gothic horror or Conanesque sword and sorcery suit a game where a spellcaster can create a permanent self-sustaining heatless light source with no negative side effects, enchant themselves with hours-long personal flight spells, and where mid-high level parties have magic items and treasure expensive enough to buy out the gross domestic product of a town?  All too often, especially with low-magic worlds, I see world and social structures set up which do not facilitate the typical adventuring aesthetic or have NPCs carrying around multiple +1 weapons and armor in a land where such goods are supposed to be the stuff of legends.

The spellcaster is an integral part of a D&D adventuring party, and in trying to keep what's familiar we often transport classes wholeheartedly into most settings, Vancian Magic and all.  When magic of all types and disciplines can be cast freely and immediately with daily rests the only limiting factor, you end up with a very high-magic world not in line with a lot of classic fantasy.  High-level D20 D&D is often akin to a superhero aesthetic, where archmages engage in land-altering power and call upon legions of extraplanar help.  Attempts to enforce a more low-fantasy approach are often ham-handed restrictions, as observed in Tomb of the Lich Queen when the adventure's location stripped out many core staples of high-level gameplay, making one ask why the adventure was published for such a level range in the first place.

We're Behind the Times

This may not be a popular thing to say, but I think that table-top is well behind video games in this aspect of game design, and trying to make our RPGs "all things for all settings" is more a hindrance than a help.  I've seen too many publishers do straight conversions of disparate Editions or to cash in on the D20 trend without asking themselves if their game evens works well with it.  D&D is not a universal fantasy system, and pretending that Pathfinder or even the OSR can simulate such a wide variety of genres is just going to contribute to the glut and create dysphoria in gameplay and story/world integration.  I think that some retro-clones which set out to emulate a specific play-style are on the right track.  Here's how I'd group the games with which I have experience with and have heard described by players who know the system better than I do:

Basic D&D/Labyrinth Lord: Strong emphasis on dungeon-delving and exploration of wilderness and forlorn locations.  Tracking resources is an important feature, often balanced with how much wealth can be attained as a primary goal.  Tables and charts for random dungeon and encounter designs encourages Roguelike gameplay.

3.5/Pathfinder: High-powered, high-magic play with strong emphasis on character customization and builds.  Magic items and wealth accumulation are a core construct.  At 11th level and higher the game dynamics experience a fundamental shift as easy access to plot-stopping spells discourages the standard dungeon delve.

4th Edition: Team-based tactical gameplay with resource management divided into encounters and daily uses.  Core components of the game are meant to scale, and skill challenges and spell rituals serve as several methods of out-of-combat interaction.