Saturday 13 January 2007

An Interlude: What is Role-Playing?

My first post about classes vs skills seems to have drawn a lot of response from the newsgroup. The responses seem to fall into two categories: those people who pretty much 'got it' straight-away, and those people who said 'no way' and objected in various ways. What felt quite nice, is that the list of people who 'got it' coincided nicely with my mental list of people whose opinions I respect a lot on other topics on the newsgroup.

I've just tried to summarise the arguments of those people who said 'no way'.

1. Classes and/or skills restrict what the player can do.
2. Classes and/or skills give the character bonuses to do certain things.
3. Classes and/or skills are a feature of (the genre of) RPGs.
4. Classes and/or skills allow me to role-play.
5. Classes and/or skills give me pleasure because I can tweak my character to reflect what I want.
6. Classes and/or skills are something other than what you're talking about.

Now none of them convince me. 1 feels wrong, and was the basis of my initial objections. 2 is probably the best argument
I've seen. 3 feels like they should be using the word 'convention' rather than feature. I don't have any problems with breaking conventions, and so this argument doesn't sway me. 4 and 5 have a tenuous connection to classes and skills at best, and I don't believe rely on an implementation of classes and skills. e.g its possible to role-play and tweak the character without implementing either classes or skills. I'll come back to the role-playing discussion a little bit later. 6 is an objection, but not a discussion I want to get into. I don't want to get involved in semantic arguments, and the articles I initially referred to didn't either.

I really want to focus on points 2 for the moment. Now I have absolutely no objection to giving the character incremental improvements. Its basically part of how gaming works: you get the player to overcome an obstacle, you give them a reward, you present a bigger obstacle. My objection to classes and skills on this point, is that the rewards are given meta-game rather than in-game. Consider how an experience point based skill system works.

Example A: You slay 50 ninjas. This gives you enough experience points to increase your stealth skill by 5 (or in a class based system, to increase your level). This gives you the Superstealth ability.

[I only want to discuss experience point based systems here, because practise based systems are a lot worse. I'll go into detail on that at a later date.]

However, in the above example, all the features of the system (except the 50 dead ninjas) take the player out of the game, into the meta-game e.g. rules about the game. This removes the player from immersion in the game, which breaks all sorts of continuity about game-flow and suspension of disbelief and so on. I'd rather present the Superstealth ability as an in-game reward.

Example B: You slay 50 ninjas. As you are about to slay the 51st ninja, he cries out 'I'll spare your life in return for teaching you our secrets.' If you do spare his life, he teaches you the Superstealth ability.

Now, this doesn't interrupt the meta-game nearly so much. You can even be smart and include the ninja teaching the abilities within the game. Some players may object to have in game characters discuss keyboards and buttons. But there are plenty of games, particularly console games, that have no problem providing the information this way. And what's more, this doesn't rely on any implementation of classes and/or skills. The ability is given directly, without mandating that certain types of characters have to have it, or that learning the ability detracts from an internal points pool somewhere that the player must spend.

This ties into what I want to discuss about role-playing as well (objection 4: classes and/or skills allow me to role-play). Now, a big part of my objection to the role-playing argument, is that I don't believe it is possible to role-play in a single player game, and that you are instead making a story up in your head. I don't disagree that this is still valid, but to me role-playing is about taking on a role and playing it. Its a performance art, and without an audience, you aren't actually role-playing. And a computer is not an audience. Sure, you can tell people the story later, but that's the point you start role-playing.

However, I'll humour you for the moment, and assume that it is possible to role-play in a single player environment. And that, to me suggests that, while you play you are going through the process of mentally translating example A above to example B. That is, you are justifying the meta-game experience point system, to yourself, as an in-game mechanic. In fact, if you are a *hard-core* role-player you actually do the following:

Example C: You slay 50 ninjas. This gives you enough experience points to increase your stealth skill by 5 (or in a class based system, to increase your level). In order to justify this in game, you hunt down a 51st ninja, and act out the training process of learning the Superstealth ability. The in-game mechanics don't support this very well, as the Ninja keeps trying to kill you, so you have to keep casting the Sleep spell during the 'training' and then cast a Flee spell on the Ninja at the end of this. Of course, this requires that you learn 'Sleep' and 'Flee' spells, which are not in character for you, but you justify these as allowing you to act out the performance of 'training' when you need to do so. This gives you the Superstealth ability.

Now, personally, I'm not *hard-core*. In fact, I'm not a role-player. I'm a gamer. But it seems to me, that a game that plays like example B, would support a role-player a lot better, than a game that plays like example A. And that is why I think classes and/or skill based systems actually prevent role-playing than help it.


Andrew Doull said...

Now a lot of people might object to the examples I gave as artificially constructing scenarios that support my point, and that different examples would support role-playing better. However, I'm trying to help you. I could have made the monster 50 oozes. Or 50 dragons. Or 50 giant pink mice. That's the weakness of experience point based systems.

Mikolaj said...

I think you missed a very important and very funny aspect of RLs (well, at least Angband variants, oh well, at least TOME). That is, DiTLs (Day in The Life of ... stories). See the TOME wiki for examples (ook dumps, with some exceptions, are not DiTLs). This is pure role-playing, performed *while* playing a RL, not after finishing the game. (BTW, the ability to copy text from the game window, maintainers are currently removing from variants, is essential for DiTLing.)

Now, DiTL-tellers really enjoy making up stories like the A story. Sometimes they may even do something like C and really sleep and scare the 51th ninja. But they generally detest too many B events as they do not require creativity on the part of the story-teller (nor the player). A non-trivial mechanics serves them much better than an elaborate but fixed (even if non-linear) story.

A ten or twenty fixed B elements well-known to audience is enough to make the audience feel at home and at the same time curious how the particular well known B story will be interpreted by the particular story-teller with a particular character background and development. And quite often the B elements ("and then I've found and killed Sauron") are told much shorter than some unexpected events, be it clever, lucky or in-theme with character background.

Andrew Doull said...

Good point. I had forgotten about these.

Robert said...

The way I see it, switching the player's attention from what you call the game to the meta-game is only a problem if the player finds the meta-game unengaging. Roguelike is a game of paper dolls, mediated through a tactical combat engine. If the paper dolls aspect of the game is fun, calling attention to the fact that it exists is no weakness.

Or to talk about another turn-based genre, in Civ, you're making short term decisions about where you want your units to be to do you the most good one, two, ten turns from now, but you're also making more strategic decisions about where you want to be on the production and tech trees ten, twenty, a hundred turns from now. A great deal of attention has been given to making both of these aspects of the game interesting.

300dpi said...

Hi guys I'm currently writing my dissertation on what makes a good RPG, now I do not profess to have any knowledge of the game you guys are developing more's the shame and frankly I feel a wee bit guilty for posting before having a look,

Anyway I really think that your argument about class and skills has a very good point about the role play element of the game, in fact I argue in my diss that a computer game that cannot be played on paper with dice certainly won't fall into the centre of the Rpg genre,

I like the idea of no class but still using the mechanic of the more you do it the better you get, for example you choose to buy and wear black,you are less visible in the dark, not a class per se but a choice that means you are likely to back it up buy using something that will go with your outfit i.e something quiet to enhance the sneaking,and something light so you can strike with a bit of accuracy, well if you have gone to all that trouble you would probably want to make sure that your strike is fatal or at least incapacitating so you then buy some poison or at least try to make some, now im guessing if you are going to use a poison you wont want to waste time slathering an axe in it so I guess you pick a smaller weapon like a dagger,

If you managed to read that I salute you, but as you can see a class is a shorthand for developers unable or too lazy to allow a player to go through the arduous process of becoming who they want to be.

Now you can see why doing something again doesnt need a buff it just needs to be hard to do in the first place and have the in game world to back it up, eg I shoot a rat a goblin in Oblivion for the first time, in the dark bizarrely i hit it straight through the neck, only it didn't die as my strength/marksman skill was too low, now if my strength was too low the arrow should have barely penetrated the neck, good theory undone by game mechanics,

I think a game without set skills and classes would work incredibly well with a system for increasing/decreasing the fitness and mental ability as in real life,

e.g perfect game you fletch an arrow for the first time its a shabby effort, you fletch twenty, they get a lot better, you fletch 100 your fingers bleed and your eyes go funny you get hungry etc. real role play in a game!!

as for the ninja example, its really good but if you already killed 50 ninjas I doubt they could teach you much about killing!!