Monday, January 31, 2011

5 old-school RPG features that should stay dead

There are times when I survey the current RPG landscape and wonder if I've become a hopeless curmudgeon. Part of my pain is that DnD has always been the main attraction for me, and there's no enticing DnD title on the horizon (aside, perhaps, from the massively multiplayer Neverwinter). Another part of it, which I'm wont to harp on here, is that recent RPGs seem to have abandoned many features that were staples of the genre during its golden age.

An interesting question is whether younger players are fundamentally different than older ones, or whether it's more the case that RPG developers are aiming for wider audiences. I tend to focus more on the latter, but I'm forced to admit the former as a possibility as well. As games mature, we're likely to see more and more generation gaps, with players of bygone eras preferring old-school games that younger players find intolerable for various reasons.

And let's face it. There are aspects of older RPGs that were flawed, inconvenient, or just plain hard to take. And I'm not even talking about the really old computer RPGs like Bard's Tale or Ultima, which even this curmudgeon can't handle. With so many longstanding franchises getting updates this year - Diablo, Elder Scrolls, and the aforementioned Neverwinter, to name a few - it seems like a good time to reflect on some of the ways RPGs have improved in recent years. Consider this a companion piece to last week's cranky post on how RPGs are being dumbed down. Yes, this blog is fair and balanced.

Here, in Internet-mandated list format, are five old-school design features that deserve (perma)death.

1. Rerolling
In the days before Carpal Tunnel Syndrome had first been diagnosed, we enjoyed rerolling our DnD characters for hours.

Sometimes players need to be saved from themselves. I know how idiotic it is to sit in front of a character generation screen rerolling for the perfect ability scores and yet I... just... can't... stop. The next roll could give me the 18/00 Strength I've been looking for!

Dungeons & Dragons games, including the Infinity Engine games and Temple of Elemental Evil, included this option. I suppose it was borne out of good intentions, on the assumption that without it, players would restart the game until they got the scores they wanted. Recent games have a better solution - use a point-buy or point-bonus system, or simply start the PC off with set ability scores and let the player raise them as the character levels up.

2. Demeaning first-level quests
You want me to fetch a book from a haystack? Seriously? Do you know who my dad is?
Hey, I appreciate the value of working your way up. If I'm tasking someone with saving the world, I'm not going to give the job to someone straight out of the Adventurers Academy. You have to pay your dues. However, there's also such a thing as being overqualified. I would submit that once you know how to use a sword or cast a spell, perhaps killing rats isn't the best use of your time.

Older RPGs often had in-character tutorials, which meant giving PCs low-pressure quests so that players could get a feel for how things work. These days, RPGs increasingly use popup dialogs and the like to instruct the player - leaving the PC to more heroic work.

It's a good thing, too. The thing about first-level quests is that they happen at the start of the game, when the tone is set and first impressions are made. Not a good time to be giving the PC busywork.

3. Inventory Tetris
I'm out of inventory space... on the first level!
Inventory limits are good. Players shouldn't be allowed to waltz through dungeons continually picking up sets of armor, two-handed weapons, and millions of gold pieces in defiance of the laws of physics. It's when games try to make inventory management into a minigame itself - a minigame for the anal retentive - that trouble occurs. Fortunately, most modern RPGs keep things simple and much easier to manage.

The original Diablo and Neverwinter Nights had spacial inventory management, which was a source of much consternation for players. Diablo even had an ever-increasing pile of gold taking up space in your inventory. Hilariously, there was a bug that made it impossible to buy the best armor in the game because the gold required to buy it took up so much space that there wasn't enough room for the armor itself.

Having said all that, I actually like spacial inventories - I think they're more realistic, and far easier to scan because the objects are different sizes. My solution to the inventory conundrum: Give the player sub-inventories (loot bags) to carry all the small stuff in unlimited quantities. And second, but just as important: Don't hand out so much shit.

4. Obligatory puzzles
If your idea of a good time is cracking open a GRE study guide, then this quest is for you.
Puzzles were a staple of older RPGs, and in a nod to tradition, designers often include a puzzle or two in modern RPGs. However, it's now rare to find the same sort of maddeningly difficult (and non-optional) puzzles, the word problems masquerading as riddles, the pop quizzes to make sure you're paying attention to lore - you know, all the things that give puzzles a bad name and send players to the Internet in search of spoilers.

Right about now I'm feeling the icy stare of my fellow curmudgeons-in-arms. Don't get me wrong: A well-designed puzzle at the right time is a treat. The problem is that you don't know if a puzzle is well-designed until you finish it. I've spent so many hours working through bad puzzles (and worse, puzzles that were bugged!) that I've lost faith.

The other issue is that there aren't many scenarios that lend themselves to puzzles. Back when puzzles were obligatory in RPGs, they often felt, well, obligatory.

5. Backtracking
Icewind Dale had lots of backtracking, but at least you got to watch your characters (represented by little circles) as they crossed the map. A little muzak would have been nice.

If you've ever played Icewind Dale, you'll recognize the above screen as the Vale of Shadows. This was a fun area to traverse the first time through. Unfortunately, after the yetis had been cleared out, you had to wait as your characters made the loooong trek back to the area transition on the left side of the screen. And, I'm sure you'll remember, that was after making the loooong trek back through several levels of the tomb you had just cleared.

More recent RPGs generally do a decent job of addressing the issue of backtracking. Neverwinter Nights introduced the portal stone, which was an effective (if inelegant) solution. The Elder Scrolls games have fast travel. But the best solution of all is just better level design. Simply put, if a player has to follow a long, linear path to a destination, that player shouldn't have to follow the same path back. Trudging around with millions of gold pieces in your pocket is tiring.


  1. I agree with most except for the inventory tetris which I've always enjoyed for some reason. I understand why people find it frustrating but I've always found it to be a nice abstraction of trying to fit things in your backpack (even though it still stretches realism with carrying multiple big armors and such).
    I think inventories in general are still pretty damn terrible, with the worst of the lot being the simple "lists" seen in games like Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls (even a fairly old game like Fallout 1 had this). Hate those lists.

    Also, definitely agree with the starter quests, but again... I don't think many games today feature a good alternative. More often than not, it seems I am forced to slog through some inane tutorial where I learn how to walk. Skippable tutorials, that are separate from the main story, are the best solution for me personally.

    Or do it like STALKER where you just got thrown out into the world with very small floaty text telling you some hotkeys. Then off to the first mission which is very likely to kill you.
    I often have issues with how hard some games try to "ease you into it", thus rendering the first part of the game completely toothless.

    Fallout New Vegas also did it pretty good I think. Character creation is pretty short (still wish I could just get a character sheet to fill out though if I were so inclined for replays). The first quests are very tutorial-style but easy to skip and then you can be off to wherever you wish (even get eaten by a Cazador or Deathclaw a minute or two from where you start).

  2. I think DA:O did a good job with its origin-based quests. F'instance, in the Dwarven Commoner Origin, your first quests involved shaking people down for a crime boss. Not all the origins were as unique, but they all advanced a plot rather than just being throwaways. (Of course, it was also nice that there were multiple beginnings so that restarts weren't as dull.)

    Some people may disagree, but I thought the opening of Neverwinter Nights 2 offered a good example of how to do "humble origins" without wasting the player's time. The little village fair provided the usual "how to do X" tutorials, while also giving you a sense of what the village and its people were like (which was a setup for the attack later). Somewhat banal, I suppose, but I enjoyed it. Definitely a step up from the first Neverwinter Nights.

    Some RPGs also start you off in the middle of the action, rather than just plopping you down next to a merchant to buy your gear. Mass Effect starts you off in a battle, as does (IIRC) The Witcher.

  3. Thanks for another interesting post.

    I don't play too many games and so cannot comment on many. Instead, please allow me to pester you with my own take on your five points and how I hope to handle them within my own module. :)

    1) ATTRIBUTES: I am happy with the point buy system used in NWN2, which I believe is better than the reroll system. However, in my module, there will also be ways for the player to increase (or lower) their attributes if they master a certain device.

    2) LOW LEVEL QUESTS: These obviously cannot be avoided if the module starts at level 1. However, I have tried to blend my quests into the game in such a way that the service or quest appears more natural to the circumstances than a means to increase in level. In other words, the player's PC can respond to any quest in an appropriate manner.

    3) INVENTORY: I don't mind either method of inventory control, but if I had a preference, it is one slot per item as per NWN2. The reason being, if you think PnP DnD, it only took one line to write one item, regardless of what it was. More important, in my opinion, is weight control, which is why I do have gold weigh in my module and take up inventory space. (One bag can contain 500 gp, so you can work out how many slots will be required for the gold you carry, which can also be shared among the party.) Furthermore, I have a number of specialised bags that can be acquired that do help to organise the inventory items. Lastly, there will NOT be lots of "useless" items that clog up shops and inventories. That's not saying there won't be some items that are "junk", but that there will not be 50 versions of a long sword for instance.

    4) OBLIGATORY PUZZLES: I love puzzles, and I agree that some should be more "obligatory" in some way to reflect a good old traditional style DnD (in my opinion). As you know, I will have puzzles and all will be "obligatory" from the point of view that they must be "solved" to gain a reward. However, "solving" may mean costing the PC something else they have rather than their time or knowledge. That said, there will be one or two puzzles where it simply has to be solved to move the quest forward. Is this a step too far? Time will tell, but I don't think this is unreasonable under the circumstances of their inclusion. In some ways, I am hoping the player will not always be conscious of moving into a "puzzle" when playing.

    5) BACKTRACKING: I think this is sometimes unavoidable. I agree that level design is important to help reduce this problem and there are other solutions (such as teleporters), but, sometimes, the player may simply have to follow where the path leads them. If the teleporter was to be just through the next door, but they decided to turn back before entering, then they backtrack. This is one of the more difficult problems to resolve (in my opinion), but as long as the backtracking is not too extreme, then it is something that I (and I hope players) can live with.