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[This is adapted and improved from screencasts available on my “Game Design” channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign - search for "monster"]
Fairly close to my heart is devising role-playing game monsters. What expertise do I have in this subject? In the 70s and 80s I made up a lot of monsters that were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, as well as for my own campaign. I designed several monsters that are in the original Fiend Folio. The Princes of Elemental Evil are particularly well-known and even have their own entry in Wikipedia (archomental). I'm also relying in this piece on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon 2015 early on a Sunday morning with, among others, Wolfgang Bauer and Jeff Grubb up front.
Now I'm talking about monsters primarily for tabletop RPGs because there's a big difference between tabletop RPGs and video games. In video games, you have the boss mentality: boss monsters, really big, bad-ass, lone monsters that are very, very dangerous. I have never thought in those boss terms as I'll explain. I've always used a large number of monsters in a big climax led by some powerful leader. But the leader is not individually nearly as powerful as the character group. It's just that with all the other monsters around both the monsters and the leader collectively become very dangerous.
The big difference is that in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to. Bosses are designed with the idea that there's a save game to go back to. They are designed to kill you several times before you succeed. You can't play tabletop RPGs that way, even today with all the easy healing, because if you die you’re dead (more or less). So in video games the purpose of any monster can be to kill the characters the first several times, whereas in tabletop the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening their characters in some way, but not by actually killing the characters. Death may happen occasionally (just to keep everyone "honest"), but it can't happen frequently, or you're not going to have much of a campaign.
So video game bosses tend to be much tougher in relation to the adventuring party or individual than the monsters you meet at a climax in a tabletop RPG. This is a fundamental difference. Video gamers would be disappointed if almost every time they had a climax they win the first time. They'd feel cheated, that it was too easy. It's a matter of expectations is much as a game functionality.
Of course, there are many ways tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs and many of those are because of "save games" or lack of same. When you're making up monsters I think you should focus on the element of surprise, not just on making them super tough. Some game designers, including R. Knizia and S. Miyamoto ("We want to entertain people by surprising them ...") espouse this view. Likely Miyamoto would say that a major objective in any game is to surprise players, so perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players, and many of my suggestions derive from surprise. A specific surprise is only going to work once, but that's one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters, to provide new surprises.
So what do we look at? Here's a list, then I'll discuss each one:
• The Unknown
• One Unusual Characteristic (kind of a loop)
• Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
• Characteristics from two types combined into one
• “Worse things than killing you”
• Really Smart Enemies
• Time Pressure
• Relentless Hordes
Fear of the Unknown is the first one. A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with something they don't already know. The players will probably feel it's more fair and perhaps more true to life if they can derive some of the characteristics of the unknown monsters from past experience or from appearance. "It looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant." "With those big teeth, I bet it bites HARD."
Sometimes it'll be just one unusual characteristic. This may work particularly well if you take a well-known monster and give it a single surprising quirk. The obvious that comes to mind is regeneration. Regeneration is very powerful and should be used sparingly, but if you have an ordinary monster that regenerates, it will surprise the heck out of players, especially when a monster gets back up off the dungeon floor.
A single characteristic can be a focus of an unknown monster as well. Some refs won't want to go to extremes such as flying orcs or regenerating orcs, on the other hand, we don't mind the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. I once made up a group of several kinds of lightning spitting monsters roughly analogous to military tanks (in my mind), although the players never realized that. They were big and they looked dangerous, and they were even without the lightning. The catlike ones were faster, sluglike ones really hard to kill, and so on. But it was lightning that set them apart and scared the players, in many encounters with them.
You can take two types of monsters and have them cooperate. Keep in mind the truism, there's hardly anything original under the sun; but combinations of things can provide new experiences, and that can surprise. We see this kind of cooperation whenever a monster type is said to normally employ a different monster type as guards. Of course, powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters and those weaker monsters can nonetheless provide good interference when our heroes show up.
We can also take the characteristics from two monster types and combine them into one. There's the classic owl bear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtle, and so forth. You can take normally unintelligent monsters and provide them with human intelligence or normally intelligent monsters that aren't intelligent now. Some combinations may not be very believable, and I like believability in games and try to avoid them, but in this the age of TV and movie silliness not too many people care. The standards have changed over the past half century, so you can do things that would've been laughed out of the building, so to speak, 50-60 years ago, which now most people shrug at and accept.
Another way to make monsters interesting is misdirection. Play on the expectations of the players: change the appearance of the monster, pretend to be another monster, change stats (although it's easy to overdo that so I try to avoid just changing the stats of an existing monster).
There are worse things than killing you. Monsters don't have to kill to be frightening. They can turn your bones to rubber. The rust monster eats equipment. Permanent level drain, even temporary can be bad. Characters can be captured - slavers are monsters too. Theft - lots of monsters that nick your items such as leprechauns. There lots of things you can think of that are not death but will frighten the players. Threaten their characters' well-being, their possessions.
Foreshadowing is something you can do with any monster. It helps foster fear of the unknown. You can provide clues signaling danger - tracks, even something as simple as noises. Maybe the players will find something in writing that indicates that some intelligent monster is around - somewhere.
Really smart enemies. Face it, classic movie enemies are often stupid. This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists, and if you haven't read the Evil Overlord list I strongly recommend that you do so. http://www.eviloverlord.com/lists/overlord.html . Relatively dim monsters can be cunning: the great boxer Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim brained man, but he was a cunning boxer. Consider though, you have to put your brain into the monster preparation. If you're not trying to be smart, how can the monsters be smart?
Time pressure is the classic videogame way to make monsters more dangerous. There's just not enough time to do all the characters want to do. But you can do this in tabletop games as well. Time stress leads to mistakes. “Watch out, it’s going to blow up!” or the enemy has diverted water into a room that's filling up with you trapped in it, or there's a fire spreading or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it. There are all kinds of ways to implement time pressure even if you're playing strictly on a turn basis. You know there only so many turns before something happens, you're still under pressure.
Positioning is another thing you can do with any monster. The classic is that you have a balcony that protects otherwise vulnerable archers because they're up there and you're down here on the floor or on the ground. Simple barricades, very low ceilings with/for short monsters: you're going after Duergar and they've kept their ceilings low so that humans have to bend down and are much less effective in every way, especially in a fight. Burrows of monsters can be hard to move around in. Water barriers can make a big difference. You can think of lots of ways to do this, but you have to think of it to make it happen.
You can have societies or factions or groups where the group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts. I've often found that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster, especially if they're subordinate to a leader that organizes them, a commander or "mastermind."
The last one is relentless hordes. Sheer numbers can be terrifying even if the monsters are individually weak. The Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition "minions" rule is quite brilliantly simple. Any damage kills a minion, but you can have lots of them and they're easy to keep track of (tabletop) because either they're doing fine or they're dead. Relentless hordes are the opposite of the videogame boss syndrome where an often-lone monster is super tough, but try it, you may find it interesting.
I have talked about the Do's and not the Don'ts, now let's look at the other side. The general principle is, give the players a chance, don't spring something on them. Don't rely on them having to die to find out something. (Some people have given a name to that particular characteristic but I don't recall what it is.) You don't ever want to force the players to die to learn something. I'm thinking in terms of a large set of players of many different attitudes, and trying not to really piss off any of the subgroups.
So, no "invulnerable to everything but X," though that's not so bad IF players know about it ahead of time. For example, we know about iron golem invulnerabilities in the older versions of D&D, which is to say virtually nothing hurts but +3 or greater weapons, and so we have time to prepare or avoid. We don't always manage to do that, but we've got the chance. At least that's what counts.
Another is sudden, unwarned-about death as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the carnivorous bunny kills in one attack. (Yes, "Tim" warned them, but it was not a believable monster so the warning had no effect.)
Another no-no: take an innocuous looking thing and make it a super monster, which turns out to be (again) like the Carnivorous Rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail. You may think that's funny, but serious players won't think that's funny when they're the victims. (As with everything else, "it depends".)
The golden rule applies. In fact, both golden rules, the general Golden Rule and the golden rule of RPGs. The general Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is pretty good. Ask yourself how you'd feel if such-and-such happened. The RPG golden rule is, "what's good for the players is good for the monsters and vice versa," that is, if the monsters can do something wild or drastic shouldn’t the players also have a chance to do it? And if the players can do something, shouldn't the monsters be able to as well? Think about it. Try to be at least halfway sensible and always put yourself in the shoes of the players and ask yourself how you would react if this happened to you.
Someone sufficiently steeped in the myriads of RPG rules published since 1974 could probably write a book (with many examples) about monster design. But this is enough to provide a guide for the inexperienced.
For the first time in a few years, I refereed a fantasy role-playing game. In this case I was using my own simplified rules (“Basic (Fantasy) RPG”), in order to playtest them, and I was running a game for my usual college playtesters.
Keep in mind that I started playing D&D in 1975. The title refers to how things are a lot different than they were in 1975, at least in role-playing games. Role-playing games have been badly influenced by video games, where you cannot lose because you can always go back to a save game, then worsened with MMOs and free-to-play games. The practice there is to constantly reward people so they'll continue to play, so that ultimately spend some money on in-game purchases/transactions.
So the players were constantly wondering where the loot drop was when they bumped off a few kobolds that wandered by, or some other wimpy monster. But worse, I saw manifestations of something I read about recently, where players frequently experiment with items to try to find “creative” ways to use them, and expect the referee to accommodate them. (For example, rub a little healing potion on a wound and expect it to heal it.) One player had been captured and probably killed (as far as other players knew) by a fairly powerful monster; he was unconscious. In his backpack, wrapped up in a bag, he had a crystalline disk, about the size of a frisbee, that they picked up from some phraints (thri-keen). He wanted the disc to slip out of the bag, somehow, then out his backpack, and cut the monster in half! I just looked at him and said no, but he had already decided that there had to be a chance for it and rolled dice as though he was rolling for it. I told him, if I were to give you a roll for that, and I don't, you'd have to take 10 six sided dice and roll six on everyone. (The chances were actually MUCH worse than that, but it was enough for me to think he’d shut up. No, he proceeded to gather up 10 six sided dice and roll them. (Keep in mind, this lad is a freshman and appears to enjoy being an annoying younger brother.) It didn’t count, of course, and of course he didn’t come close to 10 sixes.
There was another player who was constantly trying to do tricks – what *he* called creative – with the dead kobold that he carried around on his back. He evinced astonishment whenever he couldn't do what he wanted, and at one point he even said “you’re interfering with my creativity.” Well, creativity has to be associated with reality, and many things he was trying to do just didn't make any sense. That's not creativity, that's brain fever.
Now I know that many younger people playing role-playing games indulge in this kind of so-called creativity all the time, but I won't have any of it. Creativity in problem-solving is desirable, but not when flying in the face of physics or other realities.
Another of the things he felt he ought to be able to do, is run away from some enemies who were beating on him (melee), then stop, turn around and shoot them in the face with his self bow. I said, these guys are right on top of you. You turn around and run away, when you turn back to shoot them they're gonna be there and they're going to break your bow with their weapons. If nothing else. He didn't seem to understand how that would be. Of course, in some game rules when you run away like that the opponents get a free attack on you and then you could pull off what you said. I was treating it like a realistic situation in this case - it was a playtest - and there was no way he could do this.
It was also a one-shot game rather than a campaign, so they didn't take it as seriously as they might have otherwise. At least they enjoyed it.
In olden days you had to “train” players to accept limitations. I suppose that’s true today as well, but contemporaries strongly dislike constraints, and often want this kind of game to be a playground, not a game where you have to earn something.
The “exigencies of life” (and hurricanes) have interfered with this blog. I still (until the past couple weeks) post a screencast (video) each Thursday on my “Game Design” YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign).
Several years ago I was reading a column in PC gamer written by Desslock, who has been writing about computer RPGs for many years. He likes skill-based development systems because players improve in the capabilities that they use rather than allocate experience points to whatever improvements they choose, perhaps being required to “train” in those new abilities. To him it makes much more sense that you improve in the things you actually do than those you train for.
Bear with me a while here as I veer into teaching and then back to RPGs. I agree, though as a teacher I recognize that a good teacher can convey their experience to enable someone to avoid the lessons of the “school of hard knocks”. I also recognize that it’s possible for someone to do something over and over but to do it poorly in a way that does not lead to improvement. But as I read I realized that, in the United States at least, a great many people believe that training is the best way or the only way to know how to do something. I remember one 18-year-old student telling me a few years ago that he and his classmates had been taught in high school that the only way to learn how to do something is to take class for it! This was a student in a game design class; OTOH I certainly never had the opportunity to take any game design classes but I do pretty well at it and know quite a bit about it.
Yet I see this attitude that classes are the only way to learn, institutionalized in our schools and colleges. The accreditation agencies that a accredit typical public and private colleges and universities in this country emphasize degrees as the major criterion of qualification for teachers. It does not matter if you have been teaching the subject for 30 years: that is explicitly disregarded. I was told about someone who had taught a subject for 32 years in a local high school and received a letter from the state telling him he was not qualified to teach it because he did not have a degree in that area. (Yet at the same time, in the same state, a large proportion of K12 teachers have no qualifications including no teaching certificate. These are lateral entry people who are allowed to teach up to three years before they need to get the teaching certificate.)
It does not matter, unless the school is willing to go through a lengthy portfolio process, that you (for example) worked in networking at a major medical center more than nine years before teaching networking classes. If you don’t have a networking degree you are not qualified to teach networking, even though networking degrees did not exist until about 15 years ago and consequently anybody who went to school before that could not possibly have a networking degree. (These are actual experiences, not theoretical.) One college president told me that a person with a PhD in zoology was deemed by the accreditation people to be not qualified to teach freshman biology - zoology and botany are the two major divisions of biology - and as a result the school terminated the teacher! If this had been anticipated, or the school had been willing to disagree and create a portfolio for the instructor, he almost certainly would have been deemed qualified. But schools are very rarely willing to go to this trouble.
So we get a situation where, for example, the founder of creative writing as a curriculum in universities later said it should be done away with. The major reason for this is that the people who have actually published novels and other kinds of creative writing that people pay money for, do not usually have Masters or PhD degrees in creative writing and so are “not qualified” to teach creative writing. The people who are officially qualified to teach creative writing have gone through creative writing programs but may not have had anything published commercially.
What we tend to get in colleges and universities for teachers is people who have gone through undergraduate school and then graduate school and have a Masters or PhD in their subject, but have never actually practiced it in the real world. For some subjects there is no way to practice it in the real world but others are very much practice based.
Given how this point of view has permeated schools, colleges, and universities, should we be surprised if role-playing games take the same sort of path? I always thought one of the dumbest rules in early versions of D&D was the requirement that when you reached enough experience points to rising level you had to pay somebody an exorbitant sum to “train” you to be able act at the new level. It was dumb from a gameplay point of view, because if applied as written it turned adventurers into money grubbers in order to acquire enough money for training. It was also dumb because if you have done the things that enabled you to survive and prosper then why would you need somebody to train you? (And we can ask the chicken and egg question, where did the original trainer come from? There must be a way to learn these things successfully without being trained.)
Computers are ideal for skill-based development because the computer can keep track of what you did and raise your capability as you go along. This is much more difficult to track in tabletop RPG’s.
Why aren't computer RPGs (especially MMOs)
as much FUN to play as old-time D&D?
Lewis Pulsipher (Originally written Oct 2009)
[This was originally completed in October 2009, but for various reasons has not seen the light of publication. Generally it still applies, but occasionally I’ll interject some comments in brackets from the perspective of 2016.]
Oh, but they ARE as much fun, you say? Yet I don't see much evidence of that. For so many people it seems like a lot of work especially in MMOs - "the grind" - aimed at rising in level. People don't enjoy the journey, they only enjoy the destination ("I'm 80th level!"). That's why there's a big market for sale of items and gold and even entire accounts for such games, the market addressed by "pharming". (More details later.)
How did this happen? We can observe that, in hard core video games in general, this "ennui" seems to be a problem (ennui: "a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom"). The journey isn't much fun. People brag that "I beat the game," often throwing in an impressively-short duration of play, or that "I made maximum level", but they don't appear to have enjoyed it. How many of the hard core say "did you enjoy playing?", instead they say "how long did it take you to beat the game?" They want the result, not the experience. It's as though a ten year old who wants to be wealthy when he's 60 would be happy to jump from 10 to wealthy 60 without experiencing the years in between.
Focus on “Leveling up” and lack of Group Play
Where games involve character levels, there are two possible reasons why this has happened. I played First Edition AD&D for 30 years starting in 1975; my highest level character made 14th, but the last two levels were from magic items and he never actually played higher than 12th, which is just as well because the game doesn’t handle 14th level at all well. Most of my many characters didn't make double figures of levels. It took a LONG time, many long adventures involving several people, to "level up". I recall one character that took ten adventures to reach second level. So of course, I played the game not to level up, but to enjoy the adventure - as we all did. (I can even remember discovering that a character had risen a level, but I hadn’t noticed because I’d not tallied the experience points from the past several adventures. “Leveling up” was not the objective.)
I knew a former WoW pharmer who said he could reliably go from 1st to 30th level in 16 hours. Nowadays in video games, it's quite easy to rise in level, and not surprisingly the objective of many players becomes rising in level rather than enjoying adventures. How many players say "I really enjoyed that game;" instead they say, "I made 80th level".
Perhaps much of the reason for this change in objective, and consequent change in enjoyment, is the solitary nature of MMOs and computer RPGs (something that has ended for folks who join guilds and participate in big raids). Face-to-face D&D is a social game, one that you enjoy with friends (or people who become your friends), one where much enjoyment is taken from the talk and activity between (and often during) the actual adventures, as well as from the adventures. This is only now starting to become common in MMOs and online RPGs. In times past, people playing alone didn't have other people to share their adventures with, to commiserate with, to recount old events. Lacking that, what could they do? Concentrate on "leveling up".
Too Much Like Work
But even in online games we find people doing more and more that seems like work. Nick Yee, then of Stanford University, wrote a journal article called "The Labor of Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play" published in 2006. He used data from over 35,000 surveys completed by MMO players. From the abstract:
Video games . . . transformation into work platforms and the staggering amount of work that is being done in these games often go unnoticed. Users spend on average 20 hours a week in online games, and many of them describe their game play as obligation, tedium, and more like a second job than entertainment. Using well-known behavior conditioning principles, video games are inherently work platforms that train us to become better game workers. And the work that is being performed in video games is increasingly similar to the work performed in business corporations. (Google "Nick Yee Labor of Fun" for a PDF of the article.)
Some of this “work ethic” may be because players pay to play the game, so they feel obligated to play even if they don’t enjoy it. But that’s a minor factor, as those who really don’t enjoy it will quit.
[Far fewer games are paid for these days, rather they’re free-to-play (F2P). Though many who play long enough to reach “max level” will still be spending money.]
Even when many people participate together, the experience of actually playing the game is rarely social. Listen to accounts of the big raids in MMORPGs. Every person is assigned a task (DPS ["damage per second"], healer, etc.); must do that task with precise timing; and does nothing else. Each person's experience is uni-dimensional, a cog in a machine rather than an independent actor. If a few people mess up their timing or role, the whole raid can fail. Because of the time pressure, there's no opportunity to think, to use strategy, or to enjoy what's happening once the raid starts.
Does that sound like fun? Contrast this with old D&D played at a leisurely pace, with lots of time to think and enjoy what's happening, where every character could act independently while keeping the good of the group as a whole in mind. [I suppose the key is the difference between “brainware”, using your brain to succeed in tabletop games, and “athleticware”, using your physical prowess to succeed in video games. There’s a lot more potential stress in athleticware.]
The "play" has become work to too many people. I remember talking with someone who was a major officer in a fantasy MMO guild for many months. He finally realized that it was work, that he wasn't enjoying it, that people treated him badly if he didn't do exactly what they wanted, or if the raids weren't successful. So he quit. There are similar examples in Yee's paper.
No Fear of Death
The other reason for the change in focus involves character death. In First Edition AD&D you actually feared character death. If you died, it hurt your constitution or your experience points, or both; at worst, you were dead and gone. In an MMO or standalone RPG, character death is generally something between a minor inconvenience and no trouble at all. Think about it, if death is not to be feared, it matters much less what you do during your play, and you can pay less attention to it. The details of play tend to blur because your full attention isn't required. (Megaman 9 (for example) shows how even a minor fear of death changes a game immensely. See http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=21324.)
The co-creator of D&D (Gary Gygax) put it this way in one of his last publications (Hall of Many Panes) “a good campaign must have an element of danger and real risk or else it is meaningless - death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game.”
"Pharming" highlights both sides of this problem. If people enjoyed playing the games, would they buy characters and items from pharmers? And if the games ordinarily required more than a dreary, predictable "grind", could pharmers produce enough such items for the demand? At the very least, the scale of pharming would be much smaller.
Obviously, a good human referee can provide more interesting adventures than a computer. Moreover, in D&D the actions of a character can change the future, whereas in MMOs that’s rarely the case because they’re designed for thousands of players. Once again, if what you do makes no difference, you’re less likely to pay attention to, and care about, what you do.
Similar Trends in Tabletop D&D
In tabletop Dungeons and Dragons itself we can see an evolution toward this same fixation on "leveling". Second edition D&D is much like First; Third Edition D&D (3.0) is a very different game, a kind of fantasy Squad Leader, with the emphasis on players finding ways to "minimax" the system via unearned advantages (such as myriad books and articles containing new feats, skills, and prestige classes). Each character can be a one-man army, very different from First Edition where "combined arms" cooperation was absolutely necessary to survival. In First Edition fighters cannot withstand the enemy without magic-users who deal massive damage to groups, and magic-users cannot survive if the enemy gets to melee range without protecting fighters. Characters must help each other out, and each kind of character class provides an important component of "combined arms" success. (Clerics provide defensive magic and medical help, rogues provide scouting and stealth, etc.) It is rather like American football, with fighters as linemen, clerics as linebackers, rogues as wide receivers and secondary, and magic-users as quarterback and running backs. Just as a football team will fail if some of its parts fail, the First Edition adventure party will fail if some of its members fail.
In Third Edition, every character type is designed to survive pretty well on its own. Part of this evolution is attributable to the reduction in size of the typical adventuring group. One of "Lew's laws" is "the survivability of an adventuring group varies with the square of the number of characters in it". Our First Edition parties averaged seven or eight characters; Third Edition specifies four. 3.5 is essentially the same. When there are only four characters, there's rarely a practical way to prevent the enemy from getting to the magic-user(s), who must then be able to cast spells in the face of melee opposition, who must be harder to kill, and so forth. Fighters, with the proper feats, can kill several ordinary enemies in one blow. And with "buffs" from the spell-casters, a fighter can take on a ridiculous number of monsters.
Further, you are supposed to rise a level in about 11 encounters, and could have several encounters in one adventure. In other words, leveling can occur so often that leveling can become the objective, rather than focus on enjoying the adventure. When I set out to convert some First Edition characters to Third, the first thing I did was double their level to be at a near-comparable place in progression. The game was also designed to scale up to 20th level (and later 40th), whereas First Edition starts to break down when characters got well into double figure levels.
Fourth Edition D&D is for larger adventuring parties, and characters have many powers that only help other people in the party, not themselves. It appears to be designed to encourage groups to work together. Character "roles" have been added to emphasize cooperation and "combined arms". Individual characters are very hard to kill, but don't have a lot of offensive capability. Yet the general take on Fourth Edition is that it has been "WoW-ified", made to be more like World of Warcraft, with easy leveling and all the other things that have made WoW so widely popular. Fourth Edition may be a good game, but it's not D&D.
[Fifth edition D&D is much like First, except that it’s much harder to get killed because of easy healing and spells such as Revivify at third level cleric.]
Is this “bad”?
Is it "bad" that people play for the destination rather than the journey? In and of itself, no - every person has his own reasons for playing a game, and those reasons vary drastically. These people can enjoy the game, even if they're not having fun. Yet when the result is something that's more like work than play, you have to wonder what is wrong. Yee quotes a registered nurse who played Everquest: "We spend hours - HOURS - every SINGLE day playing this damn game. My fingers wake me, aching, in the middle of the night. I have headaches from the countless hours I spend staring at the screen. I hate this game, but I can’t stop playing. Quitting smoking was NEVER this hard." Maybe there IS something wrong here.
Further, when games are designed to emphasize leveling up, those who want to "enjoy the journey" are left behind. Is there anything game designers can do to help restore the fun? We can’t quite put the creativity of human referees into computer games. But already in some games, what a character does changes the world according to his view of it. (What the players do very much affects EVE Online.)
We're in "the age of instant gratification". Levels are easy to earn because video gamers expect to be rewarded at every turn. 30 years ago, experience points and the occasional magic item were sufficient reward; now expectations have been raised, and levels are the expected reward. If a designer takes away those easy levels, will people play any more? What a difficult situation! I've designed many commercially published or forthcoming boardgames, but I've only once tried to design a role-playing game - though it was a board game, not a typical RPG - and now I wouldn't even contemplate it because of the problems I’ve described.
Games are entertainment, not Life
Younger readers might howl that video games are NOT easy. Yet most long-time players recognize that, generally speaking, it's typically a lot easier to succeed at a video game than it was decades ago. Death has no sting, games are automatically saved for you, heck, some games even aim your gun for you! I'm not saying that easier is "bad", because it's what the market requires, so that people don't have to work for their entertainment; yet somehow, the entertainment has become too much like work for the hard core players, even when they're successful.
Fundamentally, then, it may be that these games aren't as fun as old D&D can be because they are designed to stroke the egos of pseudo-competitive people who think they've accomplished something important when they reach maximum level. Good D&D players know better. I remember a teenager who had an "18th level magic user", but had no clue how to play it well. He may have made it up (rather like buying an account, but much cheaper!), or he may have played with a "Monty Haul" referee. Your level didn't say anything about how well you played, and for that matter nobody outside your little group cared how well you played–you weren’t competing with the rest of the world. We played to have fun, not to brag about our level or our loot (though we surely enjoyed such things when we attained them).
"Casual" players in general, and Nintendo among major publishers, haven't forgotten that games are entertainment. You don't prove anything about your worth by being a "bad ass gamer", you don't help your family, your friends, your country, your world. Commercial video games are not training for life, they're a pause from life if not an escape from life. It just doesn't matter whether you "beat the game", or how quickly you beat the game, any more than it matters whether you complete a crossword puzzle or Rubik's Cube. Casual players know that; some hard core players seem to have forgotten it, and those are often the people who "grind", who don't enjoy the journey, because they think "beating the game" is truly important even as the rest of us wonder where they got such an unrealistic, immature notion.
The Video Game Notion of “Bosses”, and Why it Doesn’t Apply to Tabletop
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
A Little History
Jeffro Johnson asked me if I’d used the monsters I contributed to the Fiend Folio back in the 70s, as “bosses”
Most of them were minor monsters, but the Princes of Elemental Evil are the most powerful, and most lasting
Recently for D&D 5e, an entire large adventure module was titled after these guys
I told Jeffro that no, my campaigns were never high enough level for the Princes
Though I ran into them once as a player – and we 9th-11th level characters “fled posthaste”
Made Me Realize . . .
I have never thought in terms of "boss monsters" in tabletop D&D, that's a video game mentality.
I tend to use numerous monsters (with several different kinds) at a climax rather than one super monster "boss“
It varies, of course.
But in tabletop D&D, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a "save game" to go back to
Video game bosses are designed to kill you many times before you succeed.
You can't play tabletop RPGs that way.
No Save Game?!
So a video game “boss” tends to be much tougher than the monster(s)-met-at-a-climax in tabletop RPGs
Video gamers would be disappointed if, almost every time they hit a climax, they won first time
They’d feel cheated
It’s a matter of expectations, as much as of game functionality
Of course, there are many ways that tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs, because of the lack of Save Games
So “bosses” are really a video game phenomenon, too dangerous for tabletop RPGs. You can’t lose a computer RPG, thanks to save games, but you can “lose” a Tabletop RPG, by dying.
Additional note: Much of the disagreement about game design in general can be laid to semantics, as people say the same words and mean different things. It's very common. We cannot even agree on the definition of the word "game".
For me, the boss is "the bad-ass monster at the end of the level." That's common in video games, and while less common in tabletop RPGs, that may be because the level-orientation (even though it came from tabletop RPGs) is less strong on the tabletop. I suspect that I'm influenced by level-oriented shooters as well, which may be more extreme than other kinds of video games.
I first saw Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. At the time my favorite game was Diplomacy, a seven player cutthroat diceless wargame. I said to myself at the time, “I hate dice games.” But of course it turned out that D&D was not a dice game, rather it was a microcosm of life where you do what you can to reduce the number of times when you have to rely on the dice to save your butt. Smart people do the same thing in life, trying to reduce the number of times when they have to get lucky.
So in 1975 I started playing the game. I settled on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as my game of choice and that has been true until this year. I have never seen a need to switch to a newer edition because the newer editions had a different zeitgeist that I did not approve of. I did play and even referee third edition and I played fourth edition.
I’ve read lots of RPG rules and seen various games being played, but I never saw a need to change from first edition because I could modify it to suit whatever I needed. I am not a lover of games, I am a lover of particular games, and I tend to stick to those particular games. I have never been susceptible to the “cult of the new.” Why bother to learn new rules and new ways of doing things when I’m fully satisfied with what I’ve got? 1e D&D is a simple game despite the great mass of standard rules when compared with games like Rolemaster, but it provides enough detail to treat the game as a wargame rather than as merely a story (FATE is largely story, for example, though not necessarily a story imposed by the referee/DM).
Typically I set up situations to challenge the players rather than guide them along a particular story; I want the players to write their own story within the context that I provided.
I usually create my own settings, but the one commercial setting I was most interested in is Spelljammer, despite its inconsistencies. I’ve partly devised an alternative set of rules for a Spelljammer-like game, and I have a couple of board games in mind related to the same kind of setting.
Because I’ve been satisfied with D&D, I have only once attempted to design a separate RPG. And that RPG is a very limited set of rules to be used in a boardgame. The idea was to substitute programmed instruction for a referee, but I’ve never got far enough to try doing that because I have great doubts that it can be done reasonably.
On the other hand I’ve written a great many additions to D&D - at one time I was going to write a formal “supplement” (as they were called before AD&D) for Games Workshop that fell through when they lost their distribution rights for D&D in the United Kingdom. Among the additions is a 23,000 word set of D&D Army rules that scales from small groups (a few hundred) two armies of many tens of thousands. I used that a lot in my own campaign, and someday I’ll include it in a book with reprints of some of my many articles from Dungeon and White Dwarf magazines among others. There are unpublished character classes to include as well. So I wrote a lot of RPG stuff but as variants of D&D rather than separate games.
I have been extremely impressed with the professionalism and quality of rules writing and rules creation for the fifth edition of D&D. (Keep in mind, any set of rules running for hundreds of pages will have weak spots.) The ridiculously easy healing rules (a manifestation of 21st century reward-based gaming instead of 20th century consequence-based gaming) ruin the game (for me) as written, but it’s easy enough to remove the Revivify spell and some of the easy healing rules. (For those not yet familiar with the terms, in reward-based gaming, players expect to be rewarded, for participation, just because they're playing the game. Failure is not an option. In the extreme, if they fail they blame the game. In consequence-based gaming, players are expected to earn their rewards, and failure is a real (if uncommon in FRPGs) possibility.?)
But I have to say I have not played fifth edition yet, I’m still working my way through the Monster Manual having read the other two. I tend to feel I ought to spend my time on my own board and card game designs rather than on playing D&D, but that can change.
Some of the excellent additions to the game are advantage and disadvantage, and attunement of magic items. The first is a great simplifier, and the second helps solve the problem of characters with bags of powerful magic items. Even little things like the change so that no one has to keep track over long periods of how many charges there are in a magic item are an indication of the thought put into the game. Of course, the writers had 40 years of role-playing game experience to draw on.
[Revised, from the original post on Blogspot, in light of comments on Google+]
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