Saturday, August 3, 2013

Remedying Action Hero Syndrome



A lot of trouble I've run into with players whose first introduction to the game is with third or fourth edition, or those that have never played before but were raised on a steady diet of single hero action adventure and RPGs on their console of choice.  In these particular games, and in fourth edition in particular player characters have a certain level of expected invulnerability.  These expectation continue in game design where a common assumption is that encounters should be matched to the power level of the players, that things should be fair.  Anyone playing an Old school or OSR game will know that is almost always never the case.

There's actually a good thread over on ENworld talking about expectations between tactical and strategic.  Mainly whether you treat combat as war or combat as sport.  In an old school game your goal is to get as many advantages as you can using resources through the gameworld.  In a newer edition (sport) you are assembling advantages through the rules-set and less emphasis is placed on accruing in-game advantages.  It's a long and very well thought out thread I suggest you check it out and it's successor.



Now I'd like to take a moment to examine single hero video games and the impact it has on player perceptions as they walk into a game.  In recent years the Elder Scrolls series has accrued a popularity bordering on fanatical; its basic premise is you against the world.  It is a massive open world game where you can go around and do whatever you want, so long as what you want involves walking around a lot and encountering endless streams of hostile encounters but I'm not here to talk about limited choice and content.  In these games the character can develop in any way they want, certainly a very admirable development as it allows anyone build the character they want.  The problem arises with the lack of limits where characters can continuously develop so that they are great at everything (caveat: older games in the series have a more arcane leveling system that does make certain limits in progression).

This is fine if the intent of the game is for only a single legendary character, however, it develops a certain mindset one that I've been encountering quite often recently.  In this mindset player's seek to build characters that are or can be great at everything and are frustrated when they cannot, or other players are frustrated when their archetypal territory is being stepped on.  Fourth edition attempted to tackle this with roles, putting character classes into a specific role that is meant to be great at one thing with serious limitations or deficiencies in others.  I cannot comment on to the success of their attempt nor do I have a desire to go down that rabbit hole.  However, I do think archetypes and roles have their place although I'm not sure how clearly defined and stressed the rules system should place on it.  The original three classes had enough restrictions that made their roles clear without adding another layer of rules implied or otherwise.

Next up I'd like to take a look at the Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) series of games.  These in particular have in-game mechanics that seriously stress the importance of the main character being great at everything.  Here's a few reasons why.  The persuasion skill, then later on Mind Trick and Dominate Mind force powers are only usable by the main character.  This means that if you want access to a number of dialogue trees, one of the biggest selling points of the game your character must be a smooth talker.  Next up is Computer Use and Security (lockpicking).  Computer Use is for hacking into various terminals to produce neat effects, the higher your skill the less Computer Spikes (a limited resource used in hacking and frequently a pain to find) you need to use.  So it is extremely advantageous to have a character to be skilled with computers for some very fun in-game interactions.  There are other characters capable of using this skill unlike Persuasion, your utility droid in particular, however there are plenty of times where your computer slicing companion is a far less optimal choice.

Many of the locations require a mix of diplomacy, technical skills, and straight up combat so choosing the right companion is very important aspect.  Ordinarily I would call this great game design, you are forcing the player to choose who to bring along from a rotating cast, the problem arises when you want to take your favorite companions along or you are reluctant to take along one companion because they have fallen behind the others in effectiveness (see Jedi vs Non-Jedi, and the relative inadequacy of droids).  When you have certain characters you want to bring along with you that leaves your character to pick up the slack left by your allies.  For many this meant that you, the main character was a smooth talking, computer wizard, cat burgling, force wizard.  Given the ease of optimization in the d20 system it was easily possible for your main character to be capable of not only all of these but to be great at all of them.


Again this is fine in a single player game when the designers are intentionally building you up as some legendary hero (or villain) but it introduces some baggage into cooperative games.  If a computer/console game based on a pen and paper rules set allows you to create a one man army with little to no downside, when the default state of most single player games is to have the player be the hero and everyone else nothing more than a (often incompetent) supporting cast it breeds a very different mindsets in players then what many in the OSR are used to.  Cautious and crafty players are becoming the exemption rather than the rule, the vast majority I've encountered in my own games and in one shots I run at cons are what I would call action heroes.  Players who expect to play, to be spared humiliating deaths (Odysseus couldn't have died at sea ,a fine hero like that can only die a heroes death) and to ultimately succeed.  To be granted powers that place them well above the common man and to have adventures supply them with exploits rather than earning it themselves.  I think the crux of the problem is expectation, OSR players and DMs expect to earn their reputation and fame and fortune the hard way.  Newer players expect the world to give them a fair shake, no overwhelming odds or logical lethality, things should be challenging without being daunting and success is all but preordained the question is how you get there rather than will we get there.

Next up I want to look at how I've broached this in my current game.

Find  Part 2 here and Part 3 here.