Tabletop Lessons: Transparent Encounter Mechanics

Posted: March 21, 2008 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

I’m a product of tabletop gaming.  For years, I’d spend a few nights each month huddled behind a gamemaster’s screen, poring over charts and dice rolls, determining whether or not one of the player characters made the jump or fell to the street below; whether a player character’s ‘mech managed to get a long range lock; whether the system ICE was alerted to the decker’s hacking attempt.

Though I certainly spend a great deal more time in MMO’s these days than I do around the kitchen table, it doesn’t mean I think one medium is far and away better than the other.

One way tabletop gaming had it right was in transparent mechanics.

If you sat down at a table with me to play one of the dozen or so Mechwarrior campaigns I’ve run over the years, you’d know the same rules I did.  House rules were generally acknowledged and agreed upon by the entire group, so that everyone with a character sheet in front of them knew what to expect from the actual mechanics.  They knew the amount of damage a Sternschnacht heavy pistol could potentially produce and they understood which skill was required to use the sidearm in the first place.  They understood what number would be required to hit their target, and we all knew what I could have the target do in turn to increase the odds in its favor.

There were no random crazy ridiculous events that made little to no sense.  I didn’t god mode out the NPC’s.  Player characters died from time to time, and that mattered, but at least they understood the mechanics which lead to their untimely demises.

This is generally not the case in MMO’s.  Most average players of most MMO’s have little to no idea what numbers are being rolled to show that their sword hit the monster, or what numbers the monster then rolled to try to avoid, block, reflect, avoid again, or eventually mitigate the actual damage from your sword in the first place.  Most players have no idea why a sword which is listed to perform 8-12 damage just hit that monster for 234 damage.

Most players will never know these things.  To be fair, most players don’t need to.

It’s part of the point of modern MMO’s that players not be bogged down in the mechanics, so they can concentrate on the gameplay and storylines.  It’s not about rolling dice these days, so much as it is about making decisions.

…or is it?

Many players in MMO’s often complain about an inability to perform X with class Y.  Sometimes, a more senior player of class Y will step in to offer up advice, which generally relates to the game mechanics.  Maybe you have outdated gear.  Maybe you chose achievements/talents/skills that aren’t ideal.  Maybe you’re not using your abilities in the best order.

How did this senior player learn these things?  Perhaps from other senior players, but at some point, some player had to dig into the meat of the game – someone had to start figuring out the mechanics.  Generally speaking, chances are fairly good that this was done without the direct aid of the developers or in-game documentation.

Now, I’ll admit that I love to dig into the numbers behind a system, but as a general rule, I don’t think this should require 3rd party tools that the average player may not even realize exist.  I think the difficulty should be inherent in the encounter and not in the mystery of the mechanics, treated as some sort of hidden message privy only to a hallowed few elite players who put in the time and effort to actually time attacks and who utilize applications such as ACT (Advanced Combat Tracker) to announce warnings in advance.

Does it take skill to learn how to take advantage of ACT in Everquest II?  Sure it does.  However, why is it that so many top guilds rely upon such applications just to complete encounters?  Are we playing against the monsters in these games, or simply following a script which is read to us in digitally rendered text-to-speech by player built applications?  Is the difficulty in the encounter itself, or in learning how to use the application to handle the encounter?

I’ve touched on this in the past when I admitted that I’m an avid parser.  I actually love ACT, and gladly sing the praises of the player who created the application in the first place (thank you, Aditu!).  That doesn’t mean I think that such an application should have been needed in the first place.

Perhaps it’s that heavy pen-and-paper gaming background I mentioned that’s showing through here, but in my ideal MMO, I see the encounters actually telegraphing upcoming events to all the players of a specific encounter.  Give the players a chance to react to the event within the mechanics of the encounter itself – rather than having some players relying heavily upon tools like ACT to inform them of such events in the first place.

To touch on my earlier example, if you were one of my players sitting around my kitchen table (beer’s in the fridge, get it yourself), you’d have a pretty good idea that the Horror is about to unleash some kind of massive attack because you’d get a subtle head’s up from me in the description of the combat round:

“The crystalline form begins to take on a red hue, and a high pitched whine begins to emanate from the creature.”

Someone in the group might ask if their character can understand what’s going on, and I might have them make a roll on the subject against whatever class or knowledge skills they have available to their characters.  It’s possible they have no idea what’s going on, or it’s possible their character remembers overhearing stories from their Uncle Boris back in the old country years ago which talked about this sort of thing.  Whatever the case, the players understand that something bad’s probably about to happen, and they probably react accordingly, either finding cover, casting spells of protection, pulling out laser shields, or whatever the case may be.

The point is, they’ve been forewarned that something different is about to happen, and they have a chance to react to the change.

Very few – precious few encounters in modern MMO’s do this sort of thing, especially in raid encounters.  Today, most raids are fairly militaristic, almost scientific affairs.  Many raid forces rely on voicechat (even in games without integrated voicechat), and utilize third party timer mods/apps (every 45 seconds, the breath attack fires, so most of the raid moves out of the room for 10 seconds right before that happens), log parsers (some targets trigger effects if it starts to take damage too quickly, so real time damage-per-second analysis is necessary), or just mods which outright give instructions according to certain scripts (“you are the bomb!”).

The game quickly becomes less about playing the game, and more about playing the scripts.  Players aren’t reacting to events.  They’re forecasting events because they know the script.  They aren’t looking up to see the in-game text fly by in one of the 4-6 chat windows they have set up…because the application they’re using is looking for that text already.

What I’d like to see are more on-screen warnings.  I want big text to appear that says the dragon hesitates a moment and begins to inhale (with accompanying character animation, if possible).  I want an on-screen warning that gives me a bit of a heads up that an area of effect spell is about to go off, because my character (you know, the guy on the screen) would probably see this – even if I (you know, the guy in the comfy desk chair) does not.

Does this mean I want all encounters trivialized?  No, not at all.  If this is trivialization, realize it’s already occurring – just outside of the context of the game, using legal 3rd party applications.  These are bots or macro programs I’m talking about here, but legitimate applications which simply read through reams of text in real time to let us know X has happened/is happening/is about to happen.

There’s no real problem with this for players who are using the tools already.  The problem is for the players who bought the game and want to enjoy the game as is…without having to rely upon add-ons or mods.  Can a guild complete top end raid encounters without the aid of outside tools?  I’d doubt it.  Even if it’s just voicechat or timers, I can’t imagine any raid guild using just the base UI with no additional tools to hit high end encounters at all.

Because learning the encounters isn’t just about fighting and dying.  It’s often about timing and parsing.  It’s the difference between guilds which look through the logs and guilds which wonder why they keep getting creamed.

Is that playing the game…or playing the script?

I’m an advocate for less barriers to play for more casual players.  I enjoy raiding and would prefer to see it as less of a niche activity.  I’d prefer to see half of a playerbase raiding – but that’s simply not going to happen if the artificial barriers remain in place.

There’s nothing wrong with “casual raiding”.  The concept is not an self-contradictory.

I don’t want dumbed down raiding, mind you.  I just want raiding/grouping that makes sense within the context of the game’s framework. Sometimes, I think that means remembering what made the game fun when we huddled around those GM screens.

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