One half of a gift for my friends at Wyrmhole Gaming, the Call of the Elements gladiatorial ring from their game Darkstar.
Computers operate on a principle of order. Events occur either as pre-determined by the designers or according to a series of AI if/then commands created by the programmer.
Humans do not operate on a principle of order.
In Saturday’s Dead House game, our team was sent in to take out an immensely powerful lich whose activities had been the driving force behind the majority of the campaign since before I joined Wyrmhole Gaming‘s alpha testers. The past couple months had been spent interfering with his efforts to gain more power and picking off some of his more bothersome supporters, but time had run out. This was The Boss Fight. We had the entire might of vampire-run House Valu backing us up, running interference with an international army at their disposal to keep the millions of relatively minor nasties off our backs whilst our team of quixotic badasses went after the puppet master, himself. There were a series of challenges to get through, of course — magical shields, an army of undead puppets, several death knights, the lich’s right-hand man and his protegés sitting in a magic-null trap — but we finally located and destroyed the lich’s phylactery before zeroing in on the boss himself.
Now up until this point, this is a fairly routine main campaign climactic battle, and you could find similar formulae in pretty much any game on the market. So of course, this is the point at which Routine decided it had done a hard day’s work and settled down with a cup of chamomile to watch the rest of the show.
Our target was awaiting our arrival in a chamber filled with bones, clearly intent on using what remained of our life forces to add to his world-ending ritual. In any computer-controlled game, you’d get a nice cutscene with some taunting and watch in horror as the lich forms that pile of bones into a massive construct, which you’ll then need to take apart piece by piece.
One of our team members, however, was feeling a little miffed at an earlier casting attempt getting stuffed by the lich, and interrupted the cutscene by out-rolling the lich and interrupting the spell.
Not everyone likes cutscenes.
Bones rain down from the half-formed construct like hailstones, sending brittle shards flying. The lich discovers the meaning of fear and attempts to run for the exit. The rest of the fight is over within a couple of turns, the mage looks downright chuffed as nuts — as he damn well has a right to be, all things considered — and the citadel crumbles in on itself, its structure being sustained purely by the lich’s force of will. The team retires to the bar to nurse their bruises and celebrate the cancellation of the necromantic apocalypse, although a shadow of unanswered questions looms over the merriment, leaving many wondering if this was only a small aspect of something worse to come. To be continued….
To those who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of tabletop gaming, this probably sounds anticlimactic. I’ve run my share of raids in LotRO and City of Heroes, and battles on this scale can take hours to complete. In fact, they’re designed to require an extensive amount of time and all of the party’s reserves, so that mission completion feels rewarding, that the players have tested themselves to the limits. The same is true in single-player games: I remember the first time I successfully dragged my party, staggering, depleted, and badly injured across the board, out of the Deep Roads back to Orzammar. It felt like they’d been run through the worst wringer in the world, and been handed a challenge they very nearly did not overcome.
Why on earth would you want a system that could potentially be almost too easy if the right events occur, when you can have that massive fist-pump moment of success? Because the computer-generated system is flawed.
I don’t mean that in a negative way, actually. But the computer is predictable.
Players — particularly the logic-driven, number-crunching, infovoric ones I’ve known from EVE — figure out the algorithms. It never takes long for guides to show up online. I once spent hours on a puzzle in a game the first time I went through it, and eventually had to look up a guide online because I was well and truly stuck. Recently, I did the same puzzle in ten minutes, not because I had the guide to hand (I lost the URL in the intervening years) or because I remembered the sequence, but because I applied a bit of logic and scribbled a bit on a piece of paper. In fact, the result I got was a good five steps shorter than what the guide had shown.
With a computer-run game or raid which can be run multiple times, this is a failing. After the first run or two, people learn the system and it’s no longer the challenge it’s intended to be. Oh, it may still be challenging — and this is why a number of games offer the ability to increase the difficulty rating — but it’s mechanical. It’s systematic. “Do X, don’t do Y, and watch out for Z. Repeat three times and do the hokey pokey.”
Some designers are making an effort to spice things up a bit. AI is getting more complex and responsive to player actions and stats — for which we should be praising the long-suffering AI programmers who’ve worked their arses off to make certain the system functions as it should — and sometimes the NPCs are given the ability to legitimately fight back, negating attack attempts in-progress and seeing through stealth actions. But there are still limitations to what the players are able to do; for example, there was no way for a player to shut down a wormhole during a Sansha’s Nation incursion live event in EVE Online — normal wormholes you can overload and collapse, but the incursion ones were static non-interactables. Likewise, there’s no way to hack and shut down a Sleeper installation before your friends get shredded in EVE’s wormhole-space systems.
Live game masters have the potential to be more flexible and more innovative than a pre-programmed computer-run game. That isn’t to suggest they WILL be more flexible all of the time; sometimes a GM will get fed up with players’ attempts to improvise around a certain challenge and enforce the game either by saying, “You just can’t do that,” or by causing something to happen which forces the players to follow the script. Guess which approach will lead to fewer arguments, though? A computer game tells players “You can’t do that” all the time, but when a living person says it, it makes the railroading more unwelcome.
There’s a lot to be said in favour of a pre-set system, of course. Chaotic systems can lead to short fights being drawn-out as the players end up being out-rolled by minor mooks, who are subject to the GM’s very human — and thus, unpredictably inventive — problem-solving abilities. Ordered systems limit the adversaries’ options and can cause them to make decisions which benefit the game designers’ goals, rather than enabling them to make tactical calls which would severely hamper the players — frequently, a programmed NPC will make the heaviest-armoured character their primary target, while a human making the same decision would likely call it on the lighter-armoured magic-users and rogue types. And pre-programmed NPCs often do not run away even when clearly outclassed — they may duck behind a wall to recover some health, but it’s rare for a computer-controlled NPC to run out of the room to call in reinforcements. Computers don’t have much of a sense of self-preservation.
We could run last night’s event a second time, with the same characters, and I can guarantee you that it would be different. Someone else might get the initiative roll first. Someone might not have failed a perceptions check and avoided being kicked off a roof. Success and failure, determined by die rolls as players decide which skill to use given the results. I was rolling badly — as usual, unfortunately — which limited my options, but if my luck had been better, maybe some of my lesser-used skills would have seen some action. When you play a computer game, you’re stuck into a pre-set scenario: walls cannot be blasted through, pre-scripted events can’t be arrested, set pieces cannot be picked up and used as weapons. For that matter, other characters cannot be picked up and used as weapons — throwing NPCs into each other as a result of using various effects might happen, but they aren’t going to have the same bludgeoning stats as two team mates with blades out being swung by the ankles by a spectre with anger management issues.