Computer games reviews and ramblings on games and gaming, from a gamer, roleplayer and LARPer.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What is a CRPG? Part 4

Would you like to run along a mountain path, through the hardy evergreen forest, hearing the wind hiss around the spiny leaves, reach the cliff edge, take the spit second decision: do I face what's chasing me, or jump and hope I hit the river and survive the fall?

Or would you like a copy of Excel, because you can have that if you want.

The big problem with CRPGs is that they grew from Tabletop -or Pen and Paper, if you prefer- RPGs, which need to use highly visible stats to resolve challenges and conflicts. Because the first CRPGs simply ported the numbercrunching and plusones from the tabletop to the screen, an obsession has ingrained itself in the inds of some CRPG players that those numbers are the essence of roleplaying games.

The thing is, the beauty of computer gaming is that it can take all the stuff that we need to do by hand to create the game experience on the tabletop, and hide it away from us. Yes stat progression is good, but do we have to see it? No, not any more, we certainly don’t have to obsess over it. What we need to see is the world, and our effect on it. One of my favourite Oblivion mods is one that makes all levelling happen automatically, feeding off the already organic, practice based system the Elder Scrolls games use. I never look at my skills page anymore

For a CRPG to be good it does not have to have an exhaustive stat manipulation screen, it has to have either a solid, well presented narrative where the player's choices matter (or don't matter, but in a dramatic fashion, but this is a musing which will have to become another post) or enough freedom for emergeant narrative to grow from the gameplay, or a good combination of both. Add to that a well imagined setting...

Actually, about setting: even a well presented fantasy soup is fine, but can someone please give me a good fantasy RPG without the words 'elf', 'dwarf' or 'orc'. I mean, you can still have the willowy magic users (eg. Feyron, willowkin, imagii?), stocky racial crafters (Hearth clan? Axe lords?) and hairy brutes who hate everything (RGPCodexers!), but at least call them something different. The elder Scrolls, for example, would be much improved by sticking to the '$mer' nomenclature and dropping the bog standard names.


  1. Yeah, I emphatically agree with that. To me the strength of tabletop RPGs in general is the 'role-playing' aspect. The numbers are there as a necessary abstraction crutch and one can have a preference towards the more system-light or -heavy end - that's a personal sort of thing.

    But the 'role-play' is the core there, and it's slightly bizarre that it's come to mean 'watching numbers go up' on video games.

  2. If it's an elf, call it an elf. I find that much less jarring than some lengthy circumlocution.

    There is something reassuring about a bit of stat-wank from time to time, I think, but yeah - computer games can do all that for you, so why do they get all up in our collective faces about it?

  3. Part of the reason I've tailed off playing CRPGs is how intimdating I find the stat screen. I am not a player who cares about building the ultimate warrior, mage or thief - but all too many of them seem to require you to at least build the _right_ one, which in turn requires more numbers and pre-planning of skills than I am comfortable with. I want to just click on whatever skills look interesting - sure, they should try to complement each other, but I have played games where, having got to level 10, I have discovered that the game is all but un-completable because I didn't number-crunch my character to get The Only Acceptable Thief Build.

    To this day I've never got far in Planescape: Torment, even though I really enjoyed it and wanted to play more, because I found via internet help guides that the only way to get all the plot out of the game was to stat yourself with high INT and WIS - i.e., as a mage. And I cannot _stand_ playing a mage in a D&D setting, I find it boring and frustrating. So I've got a choice between playing a class I hate or missing half the plot, and I had no way of knowing that when I started the game, so either way, I probably have to start over...

  4. I don't think stat juggling is necessary for a crpg but, for me, it's one of the things I enjoy most about the genre.

    Roleplaying is in many respects about being able to make meaningful choices; choices that affect your narrative position in world are difficult and expensive to produce, whilst choices that affect the PC's mechanical interaction with the world are comparatively cheap. It's no suprise then that its this latter type of choice that has come to define 'rpg elements' in gaming, even though it's the former that are more important in PnP rpgs.

  5. I agree with Joe that the stat-stuff can be a fun and enjoyable element. Certainly playing about with different things that you can achieve through making different 'stat' choices is great fun.

    I just don't think it should ever be considered the core of the experience. Just an aspect of the 'choice' thing.

  6. The habit of EVERY fantasy setting to have Orcs Elves and Dwarves in it, has almost driven me away from the genre. I now loathe mention of elves with a burning passion (with a rare exception of Dragon age which leaves them as impoverished serfs and slaves, clinging to a distant memory of being something better trapped in a human dominated world)

    Whilst I agree that auto-levelling has its perks and that number crunching is not what RPGs should be about, there is a caveat I would like to add.

    When my character does develop, I would like some choice as to how that happens. Talent trees and buying up stats are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this choice and roleplay games should be about choice. However they are not the only way to choose.

    The original Deus Ex had an augmentations system that provided this choice as part of the game world. Similarly some fantasy games require you to purchase spells or find a trainer to unlock specialisations. These can be visible to an extent, but do not need to show the stats involved.

    You could also have a game which gives you a basic set of things you can do (Bow-use, conversation, sneaking etc...) allocates skill points invisibly based upon which of these you use and how you use them. So using your bow in combat invisibly increases your bow stats but not any other weapon stats. Likewise if you continually sneak around and hit people from behind you can gain a backstabbing skill experience that opens up more options. Or your conversation options can make you more practised at intimidation or persuasion based on what you say to people.

    On the other hand, one of the reasons that stats are still used is because they give a very tangible sense of achievement in terms of the Skinner Box (Put effort in, get visible reward out)

  7. That's largely what I was describing in paragraph 4, Veritas.

  8. Which mod do you use to fix the Oblivion levelling system? The only one I found was plastered with warnings of "Do not download this, its bugs mean you will never gain stats". Also, does it fix the way the game scales with your level number, rather than with your capability?

    "Elf" and "orc" are words which have meaning; asking for a fantasy RPG without those words is like asking for one without "sword" or "cuir bouilli". Certainly, you could arrange such an RPG ("Nah, mate, that's a swing blade."), but you don't gain much other than "Our elves are different!" by re-naming things. Now, asking for a fantasy RPG without elves is different, and probably worthwhile, but the various -mer of the Elder Scrolls are elves. Trying to avoid the word would just come across as slightly strained.

    As for stat systems, one idea common to many RPGs is that your choices should affect the character. It's much easier to avoid messing this up when the choices are explicit ("How would you like to allocate these skill points?"). Systems based on character actions have to work quite hard to avoid frustration ("So, I need to hit things with my sword to level my sword skill. I need sword skill to hit things with my sword. Wah.") or grindy behaviour ("The optimal course of action here is to sit on my bed casting a spell to damage my own hitpoints. Guess I'd best get to it."). Arguably a good action-based levelling system beats any explicit levelling system, but I'll gladly choose a few talents every hour to avoid playing with a bad action-based system.

  9. I do like Numbers Go Up; it's part of the fun of CRPGs for me, because having a reward based on the character's self-improvement is great fun in addition to being rewarded with being able to access more plot.

    However, I'd much rather have it presented in a less abstracted, more world-integrated fashion - Oblivion is good for this with its "Your Armourer skill has increased; you can now repair chainmail as well as leather" is a good example.

  10. @JCRooney
    Read 'The Steel Remains' by Richard Morgan (read it anyway, it's amazing) for an example of a fantasy setting the ticks all the boxes without the same tired old Tolkien conventions.

    If you want a guide to CRPGs that will make you happy on this score, look for the internet whining and the accusations of not being an RPG, there you will find it. Examples include Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 2, any other game that attempts to streamline the stats in favour of the story.

    @ JoeSmoke
    The problem is that when games come out where the developers have tried to focus on, to use the LARP term, uptime choices and reduce the reliance on numberwang, there is a chorus of disapproval from the peanut gallery and it results in people actually stating in writing that RPGs are about numbers, not roleplay.

    I use nGCD, it makes it possible to literally play the whole game without looking at your stats page once, yet you still level up and become noticably better at the tings you do. It's great.

    I'll repeat my advice to read Richard Morgan for a race who resemble elves but belong in the world that the Author has created. The pointy eared ranger is only an elf because Tolkien called him one, he does fuck-all to help santa.