Are You Experienced?

I play games; a lot of games. Many of the games I play are computer games. Some of those are of the broad category called “Role-Playing Games,” or RPGs. There are many definitions of this, but a simplified one is: if it sounds sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, it’s a role playing game. I’ve been thinking about the mechanics of these games, and I am judging them and finding them wanting. In particular, the concept of “levelling up” in nearly all of these games is tied, in a nearly inextricable way, to combat.

I don’t like this.

Levelling up as a concept is dubious at best, but for good or ill it is central to the RPG experience. All around the world, at this very moment, thousands of RPG players are striving to get a few more hitpoints, or to find a Blade of Lion-o with an extra +1 to hit, +1 to damage, or to find the Codpiece of Lordly Might that might let them defeat the dragon / orc / big- eyed japanese demon girl named “Sunflower.” Why? So they can level up more, of course.

So we’re not going to get rid of levelling up. It’s here to stay. People like putting emotional investment in to their characters, which means they have to feel like they’re “making progress,” (cf ProgressQuest), so let’s buy in to the concept.

Experience and level advancement in CRPGs is nearly always tied closely to combat (I’ll discuss some exceptions below). In one sense this is understandable: much of the effort in designing a CRPG happens to revolve around the combat engine. Games rise or fall based on how much fun combat in them is. It’s a central experience. So saying “You defeated Foozle in battle, here’s 1500 experience points” makes a certain amount of obvious sense. However, this has negative impact on narrative. By adopting this scheme, you’re committed to a few unalterable assumptions:

The typical RPG (examples: most computer D&D games, all Japanese “Final Fantasy” style CRPGs, Wizardry) assigns an experience point value to an enemy (typically referred to as a “monster,” thus adopting the implicit position that slaughtering them is OK). Kill the monsters, collect the experience points (and any loot the monsters were carrying), and eventually level up. Some games adapt the difficulty of the battles to the current level of the characters (now that’s wish-fulfillment in action). Others have areas with a pre-set difficulty that require a key that the character must be a certain level to obtain. In some games, if your characters are ready to advance (from a narrative standpoint) but lag in abilities, the rational response is to wander around the world aimlessly, looking for things to kill. Some games are designed around this very principle – consider the humble “roguelike” games like Nethack or Angband. Sometimes my best friend sees me playing Angband and asks me what I’m doing. “Knitting,” I say, and this is pretty accurate – it’s repetitive, mindless, and somehow comforting.

There are a lot of CRPGs that are just variations on knitting. And I think that there’s a place in all of our hearts (and certainly in the marketplace) for that. I believe that there is room (and indeed desire among players) for higher aspirations as well.

Morrowind

There are some games that tinker with the basic formula to try to provide incentives for non-combat development. Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind has a skill-based levelling system where a character chooses his or her primary skills, and when they have advanced (through practice) 10 of them, they gain a level. Killing monsters provides no intrinsic experience bonus, although it might allow you to practice your sword skills. It’s at least theoretically possible in Morrowind to create a character whose primary skills are all non-combat – a sort of fast talking sneaky acrobat who knows a little magic – so let’s applaud Bethesda for that. I’m uncertain whether playing the game while avoiding most combat is feasible, but at least the engine allows for it.

The problem with the purely skill-based approach, of course, is that you only advance in skills you practice. I’m not pushing for a completely nonviolent game here, although it may sound like I am. Sometimes, in an adventure, you’re going to have to fight. If you take the non-combat path through Morrowind, when you eventually DO get forced into a fight, you’re going to be as helpless as a newborn kitten hopped up on ketamine. So pure skill-based with practicing doesn’t get us there.

I’m also thinking of the classic game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. This had the standard kill-monsters-to-get-XP structure, but most of the interesting parts of the game were actually unlocked by ethical development, as your character strove to become the avatar of virtue. In the game world, the eight virtues were Compassion, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Valor, Honor, Honesty, Justice, and Humility. When I played it, I pretty much ignored the combat and followed the quests to develop my virtues. Again, sure, eventually you would get forced into combat, but they were a distraction from the quest, not the goal.

This, it seems to me now, was good game design. I still think about Ultima IV from time to time, and think about replaying it, specifically because of the intellectual and ethical content of the game. I never think of replaying, say, Phantasie.

The one modern example that I know of to follow this path is Rob Bartel’s The Witch’s Wake, an adventure designed for Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights Dungeons and Dragons (D20) game. In Witch’s Wake, the character’s goal is to discover who they are and to unravel the plot. Experience is meted out specifically for reaching various narrative goals. Combat yields no experience whatsoever; it is a complete distraction. However, since advancement in D20 is not based on exercising skills, the player is free to develop their character to be effective in combat, so that they may survive difficult battles that they are forced in to.

This is a sensible path, and would provide flexibility to all comers. Those who prefer the straightforward hack-and-slash solution should still be able to charge in and fight; those who want to avoid combat should be able to sneak. Diplomatic solutions should be possible in some cases. Rewards should be given to the player characters for accomplishing goals, not for knitting.

Witch’s Wake was a success with both critics and players. Whether this will inspire other game designers to follow in Bartel’s path remains to be seen. There is surely a lot of inertia and the market can be cruel to products that aren’t what the customer expects. Today, most customers expect combat and loot, because that’s what we as game designers have given them.

I think we can give them more.