Gamasutra has a new feature article on Computer RPG game design over the years: Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs. The introduction to this very long article is on Original Dungeons & Dragons as, while it was not a computer game, it was the basis for the entire computer RPG genre. While I’ve never been much of a computer RPG fan as I find them very boring compared to tabletop RPGs, I found this article interesting. I had, at least, played an hour or two in most of the non-Japanese games the author discusses.
The section of the article on Nethack grabbed most of my attention, however. First, because Nethack and other Rogue-like games are the only CRPGs that I’ve ever really enjoyed playing. Second, because what the author said here made me really think about tabletop RPGS:
Nethack is a roguelike, and so I’m required to say something about one of those games’ most controversial features: permadeath. (Okay, I admit it — I’ve been leading up to this.) Since Ultima and Wizardry, but unlike pen-and-paper games to this day, players are allowed, and even encouraged, to save games and return to them if things go badly, a design characteristic that makes it almost impossible for anything really bad to happen to the player’s characters.
I make no secret the fact that I consider this one of the most pernicious aspects of CRPG gaming, that permanent disadvantages acquired during the course of play cannot be used by a designer because the player will simply load back to the time before the disadvantage occurred. Admittedly, the prevalence of this attitude comes from some older games that could easily be made unwinnable if the player wasn’t careful.
However, it’s reached the point where “adventuring” in an RPG rarely feels risky. Gaining experience is supposed to carry the risk of harm and failure. Without that risk, gaining power becomes a foregone conclusion.
It has reached the point where the mere act of spending time playing the game appears to give players the right to have their characters become more powerful. The obstacles that provide experience become simply an arbitrary wall to scale before more power is granted; this, in a nutshell, is the type of play that has brought us grind, where the journey is simple and boring and the destination is something to be raced to.
Nethack and many other roguelikes do feature experience gain, but it doesn’t feel like grind. It doesn’t because much of the time the player is gaining experience, he is in danger of sudden, catastrophic failure. When you’re frequently a heartbeat away from death, it’s difficult to become bored.
I’ve never really thought about it before, but perhaps one of the main reasons some tabletop gamers can’t stand anything bad happening to their character — even just losing a magic sword to a rust monster — have that attitude because their first encounter with RPGs was the computer variety where if anything bad happens to your character, you just restore your last saved game and undo the effects. Magic items can’t be damaged for long because you can restore a saved gamed. Did your character just suffer a nasty curse that will take a lot of time and trouble to remove? Restore your last save. Make a bad decision? Restore your last save. Lose an important combat? Restore your last save. Etc.
Computer RPGs may have taught a much of generation of players that nothing truly negative should ever happen to your character — and if it does, it shouldn’t last any longer than it takes to restore a saved game in a computer RPG. Could this be an major part of the origin of the school of RPG design that wants to eliminate everything that causes permanent harm to the character while making rapid level gains and showers of treasure standard? I don’t know, but I strongly suspect it has played a part in the so-called “Tyranny Of Fun.”