Friday, October 17, 2014

Roguelike Lessons

Over at Kill Ten Rats, there is a somewhat deprecating response to Roguelike games.

As for myself, I simply LOVE Roguelikes, especially this Nethack in which you'll find many of my ghosts littered about. The biggest criticism KTR makes is that Roguelikes have no balance in terms of scaling encounters, and he uses the term ‘difficulty cliff’ to differentiate from the ‘difficulty curve’ of games like Destiny or RPGs like D&D 4E.

I think he has misunderstood the appeal of Roguelikes, at any rate ones like the one I play. There is no difficulty curve, nor is there a cliff. There is just pure chaos. You are just as likely to find a Wand of Death as to run into a goblin holding one. You WILL die at some point. I am not a ‘get off my lawn’ grognard, nor a masochist. I just don’t have time for a difficulty curve that strings me along forever – I WANT the game to end badly.

The idea of a difficulty curve is anathema to me. If you like having the game adjust for you, which I found both boring and somewhat patronizing in the few 4E games I played, then have at it. Some people play Monopoly, others obscure Teutonic boardgames, others poker, none is better, each suits a different taste or lifestyle.

Playing Roguelikes suits my life right now, but they also have valuable lessons for tabletop DMing.

1 Dungeons Should Be Breakable – Although there was a lot of posts about Jacquaying dungeons a few years back, i.e. allowing multiple entrance and egress points and thus avoiding topographic railroads, Roguelikes blow this out of the water. In Nethack, pick up a pick axe or mattock and you can make your own damn entrances and exits, even between levels. Or dig a pit, stand on the far side and let monsters tumble in, slay them and take their stuff. The pick axe is the ultimate tool of agency. However, the time and energy spent digging also tires the character and draws attention, which brings us to the next lesson…

2 You should know what you’re getting into – Anyone complaining about dying in a game of D&D, unless they are dealing with a dick DM and their complaint is about them and not the game, seems to have misunderstood the game and its setting. You are a murder hobo in a world red in tooth and claw and out to get you. Dying is not a question of ‘if’ it is a matter of ‘when’ unless you retire the character or switch to another game. Which brings us to….

3 If you don’t like it, there are other games – This sounds so trollish on the interwebs, but make no mistake I am not trying to troll KTR. If Roguelikes seem broken or unfun to you, find something that does work and is fun for you. I cannot stand poker – it just bores and confuses me. Everyone at my workplace loves it and has poker nights, which I skip. Unfriendly? Maybe, but better than me starting to resent some wonderful coworkers just because our tastes differ. And speaking of social effects of gaming…

4 Alignment should have social effects – Alignment in D&D is often a stick to keep character’s actions in line with some ideal. Too often there is little ‘carrot’ to balance this out. In Nethack, creatures of a similar alignment do not attack one another automatically. You may want to strip a pick axe off a dwarf in the mine level, but if you’re a lawful Valkyrie, you’ll have to find a store selling one. If you decide to ignore your alignment and kill a dwarf, you’ll be asked if you really want to, and your dwarficide will worsen relations with your god, who can uncurse objects and may even bestow legendary items on you if you sacrifice to them. This is a wonderful mechanic, and one that I would add to my own D&D games. Speaking of house rules…

5 Games should be hackable – Like Dwarf Fortress but on a smaller scale, Nethack allows players to use the elements of the system and setting in ways that have unforeseen consequences. If you plan on stealing from a shop, digging a circle of pits around the shopkeeper will keep them from chasing you (but you’ll have to sneak your pick axe into the store in a sack first or be denied entrance). If you cast a spell while drunk or confused, it may have altered effects, and I have inadvertently created rustproof armor and weapons this way. Tabletop RPGs should allow for even more unforeseen flexibility than Nethack with its limited programmed elements, and a DM not taking advantage (or letting players take advantage) of this flexibility is missing out on the greatest feature of the game itself.

So, go out there and play a Roguelike today. You may not like the overall experience, but you will learn something, whether to do or to avoid, that will improve your DMing and make your game suit your style and needs more.

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