Friday, April 7, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Why Excessive Mechanics Are Bad in Tabletop RPGs

I've long been frustrated with the inability of game designers to accept the reality of gamer psychology. (Really, it's fan psychology, but I'm talking about gaming--specifically tabletop RPGs right now--so that's the context.) Whether it's the blunder-wonders running World of Warcraft, the cargo cultists in charge of Dungeons & Dragons or its off-brand counterpart Pathfinder, or the myriad of morons in tabletop and videogames of all sorts who stubbornly refuse to see what's before their eyes the willful blindness born of arrogance never ceases to astound and exacerbate me.

If you've been following the gaming posts here at the Retreat, you'll recall that I've gone over the curious conundrum of tabletop RPGs being so mechanically complex that you spend more time working the mechanics than engaging the virtual situation. I call this "piloting the mech" because that's what it feels like when you're at the table.

That means there's a psychological element here at work, something that you have to observe at a step or so removed to really see it in action. What it comes down to is that focusing on mechanical operations acts like the focus on a lens; everything not the focus of your attention blurs out and ceases to seem real. (Compare to old Hana-Barbara cartoons, where the background seemed dull and lifeless compared to the one widget the characters could interact with; most visible in chase scenes.) The game's jargon takes on the virtual substance because that's what matters in play, and natural language interaction becomes akin to cutscenes in a videogame RPG (the thing that gets skipped early and often by so many players because they don't think anything matters there).

It becomes more obvious with "build culture", coming over from CCGs and similar games where proper construction of your primary play unit (your deck, your 'Mech, your arena car, etc.) is a sub-game itself and competency there directly contributes to success in the primary game. Just point your browsers to The Gaming Den to see it approaching its extremes of autistic screeching. Sure, you could build that Fighter to not be a melee monster, but you're gimping the team and you'll get no heals if you do- Alignment be damned.

Which leads to the second problem, the "Lore Means NOTHING!" problem. Because only the mechanics matter to these people, there is no secondary character; the player's character is nothing more than a robot that they remotely control, no different than playing MechWarrior Online, and with such an attitude comes (a) the depreciation of the Game Master's role into a robot of its own sort, (b) the depreciation of non-jargon/non-mechanical gameplay interaction as nothing more than fishing for keywords to plug into the machine and then resume mechanical operations.

The result is that you get actual play results that, if these were real situations, everyone observing would conclude that the characters were insane and their behavior unacceptable. Why? Because culture doesn't matter. History doesn't matter. Not faith, not philosophy, not anything that doesn't plug into the mechanics or come as output from the mechanics. Tonal dissonance, cognitive dissonance, and the utter insistence that the rules--the mechanics--are the game and nothing else are normal in such environments. Few are so open as The Gaming Den, but you'll see the tells in many other TRPG discussions; the most common is the wholesale transposition of console/PC RPG norms (due to technical and medium limitations) to tabletop RPGs (which lack them) because the TRPG's mechanics provoke the same thinking purely out of reflex.

And, as this phenomenon accelerated, more and more people abandoned TRPGs for videogame counterparts because videogames did all of the mechanical operations better, faster, and with better visualization. (Go on, try replicating The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim with a recent D&D edition or Pathfinder; you'll see why I say such things swiftly.) Meanwhile, the real strength and flexibility of the tabletop RPG medium gets lost because more and more gamers find mech-operation to be the norm and so acclimate to it- a thing old-timers like Mike "Old Geezer" Monard has complained about now and again. Playing with a human referee, making spot-rulings as necessary, and relying on natural language over game jargon and mechanics is increasingly an alien thing. (And no, the SJWs in the scene are not helping any, but their absence wouldn't make it disappear either.)

"I make a Charge move and attack the Over-Specific Monster Mob #1 with a full Power Attack." is mechanical operation. "Homsar charges the Black Knight with his sword in hand." is natural language interaction. "I've got a +30 to my Persuade Check, and I rolled a 15. That's a 45. Even at his best resist, I still got a Worship result." is mechanical operation. "I introduce myself as 'Homsar Delgana, Hero of the Screeching Spire Saga. How might this humble hero help Your Grace in this matter?'" is the use of natural language interaction. Starting to catch the difference? One relies on rules mastery; the other does not.

For a medium of entertainment meant to be one where you can just show up, be given a 3x5 card and a summary like "You've read the Mars books? He's like John Carter.", and be playing as effectively as the long-timers this is not just an erection of a clear barrier to entry socially, but also ludologically- you can't enjoy play until you master the damned mechanics, and (as I said previously) most people will not work for their entertainment.

Mechanical complexity in tabletop RPGs is the Literary Realism of Gaming. It must stop for the same reason: it KILLS the fun that the common man seeks.

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