Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why RPG loot has lost its luster

If you've ever played a tabletop RPG, you probably know what it's like to love a magic item. You probably remember how you got that first game-changing piece of equipment, be it from a monster's horde or a hidden treasure chest. You probably cherished it and kept it for the entire lifespan of your character (or at least until your DM moved to another town). In fact, that magic item probably became a key part of your character's identity.

On the other hand, if your only experience is with computer RPGs, you might not know what the hell I'm talking about. Character equipment is not only a defining characteristic of RPGs, but one that is widely assumed to be of great importance in the age of market-tested game development. Yet in many RPGs, item design seems like little more than an afterthought. Wagonloads of magic items are joylessly awarded throughout the game, with no evidence that actual creative work went into any of them. So what gives?

On closer inspection, it's not entirely surprising that computer RPGs have been mostly unsuccessful at reproducing that tabletop feeling of "love at first loot." For one thing, there's no DM in computer RPGs to tailor rewards specifically for the PC. For another, there's a tendency to dole out more loot in computer RPGs, which has the effect of diluting the importance of any one item (more on that later). And then there's the depressing fact that designing items is a finishing touch in an industry where finishing touches increasingly take a backseat to publishing deadlines.

"Precious? Eh, not so much."
But assuming developers had the ability and resources to create truly compelling magic items, what would they look like? Here are some of the characteristics that I think make magic items stand out as something more than vendor trash.

But first a quick note. Obviously, the terminology here is oriented toward fantasy RPGs. However, many of the points could apply equally to sci-fi and other settings. Just substitute "high-end equipment" for "magic items." There, now let's get to it...

Magic items should be rare
The most common problem with magic items in RPGs is that there are just too damn many of them. When magic items can be found in every dingy little shop, on the corpses of low-level enemies, or even in barrels sitting on the street, they lose a lot of their rightful mystique. And of course, crafting is the ultimate example of magic overload, as it allows players to put together their own items as if they were Christmas toys with "some assembly required" printed on the box.

Clearly it's time to turn the Rust Monsters loose.
There's no mystery why this is the case. Players want magic items, and the knee-jerk answer from designers is to give them a lot of what they want. However, in so doing, they sacrifice some of what makes magic items desirable in the first place.

Magic items should be impressive
One or two weapon slots. Armor. Boots. Gloves. Amulet. Two rings. The "paper doll" used to outfit characters is perhaps the most standardized UI element across RPGs. Players expect those 7-8 inventory slots, and they expect to be able to fill each of them with a magic item.

Diablo cut its paper doll off at the crotch, an innovation that mysteriously has not caught on in other games.
Unfortunately, all those slots - and the cumulative power of the magic items waiting to fill them - have the potential to ruin the game's balance. As a result, cautious designers often come up with items that are overly weak, with incremental bonuses so mild that you can't perceive them in actual gameplay. Conveniently, those sorts of tepid magic items are also easier to implement. It's much less work to slap a few ability enhancements on an item, or have it mimic an existing effect, than to endow it with new and unique powers.

The result? Boredom.

Along with being scarce, magic items should be powerful and unique. Not so powerful and unique that they overshadow the PC's character build, mind you, but at least enough to have a noticeable impact on gameplay.

Magic items should have character
Most of the design changes in RPGs these days seem to be aimed at reducing the amount of reading players have to do. I don't doubt that players hate to read, and thus tend to completely bypass things like item descriptions. But while that may have implications for how RPGs impart information to the player, it doesn't mean it's OK to neglect things like lore and backstory - especially when it comes to magic items.

In fact, magic items offer a great opportunity to acquaint players with the game world. It's like giving players a tangible piece of the setting's history that they can carry around with them (a piece of history that can, potentially, be used to kill things). Of course, many players may choose not to learn anything more than the basics, just as with any other piece of lore. All I'm saying is, I'd rather learn about the history of a famed dwarven clan through one of their relics than listen to Cromjar the Living Encyclopedia drone on about it.

Give me the short version, Cromjar. Get it - short version? Ah, dwarf jokes.
But more pertinent to this discussion, giving a magic item a unique backstory simply makes it more interesting. Having high stat bonuses is cool. Having a story to tell... way cooler.

Magic items should be made to last
Most games treat inventory slots as revolving doors where magic items are constantly swapped in and out throughout the game. In fact, much of the player's time is spent evaluating different pieces of equipment against each other - a task made more tedious by the incremental bonuses mentioned above.

Gosh, do I want the Deadly Scimitar of +2% attack and +4% damage, or the Vorpal Short Sword of +4% attack and +2% damage?
If magic items are to be treasured by players, they need to remain relevant for a significant portion of the game. Making them more rare and powerful would obviously help here, but there are other strategies as well. For one thing, items can be made upgradeable. In fact, plenty of games already do this with "tack on" properties such as those provided by the runes in Dragon Age.

However, a more satisfying solution - and one that jibes with the goal of giving items character - would be to make the upgrades intrinsic to the item. In other words, players could gradually unlock new abilities through skills, paying NPCs, solving quests, or simply by using the item enough. If done well, unleashing the full power of an ancient relic could be a compelling sidequest in its own right.

Magic items should be precious
Looking back on this list, I don't think many RPGs have done magic items well since the Infinity Engine games (then again, I don't claim to have played every RPG that's come along since then, so please correct me if I'm wrong). Those games had the advantage of being set in The Forgotten Realms and therefore benefited from a huge stable of existing magic items just waiting to be implemented. That was also a time when single-player RPGs didn't take their game mechanic cues from a certain MMO that will remain unnamed.

Yeah, that one.
I think single-player games should look elsewhere for inspiration. Something about those tabletop games is effective at bringing out the inner Gollum in players. There's no reason computer RPGs can't do the same, if - and only if - designers willing to give magic items the attention they deserve.

13 comments:

  1. Excellent, excellent post. I've been wanting to write something similar for a while, but I'm not sure I could say as much on this issue, in as few words, as you so deftly have.

    Needless to say, I agree. I think reducing magic items to just another game mechanic -- another mundane, repetitive element of power gain by tiny increments -- does as much or more harm to the roleplaying aspect of an RPG than to its gameplay, immersion, etc when implemented this way.

    If their abundance is explained in-universe in some way ("countless mage-smiths toil at arcane forges to produce the readily-available and inexpensive magic items of Magicworld..."), the wonder and essential fantasy of any given magic item is lost - when every peasant and would-be adventurer is making use of them, it's hard to prevent the finding of 'Alfred Trollkiller's Sword of Conflagration' seeming like an everyday event, or at least not like an event that changes the world -- or the game -- in any noticable way.

    If on the other hand, the player is told magic items are rare and wondrous, if peasant rumours whisper of the legendary items of might and... err, legend, and yet in practice they are abundant and/or easy to acquire, acquiring 'Gargulg Maneater's Aegis of Conflagration Immunity' feels both inconsistent and, in multiplayer environments at least, ultimately empty... when five other characters turn up for the adventure, all wearing Gargulg's supposedly rare Aegis.

    It's perhaps a necessary evil of MMOs -- as you say, players want this stuff -- but I don't think single player RPGs have any excuse for their uninspired implementation of treasure. Not when they can be made as much a part of the story and gameplay as they are a part of the ruleset.

    I'd better stop there. Sorry for the long comment; I always get carried away with this stuff. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future!

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  2. Ben, glad you enjoyed the post. I actually wrestled with this one quite a bit. I had a hard time figuring out what to leave in and what to leave out. There are so many facets to this, I could have done a series of posts.

    The weird thing is, powerful magic items are obviously much more fun than weak ones with incremental bonuses. So this isn't the usual sort of discussion where the high-minded is pitted against the crowd-pleasing. Powerful magic items would clearly be more crowd-pleasing. And the kicker is that this is would be a great way for single-player RPGs to distinguish themselves from MMOs, which have to be more concerned with things like balance and the metagame.

    Anyhow, no need to apologize for the long comment. I tend to get carried away myself.

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  3. Coming from a traditional PnP background myself, I know exactly what you mean ... and so would my friend and my only remaining table-top player. And while we do not play table-top anymore, I do aim to design my NWN games with the same sort of traditional styles in mind ... treasures included.

    For this reason, you won't find great treasures in every other chest, nor will there be any "Magick Shoppe" in my modules. I will, however, aim to include more unusual items and encourage the player to be a part of their item creation or advancement. There will still be the occasional discovery of an item of note, but "scarcity" and "unusual" will be words I try to work to.

    Unfortunately, one will not be able to completely avoid the way items have become number crunching exercises, but that may be due to a familiarity with the rules and mechanics rather than a fault with the game itself. After all, I remember when I won my first +1 weapon and was amazed that it meant I could add 1 to my attack and damage rolls. That kind of amazement and joy of discovery will never return I fear ... innocence lost.

    Lance.

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  4. Good point, Lance. The same magic item that captivates a tabletop player might seem ho-hum in a computer game. So I don't think it's necessarily about putting the exact same items in computer games, but recapturing the feeling they inspired. For example, you were amazed at the ability to add +1 to all your dice rolls because you actively *made* all those rolls, rather than letting a random number generator do it in the background. To inspire the same feeling, an item in a computer game could give you a new ability that you didn't have before.

    Now that I think more about it, it would be cool if some combat animations were reserved for magic items. In other words, something like Whirlwind (or some of the more fantastical moves from Dragon Age 2) could be an item property rather than a character ability. That's the sort of huge investment in item design that I'd like to see.

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  5. I agree 100%, Mat, and don't have anything substantive to add. I will note that my thoughts also come from my P&P days and I have little doubt that peoples' feelings on the subject will depend on what their first RPG/CRPG experience was.

    In my individual mods, I take a lot of time to make the acquisition of a magical item almost a full-blown encounter in its own right, but when they're so rare, there's a fair amount of scripting that goes into it. At the very least, you need to make sure it's something the PC can use, so there's got to be a check for weapon specializations and focuses at a minimum, and you can get a lot more complicated than that. In the absence of that kind of scripting, designers just spread out one of everything for the player to find throughout the campaign, and that just cheapens it all.

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  6. Tiberius, you're right - weapon specialization is a major complicating factor. That's something I'd thought about when writing my post, but decided to leave out. Obviously, when a game offers the ability to specialize (as DnD-based games do), players expect their chosen weapon type to receive equal treatment. That creates extra design work and makes it hard to limit the overall number of magic items.

    In my NWN1 mod, I dynamically spawned a weapon for the PC at one point (a gift crafted by a powerful magic user). I had to create a separate item for each weapon type, then use a script to check the PC's feats. I also set some item properties according to the PC's alignment, as I recall. It was a ton of work, but every player was guaranteed to receive a reward appropriate to his or her character. To accomplish that by spreading different items around would have been even more work.

    A game like Dragon Age has it a lot easier. There are only one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, mage staffs, and archery to contend with. Still, neither DAO nor DA2 has any good items (that I can recall).

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  7. An excellent post. I chuckled at your mention of artefacts in barrels, and love your idea of reserving animations to a magic item.

    I too am from a long PnP background, mainly as a DM, and took great delight in creating unique items with a mythology behind them for my players. This would often generate further adventures by players interacting with the stories connected to their items. On one occasion I had a troublesome player who kept looting things before anyone else could get to them, so I threw in a cursed shield to teach him a lesson. The "Soul Shield" hovered around the user, swooping in to block blows (at least this is what happened on the bad guy originally using it whom they had to defeat... I still recall the greedy players eyes glazing over with the thought of looting t after the kill), and had a sculpted face that could talk. As predicted, the greedy player took it, much to the annoyance of the other players, although their annoyance soon changed to glee when they realised what the player had taken. Needless to say the shield was evil, and took great delight in swinging OUT of the way of blows, effectively lowering the AC of the player. It would also throw insults at passers by to instigate combat, ultimately leading to the player throwing it frisbee style into a cornfield. To cut a long story short, the player had to return to the shield to either have someone voluntarily take it from him, or for an official "Remove Curse" to be cast at great expense. The player did try the cheaper option, but the shield kept telling potential buyers it was cursed, so eventually he had to visit a temple, where the shield hurled blasphemous insults at the priests to increase the price further. Mwahahahahaaaaa ;)

    But I digress. The point is this one item expanded the game by at least a further 2 sessions and added much to both player ejoyment AND story immersion. It's the story immersion element I find sadly lacking in many of the items found in current computer offerings.

    Because of this, I've been taking great pride in the implementaion of magic items in my current project. There are a fair few "interesting" items, resulting in me having to tackle the problem of trying to avoid the cheapening of them. I believe I have succeeded in this by making the more mundane items have more natural explanations for their "powers" so that the more powerful items appear more special. For example, most of my +1 items do not require identification, and have natural descriptions such as "Well crafted platemail" or "Finely balanced sword". I even have a "Studded dog collar" worn by a guard dog that can be looted and worn as a necklace. Its description explains that they are worn by attack dogs to protect them from other animals that go for the throat (hence the additional AC vs animals), and that they have become fashionable in more violent cultures (only wearable by fighhters and give an intimidation bonus). Such descriptions enable me to place a high amount of magic items while retaining the special exclusive feel to those items I feel deserve such an acolade.

    Your post also reminds me of why I found NWN1 superior to NWN2. Replacing item avatars with icons really cheapened their feel (for me at least). I look forward to the day that a computer based roleplaying game returns to paying homage to its origins.

    Thanks for an interesting and entertaining read. :)

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  8. Quillmaster, that story definitely captures the tabletop RPG zeitgeist. Thanks for that.

    I could do a post devoted entirely to cursed items. They're sadly MIA these days as well, and I'm not sure they were ever really implemented well. The most infamous is probably the Girdle of Femininity/Masculinity from Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2.

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