One thing I truly hate is when videogames call themselves "RPGs." I love a good Dragon Quest or whatever, but just because you stole a couple mechanics from D&D like hit points that doesn't make your game anymore of a "roleplaying game" than Super Mario Bros., which nobody describes as roleplaying as a jumping Dago plumber for a reason.
Dan from Sword and Board's recent "Spellcasters as NPC only..." post got me pondering this, although I have seen the notion of fantasy games with no PC magic advocated before.
Frankly, I couldn't do it. I need magic. No matter what, my character has to have some superhuman power that doesn't exist in the real world or I just won't bother. It can be some flavor of actual magic, pseudoscience psionics, even being a virtual reality "decker" in a cyberpunk game, but it's gotta be there.
Sometimes the character is just a dabbler; a swordsman or thief or gunslinger or whatever who doesn't rely on the supernatural all the time. But again, the magic's gotta be there if I'm gonna be.
I can think of literally no example from the past twenty years of gaming of me making an exception to this rule or even considering doing so.
Of course, I didn't want to be seen as crapping up Dan's comment section with my naysaying, so I posted this here instead.
I wonder what this says about me? And how about you?
(Note: A version of this piece by me originally appeared in Fight On! Magazine #6 in 2009. I'm reiterating it here now for those of you without access to that document.)
The thief has been under siege of late. Internet blogs, website message boards, and FRPG fanzines have all been buzzing with some fairly harsh criticism of this venerable class.
An admittedly simplified analysis reveals that thief critics tend to fall into two frequently overlapping camps. For some, the class is too weak. Thief skill success percentages are far too low to rely upon for most of the character’s career. The second camp holds that the thief class is simply a bad fit with the rest of the game. These latter critics claim that making activities like picking pockets and hiding in shadows dedicated thief class abilities creates awkward situations where fighting men, clerics, and magic-users are de facto prohibited (or at least strongly discouraged) from attempting to perform the same feats.
So how do we fix the thief without rewriting the class or implementing elaborate supplemental rules? Simply treat each thief skill score as a sort of saving throw that the thief is entitled to in the event that the initial attempt at a given task fails. If this second roll succeeds, the initial failed roll is ignored.
Example One: Two intrepid adventurers, a fighting man and a thief, are faced with a sheer wall. The DM rules that there is only a 1 in 6 chance to safely complete such a tricky ascent with no special equipment, possibly with a +1 modifier to the roll if the climber boasts extraordinary dexterity. The fighter rolls a four and doesn’t make it. He loses his grip and suffers falling damage. The thief rolls a five and also fails, however his follow-up Climb Walls “saving” roll is 41%, a success! He completes the climb safely.
Example Two: A thief and his magic-user companion are attempting to tiptoe past a distracted orc sentry. Neither are heavily encumbered or wearing metal armor, so the DM assigns a base 1-3 in 6 chance of success for each character. A failure by either is sure to be noticed by the orc. The magic-user succeeds with a roll of two. The thief scores a six and fails. His follow-up Move Silently roll is 88%, also a failure. Despite his advantage, the thief has blown it this time around. Roll for initiative!
This approach is quick to employ, easy to remember, and doesn’t require changing one word of the thief class description from your rulebooks. It strengthens the thief significantly by allowing for two chances to succeed at any given usage of a “class skill” and doesn't infringe on the ability of other classes to have a reasonable chance of success when attempting "thiefly" actions.
I was talking with a friend of mine recently who works in the videogame industry. He told me downright harrowing tales behind some of the worst games of all times. No kidding. Several of them actually received awards for it.
These are projects that span the spectrum from "'gritty' reinvention of beloved cartoon mascot" to "is that even, technically, a game?"
And one pattern emerged: A few people (sometimes only one) with way more money than sense and a whole lot of well-meaning, talented people who know it's a bad idea, say it's a bad idea, and still finish the project because they can't afford to quit their jobs instead of putting work unto a bad idea. There's also no small amount of throwing good money after bad ("We've already sunk millions into this turkey, we can't stop now!").
So that brings me to D&D. It's no secret that they're a subsidiary of Hasbro and that Hasbro wants the D&D "brand" to be making more than it is. It's not hard to imagine WotC's designers, who are, we can assume, RPG gamers with some respect for the form and reverence for a classic like D&D, being told by some executive at Hasbro who wouldn't know Dungeons & Dragons from death & dismemberment insurance: "What about that Magic thing? That makes money. Just make it more like the Magic!" Right before he adjusts his snappy Gordon Gekko suspenders and snorts a three-foot rail of coke off a naked $5000/night escort before bellowing his best Al Pacino "Hoo-ha!"
So what's my point? I mean, for all I know, this might not be the case at all. Maybe so, but armed with these new insights into exactly how ugly game design in a corporate environment can get, I'm going to be hesitant to assign blame for this one. At least for the time being.
Certainly somebody has masterminded a forehead-slapping affront to a great game, but we may never know exactly who or why. At least not until one of us buys the right ex-employee a beer in the years to come and gets the full story.
Will Mistretta is a old-school (A)D&D enthusiast from Washington. Born in 1978, he also enjoys video gaming, weird folklore, and zoology. His job is not worth mentioning. He has far too many wonderful pets.