October 17, 2010

System Mastery: Plague Against Fun?

One thing I've noticed about so called 'old school' RPGs is that they liked punishing you for what you didn't know.  The most egrecious of these punishments was 'you didn't see the trap, you die.'  Even so, there was a more insidious punishment baked into those systems: system mastery.  Lack of knowledge of what made an effective character would cost you over the life time of the character.  In those olden dayes it wasn't so much of a problem as character mortality was fairly high and the average life of a character comparatively short.

Times change, though.  Level caps expand, character survivability rises, and focuses change.  That said, system mastery and its passive-aggressive punishment continues.  Some games, though, have started challenging it.  And I'm not talking low complexity RPGs like Dread, I mean things like Dungeons and Dragons.

It is my firm belief that system mastery should make the game better, without a lack of system mastery making the game worse.  My primary example of bad is Dungeons and Dragons' toughness feat from the 3rd edition.  This feat was good in literally 1 combination of class and race.  It consituted a trap of the worst sort.  Now, a note from the developers, and Monte Cook has mentioned this himself, would have prevented this trap from being a trap.

Now, system mastery that makes a game better is like Go, or Chess.  Learning to play and playing an even opponent makes for a fun game.  But then you learn how to read two turns ahead, then three, and the game only gets more interesting as you begin to reason with the future you're realizing could come about from your actions.

So as I'm sitting down to work on my complex game (The unnamed mecha game) I'm realizing I need to make the choices as obvious as possible as I begin designing the choices each player needs to make.  Let the depth of the battle map take the mastery, I want to make character creation as easy as possible.

Another thing to help ease out of the system mastery problem is the 'retraining' that has been built in to some newer systems.  That ability to fix mistakes made during creation.  4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons has a good example of this, as you can switch out one feat, power, or skill training each level.  This prevents a conditional choice from being a permanent flaw on your character while your buddies get to enjoy their full abilities.

I'm considering taking retraining a step further, what if after every adventure/mission you can retrain your characters ability choices?

You tell me, readers: How much system mastery is too much?  And how much retraining is too flexible?


  1. System mastery is essential for any game. Period. However, system mastery should come by playing the game. No player should ever have to overclock themselves on the internet trying to build the perfect archetype because of the one time they chose the wrong feat and got destroyed by a monster while trying to use that same feat. Yes, it was a mistake to put toughness on your fighter, but it shouldn't have cost your fighter their "life." Having your character die because of one, almost innocent mistake is not fun. It turns people off from gaming, and makes people who already play the game become spikes. People need to be punished for making foolish mistakes, like having your Rogue charge head on into Bahamut, but killing the character for that mistake is just not fun.

    On the note of retraining, it's an effective way for noobs to rethink their previous choices and help with system mastery. Unfortunately, it gives the pros a cheap way to exchange abilities they don't need anymore. For example, let's say you have a choice between axe mastery and sword mastery. In the beginning of the game, axe's are superior to swords because of their raw damage output. However, in mid to late game, swords become far superior to axes. The player who has system mastery will know that he can "cash out" his points in axe mastery and put them into sword mastery later on. This is much more efficient from a game mechanic point, but it's also cheap from a role-playing and character development view. The one side gives you a way to store experience, feats, and abilities each level, but the other one totally destroys all character development and creation. Personally, I value the evolution of a character, not the end result. Besides, it gives the character a more "real" look than the ideal cookie-cutter you see in D2, EQ, and WoW.

  2. Some very solid points, Anonymous. I'll admit to being firmly in the 'your character is defined by your in game choices, not the sheet' camp and feel switching a couple of abilities out is a small price to pay for keeping newbies from giving up in frustration.

    I also feel game designers need to offer some way to balance things out in the long run, and that is a definite design goal when I get working on the specific abilities of the mecha game. Hopefully every choice is interesting and builds are as flavorful as the personalities behind of the characters.

  3. One thing that might help with cutting down on changing out abilities at the drop of a hat but still making it an accessible option for people might be if they could do it at the end of every game session and/or major plot arc, but it was on a two-for-one point basis. That way, the player can reweave his character's abilities, but it's going to cost him a bit to do it. (Depending on how the level-up/experience point/whatever-you-want-to-call-it system works, the gravity of that sacrifice would vary.)