Monday, November 21, 2016

PoE's Instant Pocket Armies

This is my small group fighting Archmage Concelhaut in Pillars of Eternity.
This is that same group exactly one second later.

Notice anything different? Like maybe there's a lot more group?
From Baldur's Gate 2 onwards, through both NWN games and their expansions, these games have suffered from an over-reliance on quickslot items - the stuff your character keeps in his pocketses. In PoE the worst offenders were "figurines" or summoning items. While the minions they summoned weren't horribly powerful, their presence undermined one of PoE's best features, the melee engagement system by which your meat shields defend your spellcasters. Who needs a well-balanced front line when you can just conjure a dozen magic spiders to lock your enemies down while you pound away at them?

Obsidian said they wanted to allow players to create "themed" parties like all-ranger or all-paladin groups, which means offering players a lot of ways to duplicate the abilities of a particular class with any class, to cover the strategic demands of various encounters. Unfortunately this ends up watering down the class system on the whole. My party above consists of six different playable classes, but in practical terms they're all Summoners depending on their trusty pokemon to keep them safe. It harms player identity and agency.

The central issue is of course diminishing the repercussions for player actions. If a player makes an all-fighter group then runs into an encounter demanding a well-placed fireball, you've just denied your customer access to part of the content he purchased. Of course he could just roll a new character, but whining will nonetheless ensue. Hence fireball scrolls. I'm partial to spellcasters and my groups tend to be rather "squishy" so I end up carrying around instant pocket-armies.

This coddles players unnecessarily. If you are stupid, you should die. If I want to make a squishy robe-clad nerd army, then I should have to compensate for my weak points using abilities which I actively select over others, through active, purposeful player choice. There should be areas of the game where I declare defeat. PoE's figurines are instead blatant freebies. Anyone can choose Pikachu, at any time.

Much of what elevates partly-randomized open-ended games like Mount&Blade over more formulaic RPGs is the fact that you're expected to lose... sometimes. Depending on your player choices, there will be tasks you cannot complete. Too slow to chase down that group of raiders? Too squishy to wipe out the bandit hideout? Too reliant on cavalry to break through a row of pikemen or scale castle walls? Tough luck. Deal with it. Try something else.

Neither is this a problem specific to Pillars of Eternity by a long shot. I complained about the elemental summoning items in Neverwinter Nights 2 when that came out, and Dragon age: Origins made it much too easy to heal wounds without going back to camp and let you chug potions constantly. Baldur's Gate 2 filled your inventory with enough magic wands to outfit all of Hogwarts.

If RPGs are all about a player building up a character according to taste, then we really need to start dropping all these damn crutches. It's not enough to expect better players to handicap themselves by not using the freebies deliberately strewn before them. You should suffer for your failings.

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