Tuesday, December 20, 2016

P of E, Wizardry, Skills and Bills and Version 3

To my great shame, the first computer roleplaying game I played was... not. It was Blizard's original Diablo, and though I'll gladly defend its excellent atmosphere, ambience and general immersiveness, it was anything but intellectually taxing. My first exposure to the Dungeons and Dragons routine was Neverwinter Nights. I played a druid. For its expansion packs I played a wizard, an abjurer to be precise, and gloried in cockblocking the various spellcasting bosses with my superior knowledge and forethought, staying one move ahead of them. For NWN2 I played a halfling druid with such a low strength score that he had to buff himself in order to wear his own armor, much less carry anything else. I refused to shapeshift and made myself a pure spellcaster shifting the tide of battle with well-placed buffs and summons, nothing so crude as direct slappity-slap.

I'm a nerd. I play characters which out-think their opponents. Out-thinking is out-predicting. I loved the third edition D&D prestige class requirements. Remember those?
I've never been particularly crazy about prestige classes themselves, mind you. Usually they limit or water down a basic class rather than build on it, though I was pleased with their implementation in Dragon Age: Origins. In the NWN games I liked the prestige class requirements more than the classes themselves. I liked having something to play towards, purposefully building my character toward some grand apotheosis. I liked that my characters should aspire to be more than they are, not merely spinning their wheels on the leveling treadmill but purposefully becoming more than those around them. Transcending. Predicting that transcendence.

Predicting's also half the point of choosing a spellcaster in the first place, relying not on fighters' simplistic all-purpose cudgeling of everything in sight but a minutely preened and rarefied selection of arcane tools fitted to specific purposes. I never felt the slightest inclination to play a sorceror. I am that thing which predicts, which memorizes spells every day. I'm smarter than you. I hated seeing favored souls and spirit shams get inserted into the game, idiot-friendly versions of clerics and druids. Much as The Order of the Stick avowed, however, the ultimate insult to spellcasting, the vilest injury to the honor of the wise and intelligent, was the warlock, an overpowered fighter in all but name, endlessly spewing magic arrows without regard for circumstance. Warlocks belong in Diablo, an "action" version of a genre which no longer deserves its name.

I don't even play D&D, aside form cRPG adaptations, yet I immediately and quite firmly adopted the mindset of the snobbish spell-memorizers. Suits me just fine.

Last year, Pillars of Eternity promised largely to bring back the late '90s, to re-create the basic gameplay of Baldur's Gate 2 in a more mature setting with better mechanics. It succeeded for the most part. Its stat system was much better thought out than D&D's has ever been, with no conveniently inconsequential "dump stat" like charisma. Its melee engagement system and vulnerabilities made for some interesting fights. Unfortunately, its skill system fell far short of what it should have been, failing to fully flesh out the combat.

Fffff... There's an obvious decline toward the lowest common denominator in D&D's spellcaster regression, from thoughtful wizards to sorcerors who don't plan ahead to warlocks who just piss magic missiles all over the place. Unfortunately Pillars of Eternity's spellcasting falls decidedly into the sorceror / warlock camp. PoE druids are spirit shamans getting access to every possible spell at every level, with shapeshifting handed out as a complete freebie. Wizards technically had to memorize spells, but they dropped like candy and the daily spell repertoire was so vast as to never require swapping.

If you're gonna bring back the good old days, then bring back that good old nerdy spellcasting and character progression. Choosing a particular spell to cast should cost you something. You should be forced to pine at some point or another for the alternatives you passed up in favor of your current strategy. Every choice in character progression and combat strategy should come with a cost, a weak point, a missing half, a caveat, an opportunity for you, the player, to feel like the most idiotic speck of slime on the planet for being so stupid as to not have correctly predicted your necessities. If you want to burn with the Art, then the Art should burn you.

Baldur's Gate 2 was based on second-edition D&D, with no prestige classes. Thus PoE lacks prestige classes, any purposefully chosen path of advancement. PoE was made after the audience got accustomed to dumbed-down spellcasting in late third edition. Thus the spellcasting's simplified into all-purpose freebies instead of actively selected counters and silver bullets. Somehow, while trying to bring back the best of the old D&D-inspired cRPGs, Pillars of Eternity managed to combine the worst of both worlds, at least as far as character development goes. The less said about instant endless re-training the better. Lucky PoE's end-game was salvaged by good writing, because as far as building up my character goes the leveling and combat had started to feel utterly meaningless.

Dungeons and Dragons has been the most representative role-playing game out there, but fourth edition was by all accounts an idiotically dumbed down caricature of itself and fifth edition seems only marginally better, if at all. Most products cater to the mass-market, which means catering to utter cretins by removing any requirement for planning and foresight. However, it hasn't been so long since I played Neverwinter Nights that we old-school niche market of nerdy spell-memorizers have completely died off. We should be seeing some RPGs tailored to players who like to think, to plan and predict and investigate and prepare and strategize. D&D seems to have cast its lot in with the idiotic majority, attempting to go pop. Adapting it will likely yield nothing worth playing, and it's not like we see anyone bothering to adapt D&D for computers any more.

We need new systems for old gamers. PoE was a breath of fresh air but it shied away from a true incarnation of old-school magic schooling. We need games with wizards, not sorcerors or *shudder* warlocks. Ick.

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