Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Rogue-Like Games Demonstrate Grinder/Heroic Dichotomy

In my need for escapist entertainment lately I’ve fallen back on computer games, including several in the “rogue-like” genre. Yes, those solo, dungeon-delving games based on Rogue from 1980 with dungeon elements defined by ASCII characters. Seems like everyone’s making their own version (much like the Old School Renaissance); I happen to like Pixel Dungeon for its upgraded graphics and interesting magical item uses. Just a few clicks and I’m exploring a random dungeon with monsters, magic items, and plenty of opportunities to meet a horrid end. I don’t care, it’s fun, caters to my interest in fantasy gaming, and doesn’t require me to invest too much time, energy, or focus. I juxtapose this play style with the kind of tabletop roleplaying game session that satisfies my needs in my middle-aged years: heroic characters taking on epic challenges in my favorite genres, where they stand a decent chance of survival despite seemingly insurmountable odds. This illustrates to me the vast differences between “grinder” style games and heroic play, and reinforces why I prefer the latter in my full-fledged roleplaying game endeavors.

I don’t mind playing rogue-like games on the computer. They satisfy my urge for some quick dungeon-delving fantasy gaming without the time and effort to prep a scenario and gather everyone around the table. Character creation consists of making a few choices, often as easy as clicking on the character class I want to play (if even that). It’s almost a pleasantly mindless process – much like computerized solitaire – wandering dungeon corridors, beating up monsters, taking treasures, occasionally finding or triggering traps, and experimenting with loot to see if its beneficial or baneful (or outright lethal). There’s no story beyond the premise of a dungeon delve, nothing too deep (and hence nothing too satisfying story-wise), just hack-and-slash action. So when my rogue eventually dies under the fangs of some stupid giant rat, sets himself on fire (again), or starves to death (all too often), I don’t mind as much. Sure, there’s some initial disappointment, but it’s a computer game. It’s a quick pastime to help me take a break and relieve stress. I don’t really invest too much in it.

Contrast that with a tabletop roleplaying game. Players must coordinate schedules and travel to a central location to play. Character creation takes time, with each step manually performed: rolling abilities, determining race and class, noting modifiers, choosing weapons, armor, and equipment, figuring out secondary stats (not to mention devising backgrounds and connections to other characters if desired). Rules aren’t automatically parsed by the computer but by a player who must possess a solid understanding of how character elements and combat operate. The gamemaster must prepare a challenging situation, anything from some rough notes on obstacles, adversaries, and story elements to a full scenario (depending on one’s gamemastering style). Everyone works together to strive for a satisfying combination of game and story. Given the importance of characters – both as player avatar and core story element – one’s meaningless death can disrupt the play experience.

My current dislike of grinder-style tabletop roleplaying games and preference for more heroic play reflects a maturing trend that started in my college days. It emerges from a combination of less time to devote to immersion in roleplaying games and greater exposure to games where characters are heroes and not cannon fodder. Back when I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in junior high school and my subsequent high school years I had plenty of time after school, on weekends, and during vacations to engage in gaming pursuits. I could churn out characters to send into the dangerous halls of the latest adventure module. Games I ran featured traps both serious and comical in which to mangle adventurer parties. Campaign play rarely moved past one or two adventures as characters rarely survived. We had plenty of time for this as students. But moving on into the world – to college and careers – severely limited our free time. New games showed us characters could be heroes with far more epic action than deadly dungeons allowed. For me that gaming trend started with the James Bond 007 roleplaying game and developed with West End’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. Time was a precious resource in our adult world. When we sat down to create characters and play a game session it really had to count. Spending time to roll up a character with some depth seemed wasted when they met meaningless deaths. We wanted a more significant gaming experience and these games and this heroic style delivered it.

These days I prefer roleplaying games that naturally lean toward heroic action. I spent much of my gaming life immersed in games like the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and similar D6 System settings that view characters as heroes. Although I like Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons for my fantasy gaming, I’ve modified it for a more heroic play style. My home rules reflect that in greater starting hit points to keep beginning characters alive, a basic skill system to allow characters to attempt any action, and a more robust spell system (linked to the skill success system) to enable spellcasters to use magic more freely.

Surely the rogue-like, grinder roleplaying style has its place, even at the tabletop. For some gamers it’s an occasional change of pace, for others the core, satisfying form of gaming. Some folks like to spend five minutes whipping up a nobody character to bumble through a dungeon, gleefully celebrating his near-certain and gruesomely colorful demise, just like the electronic game. My limited understanding of grinder-style games leads me to believe many gamemasters streamline character creation to the absolute basics so players can quickly generate fodder for the deadly dungeon crawl; theoretically, players don’t get too attached to their character concept and hence don’t grieve too much when they eventually meet their grisly fates. (To actually call it a ‘character” seems like giving it too much personality or even hope for surviving such grinder adventures.) Heck, some gamemasters prepare “death certificates” to fill out and award to players to commemorate such nobodies and their ghastly fates.

Alas, I don’t have the time or opportunity to engage in such feckless play. On the rare occasions when I manage to sit down and enjoy roleplaying games with actual humans I’m seeking a quality, immersive storytelling experience where characters count as heroes. Perhaps for me the concept of game character as hero resonates with the media and literature that inspires me and in many cases inspired fellow gamers and game creators. What would happen if protagonists were cannon-fodder in our favorite stories? What if the trolls ate Bilbo early on in The Hobbit? The Lord of the Rings would have been far shorter if the barrow wight had dispatched Frodo and his companions. Would the Rebels have destroyed the first Death Star if the Sand People had slaughtered Luke Skywalker out in the Jundland Wastes? Where Eagles Dare would have had a far different ending if Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer had their necks snapped during the initial parachute drop. What if Indiana Jones died in that trap-filled South American tomb in Raiders of the Lost Ark? (Okay, I’ll concede that, with my limited exposure to Game of Thrones, that this franchise more than any other tosses beloved characters into hideously heartless grinders...part of the reason I refuse to invest in it.)

Different people turn to gaming for different reasons and to varying degrees. One path is no better or worse than another. My experience has changed over the years as time has become a more valuable commodity. A quick rogue-like delve on the computer helps satisfy me when I can’t gather friends around the table for a more substantive roleplaying experience. For me gaming progressed from my enjoyment of heroic literature, music, and films, hence my aversion to perceiving my gaming characters as cheap creations to die meaningless deaths. Life is tenuous enough in the real world; we exist on a tiny rock with a thin film of life-sustaining atmosphere, spinning around a star in an incomprehensibly vast universe of far-flung galaxies in which humanity matters little if at all on the grand universal scale. I use games as an escape from the real world, so it makes sense I seek a more heroic existence there for characters than they’d find in a more realistically brutal setting.