Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2011
I’m going to get a little basic right now, since not everybody who reads this blog is a computer role-playing game expert. But mainly because I’ve been putting in 12+ hour days for the day job the last two weeks, and then working on the game instead of sleeping, so “basic” is about all I have the brain power left over to talk about. Besides, it’ll probably still generate some interesting discussion in the comments, which is really where the good stuff can be found in almost every post. So I want to talk about the concept of character skill vs. player skill.
The mix of player skill and character skill is a defining element of an RPG. In an RPG, you are playing one or more characters – characters who have defined (but dynamic) abilities and limitations that change over time as you make progress through the game.
If success is principally dictated by your actions and skill as a player, then it’s not an RPG. So if your character is supposed to be a mediocre shot, but as a player you are lining up and endless stream of head-shots for critical hits, then chances are that at least that aspect of the game is really not very RPG-ish. An RPG may blend the two elements by making your hits based on player skill and your damage based on character skill to try and strike a balance, which may satisfy many players. But there has to be some kind of cooperative give-and-take going where the actions (and skills) of the player are filtered by the character’s abilities and limitations.
These days, that’s a really, really fuzzy area, and not much of a dividing line. Are better weapons and armor an attribute of your character? Many games include “RPG elements” including some kind of upgrade mechanic. It’s not a hard-and-fast delineation. It’s a spectrum.
On the flip side, a game can’t be all about character skill either, or it’s not a game. It’s Progress Quest.
Sometimes you will get rants by inexperienced gamers who argue that there is no player skill involved in in turn-based RPGs. I don’t know if they are just trolling or truly ignorant, but they do say this. I can only assume said kids have never played a game of Chess, let alone completed the original Pool of Radiance. Or read the CRPG Addict’s account of tactics necessary in the original Wizardry. I guess I do understand a little of where they are coming from. I used to think NetHack was all about luck, not player skill. Then I saw guys who knew what they were doing playing the game. Yes, luck still plays a significant roll. Skilled play was all about risk management.
In a turn-based tactical game, it may be about adequate preparation, choice of battles, and of course making appropriate tactical decisions during battle. In an action game, it may be about speed and accuracy and knowing when to down healing potions or turn tail and run. It’s always about making choices, based on either role-playing preferences or careful gameplay considerations.
Ultimately, role-playing games are about a synthesis between a player’s skill and that of the character he or she is playing. So what we really come down to, next, is what kinds of player skills the game demands, and how we mix those with the character’s abilities to get interesting and challenging gameplay.
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