Sunday, August 14, 2011

Church of the Random Number God

One recurring annoyance I seem to notice with some kinds of games, mostly rpgs and roguelikes, is the annoying way they tend to use randomization. It is not that things are randomized that is really the problem (after all, roguelikes wouldn't be any fun if they made the dungeon layouts static, and combat should always have some small element of chance just to mix things up), mostly just the way they tend to get players stuck in loops, doing the same thing over and over for a chance at some rare thing or some event, and the fact that EVERYTHING is randomized even if there is no logic to it.

It seems that rpg/roguelike designers often put everything in the hands of the Random Number God, that fickle semi-deity that grants blessings to only the most lucky or the most boneheadedly determined of the players, and often curses just as many. How many pokemon fan has hunted for years in vain for a Shiny Pokemon? How many Nethack players have summoned hoards of water demons and ruined their sword trying to get Excalibur? How many old-school rpg players got mobbed by a billion monsters as they were desperately trying to get some place that they could heal? How much time is wasted by people killing the same type of monster over and over hoping for that rare thing it drops?

There are better ways to do these things. Why not let every few thousand encounters be a shiny? Why not have a particular place trigger the effect? Why not have enemies appear on the map? Why not enemies actually drop what they use, or have every so many encounters drop something? I like the way Dwarf Fortress pre-generates a world and it's history. Everything that exists in the game is there for a reason. The world is randomly made, but enemies all have populations and roam on their own. Things are built where they are for a reason, treasure always comes from somewhere, almost nothing is randomized in actual gameplay besides some combat rolls. It's a good example of randomness done right.

There should be no incentive to stay in the same place and do the same thing over and over. There should be no way most of the game boils down to luck. Randomization is a tool that can be used to mix things up, but it should not be the whole game.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Lately I have been reading some of the Discworld novels (well actually listening to the books-on-tape versions, but close enough). For those that have never heard of the series, it's basically to fantasy what The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy was for sci-fi. If you never heard of that either, it's a bit like Monty Python in space. If you also don't know who Monty Python is, you are officially dead to me you sad humorless person (or maybe humourless would be more appropriate). As a side note why are the British so good at being funny? Maybe it's because they don't have the misconception most Americans do that all you need to do to be funny is be as crass and stupid as humanly possible. Then again this guy is American so maybe there is hope yet.

Though really the humour aspect is only part of why I compared it to The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. One of the things I admire about The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is it's way of taking strange mathematical or scientific concepts, and totality running away with them and using them to engage in fantastic worldbuilding. Discworld does pretty much the same thing with fantasy concepts as well as mathematical or scientific concepts.

Some of the recurring themes, for example, have to do with stories and belief, as well as a hint of metaphysics and magic. Though I had not known much about the series before I started "reading" it besides the basics, it reminds me of some of my own ideas relating to memes and how magic works. Of course, my ideas aren't really that new, and I am sure some of them might have come indirectly from discworld. The idea of gods and other beings being born based on belief for example is one I heard before, and I am not sure where the idea originally came from (though I think maybe even some greek philosophers may have discussed it).

It also reminds me of Homestuck in the way the characters also become part of the worldbuilding and each event seems to be at least mentioned somewhere else in the series. Currently there are over forty books in the series, compared to The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's six (5 if you refuse to count anything not written by the original author), and like Homestuck, although it started as basically a parody, it has become more serious without losing the funny bits. Unlike Homestuck however, the books are largely only connected by taking place in the same setting and involving a lot of the same characters. In any given book, events from other books are mentioned but the details are usually not very important to that book's plot. I have been "reading" the books essentially backwards for the most parts, and I don't feel I miss on that much important information.

I don't think the series is perfect however. One think I dislike is that it's conflict seems to fall into the mold of "smart vs. stupid". Good guys are clever people who are surrounded by not so clever ones. The antagonists, while there are a few truly evil people tend to be more small minded and self-centered. Of course most of the stories do not feature overt hero/villain conflict dynamics as much as having the heroes have some general goal that put them in conflict with a number of lesser antagonists which are fooled or dealt with. There is sometimes a central "villain" as well, but not always. One problem this causes is that the heros often end up looking better then anyone else. Of course, there are exceptions.

In general though I find the series witty and interesting. It's kind of surprising how a world carried by four elephants on the back of a giant turtle can feel so real and alive actually. Though maybe the voices in the books-on-tape version help.