(Mis)adventures in roguelike development: why old-school RPG rules

I’ll briefly explain here why the roguelikes are the occasion for the renaissance of old-school pen&paper ruleset. Why I believe this match is perfect.

The fact is that with the latest generation of games we moved toward the “analog”. The evolution of the Elder Scrolls games makes this fairly obvious to notice. The biggest failure of Morrowind’s combat (as well as Daggerfall) was that there were to-hit rolls. You swung your weapon and the game would roll to figure out if you hit your target or not.

This way of resolving combat is an heritage of classic pen&paper RPG rules, but the problem is that they do not make sense in a game like Morrowind. Those rules were made to simulate the entirety of combat. AD&D rules, for example, were abstracted to simulate an entire minute of combat with just one die roll:

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition
A round is approximately one minute long. Ten combat rounds equal a turn (or, put another way, a turn equals 10 minutes of game time).

But these are just approximations–precise time measurements are impossible to make in combat. An action that might be ridiculously easy under normal circumstances could become an undertaking of truly heroic scale when attempted in the middle of a furious, chaotic battle.

When making an attack, a character is likely to close with his opponent, circle for an opening, feint here, jab there, block a thrust, leap back, and perhaps finally make a telling blow. A spellcaster may fumble for his components, dodge an attacker, mentally review the steps of the spell, intone the spell, and then move to safety when it is all done. It has already been shown what drinking a potion might entail. All of these things might happen in a bit less than a minute or a bit more, but the standard is one minute and one action to the round.

So during one minute a lot could happen, many attacks, feints and moves. But you can’t simulate all that, so you abstract it and concentrate it in one to-hit roll, leaving aside the details.

But in a game where you control your character in first person and decide how to move, circle the enemy and swing your weapon, then all those details ARE PART OF gameplay. It’s not anymore an abstraction of combat as if you controlled your character from a overhead perspective and moved in combat turns. The in-combat time is analog. Finely grained. And so it’s not a good idea, design-wise, to mix abstract combat rules with analog combat gameplay.

That’s why in Oblivion and Skyrim the to-hit roll was discarded. If you are in range and swing you weapon, your weapon always hits. And then think that if technology was advanced enough that it could simulate a full body, with internal organs and everything, then it would render the abstraction of “hit points” also unnecessary.

A roguelike is a different type of game, almost entirely “digital” and abstracted. The game-world is made of discrete cells, space and time are stricter. Your character is just a single letter printed on screen. All this makes abstraction required. You can’t manually swing your weapon, dodge and parry with precise timing as in Skyrim or Dark Souls, so you need game rules that simulate all of this internally. You need statistics that define your character and what it can do, options as decision at a higher level.

That means that a roguelike is much closer to the nature of old-school RPGs than how modern, “analog” games can be. It’s not an issue of “new VS old”. The old-school way is not surpassed. It’s just that we deal with two different genres, kinds of games. Cultural trends simply made one more popular because abstraction is always a barrier to accessibility (and that’s why first person shooters are popular too: as little abstraction as possible, no layers between you and the simulated world).

And that’s why I believe that rediscovering those old-school rule systems is the interesting thing to do, for roguelikes, instead of writing roguelikes that also hide mechanics behind layers of complex math.

If you STILL think this only applies to old games, then I point you to Project Eternity. At this moment they are right about to hit $3,500k. That’s a lot of money and people involved. One of the ideas sitting at the foundation of this project is to go back at party-based, top-down fixed camera of Baldur’s Gate. The consequence of that choice is making all I wrote here relevant for that game too. We’ll see if their game design is savvy enough to properly deal with it.

Even the just released XCOM has overhead perspective and to-hit rolls.

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