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The RPG Scrollbars: The Worst Parts Of RPGs, Vol I

The Book Of Gripes

Featured post Hmmm? Sorry, is there something in my teeth?

As wonderful as RPGs are, some tropes and cliches and just general bloody annoyances really do spoil the fun. Some of them might only crop up occasionally, others just won’t go away. Some, you might think, are just petty irritations. But no! All these incontrovertible sins must be destroyed at once! Here’s a few of my least favourite offenders. What others would you add to the cursed list?

Overly Optimistic Bandits

It’s one thing to try and mug a passing would-be hero on their way to becoming someone. That’s your job. But when you see a team of battle-hardened knights in full-plate, archmages humming with power, clerics bearing the very mantel of your world’s deity and a druid still yet to wipe the blood off their lips from their last shapeshift… and your response is to genuinely think you can take them? No. Stay out of the way, and don’t waste the time it takes to click on you and turn you into giblets.

“Oh, Hang On, I Just Remembered I’m Evil!”

I don’t object to games not including evil options. Honestly, most of the time it’s probably for the best. But! If there is the option to play as a monster, a sociopath or merely a scoundrel, the plot has to recognise it. Baldur’s Gate 2 for instance doesn’t give the slightest thought to why a Chaotic Evil character would so much as lift a finger to go save Imoen. In Oblivion, there’s a particularly head-desk worthy moment where a player can be caught up in a honey-trap scheme, and even join in. Even doing so, even if they’re currently the head of the Thieves’ Guild and a high flying murderer in the Dark Brotherhood, it’s interrupted by a sudden decision that justice should be served. No. Find proper motivation for evil to keep playing, or move along home. (Allamaraine, count to four…)

(Update: According to comments, BG2 did offer a selfish reason. My bad, it’s been a while. Point still stands though, that if there’s an evil path, it needs to be more than a last minute “Whoops, decided to conquer the world instead.” Especially if it’s a character decision, not yours.)

“Wait, Getting PAID Is Evil?”

The flip-side of that one, where asking for resources that are only going to go to helping others is evil. Allowable in specific cases, like the poor widow tending the failing farm. Just Stupid Good in most, where it’s only an option to compensate for the lack of any real moral choice to make, and only doable because every RPG game economy is more broken than a dropped china vase.

Indestructible Plot Coupons

And yet still, no Warupeachi.

If the baddie needs three pieces of the whatever, or the seven gems of whatever else, or the four map pieces of another thing to complete their evil plan, give me a good reason why I can’t just find the first, smash it, and consider the job done. Paper Mario 2 on the Gamecube knew better than this. Your task was to get seven stars the villain needed to open a door and release a great evil, and it’s actually asked – why bother collecting the other ones just so he can swoop in and probably get the lot in one go? Ah, it is explained. The evil behind the door will break out on its own eventually, but by challenging it in a weakened state, there’s a chance of re-imprisoning it properly this time.

That’s right. Any RPG that pulls this has an inferior plot to Paper Mario 2. Think about that.

(But not too hard, because Paper Mario 2 was awesome. Not that I’d say so on a PC site, natch.)

The Vagaries of Stats

A character creation gripe. When asking us to assign points, or subsequently choosing equipment or shopping in-game, tell us clearly and up front what these numbers mean. In any class based system, highlight the key stats and say specifically what they do. Wrap it in flowery stuff if you want, but underneath I expect you to outright say, for instance, “Strength makes you hit harder, Intelligence makes your spells hurt more, Wisdom gives you more spell points.” Also lovely would be some indicator of how important individual points are. Take Fallout’s SPECIAL system, which is somehow both a good and a bad example. Perks and basic stats from 1-10? Easy! But when it comes to skills, is there a notable difference between having 20 of something and 40 of it? We need to know!

This is all the more important in games which put very different spins on what initially looks fairly obvious. Bound By Flame for instance offered a Pyromancer set of skills that was much more of a support tree than an offensive one. It’s not enough that hardcore players will know the details second time through. Most will only play once, and the first run is always the most important.

The Expectation of Wikis

This tends to be mostly a problem for MMOs. The average player should never, ever need to look at a wiki or third-party tutorial to understand a basic concept, to know what gear is right for them, or what a stat actually means. It doesn’t matter that the hardcore audience will, or has played enough of these games to know what something like a “To Hit” percentage is. Third-party sites are fine for things like theorycrafting, but the basics should be as clear as possible. Speaking of which…

MMOs That Don’t Bother Teaching The Basics

It’s amazing how many hours they demand to level up, yet almost never find the time to actually explain and guide new players in the arts of things like team-play and dungeons and how to actually play their class in a dungeon environment. Final Fantasy XIV is the only one that’s really bothered in recent years, with both mandatory training and easy dungeons on the critical path to get a flavour for both them and the art of fighting bosses. Most others are happy to have level after level of utterly trivial PvE drip-feed skills without ever actually teaching anything worth knowing, like what rotations are and the difference between a DPS and a tank, resulting in players entering that side of the game completely clueless and usually just being shouted at by more experienced players for not having somehow intuited it all by osmosis. There have got to be better ways.

Stop Trying To Replace The DPS/Tank/Healer Trinity In MMOs

Yes, yes, the impetus is understandable, but it never bloody works. That’s how players are going to approach their builds whatever you do and how open your system is designed to be. Accept it. Like most classless RPG systems, it just makes things more confusing, and greatly increases the chance of players utterly borking their builds. A real pain, especially if there’s no respec option.

No Auto-Level Up Option

Generally fine in something without set classes, or with a single hero. When you’ve got a full party though, having to assign points is both a pain and offers a big risk of screwing up. Thankfully rare these days, but does crop up occasionally in games like Pillars of Eternity.

Cutscene Failure

My dear, how does it feel to know you are currently the least popular Star Wars character in existence? Except Jar-Jar Binks, obviously.

This isn’t an automatic sin, but only if handled properly. I have no problem for instance with the end boss showing up early to prove their power. However, two things make it intolerable. The first is if losing the fight that leads up to that point still results in a Game Over, because only victory or a specific attack sees the game continue to the point where you lose. The second is if you’re handily winning, only for a cut-scene to change your fortune in a really stupid way. Knights of the Old Republic for instance would have been so much shorter had Bastila not jumped in to take over a fight with baddie Darth Malak, resulting in your loss, her capture, and him getting considerably tougher before the rematch. At the very least, if a fight is going to be interrupted, don’t have it presented as a favour because the player isn’t ready to win the fight they’re currently winning.

The Elder Scrolls Needs To Rename Its “Thursday”

“Turdas”, honestly. Find any excuse to change it before the next one.

Okay, so that’s a bit more specific than most of these. But seriously.

Worlds of Murder

NPCs should have at least a little more range than “Hello, traveller! Welcome!” and “I MURDER YOU TO DEATH!” To use words you probably won’t see very often, I really liked how Risen handled it. Get into a fight with someone who doesn’t want you dead, and most of the time they’ll just knock your arse to the ground and take your wallet. Another, simpler, option would be to treat the player as dead but have them wake up in jail. It’s one thing for a character to respond with lethal force if you try and murder them in their bed… but if your crime was accidentally picking up a comb that was flagged as theirs? Yeah, in that case, crazed vengeance seems just a leeetle bit of an over-reaction.

The National Elf Service

I am a creature of the night! And I'm feeling a mite peaky!

Look, I accept that that some story and game dissonance is inevitable, and generally it’s fine. If an assassin jumps out and stabs the King, drama probably requires that he die, rather than take 5HP damage and sit back comfortably while his guards turn the assailant into red mulch.

However! If the world is one where resurrection is easily available, and every store sells magic health potions, this really needs to be factored in. Vampire: The Masquerade: Redemption (otherwise known as “The Crap One”) still stands out as a triumphant failure here, with the intro showing hero Christof being slowly brought to health, only to find a potion seller a quick stroll from his sickbed. There are always ways to justify why a particular death counts for real, from soul-destroying weapons, to not being able to take the body to a convenient temple, to ‘death’ in combat actually being a knockout. Handwaving is fine, but don’t defuse the drama with the obvious question “Wait, why can’t I cast my Resurrection spell here?”

Broken Economies

At least try. That’s all I ask. While I appreciate a lot of people don’t feel this way, so I won’t include it in my list, I will also add that I dislike heroes that craft. You want a sword? Go raid a tomb. Need a new one? Give a blacksmith some of your hero money. Honestly, the economy would be in a much better state if heroes didn’t feel the need to do everything and instead spread the love a bit.

No Difference Between Day and Night

Have a day/night cycle, don’t have a day/night cycle. But if you do have a day/night cycle, have it affect things. Not every game can be up there with Ultima’s cutting-edge 1992 technology, with the characters wandering home at the end of the day and other ‘living world’ type stuff. But if there’s a map transition or other scope to clean the board, please do something about the bustling marketplace going on in the pitch blackness and the drunks outside the tavern at 9AM.

Useless Stealth

Of course, ENEMIES being stealthed doesn't mean they shouldn't get a punch to the chops.

If you’re going to let me be invisible, don’t break that because a boss has a prepared monologue and battle arena. If you didn’t want me trying to backstab him while he scratches his arse and waits for me, don’t let me become invisible. If nothing else, provide some kind of warning that it’s not going to work, even if it has to be as blatant as him putting an anti-magic field in front of his arena.

Sword Fighting With Vermin

You do not have duels with rats. You spear them with your sword if they’re lucky. If they’re not, you give them a taste of your +2 Boots of Much Stomping. Ideally, you just tell the person who asked you to kill them to do what a sane person would do, and put down some poison. Much simpler.

Sudden Enforced Storyline Grouping

See, this was a really fun game before you started insisting I team my magnificent magic with these acronym-spewing oilsacks...

This is a particular annoyance with World of Warcraft, though other games have suffered from it too. Love or hate the fact that Personal Quests allow people to play through MMOs without grouping, the fact is that they do, and that’s how many people prefer to play. In World of Warcraft for instance, I’ve soloed most of the game at my own pace, taking my Undead Mage from primitive beginnings as a newly reawakened corpse to being the Commander of the Horde. I’ve fought in the war for Northrend, been pivotal in the rise and fall of Pandaria, and led the charge into Draenor.

But what I never get to do is finish the story. I want to defeat Arthas, I want to join the siege on Orgrimmar, I want to kill Deathwing and I want to do whatever ends Warlords of Draenor. But I don’t particularly enjoy MMO group play and I don’t enjoy raiding. If my character is enough for 95% of a campaign, dammit, they’re good enough for the final 5%. It’s not as if basically every Blizzard ending doesn’t boil down to an existing storyline character running in and claiming the credit anyway.

I wouldn’t even mind if that chance was held off until the next expansion pack, to reinforce that raiding is the preferred way to go. I don’t even care if there’s loot. But throw me a bone!

Apathetic NPCs

GAME IN MIRROR MAY BE LESS TWISTED THAN IT APPEARS

I still think Skyrim’s guards should arrest players for indecent exposure. I miss when RPGs would routinely factor in at least a couple of snarky comments for if you wandered around in your underwear. It was a good test of how responsive the rest of the game was going to be, if the designers had bothered. (Though not necessarily the mark of a great game, as Hard To Be A God proved despite its clever/heavy focus on social interactions based on your current clothing.)

It’s asking a lot to have characters react to everything, or even a lot. But, as a few basics, I want people to note when I randomly start stealing their stuff, for guards to not give me lip after saving the world from whatever currently plagues it, and to not be talked at as if a rank amateur from Level 1 to Level 100. This one is actually pretty easily done, just by not writing guards and random NPCs as jerks. Then, no changes are necessary at all! Who do they think they bloody are anyway?

Mindless Filler

If you can take out this group of orcs, and you took out the group of orcs before them, chances are the next one won’t cause a problem. We don’t really need fifty groups of orcs to test this hypothesis. Either use a system like Pillars of Eternity’s limited rests so that multiple fights take their toll, or cut to the good stuff and save us a boring hour of target practice. We get it already! Orcs exist!

Thee, Thou, Thine

See also, writing all text in runes. Though that's thankfully rare.

Ultima was the last series permitted to use Ye Olde Renaissance Talke.

Anything else, you missed your chance.

Lockpicking/Hacking Minigames

No. No, no, no, no, no. Lockpicking gets boring very quickly, and there has never been a hacking minigame in an SF RPG that hasn’t been terrible. Just do a bloody stat-check.

Bikini Armour

Yes, you knew it was going to be here. Here it is. However, I’m going to balance it with:

Cowardly Brothels, Prostitutes, Sex Scenes, Etc

If you’re going to put them into your game, have the balls or equivalent ladyparts to actually do it properly. As a particularly shameful example, here is a picture from the Game of Thrones RPG (the older one, not the Telltale one) which borrows cast and visual cues from the TV series, only to serve up this as the local brothel. Worst pasties this side of a crap branch of Greggs.

And you've got to assume taking those things off at the end of a shift is really going to pinch the nips.

The Witcher 2 showed that you can do graphic sex scenes with taste and meaning. This kind of content can also fit just fine on the seedy side of town. Or you could do other stuff with it. How much fun would it have been in Dragon Age to work on a scheme with Morrigan where she’d go get a prostitute and then turn into a giant spider? (The only acceptable excuse for this, in my book, because comedy trumps even horror) But if you don’t have the guts to do more than giggle and feel a bit naughty, then such content isn’t for you. Go back to the shallow end of the rating scale.

Oh, and be more interesting than to fade to black and consider your sex scene done.

Boring Openings

Again, MMOs, looking at you especially. They’re endemic to the genre though, in many forms – the long-winded lore dump intro movie in which someone discusses the last thousand years of history in ways that can be summed up as “Dragons exist”, the boring tutorial chapter in which our boring hero goes about their boring life to give us something to contrast it with, despite us knowing up front what that’s going to be, the boring ‘village on the road to the town where the game actually starts’ cliche, and numerous other boring, boring, boring things. Sometimes 60 or so levels of them.

RPGs are tales of heroism and adventure, and that should start from the beginning. The player character doesn’t have to be introduced personally beating up a dragon or something of that ilk, but if they’re not doing something interesting, the intro has failed. A fairly good rule for editing a book is to throw away your first chapter, because that’s usually where you just pontificated and introduced things that didn’t matter, with the second chapter being where the real action starts. Games are no different. Give us a reason to spend 20-50 hours in this world, beyond “Well, you paid, right?”

Well, I definitely feel better for getting that off my chest. Any of your own to add?

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