Saturday, March 14, 2009

So where did these roles come from, anyway: Part 3

OK, so if you've been following along (or reading from the bottom, I suppose), here's where we are. I'm trying to figure out how we wound up with the class roles we wound up with in D&D and World of Warcraft. In other words, how come we wound up with defender/leader/striker/controller (D&D) or tank/healer/DPS (WoW) rather than some other scheme.

Do other schemes exist? Sure. The action-movie scheme is smart guy/big guy/face guy/wild card. (The A-Team! Exactly!) We could have wound up with something like that. There's nothing inevitable about tank/healer/DPS from player psychology or from the fantasy source material.

Here's my conclusion: We got the roles we got because Gary Gygax gave D&D magic-users d4s for Hit Dice.

In other words, the class role scheme emerged from the mechanics of D&D itself, not from the inclinations of the players or the source material. And the scheme was omnipresent when D&D-lovin' designers were working on the first MMORPGs, so they followed suit.

So You Wanna Be a Magic User
Let's look at original D&D and 1st edition D&D. This will be old hat for the D&D grognard, but if you weren't playing D&D in the late '70s and early '80s, you'll be amazed at how cruelly fragile the D&D wizard was.

The magic user class--what we'd call wizards nowadays--had four-sided dice for Hit Dice. Period. That means many of them should be running around at 1st level with 2 or 3 hit points. And this was back in the day when most players rolled dice (often 3d6 or 4d6-drop-the-lowest) for their ability scores. You had to have a really good Constitution to eke out another hit point or two; it wasn't like 3rd edition where a 12 Con is worth another hit point and a 14 Con is worth +2 hp.

Contrast those hit points--somewhere in the 2 hp to maaaaybe 5 hp range--with the damage from a single monster attack: 1d6 damage was typical, with some attacks greater or lower. Even the weakest pit trap dealt 1d6 damage. Get hit once, you might be dead. Get hit twice, you're almost certainly dead.

It gets worse. There was no negative hit points or unconscious state. Zero hit points means you're full-on dead. Monty-Python-parrot dead. Resurrection magic was a high-level affair, prone to failure, and you came back weaker each time.

But it's worse than that. No armor for you, either, Mr. Magic User. You had an Armor Class of 10 (the worst possible), and at 1st level you were unlikely to improve it with magic or a high Dexterity (because remember, you rolled those ability scores, and nothing short of a 16 Dex could get you an Armor Class improvement).

You know what? It gets still worse. Your saving throws--rolls to avoid various environmental and magical effects--weren't very good. You had few weapons to attack with, and your magic was the fantasy equivalent of a single hand grenade...if you were lucky and got a top-drawer offensive spell like sleep.

So go ahead, send that guy with 3 hp and AC 10 into the Caves of Chaos. He can't survive. Sooner or later, there's going to be an arrow with his name on it. It's the tyranny of math.

If you played a 1st-level magic user in the early 1980s, you could not survive enough encounters to reach 2nd level. The odds against are astronomical. If you did survive, here's why:

• Your table adopted house rules to be less cruel to magic-users specifically or less lethal in general. (Like positing a near-death state at 0 hp, giving magic-users more or better spell choices at the outset, and so on.)
• You were cheating.
• Your DM was cheating on your behalf. If he did a good job, you never noticed.

Now, the word "cheating," especially in the latter case, is more pejorative than I intend it to be. D&D is a cooperative game, after all, and whatever "cheating" occurs is often a victimless crime. Frankly, a DM fudging dice rolls to keep a 1st-level magic-user alive is an act of friendship.

The fragility of those magic-users, viewed through the lens of future D&D editions and computer games, seems to be an utterly baffling, counterproductive, and just plain bad design decision. Why on earth would Gygax set up an entire class to fail? I mean, anyone looking at 4 hp, AC 10 knows that it doesn't add up, right?

But Gygax was on the frontier of a whole new type of game, and so he was operating with a different mindset than most game designers. I believe that when he was building the magic-user, he was in simulation mode.

• Magic users had 1d4 hit points because they _should_ be scrawnier than thieves and clerics, and even scrawnier than a hobgoblin or an orc.
• Magic users had AC 10 because that's what ordinary peasants in tunics had, and there's no simulation reason for the game to treat magic users any better.
• You got one spell per day because Gygax figured that if Turjan (from the Dying Earth) could keep four spells in his head at once, then a beginner like you gets one spell in your head at a time.

Viewed through the simulation lens, all reasonable choices. It's only when you take those 3 hp into a dungeon that it falls apart.

Sherman, Set the Wayback Machine for 1982
Now imagine yourself in a basement starting your first AD&D campaign back in the early 1980s. Van Halen's Fair Warning is on the turntable and you've got your parachute pants on. Everyone is playing D&D by the book, and because 1st edition AD&D did a good job of obscuring the system numbers, nobody realizes that the magic user is doomed. The inevitable goblin arrow kills the magic user, and a pall falls over the table.

At this point, a couple of things probably happen. First, the guy playing the magic user probably rolls up another magic user or maybe an illusionist (same thing, pretty much). But the DM has better access to the game's underlying numbers, and it's probably dawning on him that the next magic user isn't going to be any more viable than the last one.

If the DM is really with it, he comes up with a house rule on the spot. But more likely, he starts cheating behind the screen to keep the new magic user from dying in the very next encounter. (Nothing wrong with that--if you're hanging out with your friends in the basement, you might as well have fun, right?) But the players don't know that the fix is in. Even the DM might not realize how far he's going to go to keep that magic user alive.

Independent of the DM, the players (probably subconsciously) change their tactics to keep the magic user alive. They're doing so not because doing so makes tactical sense. They're doing it just to keep their buddy Bob from getting bummed out because his D&D character died.

The other characters start standing in front of the magic user...and thus the traditional front-rank/back-rank tactic is born. More interestingly, the other characters start doing everything they can (attacks, verbal insults, silly/weird antics) to keep the monsters from focusing their attention on the magic user...and thus aggro management is born. If magic users were as durable as, say, the D&D thieves, I don't think either behavior would have become so pronounced.

So I think that's where our tanks came from. I need to make lunch for my kids, so expect part 3.1 soon, in which I'll explain that the healers came out of the same place--the early D&D game mechanics and Gary Gygax's urge to simulate.

Out of Context: "There's still more beautifulness!"
Music: Brad, Shame

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Mother of All Funk Chords

Part 3 of the "Roles" thing will be up tonight. Truly, I am beset with good writing opportunities. 

In the meantime, here's something mind-blowing I spotted on Jonathan Coulton's site. An Israeli guy has taken a bunch of disparate YouTube clips (mostly music instruction ones) and chopped and edited them so that all the YouTube musicians are playing the same song--a song completely unlike the one in each individual clip.

The amount of work that goes into this staggers me. But oh! The payoff!

Check it out here.

Out of Context: "Being a thug means never having to say you're sorry."
Music: Radiohead, The Bends

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

So where did these roles come from, anyway: Part 2

Yesterday I made the contention that the character class roles...

Tank/DPS/Healer for MMO character classes; and
Defender/Striker/Controller/Leader for 4th edition D&D (and less overtly in previous editions)...

...came from somewhere, but they didn't inevitably emerge from player psychology. Players are all too happy to hop roles whenever they get the chance.

Stop! Sidebar time! It occurred to me that I should have explained something better yesterday. What I'm trying to get at the root of is why we wound up with the specific roles we wound up with. The fact that we wound up with roles at all...well, I regard that as inevitable, but it's interesting to ruminate on other role schemes we could have wound up with.

With that out of the way, let's get to it.

Another logical place to search for the root of the class roles is in the source material that inspired D&D and eventually Ultima Online, Everquest, World of Warcraft, and so on. Now, we aren't going to see lit characters called tanks, strikers, or whatever in the text. But we're looking for behaviors and attributes that match the character roles in D&D and MMOs. As we go on a role-seeking safari, here's what we're looking for:

• A really durable guy who occupies the attention of most of the opposition, yet provides only moderate "output" back at them.
• Conversely, someone who's more fragile but delivers most of the force applied against the opposition.
• Someone who heals other people. If that's insufficiently abstract, you can say "someone who rejuvenates others mid-battle," but really, if it's not actual healing, you're stretching.

For extra credit, you can look for examples of "crowd control," rendering the opposition temporarily unable to project its force (to borrow some good old maneuver warfare jargon). After all, that's (theoretically) an important distinction between strikers and controllers in 4th edition.

To start, let's go to one of my favorite places...

Hey, My Favorite Appendix! Appendix N!

Back when I was with Wizards, I wrote a bit about Appendix N of the 1st edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide. You can find it here. Reread your beloved copy, or take it from me: You'll mostly search in vain for any sort of team-based exploits in those books. And you aren't going to see the roles except in contrast with each other. Elric and Conan just wade through entire hordes of enemy soldiers, but that doesn't make them tanks. Fafhrd is no less a striker (and no more a defender) than the Gray Mouser is. You'll see almost no battlefield healing--period--and precious little crowd control in the many fantastic battles in all those great Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Moorcock books. 

Nor are you going to find those class roles in the literary influence that Gary Gygax always downplayed: Tolkien. As I've said before, Tolkien's greatest gift to tabletop and online RPGs wasn't dwarves, elves, and orcs. It was team-based adventures. But flip through Lord of the Rings. Gimli isn't tanking so that Legolas can do unfettered DPS. The more capable members of the Fellowship are trying to occupy the bad guys and keep the hobbits safe, sure, but their output is top-notch. Gandalf is no glass cannon, and he's not running around with d4 Hit Dice per level. When he mixes it up in melee, he's hardly fragile.

This shouldn't be surprising. Tolkien wasn't worried that every member of the Fellowship contributed equally yet uniquely to a battle. He wasn't sweating the intraparty balance issues; he had a novel to write!

You can make up D&D or WoW characters that look and behave like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. But their in-game behavior is going to map to their class roles and they'll feel constrained compared to their in-book counterparts. (And the game versions of those three guys are going to need a healer--the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith aren't going to cut it.)

I really thought I'd find proto-tanks and proto-DPS lurking in the time-shrouded mists of 20th-century fantasy literature. But they're maddeningly elusive. You can find durable guys who like to stand in front of the bad guys and take punishment, sure, but they're usually swinging the biggest swords, too. Battlefield healing is almost nonexistent. And that's if you can find team-based battles at all; they're surprisingly scarce. 

Let's Look Elsewhere

Some exploratory mining in other areas is probably warranted at this point.

• Superhero comics: The comic books of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s are a huge influence on D&D and gaming in general, mostly because gamers and game designers love 'em. And unlike most fantasy lit...hey! We've got teams! Lots of 'em!

Scratch the surface, though, and you don't get much evidence of tanks, DPS, and healers. All the pieces are right there for everyone to see (although healing is still hugely underrepresented), but the pieces aren't usually assembled into anything like gaming's class roles. 

We've got lots of durable, armored, or otherwise invulnerable heroes, for example. They do an admirable job of attracting the attention of dozens of HYDRA mooks or whatever. Tanks, right? Nope--their output is usually top-drawer as well. It's just as accurate to call 'em freakishly durable DPS. 

Try to apply the class role labels to superheroes, and you'll soon find yourself scratching your head. Some heroes are easy, but is Iron Man a tank or DPS? That's exactly the sort of question that'll launch a 20-page ENWorld thread. Take your pick among any of the invulnerable "tanks" in the Avengers: Hulk, Thor, Wonder Man. Same story--they're sitting at the top of the imaginary WWS meters. And where are all the healers?

(On the plus side, I'm giving myself ten points for working Secret Wars into this.)

It's worth noting that while I delved into my comic stacks to check this out, I can't claim to be comprehensive. But seriously, I found almost no consistent class-role behavior. Try it yourself! Take a two-year run of your favorite team comic and look at the big donnybrooks. Let me know whether you see a tank/DPS/healer strategy. Here's what I think you'll see instead. In a team-vs.-one fight, you'll see each good guy put in danger consecutively. A team-vs.-team fight will almost always evolve into a series of one-on-one or two-on-one matchups selected for dramatic reasons, not tactical ones. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

The City of Heroes MMORPG, where the players are superheroes, has class roles called archetypes, of course: Tanker, Blaster, Controller, Scrapper, Defender. (Sound familiar?) But that's a comic book game, not a comic book. More on how CoH fits into things tomorrow.

Star Wars: Another big influence on pretty much anything gamers or game designers did in the 1980s. Watch the movies, and you'll see the Jedi engaged in tanking and DPS duties (and a fair amount of crowd control) interchangeably. A Jedi will stand in harm's way and occupy dozens of those roger-roger guys. But that Jedi is also the output. It's hard to extract any sort of class-role prehistory out of Star Wars (and in any case, D&D is older than Star Wars). 

Out of Context: Tron came out when I was twelve. So Chuck is 39? (Clearly his writer is.)
Music: Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Raising Sand

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So where did these roles come from, anyway: An Intro

I've been thinking a lot about how two of my favorite games (D&D and WoW) and, by extension, two of my favorite pastimes (tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs) wound up with character roles: abstract "templates" that describe a character's essential function in the action part of the game (fighting, usually). WoW (like most MMOs) has the basic triangle of tank, DPS, and healer. D&D has always had similar roles, and in 4th edition we defined them as defender, striker, controller, and leader.

(If you aren't familiar with both genres, suffice it to say that tank = defender, healer = leader, and strikers and controllers are two flavors of DPS.)

But the weird thing? There's nothing inherent to either game in the abstract that leads you inexorably to the specific roles we wound up with. So how did we get here? 

I'm going to take a shot at answering that question in the next few posts. So call this a little blog series: "So where did these roles come from, anyway?"

But I'm going to start in a circuitous way. I think you can learn something about the emergence of those essential roles by looking not only at what a player picks as the role for the character he's actually playing, but also by looking at what a player picks for his next character--or (for MMOs) the character he's playing "on the side" in his spare time.

So let's talk about alts: alternate characters.

First: Warcraft Alts

Some of my best friends are WoW altaholics (people with multiple active characters). Once they get a character to the level cap, they start one or two others, and pretty soon they have a stable of decently-geared, max-level characters. I've always been sort of envious. Maybe it's because my main character is a level 80 feral druid (one of the game's better hybrids, and just plain fun to play), but I've never been much of an alt guy. I always have plenty of things on my main character's to-do list.

I have alts, of course.

• There's the undead rogue who was my first level-capped character. I stopped playing him only because I wanted to challenge myself with a PvP server (and thus my druid was born). I pretty much never play him anymore; he's stalled at level 61.
• I have a level 65 mage that I soloed up mostly to learn the Inscription profession and because I was taking a sabbatical from guild leadership and wanted to make myself scarce temporarily. He stopped at level 65 (the minimum to max out Inscription) and appears in Azeroth only to grab herbs out of the mailbox, turn them into ink, and (hopefully) make Noble Darkmoon cards.
• I've got a few low-level "experiments," pretty much one of every class. They're all between level 20 and 30.
• I recently started a Draenei paladin on a different server, mostly so I could enjoy the leveling-up process with a different set of quests than I'm used to. He's level 38 now, and I play him more than anyone else. 
• And like pretty much everyone, I've got a few characters that exist solely to run between the mailbox and the auction house. 

That sounds like a lot. But when I compare my arsenal of alts to the folks in my guild (which for obvious reasons tends to match my overall play style and available time to play), I'm just a piker. At least half of my guildies have at least two level 80 characters. For example, Broteas (resto shaman) has a mage alt. Shieral (bounces between boomkin and resto druid) has an enhancement shaman and a warrior that used to be our main tank. Divona (shadow priest) has a DPS death knight, a hunter, a holy paladin...and those are just her Horde characters. 

And here's the interesting thing: Almost none of them have two max-level characters in the same role (except for a few delightful but clinically insane friends who have five or six level 80 characters). On one level, that isn't surprising: people are looking for a change of pace when they select their alts. Vive la difference, right?

But on another level, it's interesting that those altaholics are throwing away all those man-hours spent learning the ins and outs of a specific role. As a guy who plays a hybrid (in my case, bouncing between DPS and tanking), I feel like I'm doing new content when I'm tanking for the first time--even if it's a dungeon I've run several times as DPS. There's no question that someone who picks a different role for their alt is volunteering to learn the game all over again. That brings with it some inefficiency (but to be clear, some fun, too).

And there's supposed to be differences in player psychology that would make you gravitate to a specific role. More on that in a second.   

Second: D&D "Alts"

When you look at alternate characters for D&D players, it's important to realize an essential difference between the tabletop and the online experience: The moment of character creation is far more constrained at the tabletop. Of course you can sit there with a sharp pencil and a stack of blank character sheets and make up as many characters as you want (and unlike WoW, you can make 'em whatever level you want!). But to actually play the new character, you've got to "retire" (often through death) your existing character, or you've got to start a whole new campaign. You can't level up your ranger at 2 a.m. when you're alone in your dorm room--not really, anyway. The tabletop game exists as a consensual experience with your friends.

So look at the two times you get to make up a new D&D character: character "retirement" (oh heck, let's just call it "death") and campaign starts. 

When your character dies, there's a strong incentive to roll up a new character in the same role as the old one. But where does that incentive come from? The other dudes at your table. It's an externality. Given your druthers, you might or might not choose the same role. But at the moment of character generation, you've got a table of buddies who are suddenly short a defender (or whatever). If you roll a leader instead, you hurt not only your new character's viability, but that of the whole table. The tendency toward "role persistence" is a function of the group's needs at the moment, not necessarily the individual's natural inclination.

In my long-running Thursday night game (spanning eight years and multiple campaigns, with long breaks when I was a new dad), the best example of this "role persistence" was my buddy Cameron, who was famous for a long line of "brave but lightly armored" characters. He played a lot of rogues and rangers, and, well, he died a lot. Cam plays aggressively and is a natural "instigator" in a good way; his characters actively seek out stuff to do, rather than waiting for NPCs to do stuff to him. Every DM wants a guy like that at the table. But the consequence is that Cameron's characters tended to be shishkabobbed, drowned, and/or stung to death by unusually venomous bees. 

When Cam showed up with his next brave-but-lightly-armored character, it was a natural thing to think that he liked that striker role. But really, Cam was looking around the table, saying: "Leader? Check. Defender? Check..." and so on. Put Cam in the other character-creation circumstance--the start of a new campaign--and bingo! Role persistence evaporates. When the whole party died in late 2007 (due in no small part to Cameron's rogue pulling a lever that should have been left alone), everyone made up new characters and we fast-forwarded a thousand years. Unfettered by the needs of the table, Cam made a dwarf fighter that was the very essence of a defender.

I spent ten years at Wizards of the Coast, so I always had plenty of campaign-start opportunities, and I was lucky enough to play in multiple campaigns simultaneously. As I think back, almost everyone in those games--professional game designer or not--bounced around from role to role when a new campaign started and their role choice was unfettered. Rich plays a paladin in one campaign, then a sorcerer with delusions of godhood in the next. Toby replaces his warforged fighter (rest in peace, Hammer) with a wizard. And come to think of it, my barbarian gets replaced with a wizard, and in the campaign after that I'm a melee cleric, and in the 50 Fathoms campaign after that I'm functionally a defender. (Miss ya, Roo!)

Let's Talk Psychographics
Based on my personal experience (the best data I have), there isn't much role persistence among either WoW or D&D players, once you subtract out the "we need a _______" factor that happens a lot at D&D tables and sometimes in WoW guilds. 

Yeah, my evidence is anectodal, but it's the best I have. I suspect that maybe WotC could tease better data out of the RPGA database (although organized, RPGA-style gaming is still something of a different beast than traditional "basement" gaming). And there's no question that Blizzard could extract more definitive data about how likely it is that a player prefers a specific role.

But here's the thing: Wizards R&D certainly believes that there are differences in player psychology that manifest themselves in role choice. In other words, some players are naturally drawn to play a leader, others a defender, and so on. I'm pretty sure that the Blizzard devs believe the same thing. And certainly some players are convinced that "you know, healing is really what I'm good at."

But given the proclivity of players in both games to happily change roles, I don't think the psych differences are that meaningful. And those psych differences are tenuous enough that I don't think you can say that roles emerged out of the psych differences in tabletop or online RPG players.

So the specific roles we wound up with--where did they emerge from? Maaaaybe from the source material: the broader fantasy genre. More on that tomorrow; I've got some offline writing to tackle first.

Out of Context: If it snows a lot, can we go saucing, Daddy?
Music: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother's Milk

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Starting over in Warcraft, and three optimistic things.

I've been playing a ton of World of Warcraft lately. So--fair warning--expect a lot of posts about Warcraft in the next couple of days. (I've got a list, ya see.) 

And some D&D stuff, too. When you've been a professional writer (of sorts) for years, you can kinda feel when you've got a productivity spurt coming. Expect me to type a lot this weekend and next week.

In the meantime, here are three things that let me connect with my inner optimist.

1) I think one of the smart dudes at wizards shared this essay with me several months ago. Gin carts! On the streets! And I've seen my own three-year-old and six-year-old behave like the little girl in this essay.

2) Chairs in the sky, man. the sky!

3) This youtube video. It's kinda plodding (though I like Jeff Lynne's voice), but hang in there until the dude in the red hat shows up about three and a half minutes in.

Out of Context: From Spencer Hall of the Sporting News: "You probably like your airline pilots and heart surgeons sober, too, you pack of tiptoeing nervous nellies. Hate on, safety freaks. Rex is leaving town, and he's doing it on a flaming train of bikini-clad hotties with the devil's breath at his back, and he's not using the brakes until he hits something full of money and victory."
Music: Saga, "On the Loose"