Saturday, January 17, 2015

Shadow of Mordor: Video Games Improving the Hobby

I don't want my pen & paper games to be replicas of my video games. I firmly believe, however, that it is crucially important to study all rpgs and story-driven games to better understand what works and doesn't work about them, and which of those qualities that work can be translate into other mediums.

Enter the much-less-than-a-year-old LotR licensed game Shadow of Mordor.

Like all creative works, SoM has plenty of stuff that DMs can steal for their game: interesting plot twists, unique creatures, names, etc.. But there are two significant pieces of the game that make it excellent (in my humble opinion), and we need to examine them to see if we can add them to our tabletop repertoire.

The Combat

Video game combat is very different from pen & paper combat. No matter how complex and visually exciting it is, it does boil down to pushing one or more buttons repeatedly. That kind of monotony cannot be allowed to sneak its way into our tabletop games.

But if we take a look at more than just the boilerplate, we find a very interesting system. SoM uses the Batman Arkham combat engine (essentially), which has two major parts: a few plain but well-animated basic attacks, and then a plethora of extremely satisfying finishing moves, all of which use the same button activation, but have a varied appearance. The game camera also goes into slow-motion and zooms in for every single finisher the player does.

As most players of SoM will tell you, this leads to extremely satisfying and dynamic encounters, even sans the god-like superpowers your character eventually gets later in the game. So, what is the takeaway for the table?

  1. If you (the DM) aren't narrating how the characters defeat enemies in great detail, you are missing out on a great opportunity to increase immersion. Remember, camera slow-mo, zooooooom in.
  2. If the players are encouraged to narrate their hits and near misses (or really, all of their actions) in good detail, everyone is missing out on the immersion.
  3. Combat feels better when it goes smooooooooothly. There are a number of ways to do this, each way is better or worse depending on the group. Some quick examples:
    1. Initiative around the table clockwise instead of by roll, so everyone knows exactly when they go right from the start.
    2. Roll attack and damage at the same time, and just ignore the damage roll if you miss.
    3. Monster swarms/mobs instead of individuals.
    4. Minion/mook monsters with "hits-to-down" instead of a hit point pool.
  4. Lastly, SoM shows us an example of a game without a huge number of combat options (at the beginning, at least), that remains satisfying and dynamic. It isn't about having 100 things to do with each attack, but rather having at least one thing cool to do when the moment is right. Consider the following house rule I just made up (and sort of stole from Risus, now that I think about it):
    1. Whenever one combatant (player or otherwise), would reduce another combatant to 0 HP, the victorious combatant may do whatever they like to the defeated one, keeping them alive if they so choose. This could include: knock downs, trips, chokes, slams, pins, interrogations, aerial decapitations, brow-beatings, humiliations, scarring, and so on.
The Enemies

SoM's Nemesis System is a program for randomly generating, designing, and promoting boss Orcs during the game to replicate the ebb and flow of Mordor's chain of command. It was the biggest draw for the game's release, and rightfully so: this was the first time a video game could even attempt to mimic the creative potential of a DM. I think the developers did an excellent job with it.

Of course, no program could ever come up with more, or more creative enemies than a human DM could, but there is one thing the computer has on all of us behind the screen:

The computer never forgets to do its job.

DMing is a LOT of work, so who can blame us for forgetting to come up with a unique name, voice, appearance, and stat write-up for every big-baddy that trudges toward the party in a blind fury? It's almost impossible, but there are ways to cut yourself some slack and still save face, story-wise.

  1. SoM only gives enemies titles and personalities when they do significant things (like kill the player character, or get assigned as a bodyguard to an important Orc captain). DMs can do the same. When one of your Orcs or giants or whatnots deal a PC a grievous wound, or catch them sneaking around the camp, or escapes a battle with them, that enemy needs to be important and unique for later on.
  2. Get yourself some random voice, appearance, and surname/title tables and use them! Using the SoM method, this stuff writes itself. "Zaku the Handsome" is an Orc captain with terrible face boils and deformities. His name is ironic, memorable, and gives you 90% of his necessary description right off the bat.
  3. Keep a one-page log of the relations between named and reoccurring NPCs, so that when one dies or is displaced, or switches sides, etc., you have a reference for how the other guys will react. 
Let me know if there are any other games/movies/etc. that you want me to distill for the table!

No comments:

Post a Comment