Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wrangling Over Rust Monsters

Noisms just doesn’t get the rust monster hate:

I like Rust Monsters; they're one of the very few D&D creatures who can actually generate genuine fear and excitement in players - the others usually being level-draining undead. But there is no Rust Monster anymore: it was decided that destroying armour and weapons wasn't fun and should therefore be cut from the game. (Apparently genuine fear and excitement aren't enjoyable in the brave new world - crazy times.) It constitutes 'screwing players over', you see, because DMs can't be trusted to use Rust Monsters fairly or sensibly, and little Johnny the player will cry because the nasty Rust Monster took away his ickle Vorpal Sword, and he'll run off home and tell mumsy, and that won't be fun, and it will ruin D&D as we know it, or something. That's broadly the argument, as far as I can tell.

Well, not really. I suspect that Noisms’ first introduction to fantasy RPGs had nothing to do with a computer, and that’s made a lot of the difference.

No, this isn’t another “4e is WoW” rant. However, computer RPGs have influenced pen-and-paper RPG design, and the expectations of the players. Folks coming from computer games bring different assumptions to the table than those of us who started playing with our heads full of Harryhausen movies and Conan stories.

The original Diablo game, by Blizzard, is a great example of this. I read somewhere (somewhere I can’t find now) that the designers had a mantra when programming how the dungeon levels would be generated. It went something like this: “If a minute passes, and the player doesn’t see something die or burst into flames, something needs to be fixed.” If you played any of the old first-person-shooters, like Doom or Quake, you know exactly what they’re talking about. The game is great so long as you’re slipping around corners, dodging monsters, and shooting your guns. But the game falls painfully flat when you’ve cleared all the monsters you can find from a level, but have no idea how to get to the next one. You wander around and around through the maze, all the corridors looking the same, until you’re about to pull your hair out in frustration, looking for the damned key or door or whatever it is you need to go to the next level, so you can get back to the fun.

This is what they’re talking about when they say the rust monster isn’t fun. The problem isn’t so much that the player’s PC loses hard-earned loot, so much as it disrupts what the game is about. 4e is focused around the tactical challenges of battlemat combat. It’s about maneuver and when to whip out those per-day and per-encounter abilities. 4e is fun when these challenges are coming at a steady clip. This is why traps are now built like encounters and why non-combat encounters (aka the skill challenges) are set up to result in victory or defeat in a fairly short span of time. The primary goal was to give players a little break from the tactical challenges, and then get them right back into it as soon as possible afterwards.

The problem with the rust monster isn’t so much the equipment it destroys as it is the disruption to the standard pacing of the game. Instead of moving on to the next tactical challenge, the rust monster forces the PCs to leave the dungeon and return to civilization and re-equip. If you play it out, that means a long time of playing without tactical challenges, where the PCs are mostly traveling through previously cleared dungeon corridors and wilderness. If you don’t play it out, and just say the time passes and the coin is spent, why bother with the rust monster in the first place? The pain isn’t so much the personal grief of the player who’s PC lost his vorpal sword, and more the annoyance of the entire group as they are pulled away from stream of combats that is the core of the 4e experience.

Older players don’t mind so much because the core of the game way back when was exploration and logistics. Losing equipment was a logistical puzzle; do you continue on without it, or risk the dangerous road back to civilization? Pushing deeper into the dungeon without that sword or plate mail might be dangerous, but those random forest encounter tables in the back of the DMG could dump the party into the lap of a green dragon. If you risked going deeper, you might get lucky and find replacement equipment. If you go back, you’ll certainly be able to buy new equipment, but that choice isn’t without serious risk, either. Making those decisions was the fun of old school D&D. The rust monster didn’t interrupt the game. The rust monster was the game.

1 comment:

noisms said...

The rust monster didn’t interrupt the game. The rust monster was the game.

In the comments to the thread I linked to, somebody was basically complaining that Rust Monsters were an artificial way for DMs to create challenge without going through the (apparently more respectable option) of 'reworking the plot'.

And I think that's the legacy, not of computer games, but of White Wolf. When I started playing, role playing games didn't have plots. But now they apparently do - and it's mostly due to Vampire: The Masquerade and the games of that ilk.