Genre Conventions

Asmiroth asks:

Thoughts on pre-existing scaffolding? In that a particular genre should replicate a previous model’s scaffolding, and when it doesn’t there’s a false sense of difficulty?

My thoughts here could (sadly) probably be reduced to “don’t do it badly.” That is, there are several good reasons to mess with existing conventions and several bad ones, and the badness of the bad ones often overwhelms the good. Creating a good variation on a genre is very good, adds new life, and can spawn new imitators and sub-genres. Done badly, yeah, it is more “awkward” than “difficult.”

I am immediately reminded of driving a car from the motor pool at work. Which vehicle you get is random, and each company has its own take on where the buttons and levers go for cruise control, windshield wipers, etc., and then there are variations that happen over time in the same make and model.

Good reasons include “this convention is stupid,” “there is a better way to do this convention,” and something idiosyncratic to the game that requires adaptation of a mechanic. Bad reasons include trying to pretend your game is not a clone of X by renaming the abilities, randomizing the interface, and changing the hotkeys. They are still health and mana bars, maybe hit points and energy, no matter what you have chosen to call them this game. Bonus points for games that use the standard terms for something else, say LotRO calling guilds “kinships” and then having “crafting guilds.” Consolations to games that thought they had a better way to do things but really just made it worse, or to those that made marginal improvements but got hate because it wasn’t exactly like Blizzard.

But jumping into a game that assumes you know the conventions is kind of horrible if you don’t know the conventions! Also for games that don’t mention that they are varying the conventions! Civ VI, what are you even trying to do there?

For those that have played a P&P game, swapping DMs is a heck of a learning curve.

The advice I have kept from a long-past Dragon Magazine article is to ask what sort of movie/book/etc. your DM & players are envisioning when they play. In a D&D game inspired by Conan, running through the wall of fire will singe the barbarian, who then hacks through the necromancer; pushing in either direction towards high magic or brutal realism makes a wall of fire an obvious death trap. In a modern game inspired by James Bond, walking into the enemy’s lair with a small caliber hand gun and a sense of panache is a winning plan; under a different vision, guards will shoot him dead in less than a minute.

What is “obvious” differs between people.

If I have learned to to X in a given situation, and it takes a fair amount of time for me to un-learn X and apply the correct (if re-taught) Y action instead. It’s not necessarily harder, it’s just different.

And this summarizes the previous two. In some games, the best offense is a good defense. Once you learn to stack block reliably, you can whittle down the enemies safely. In other games, the best defense is a good offense. Dead enemies deal no damage. A rare few games evenly support a variety of playstyles, but most favor a small set of options, most of which probably seemed obvious to the designer. Is this a game where you need to explore under every rock to become strong enough for the final fight, or will exploration sap your resources so you need to explore as little as possible (but enough to get X)?

Variation is good! Often what we want is exactly the same game that we just liked, but a new and different version that doesn’t change anything important, but it should still feel both new and the same. “More of the same” sequels can also be good! Change for change’s sake is usually bad.

There are more ways to do things wrong than to do them right. Any random change is probably a change for the worse. A change with good reason can be an improvement. Alas, so many of us think we have good reasons!

: Zubon

One thought on “Genre Conventions”

  1. Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, plays like a mule. I’ve had my fair share of those. I think Diablo 3 is a decent example. When it launched, it tried to take a different approach and that went sideways quickly. It then reverted back to the standard scaffold, and gradually improved upon it.

    Good tip on the P&P. Sure does find the tone.

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