What I'd Like to See in an "Old School" CRPG

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Matt Barton's picture

Shaker: Like a Polaroid picture.Shaker: Like a Polaroid picture.By now, I'm sure everyone has heard about how Brathwaithe and Hall pulled the plug on their Shaker RPG Kickstarter. I had pledged $100 to this one, mostly because the rewards were great and I have a lot of respect for everyone involved in this project (though I've yet to interview either). The gist of it all is that they went into this with a plan to do something "old school," but didn't get into enough specifics about what their game would actually be like. Sure, we all remember how great the old days of Wizardry, Ultima, Pool of Radiance, and Bard's Tale were...but after whipping up everyone into a gonad frenzy, they ran out of the room before anybody got to cuddle.

They've promised to come back with a stronger pitch. I doubt that any of them give a rat's squeal what yours truly would like to see in that pitch, but what the hell. I know they (amongst others) have the talent and experience to make me a very happy gamer, so here's what I would like to see in the next big Kickstarter classic CRPG pitch.

A huge gameworld bristling with infinitely nerdy possibilities. One of my fondest memories of both Pool of Radiance was the expansiveness of the gameworld. It wasn't just that it was big; it was diverse and full of surprises. You *wanted* to go out and explore it, not because of a silly ass achievement--we didn't need that childish crap back then--but because the writers and artists put some real effort into making these places look and feel interesting. Do you remember Sokal Keep in Pool of Radiance? How about Koto's Well? The fact that we can remember these places after nearly 25 years ought to tell you something. I also liked the surprises you had, for instance, when you entered the Great Library and fought a specter. That little nasty was located in the midst of the slums, where you'd been battling a bunch of low level stuff. Whoops!

I wish that every gameworld designer would read Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. The stuff he says about the architecture and layout of cities absolutely applies when making a fun gameworld. I think Lynch really hits on the reasons why I can still remember the layout of Stormwind but have little to no recollection of any of the cities in Dragon Age. Part of this deals with the horizons, landmarks, etc.; you need to be able to easily picture the city's layout in your head without having to look constantly at a map.

I also liked the attention to detail in Might and Magic 6, and how it rewarded you so much for taking copious notes. Yes, taking notes is fun! Oh, so the chainmail expert trainer is in this village...The master disarm traps trainer is here...This lady pays top dollar for bat guano. You get the idea. If I'm not sharpening a pencil after 20 minutes of gameplay, I'm disappointed.

If you want my dough: let me bakeIf you want my dough: let me bakeBasically, when I start a new CRPG and take my first steps into the gameworld, I want to feel like a cat exploring his new house for the first time, not a tourist tethered to a boring old tour guide. When talking about a new CRPG, the developer should begin by talking about the gameworld. If he or she can't make that sound interesting and a place I'd pay money to explore, forget about it!

Take a lesson from Ultima VII. You put a cow in there, I'd better be able to milk it, churn it into butter, bake a cupcake, and er, plant it in the ground and come back a year later and it's a unicorn.

Welcome to Matteria, a Land of Rats and Wonder...

Answer me this: "So, where is this game set? What can you say that'd make me want to spend six months there?"

Turn-based, tactical, spreadsheet-inducing combat. The new X-Com game is the closest I've felt in a long time to the same delights I got back in the day playing the gold box series. True, it wasn't quite as complex as I'd like, but at least I could kick back and really think about where to place troops, whether to attack or guard, and when to use abilities. A game that lets you create and outfit a party of five or even seven adventurers could really hit the spot here, especially if they give us tons of different classes and options for leveling up. I know some idiots claim this gets boring, but that's only because the designer hasn't done due diligence polishing the interface. I shouldn't have to do anything but hit enter or click once to repeat or perform a common action. I shouldn't be in a menu unless I'm doing something special; something only done once or twice per battle, such as a hurling a fireball or throwing down caltrops. A battle that doesn't last at least 20 minutes and a cup of coffee isn't worth putting in.

Switching from a bardiche to a glaive ought to make a real difference. Somehow. I don't know how. But that's your job, designer!

Answer me this: "What have you done to make me love your combat engine so much I have a separate Excel spreadsheet for each member of my party?"

Smart economics. It's always important to tie this into the economics of the game. I don't want loot dropping out of every corpse like cigarette ashes from the frayed old hag at the casino. I want to be in a town trying to figure out if I'd rather spend the ten coins to level up, buy a new helmet, teach my mage a new spell, or have my rogue join the thieves' guild. I also like convenience purchases, such as bags of holding, an ox to help carry my loot, horses to ride on, etc. And for God's sake, DO NOT insult me with stupid ass vanity shite. I don't need a "skin" for my character.

Shopping: So hard to find sabatons to match this cape.Shopping: So hard to find sabatons to match this cape.Crafting should never be about going out and gathering stuff, grinding, etc. It should be about increasing the value of the stuff you find. The "skinning" skill from WOW is a good example of this (as opposed to their mining/herbalism crap). So I've just killed a bunch of wolves. Let's skin them and sell them back at town. Oh, look, that kobold had a gold tooth. Ka-ching! This kind of crafting just makes killing stuff more rewarding, not something that diverts you away from it. Why not have a skill for dissecting corpses and learning how to brew better poisons or get more crits? Some type of collectible skill so you recognize that the "worthless bauble" that kobold was dangling from its lobe is actually worth a mint?

Answer me this: "What have you done to satisfy my need to exploit the hell out of this environment for personal satisfaction?"

Delayed gratification. "But I want it now!!!" Of course you do. And the more you want it, and the harder you have to work for it, the more you're going to ENJOY it when you get your grubby little hands on it. There's a tendency in newer RPGs to hit you with a new level or ability every five minutes. It's that ADHD-inspired crap that I *hate*. Don't give me five new abilities before I've had a chance to master the first one. It's a good feeling in a CRPG when you've finally gotten so good with your techniques that you're handily dispatching monsters that gave you hell before. Give us a chance to savor that before upping the ante again. I want to be in leather and rags killing rats and spiders with blunt objects for at least 12 hours before I've moved up to orcs. And for God's sake, if you have my level 1 heroes killing a dragon, I'm going to wipe my butt with your cloth map. Well, maybe my friend's cloth map.

I'm not an hyperactive brat who needs a juicebox and a kiss from mommy every fifteen seconds. "DING! You're level 4.2, congratulations!!!!" I'm a grown man who wants to hit a rat on the head with a dull, rusty axe for two weeks.

Answer me this: "Have you paced this game so that I have time to recharge between orgasms?'

Enough with the cloth maps. Been there, done that. It was cool back in the day because Lord British wowed us with something new and unexpected. Sorry, folks, you can't just copy him and expect to produce a similar effect. Instead of being lazy and copying British, think up something ON YOUR OWN to make me open that box and go "wow!" What would I rather have than a cloth map? How about something that actually relates to your game, like Infocom liked to do? Or, why not just make the box itself a collectible. It doesn't have to be a plastic helmet. Just look at Infocom's awesome Suspended box. Now that would look awesome on any shelf.

Cloth Map: Oh, so (yawn) original.Cloth Map: Oh, so (yawn) original.There are really only three things I'd like in a REAL collector's edition: Kick-ass box, well-produced and DETAILED manuals, and a little card that says "Thank you" signed by the team.

Answer me this: "How much thought have you put into the package and the pack-ins?"

Rats. I think I've mentioned this a few times already, but a game without rats is not a CRPG, folks. You can tell a lot about how much passion a designer has by the rats in a game. If the developer is any good, when the rats show up, it's party time. Rats are the original party animal. You want to break the ice at a dull gathering? Toss in a rat or two and see what happens!

If you can't have the player fighting a pack of rats and make it fun, there's no point in continuing.

Answer me this: "Rats? Tell me more."

Save the heavy dialog/story for the novelization. I know some games have pulled this off, but frankly, I'm bored with it. Nobody ever played Pool of Radiance or Wizardry or Ultima for the awesome storyline. Just toss in a bunch of stock characters doing predictable things so we don't have to bother reading any stupid text. I don't want MY characters to say anything! *I*, repeat *I* will do the talking for them in my head! The only dialog options I should have are (a) hostile (b) friendly (c) meek (d) pitiful etc., then roll the scores on charisma/str/int or however you want to set it up. If I want my characters to fall in love, I'll buy golden rings for them and marry them at that chapel I noted on page 32 of my notebook. I want to be the story, not have it told to me!

Seriously, if you just cannot resist the urge to write a novel, then write one!!! Have it printed and include it in the kickass box.

Answer me this: "Where are my reading glasses? Up your arse!"

Pipes and ale. There are two things that every CRPG needs: a way to smoke, and a way to drink. No "adventurer" performs well without his pints and puffs. Try to imagine a good fantasy story that doesn't start in a tavern. See, you can't do it, can you? Yet how many lame ass games only penalize you for drinking and smoking a good ol' pipe. And no, I don't care that tobacco wasn't in Europe until the New World. This is fantasy. To fight a strong beastie, you must drink a strong ale. Remember that.

Answer me this: "I'm sorry, were you talking instead of drinking?"

Stores with fun stuff to buy. Picture yourself at a Ren Fair. How many times have you said to yourself, "Hm, I've got plenty of money, but there's nothing here that I'd like to buy"? Uhm, how about NEVER? Now consider that people actually have to MAKE that mead, battle axe, leather cape, mandolin, dulcimer, or codpiece. All a game developer has to do is render the model and stick it in there. Shops that have nothing interesting in them don't last long. So why not put at least a few really INTERESTING things in the various shops of your gameworld? I ought to be looking at the selection and saying, "Hm, what the heck is that weird ass thing over there for 500 gold pieces?" It seems like all the MMOs I've played have failed hugely in this regard, turning their shops into mere exchanges for "junk" items, which, by the way, there should be zilch.

Answer me this: "Are the shops in your game more fun than a Wal-Mart? No? Then allow me to exchange this @#$@ game for a jug of Sam's Cola!"

A Proper Rat: fr. Tales of IllyriaA Proper Rat: fr. Tales of IllyriaRealistic graphics. I'm not saying the graphics have be detailed into 5 million polygons or whatever. I'm talking more about the style. I don't want to play a goofy looking cartoon or a game that doesn't appear to take itself seriously. I don't want to see a spiky-haired kid with eyes the size of watermelons lugging around a sword as big as a telephone pole. That said, neither do I want "gritty realism." I am tired of gritty realism. I am sick of gritty realism. The art is there to stimulate my imagination, not substitute for it.

Answer me this: "Does your art inspire the same longings to enter a fantasy realm that the good ol' TSR books did back in the day?"

So you see, there's not a lot that you need, really, to make a great "old school" CRPG. The main thing is to be nerdy enough to have created sixteen different dances for the Northeastern Forest Elves in your game, each with its own set of bonuses for different phases of the ten moons, but not so nerdy that you frighten me.


Charles (not verified)
Bardiche / Glaive

"Switching from a bardiche to a glaive ought to make a real difference. Somehow. I don't know how. But that's your job, designer!"

A bardiche gives extra reach ;)

Rhuantavan (not verified)

I strongly disagree on the rats thingie, but I loved the article overall. So much I arrived late at work actually.

Also I think the story and characters can be predetermined and still make a good game - Betrayal at Krondor comes to mind.

StefaNonsense (not verified)
Well said

All of them are very good points indeed, great article.

Joined: 09/11/2011
Another good read. And I

Another good read. And I agree, rats are a must. I only kinda of agree about the cloth maps. I do wish developers would add something different than just the obligatory cloth map. And it's really the map part that I'm concerned with. I think a good map, whether cloth or not, is important. Even looking at old D&D stuff, or even newer stuff, one of the most interesting things is always the cartography. So, really for me, it doesn't have to be cloth, but please include a nice map.

Pressurizer (not verified)
Excellent, I agree with

Excellent, I agree with almost everything, especially the rats. I hate it when my character/party successfully battles a troop of well-armed bandits ten minutes in the game. There's no sense of achievement.
Gothic did that right, you spent quite a while battling 'young molerats' with a 'heavy branch', and you crept up on herds of low-level enemies to lure one of them to you, because you were too pitifully weak to deal with more.
And when you actually got your first set of leather armor and a short sword, you were actually proud.

I have my doubts about the storyline thing, I like a good storyline, and I will happily read some exposition or dialogue if it's well-written. Maybe I'm just too lazy to make up my own story like Matt does :)

I'd like to add one more thing: Interesting side quests. A lot of modern CRPGS often tend to either offer almost no side quests or boring filler stuff like 'kill this man for the assassin's guild' or 'fetch this random item and deliver it to this random character'. A side quest should offer new insights into the game world and its inhabitants. And some nifty loot, of course.

Joined: 01/21/2009
quests that matter
Pressurizer wrote:

I'd like to add one more thing: Interesting side quests. A lot of modern CRPGS often tend to either offer almost no side quests or boring filler stuff like 'kill this man for the assassin's guild' or 'fetch this random item and deliver it to this random character'. A side quest should offer new insights into the game world and its inhabitants. And some nifty loot, of course.

This got me thinking, I'm a Elder Scroll fan and all the side quest tend to make me forget the main quest, BUT i have to agree, they all seem to be just "time killers" and none add to the main quest, or even fill out the lore of the world. They do make you explore, which is good. But just a tiny bit of time could tie them in to the main quest, maybe with just info, or "you just killed a man hiding from the king injustice" some stuff to fill out the main NPC's demeanor.. it doesn't have to change the game, just add to it .. not simply make the game longer. Again I LOVE the Elder Scrolls.. but if they spent the time they do writing the 200 small books in the game and put it into simple tie ins of the side quest i think it could make it better. Those 200 small books are cool.. but when they are about gods, and such I wont lie.. i read the first 50 and lose interest after that.

excellent point Pressurizer

Pressurizer (not verified)
Thanks :) I think the

Thanks :)
I think the Baldur's Gate games are excellent examples of how it's done. They do have their share of bring-A-to-character-B quests, but they also offer excellently crafted side quests filled with interesting characters and storylines. They aren't filler you trudge through to earn experience for the main quest, but fascinating adventures in themselves.

Cyberius (not verified)
I absolutely love The Elder

I absolutely love The Elder Scrolls too. I'm currently playing TES:Arena, and I feel the same. At first I loved the quests, but
they became monotonous. I couldn't be mad at TES though. And I totally agree that rats are important. Every adventurer has to start out fighting something.

Joined: 02/07/2012

How about zombie cyborg rats bro,

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Next gen feelie in an old school-style CRPG?

I agree the cloth map thing is overdone and frankly unnecessary since that can all be displayed via computer these days. Certainly if we're talking an old school-style CRPG, having a few extra windows - including one with an overworld map - would not be out of place, particularly since we now have gaudy resolutions to leverage. A novelization is nice, but also ultimately unnecessary as part of the game.

I was thinking about what feelies might make sense with such a game that wasn't the usual trinket. One thing that came to mind was a type of USB-powered robotic trinket or toy, which, when plugged in, directed the speech of an in-game character to its own speaker and perhaps did some facial animations or other animations to convey emotions. A crude example of what I had in mind is something like this: http://technabob.com/blog/2010/03/06/dodobongo-usb-dog/ . Now, think back to the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon with the Dungeon Master character. What if he was embodied in a little USB figure and either narrated certain scenes or warned you of impending danger or did any other number of other minor, but still fun things? It would kind of take the idea of a feelie to the next level, right?


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