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Epiphany about the nature of RPGs

Discussion in 'General RPG Discussion' started by Jason Liang, Jan 28, 2018.

  1. Jason Liang Arcane

    Jason Liang
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    So I've been thinking about RPGs a lot in the past month, especially the past few days since it's the middle of a snowstorm and I've been snowed in, running out of food and just hibernating when not online. I had a dream-epiphany last night that I'd like to share, but it's a little hard to organize my thoughts right now and I don't know where to start exactly. But the general gist of my epiphany is that what's wrong with computer RPGs is the failure of WotC to correctly implement a skill system when they designed 3E. How did I come to this conclusion?

    I'd been looking for a new computer RPG experience for a long time. In recent years I'd played and finnished Dragonfall (all three HBS Shadowruns), Age of Decadence and Pillars of Eternity (since it was so short. I solo'd it with a rogue in about 15 hours). But Pillars of Eternity sort of infected me with a sickness, or more accurately in a Kierkegaard-esque way it made me realize there was a sickness with how RPGs were designed and conceptualized. I'd played and enjoyed games out of genre, like Invisible Inc., KoF XIII, Stellaris (at least the beginning), Path of Exile, Talisman, Legacy of the Duelist, Twilight Struggle, and ATS (American Truck Simulator) but there was also something unsatisfying about those gaming experiences.

    But the breaking point was this past year. I failed to really get into three recent RPGs- Underrail, Elminage Gothic, and Wasteland 2, which was the breaking point. Underrail was no surprise since I loathed Fallout/ Arcanum -style combat. Elminage Gothic was a bit of a surprise, since Wizardry was my original rpg love, and it made me realize that I'm done with blobbers. What I want from an RPG wasn't combat and mapping dungeons. But then Wasteland 2 wasn't what I was looking for either, despite having (sort of) the combat experience that I wanted. After that, I thought perhaps I just wasn't into RPGs anymore. I thought about trying NEO Scavenger, but I know that it isn't the experience I was looking for. None of the recent RPGs were. Instead I installed Homeworld: Remastered. That was a huge mistake, since it only served to remind me that I hate playing RTS, but in a way it was instructive since I realized that I wasn't looking for just a game to play. If I want to have fun with a game, I could play Alpha Centauri or MoO or EU III forever. If I wanted to chill I could play ATS or KoF or fucking Diablo 2.

    Three days ago I re-installed KOTOR 2, a game that I had never finnished but had promised myself to return to one day. I was no longer a combatfag, but I also couldn't tolerate the retarded pew pew pew pew IN REAL TIME! combat anymore - not after Pillars. But I did realize several things from that experience:

    1) I am not a combatfag anymore
    2) I am not a storyfag either
    3) But I am still looking for a gaming experience that only RPGs can satsify
    4) I want a game with a well-developed magic system
    5) BG2: EE's greatest feature is it's well-developed magic system
    6) Even though NWN shares KOTOR's retarded combat system, it still has the magic system from D&D as a strength
    7) And the absolute worst thing about Pillars, why it failed completely to follow BG2: EE, is it botched the magic system

    I've realized that I can't fault Pillars for botching rtwp. BG2: EE was lightning in a bottle. Every other game that's tried to capture that system has failed hard, even the Aurora Engine. But Pillars' magic system is a travesty- both by stripping out all of D&D's interesting non-combat spells, but also by giving non-magic classes magic-like combat abilities. I'll come back to this destruction of a class system in a bit.

    But it made me realize why I didn't enjoy Wasteland 2, or KOTOR 2, or Fallout or NEO Scavenger. I wanted a game experience with spells and magic - and not one where magic is reduced to a per rest shotgun or grenade, or a pre-combat stat buff. I wanted a game with a developed magic system like BG2: EE, NWN, Arcanum and ToEE.

    All of this I already knew. And then last night I had the DREAM.

    I dreamt of a story about a man (maybe me?), a rogue, teaching an ingenue, an adopted daughter, how to survive in the world in antebellum Kentucky. He was pretending to be an aristocrat, and he needed her to get his forged identity papers stamped by the magistrate's seal.

    I taught a class on Mad Men last semester, and I knew this was a dream about Mad Men. Don Draper, the main character on Mad Men, is at heart a rogue. He is naturally talented at scheming and conning people, and it's how he survives in the world, and he both enjoys it but loaths himself for living off of deceit. So his D&D stats would look like this:

    Don Draper
    lvl 7 TN Human Rogue
    STR 12
    DEX 8
    CON 10
    INT 16
    WIS 14
    CHA 18

    The dream made me realize that an RPG is not about combat, and it's not about an amazing story either. But it's about experiencing a fictional world through a role. But not any role at all, but a role defined by literature and genre. Hence a class system. Soldier, rogue, wizard, priest, ranger, barbarian, and paladin are stereotypical character roles defined by stories in our literature.

    Take Don Draper as an example. His story, and how he fits in the world, is defined by his class- thief, rogue. Class is not a job. It's the role you take in the story. He's not a stereotypical stealthy, dextrous rogue. Instead he relies on his attribute strengths- his intelligence and his charisma. Even if he isn't min-maxed for combat, his character is interesting enough to carry the story.

    What makes the AD&D system work is having characters primarily defined by classes. Classes are not jobs. They are these basic literary story roles. In the AD&D system, class is primary, and your attributes are secondary. A 14 strength fighter is significantly worse in combat than a 18/94 fighter, but he's still a fighter. A 14 int wizard is worse than an 18 int wizard but he's still a wizard.

    The most interesting BG2: EE experience isn't playing the game as a Berserker/ Mage witih SCS. It's playing the game as a plain Thief, solo if you want the challenge. The greatest quality of BG2: EE isn't that you can stomp through the game as a Berserker/ Mage or even a Wizard or Sorcerer. It's that you can also make your way through the story as a Rogue who isn't especially great a combat or even extremely dextrous.

    AD&D had a system where dual-classing or multi-classing was difficult. Because allowing a character to have multiple classes isn't about min-maxing for combat. It's about fulfilling a narrative role. One of the first TSR novels that I read, and that made me understand AD&D, was Pool of Radiance. One of the main characters in the story is Ren O' the Blades, a human Ranger/ Thief. He was originally a Ranger but he came aross a horrific Gnoll massacre and became disillusioned. He met a Thief lover, and found a new role as her accomplice on heists. So you have an interesting character who falls from his original class through an alignment change, and then picks up a new role and a new class.

    So really Pillars got it completely wrong. By making class not matter, by making every attribute about combat, and by making every spell about combat, Pillars failed to understand what a RPG system is about. The heart of a RPG system isn't tactical combat. It's about defining characters and roles within a world and a story. Whether or not the makers of BG 2: EE understood this or was just lucky that they were using the AD&D system, I can't say. But it's not really the fault of Sawyer or Obsidian. It's the fault of WotC. Pillars is trying to be like 3E D&D, and the 3E D&D class system is deeply flawed. It's deeply flawed not just for making multli-classing too easy, although that's huge. Is being able to customize your character fun? Sure. But eventually it's a cancer, since it destroys the purpose of role-playing. Again, that's the epiphany: role playing is about playing a basic role defined in literature, not a role you've customized and min-maxed.

    But 3E's failure isn't simply the failure to understand the basic purpose of class in RPGs. It also failed to address the main deficiency of AD&D- the lack of a developed skill system/ proficiency system. In AD&D, Intelligence determined the number of languages you could speak, but as far as a skill system goes, the basic rule was just - well, your character knows how to do the things you know how to do. If you can drive a car, you character can ride a horse. If you can write well, your character can compose an essay. If you can swim, so can your character. There was a list of skills in the PHB but there weren't any rules defined for them, and they were completely tertiary to your character.

    When AD&D was translated into computer games, the skill system got left out. Gold Box games didn't have skills. BG2: EE had weapon poficiencies and Thieving skills, but not really anything else. In fact, BG2 probably should have implemented a system where Thieve skills like stealth, lockpicking, pickpocketing and disarming traps were abilities that succeeded based on level rather than a die roll.

    3E and NWN finally defined a skill system with skill points based on the character's Intelligence, but 3E made a fatal mistake. It made skills class-dependent. It made skills classed or cross-classed. So Priests know Persuade and Spellcraft, Fighters know Discipline and Intimidate. But really that's not how skills should work at all.

    Skill affinity is based on opportunity and talent. For example, take Midnight from the Avatar trilogy. She's a wizard, but she uses charm and seduction to Persuade people not unlike Don Draper. Yet under 3E she would be gimped in Persuade since it's not a wizard class skill. Skills should be affected by attributes, but they should not be tied to class.

    Obviously here Pillars isn't so bad, since in Pillars skills are not class-dependent. But Pillars also sort of makes skills irrelevant. Part of the problem is that you can simply reclass your character to change their skills. If you need to be stealthy, reclass. If you need to cast spells from scrolls, reclass.

    Actually here, Fallout's SPECIAL system I think is the ideal system. When you create your character, you can tag three skills to reflect your character's opportunities. And then you can add tags as a feat. That's a good system, and better than Pillars' system, AoD's system or Arcanum's system.

    In summary, the sickness of RPGs these days is that they deviated in the wrong direction from the framework established by AD&D. AD&D took a tactical system and gave it the dimension to be a rudimentary yet effective RPG system. Central to that system is class. WotC's 3E failed to correctly address AD&D's biggest flaw, which was the skill system, and additionally they failed to appreciate the purpose of a class system and opened the door to the wrong path that modern RPGs have stumbled down. Worse, it reflects WotC's failure to understand the basic nature of RPGs, a design flaw that has infected modern RPG design. Even when White Wolf designed Vampire, Justin Achilles understood that a vampire's clan was their class. That's why they added the Tremere, so that there would be a "wizard" class- Brujah/ Gangrel (fighter), Nosferatu (rogue), Tremere (wizard), Toreador (talker) and Ventrue (priest) - which is what they tried to get back to when they designed Vampire: the Requiem (Daeva, Mekhet, Nosfereatu, Gangrel and Ventrue).

    Part of the problem with modern RPG design is that games like Fallout and Wasteland don't have a developed magic system. Without an advanced magic system, why does it need to be an RPG? Why not Assassin's Creed or GTA then? But the even greater flaw is the lack of a class system in these games. This sickness has a name: it's called GURPS. Modern RPGs are infected with variants of the GURPS system virus. RPG's need to go back to the basic class system established by AD&D and support it with a thoughtful skill system similar to Fallout.
     
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2018
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  2. McPlusle Learned

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    Why?
     
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  3. Trashos Arcane

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    Hi there, Beamdog employee.
     
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  4. NotAGolfer Arcane Patron

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    So ... is this supposed to be some sort of Gonzo journalism piece or something? Because it sure as hell reads like it, while being much much more boring and pointless.
    :hmmm:

    Also are you starting to get delirious there? I mean with the food running out and stuff. Cause that Martin Luther King speech there has me worried, mate.
     
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  5. Nerevar Learned Patron Repressed Homosexual

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    I liked the write up nice read always nice to see the thoughts of another RPG fan.

    I do agree calling BG2 "BG2:EE" seems like trolling. Also the last paragraph conclusion is a bit silly the "without magic why does it need to be an RPG" I can think of many low magic settings that are good RPGs an example of one would be Mount and Blade - Warband.
     
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  6. Jason Liang Arcane

    Jason Liang
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    When you look at all these modern RPGs, they are all trying to incorporate skills into gameplay, and so far they've all completely failed to do so in an interesting way.

    Age of Decadence: Um... let me hoard my skill points until I need to make a check, or consult a spoiler....
    Wasteland 2: Um... dur... these skills sound cool! toasters!... (20 hours later) fuck... roll 4 autists next time...
    Pillars: la la la none of these numbers matter la la la if you need to disarm a trap just roll a trap skill specialist or go to an inn and pay the innkeeper to retrain la la la popAMOLE!!! la la

    Be honest. When you look at these games, the way they implement the skill system is retarded in all three.

    Worse, the concept of "character" in modern rpgs is that character is the a list of numbered skill values, active buttons (active feats) and passive buttons (passive feats), and equipment.

    But this is a stupid way to design role-playing games, because it doesn't directly fulfill the concept of role.

    Of the above games, the only one that sort of gets it correct (class, not skill) is Age of Decadence, as your affiliation in that game *does* directly affect how you experience the world and the story, although in a fairly railroaded way (teleport here, teleport there, teleport there).

    In AD&D, your character is defined by 3 (or 4) primary things: class, race (integrally tied to class), alignment (also tied to class), and perhaps gender. In classic RPGs, there is no "skill"- Wizardry 1, Ultima, Gold-box, jrpgs, Final Fantasy, even BG2: EE, are RPGs that ignore skill. Skills are an unnecessary accessory to the basic premise of computer RPGs. Even when games began to incorporate skills like Darklands and Bradley Wizardry games, skills were things that every character could learn and improved with use or training, not hard skill points that needed to be hoarded and strategically distributed at level-up or delegated at character creation.

    And yet modern RPG makers somehow have it stuck in their head that they want to base their game around characters based on skills and equipment. This is what has destroyed the identity of RPGs. Which has always been about abstracting different ways of experience world and story into the concept of character class. So the way RPG makers are designing their game systems - based on skills - is antithetical to the actual premise of RPGs. They have a goal which is unnecessary, fail to reach that goal, and end up with a hybrid product which is a shitty version of what they wanted to make in the first place.

    It's like they're trying to climb a wall that they don't even need to climb, and they fail to climb that wall and finally end up not getting to where they wanted to get to in the first place.

    It's like if LeBron James said to himself when he was 15... "I want to play in the NBA, but to play in the NBA first I have to get a PhD in molecular cell biology." Then he fails to get the PhD and then ends up selling shoes at Foot Locker instead of playing basketball.
     
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2018
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  7. Jason Liang Arcane

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    I don't want my posts to seem dated 9 years from now.
     
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  8. Neanderthal Arcane

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    So your basic argument is that theres too little shit to do outside combat? If so I can agree wi that mostly, said for ages that classes need to stop being purely combat builds. In my opinion though its devs not making worlds well simulated enough thats problem, all you've got is maps to clear, talking, as well as collecting and recycling trash loot. No imagination, no ambition, no detail and an audience who cheer em on for delivering less and less.
     
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  9. Jason Liang Arcane

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    I agree but that's not my basic argument at all. That *is* the primary problem of Pillars though. Actually the point of creating a skill-system is to enable more open-world, non-combat interaction. Arcanum is a good example, and a precedent, as most of the non-combat skills are creating open-world interactions whether it's crafting, talking, thieving or stealthing. But Arcanum is also part of the problem as the system is classless. Now, it's not as pronounced in Arcanum since Arcanum has the tech vs. magick alignment which sort of defines your role in the world similar to class. But it still has that problem where eventually you can min-max all your attributes and skills.

    If we take BG2: EE as the epitome implementation of AD&D, we want to move towards even more open-world interaction, hence implement a better skill system. But we haven't solved that problem yet, NWN was a fail implementation, and even worse we've been moving towards classless and skill and equipment defined characters.

    On some level, class and skill are contradictory systems. Skills are supposed to be generic abilities available to all characters to train and learn, whereas class creates restrictions on how your character experiences the game. But RPGs have never been about skills as the PRIMARY definition of character and character progression. Yet more and more, modern RPGs use skills to gate content and progression, which is a self-defeating design mistake.

    The classic RPG formula:
    class (and race, alignment and gender) -> character
    level -> character (and game) progression
    attributes+skill -> open world interaction (rogue skills, crafting, stealth, talk, climbing, swimming, animals, etc...)

    The problem with Wasteland 2 is that it's trying to use skill to replace class. So you have a classless system, and you also have no race and no alignment, so there's nothing really to anchor character except attributes+skill. But skill CAN'T be what defines role, since skill is inherently generic instead of restrictive. By making skill restrictive, both Wasteland 2 and Age of Decadence saddled their game with a terrible system design.
     
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  10. Hobo Elf Arcane

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  11. Jason Liang Arcane

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    I want an rpg with developed magic systems. Of which I can probably count with my fingers: BG2: EE, IWD/ IWD 2, NWN, ToEE, Bradley Wizardry and Arcanum. Am I missing anything else?
     
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  12. Dorateen Arcane

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    Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar, which includes specialized schools of magic that need to be unlocked.
     
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  13. Jason Liang Arcane

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    I mean it. If combat is just going to be toons pew pew pew pew ing eachother with or without cover mechanics, you might as well have the game's combat be FPS like Resident Evil or New Vegas.
     
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  14. HeatEXTEND Cipher Patron

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    I see.....

    Daggerfall
     
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  15. Lahey Laheyist Patron

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  16. Tigranes Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    Welcome to the world of Jason Liang
     
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  17. Neanderthal Arcane

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    Why would you take BG2 as the epitome of AD&D implenmentation? There are no skills, the world is unchanging and lifeless, and there are very few ways of interacting with the world other than through combat. Even the robust spell system is gutted of almost all the classic spells that allow you to interact with the world.

    I don't think you need classes or skills, just a well simulated world and methods of interacting with it by some means, whether that be attributes, skills, profession, alignment, prior knowledge found in game etc. It doesn't matter the method, just so long as the interaction is there and we have the ability to approach the game through some means other than combat. Look at Underworld and the Ultimas, interactivity was off the chart, and it used different approaches in almost every game.

    I still remember using a pole the first time in Underworld to press distant objects I couldn't reach, finally a game implementing the pole 10' item that was a staple of AD&D inventory, now that was an epitome of interactivity.
     
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  18. Sigourn Arcane

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    Ever since playing it, The Witcher has become my role model of what an RPG should be like. It's about being given a role, and making you feel like you are that role. Does this mean I only want RPGs where you play a determined character? Absolutely not. But I'm not interested in games that give you a lot of roles to play, but make all those roles fairly shitty themselves.

    Imagine a game where the experience is tailored around you, the player, being a doctor. Now take Fallout or Fallout 2. Raise your First Aid and Doctor skills to the max. And compare the games. That is where the issue lies: you have the skills of a doctor, but you don't feel like a fucking doctor. In The Witcher I'm always treated like a Witcher. I do Witcher things. I do a lot of alchemy, I collect ingredients from monsters, I do monster contracts and everyone treats me like a witcher, for better or for worse.

    Give me an RPG where I feel like I'm fucking am the character I'm roleplaying as. Either do "multiple paths" well, or don't bother at all. A focused experience will always, ALWAYS, be superior to a half-assed jack-of-all-trades experience. The Witcher opened my eyes, and I don't intend to close them anymore.

    EDIT: Now that I think about it, New Vegas is a game that, unintentionally, made you feel like you are actually the person you roleplay as. You are a Courier, and will always be a courier. You deliver packages. You are everyone's mule. People use you and toss you away. You are not "a brilliant doctor". You are not a "talented marskman". You are a Courier, hired by the Mojave Express to deliver a package to the New Vegas Strip. And if you take that role to heart, if you truly believe you are a Courier, that's when the game shines the most.
     
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  19. Jason Liang Arcane

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    By AD&D I mean 2nd edition, where the p&p way to handle skills was either to roll the skill's corresponding attribute as needed (i.e. CON for a swimming check) or to just say that your character has whatever skills and knowledges that you have. By epitome I mean that compared to the Gold Box games, it created a true rpg world within that rule system. I'm not comparing it to 3E rules games like NWN/ NWN2/ ToEE, which have explicit p&p skill rules.

    I don't think you get my point. My whole point is that you do need classes, and when you have a system where skills replace character class, that system is fundamentally flawed. Your character in a RPG isn't a generic avatar like in a FPS. It's a role that through which to experience a story based on literature and history.

    Why does D&D have a priest class? Because Western literature has Gods, and people who interact with the divine, whether it's Moshe, Jesus, Muhammed, Daniel, David, John the Baptist, Noah, Cassandra, Archbishop Turpin, etc. Literature defines that role. Same with Rogues- Robin Hood, Odysseus, Jean Valjean, Edmund Dantes, etc...

    When FASA created Shadowrun, they certainly didn't need to make both Mages and Shamans, but they did since they understood that these class roles are central to RPGs.

    That's really always been the flaw with GURPS. GURPS didn't understand that classes are central to RPGs. So while it's true that you don't need to have classes to have a good open-world game, classless rpgs miss the entire point of rpgs. On a certain level, New Vegas might as well be GTA V or Assassin's Creed. And actually both GTA and Assassin's Creed provide you with a character to play as just like Twitcher. Modern RPG design philoophy which allow you to customize your character as you want and have no class system to restrict and structure your character progression (like Wasteland 2) miss the entire point of RPGs. Open world interaction is nice but that's not the essence of RPGs. GTA V and Assassin's Creed do open world interaction just fine. Nor is customization the point of RPGs. The point of RPGs is experiencing a game from a role, i.e. class.
     
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  20. Kyl Von Kull The Night Tripper Patron

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    Fallout’s GURPS-light system is ideal but GURPS is a plague upon the genre? I don’t think you’ve thought all of this through.
     
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  21. Jason Liang Arcane

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    Yeah, that's really the point I'm getting at.

    What you wrote reminds me of the NWN module The Prophet. Part of what makes The Prophet great is that the module gives you a role in the story- you are a Prophet, someone with the rare gift of being able to see the future. The module gives you special prophecy powers, and the game world also reacts to you as a Prophet.

    So we want a skill system so that our character can interact with the world outside of combat, but we also want the world to react to our character as well, which is why we need a class system (as well as alignment and/ or race and/ or gender). Without these things, your character is just a generic avatar and not a role at all.

    For example, in BG2: EE the game reacts to your class- each class has their unique Stronghold quest chain. That's one of the coolest parts of BG2: EE, and it made you feel like you're playing that role, whether it's the Thief guild stronghold or the Planar Sphere for wizards or the Cleric stronghold for clerics. You couldn't have that reactivity in a system based on skill rather than class. For example, if BG2: EE were classless, and the requirement for the Thief guild quest chain was the Stealth skill, then any character could have access to that just by learning stealth. The game then loses that reactivity.

    So for RPGs,
    PRIMARY is a class system through which the world reacts to your character, changing the story you experience. Race, alignment, gender and reputation are subsystems that refine class.
    SECONDARY is a skill system through which you interact with the world. Attributes are a subsystem that refine (or replace) skills.

    That in a nutshell is what is wrong with Pillars (besides the fail magic system and fail rtwp)- instead of a class specific stronghold like BG2: EE, the game gives you a generic stronghold. The game doesn't really ever react to your class or race. Playing a rogue that casts spells from scrolls really doen't feel any different than playing a wizard.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2018
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  22. Jason Liang Arcane

    Jason Liang
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    No, I just like the skill tag system. I don't like Fallout's classless character system.

    Like perhaps INT could determine the number of skill tags you get. And then perhaps you can also acquire skill tags as class feats (for example, instead of 3E's system where Pickpocket is a Rogue class skill, intead Rogues can tag Pickpocket as an optional class feat).
     
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  23. AdolfSatan Savant

    AdolfSatan
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    All this borne out of being locked-in during a snowstorm? Couldn't you just get drunk and jerk-off like a normal person?
    Despite offering many possibilities with regards to the allocation of skill points in the development of your character, none of these games are forcing you to abuse the system. You could bitch about them not setting you into a well defined path, but perhaps you could also... you know, roleplay.

    This applies perfectly as well to FO1, I recommend you play it if you still haven't.
     
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  24. Grauken friEndly mUrderpUmpkin Patron

    Grauken
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    Man, when I dream its usually bullshit, not world-shattering epiphanies

    also, relevant to this thread What is an RPG?

    just fucking enjoy what you like, embrace when that changes and don't make it a fucking religion
     
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  25. Jason Liang Arcane

    Jason Liang
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    I'm a Californian stuck in the middle of China in a snowstorm. I have no fucking clue what to do. My door and windows are iced shut, I can't even leave my house. At least I have the toilet as a water supply.
     
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