Jeff Vogel hates RPGs

A little disturbing that a guy who’s consistently putting out some of the best single player RPGs around has come to hate the genre and says he won’t play it anymore!


For the uninitiated, when I say trash, what I mean are trash monsters. In other words, monsters that don’t matter… faceless, indistinguishable, generally easy foes that exist only to eat up your time. You are at one end of a hallway. Your goal, be it a treasure, a boss, a pretty hat, a hug, whatever, is at the other end. To earn it, you need to expend a certain amount of time basically killing the same few easy monsters repeatedly to get to it. This is called clearing trash.

It’s stupid."

“So many of them fall prey to what I call Long Corridor Syndrome. At a certain point, late in the game, you can tell that the developers ran out of time, money and ideas, and all you find are long, straight corridors filled with monsters and nothing else of interest.”

" Every time you have a group of enemies that is basically the same as the previous one, you suck. And, speaking as a designer, this goes just as much for me"

“And, until it gets better, I’m quitting my former favorite sort of game cold turkey. I’ll play God of War II again. You can rip a guy’s arm off and beat him to death with it. And this, truly, is why the computer was invented.”

Wow, that’s a pretty good encapsulation of why I hated most of Final Fantasy XII. It really was filled to the brim with trash monsters. To eat up your time and to level you up.

Hmm. I would say the definition of “trash” is a bit complex. It’s meaningful as a distinction from “boss,” but if all you ever fought were bosses, the dungeons would be quite short. Unless each dungeon contained a hundred bosses, in which case they would just be a different sort of “trash…”

In Avernum 2 Jeff Vogel designed an early quest in which you infiltrated a Nephil (I think?) fortress. It had a great feel to it, a little newbie dungeon crawl very much in the old D&D style. The Nephil fortress contained, not surprisingly, lots of Nephil that you had to kill. They were mostly not “bosses” and the loot they dropped was mostly minor consumables or things you would vend for cash. But they were there for an understandable reason. It’s a Nephil fortress. What do you expect to find in a Nephil fortress, but lots of Nephils? Their presence not only gave you something to do, but also contributed to the fortress’s sense of being a real place.

I dunno. Maybe Vogel’s design philosophy has changed significantly since he wrote that game 7+ years ago. Before I played WoW the concept of “trash” wasn’t really something I had in my gaming vocabulary. Looking back, you can spot “trash” in previous games, but I didn’t think of it as such. I took it as a given that in CRPGs you are in a perilous world and there are monsters, and you kill the monsters. Is this “tedium” or is this the basic gameplay? Should Mario have to jump his way to reach a boss or should he just start at the boss? Should every game, like Shadow of the Colossus, essentially eliminate the middle man?

There’s a wide spectrum of approaches to monster presence in RPGs. It’s not really a new problem, I guess. Back in Ultima IV (1985/86) I remember lamenting – at the time – that there were too many surface monsters and it became tedious to fight them all. Garriott made a poor trash-to-“boss” ratio (well, boss is the wrong word in that context, there were no bosses in Ultima IV – maybe “trash-to-important-stuff” comes closer). He rectified it somewhat in Ultima V though; the monster spawn was less dense, the loot more interesting – and consequently Ultima V was more enjoyable to play imo.

IIRC, older Bioware games didn’t tend to have a lot of random wandering-monster encounters in the old Ultima style, but you do have to do a lot of zone-clearing on the way to the big setpiece battles. But if you didn’t, what would your characters do? How would they flex their muscles in a game whose mechanics are primarily combat-oriented? Or is the objection that combat-oriented mechanics themselves are a bad idea for the genre…?

I’m just riffing here. Anyway, it’s an interesting question and I’ll read what Vogel has to say. I have enormous respect for him as a CRPG developer.

Yep, FFXII is artificially extended more than any other single player game in recent memory I can think of. Even worse, the devs seemingly expect you to fully utilize the gambit system so that you don’t lose your mind while playing, except that gambits “streamline” so much that you don’t need do actually do anything except move the characters toward your destination until you hit a boss fight.

Horrible gameplay.

Combat as the only viable option is stupid, but thats like 99% of every RPG. Why not allow for a stealth approach, or a diplomatic route, or even a scientific one…

Don’t forget, exploring a giant RPG world is a lot of fun too. I love prospecting or scouting quests (Scouting as in, going to take a peek, but not engaging; Rather than, massacring the whole fortress while you’re there scouting).

I agree 100% with what Jeff is saying. I haven’t played any of his games recently, but see as how he… well makes fucking RPG’s, what is he doing to remedy the situation?

It takes creativity and time to implement any of those things, and you don’t make significantly more money on the end product for doing so.

Well, there are other approaches, but when you take them, I think you move the game away from what the modern definition of an rpg (especially crpg) is. I’ll make my point with boardgames.

Adventure boardgaming pretty much relates to it’s rpg roots pretty much the same way that crpgs do. They reduce everything down to simple combat and even simpler task resolution- you pretty much just manage stats in a risk/reward situation- they’re glorified press-your-luck race games (this is most evident in the Wow Boardgame).

Things can be done differently, however. I recently picked up a copy of the old 80’s West End boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights. It is very much an adventure game in the same vein as others- Talisman, Runebound, WoW, etc. In it you wander a map, have encounters with fabulous beings and places, and find marvelous treasures, and you are still racing against the other players to fulfill the victory conditions (it is a game after all), but it plays very, very differently. In fact, I think it may be the closest the the genre has come to an actual role playing experience yet.

In the others, playing your role pretty much consists of deciding that you have the best stats in ranged combat, so you always attack at range if possible. TotAN contains combat, but no combat mechanics, skills, but no skill resolution system. It does this through a very cleverly designed system utilizing a book of paragraphs (like an old gamebook or Choose Your Own Adventure book from the 80s)- essentially, when you have an encounter, you end up looking up a paragraph number and reading what happens. You might think this would reduce replayability, and make the game far too random, but that’s where the cleverness of the system comes in. Each initial encounter card is actually a potential range of encounters- you make a dire roll on an appropriate table , and modify it according to some simple circumstances. Thus, you draw a generic ‘Hunchback’ card, and then modify it to find out that it is actually a ‘Diseased’ Hunchback. Once you know what the actual encounter is, you decide what to do from a range of ten or so options, from ‘Aid’ to ‘Attack’ to ‘Rob’ or ‘Grovel’. This directs you to the paragraph number of your actual encounter. This is where the skill system comes in.

Skills in TotAN do nothing in and of themselves. What happens iIs that when you turn to your encounter number, there is a basic story (a short paragraph), and then a few follow-up paragraphs, one of which will always be listed No Skill, and the rest having other skill names , like Piety, Courtly Graces or Weapon Use. If you have one of the named skills, you use that follow-up paragraph, if not, you use the No Skill ending. So in the above example of the Diseased Hunchback, you could choose to Rob him, knowing that your Weapon Use could come into play, or try to Aid him hoping that your Pious nature could help bestow the blessings of Allah upon his wretched form, or your Wisdom could help him find a cure. In this way, you actually end up taking actions that make sense for you character. The goals in the basic game aren’t tangible- you set goals in Story and Destiny points before you start, and receive these points for having encounters (with good or bad outcomes, you still get points).

What is interesting here is that the system is already designed, and could be completely and easily adapted to another genre, though the hard part would be all the writing involved. In fact, I believe West End produced a Star Trek (pre-Next Generation) game using the system. I could also see how it could easily be adapted to a computer game, too, using a kind of randomly-generating world/encounter system.

Is TotAN still an RPG? Yeah, even more so than other pseudo-rpgs like Runebound or Descent. It removes all the ‘Trash’ and nicely sidesteps the whole ‘Stealth, Diplomacy, Combat’ triumvirate with something fresh (oh the irony of saying this about a twenty year old game).

Combat as the only viable option is stupid, but thats like 99% of every RPG. Why not allow for a stealth approach, or a diplomatic route, or even a scientific one…

I’ve talked for a long time about non-combat mechanics in RPGs, but they have to be… gameplay mechanics, which is the trick. I don’t personally find dialogue-tree-navigation to be a very stimulating form of gameplay, for instance. Apparently Vanguard has that funky diplomacy model, that might be fun.

I agree there is more room to design all this stuff, and I hope developers do that, although I wonder if that is tangential to the question of “trash” monsters versus “non trash” monsters (which I still think is rather problematic).

I should probably go read that article so I understand precisely what the Voginator is upset about.

Nothing. One of his earlier columns was about how if you try to do anything different, no matter how much better you think it is, your game probably won’t sell.

This is one of the things I like about the Unreal World (and roguelikes in general, although URW is probably the best example of a response to this particular problem). Combat in URW is always dangerous. Fighting another human being, even if you are more skilled than them, even if you get the jump on them, always has the possibility of ending with you being dead. Or wounded, and wounds can take a very long time to heal. They can even get infected and result in you dying long after the combat you engaged in. Fighting animals is a lot easier (well, some animals; bears and wolves are even more dangerous than people) but it’s still not risk-free. So long as combat in a game is risk-free it doesn’t really feel like combat at all and so there’s no reason for the player to care very much about it. In a game without permadeath I would say this is no different for “boss” monsters than it is for “trash” monsters; the boss monster is really just a big trash monster.

Well, I don’t know about permadeath, I am not that hardcore; but I will say that often in WoW the “trash pulls” in dungeons can be deadly. In that game (and perhaps in other MMOs) the trash/boss distinction is not just about difficulty but also about what sort of loot the creature is likely to drop, and/or its importance lorewise/storywise as a setpiece battle in that dungeon, etc.

Then it’s almost a matter of one’s mentality going in. You could look at it as, “wow this is fun! Even the trash pulls are challenging!” Or as, “Man, this sucks! We’re wiping on trash and I just wanna get to the boss already.”

But MMOs are their own animal and the specifics of the trash/boss distinction aren’t necessarily the same in single player RPGs.

I think there’s room for some cool stuff though. Some of the better stuff in the WoW expansion is the non-combat stuff where you have to don a disguise and avoid certain monster types who’ll see through it, but otherwise walk around and collect information.

There’s actually something similar in FF XII as well, when you’re inside the opposing ship and have to avoid the internal security and patrolling guards. It’s not particularly challenging in either case (moreso in WoW than FF XII IMO), but it is alternate gameplay.

Much of the problem would seem to stem from the fact that if you include too much of this type stuff, though, you abstract this wonderful graphical world you’ve created into a thin patina of a world with rather bald game-like elements overlaid. That’s one of the reasons, IMO, dialog tree navigation is so unsatisfying: When you have combat via computer interface it at least enables things you have no other natural method of doing (casting fireballs, sneaking along darkened corridors to stab people, etc…). When you have dialog navigation through a text interface, though… well… most people can speak in real life, so you’re not exactly getting a chance to do something new and exciting.

I should probably go read that article so I understand precisely what the Voginator is upset about.

It’s pretty well summarized here. I’d say he’s making the case that RPGs ought to be more like adventure games with the occasional more-tactical boss fight, though. (I don’t think he’s trying to make that case, mind you, but that’s the inevitable end point I find with “Let’s remove all trash encounters from RPG” type of logic.)

I ran Shattered Halls last night for the first time, and I absolutely thought the trash was not only more deadly than the bosses, but more interesting to boot. The bosses boil down to “Do this, don’t stand here, do that, hope that you have enough HP to kill him before he kills you.” or something equally simplistic. The trash actually felt tactical: “Okay, he’s the commander, you have to take him out first or he’ll keep summoning up reinforcements. We’re going to want to control and kill these two guys next, because their abilities are mean if left unchecked. We need you to go over there and keep these guys occupied since their basic attack methodology is just to pummel folks, and you’re pretty resistant to that.”

Really I think mechanistically the “trash” fights in WoW in the high level dungeons are a lot more interesting than the boss fights. The boss fights, however, are more ‘unique’ with specially programmed gimmicks and in-fight transitions, plus they have to goodies.

(Of course I also felt this way about much of EQ… running a dungeon was fun because you got to work on tactics to get from point A to point B as safely and efficiently as possible. The bosses were just little mini respites that were a gear check to let you continue more than anything else, until EQ hit Planes of Power which had some pretty interesting and elaborately scripted super-boss raids.)

That’s not quite how I read it. I think he’s simply saying that killing a bunch of rats and then bigger rats (and so on) before you get to do anything more interesting is pretty boring. He’s calling for more creativity in designing content.

Playing Final Fantasy XII is like watching someone else play World of Warcraft.

I don’t think you get what Jeff Vogel is talking about, which isn’t some sort of trash/boss dichotomy, and doesn’t have anything to do with challenge – it’s that monsters that serve no purpose beyond providing the player XP and loot are boring. Enemies should be NPCs, and actually try to do something.

“Boss” enemies can be trash just as easily as their minions (City of Heroes shows this very well), and similarly lots of basically the same minions going about their business as soldiers, etc. aren’t “trash”, if they have a place and purpose in the world. Even random wandering monsters aren’t necessarily trash, provided they fit in well, and aren’t merely filling some corridor to the end game (e.g. Fallout).

The distinction Jeff is getting at becomes readily apparent in games where you get no XP for killing monsters, and they tend not to have significant loot. Get past the variable-reward and incremental gain carrots, and it’s very easy to see how shallow the enemies are in most CRPGs.

Personally, I’d far rather have less enemies overall, but have them be more interesting.

To some extent it seems to me just a matter of where you set the “slider” on the power curve. Unless he opposes the very idea of a power curve in an RPG, of a progression of your character getting stronger>weaker. If not, then you can easily have an RPG where the power curve isn’t “pansy rat-slayer to tough knight,” instead it’s “tough knight to walking demigod” or somewhere a bit lower on the scale, or with a narrower range or whatever.

That may be part of the reason Baldur’s Gate II was so appealing, by the way. It actually gave you that “tough knight > walking demigod” power curve. You were a formidable bunch of guys at the start, fighting interesting and dangerous opponents, and by the end of Throne of Bhaal you were pretty much on the short list of “Most Powerful Entities in Fae’run.” I love how in ToB you would go into a fight with a demilich or something and he’d say “Oh crap, the Bhaalspawn. Well, I’m probably fucked, but I’ll do my best to kill you anyway…” The rat-slaying had been gotten out of the way in BG1…

Got a laugh when reading a FAQ on the game it talked about a certain boss fight with trash mobs where you could set the gambits up(and a certain type of potion) and literally just leave the game while your party fought on its own to level up.