Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why combat is different

There are two things about Lusternia that make it head and shoulders above any other MMORPG I know of.

First, there's a much larger variety of things to do. It's hard to describe this without seeming like I'm exaggerating, particularly to those unfamiliar with Lusternia but used to other MUDs and MMORPGs that they think of as having a lot of options. But there's easily four or five times as many ways to spend your time as anything else I've seen, and I'm not just talking about different kinds of grindy quests or bashing or crafting, I mean things that are entirely different activities. Lusternia's not just an all-you-can-eat buffet, it's got four times as many dishes available as any other restaurant in town, and it's not just lots of variations of the same rice and noodles and casseroles and deep-fried things; it's got stuff you've never even heard of, and stuff you'd never expect on a buffet, and a lot of it is done very well, too.

Second, there are a handful of dishes on the buffet that are done very, very well, as well as or better than anyone else does them. Certainly not everything on the buffet is like that, but enough things that plenty of people come to the buffet just for one of those few dishes. The most notable of these are combat (Lusternia's combat system is easily twice as rich as the next best I've seen), lore (the history and background packs in a ton of richness and variety, with the same "cram a lot of things in there" sense as some published RPG worlds, and stealing influences and ideas from real world sources with impeccable selection; yet it also manages to weave these together into a largely cohesive whole, and avoids the logical problems of them contradicting one another, or failing to have common explanations), crafting (the breadth and opportunity for creative expression, along with the opportunity for industry, is exceptional), and writing (an extensive culture system including library and theater systems, music as part of combat, creativity contests that are part of the big events of the game, and more).

But the one thing I find people not understanding, time and again, is that combat is unique in a way that undercuts the value of everything else, and it doesn't have to be, except that apparently it does. The thing about combat is that, everything else you do only because you choose to do it; but combat, one person can always force another into doing it, and nearly as much as they like. Lusternia does have some precautions (notably Avechna the Avenger) that limit how much you can be forced into combat in some parts of the game. But there are so many ways around that, and so much of the important stuff is in other parts that are not protected, that Avechna provides only minimal relief. Essentially, the only way to avoid combat being mandatory is by limiting your choices of character to those who do not actually care about their organization, or its lore or motivations, or about their standing in it, or about how people feel about them, or about all the group activities that depend on one of those -- which limits you to a tiny, tiny part of the buffet.

I have no objection whatever to the people for whom combat is the major draw to Lusternia, even those few-but-loud folks who really do nothing but combat, and only engage in other things to the minimal extent necessary to support their combat interest. That's fine with me. More power to them. And I don't even resent that they draw me into combat some of the time; combat is one of my interests, just not as much as many people (and currently hampered by my problems with finding a suitable client and curing system). But it only takes a few people who love nothing but combat to force a large number of other people to get little or no chance to do anything else but combat; and then that breathtakingly broad buffet is limited to a few dishes, and most of it goes to waste. Partially because of the time required to do combat, and to be prepared for combat; partially because of the intermittent, interruptive nature of combat, preventing anything that requires scheduling or a period of time too long to not expect a raid during it; and partially because people are just too worn out by the wearying demands of frequent combat, and lack the energy to really throw themselves into other things, even during the down times.

So what's the solution? The annoying thing is there's a perfect solution, or so it seems to me, just sitting there unused almost all the time. The combat-monsters could be having as much combat as they want against one another, either in the arena (where there's no loss for dying, and you don't even use up most supplies), or in any of many places where combat has no particular significance that forces other people to participate (Faethorn used to be a great one for that -- anyone who wanted a fight could go there and there was just enough pretext for someone else who wanted a fight to be justified in going to meet them, but not so much that anyone else had to feel obligated to go, or like they'd be sacrificing their commitment to ideals or standing within their organization if they didn't go).

But there's something about the psychology of most combat-monsters that makes this entirely unsatisfying, and it baffles me. They are not happy having combat for six straight hours unless it's with people who don't want to be doing it. And I don't know why.

There are lots of pat answers that don't really hold up. The most common one is that combat-monsters, the people who only visit that one dish on the buffet, tend to be a lot better at it than those who spread out their energy on many dishes. (This is only a general rule; some people with many interests are as good at combat as many who do nothing but, but in the overall population, those who do combat 99% of the time tend to be better at it on average than those who do it only 50% of the time.) But combat-monsters aren't always looking only for a win. Many of them do, certainly, but it takes more than that to explain how they refuse to settle for arena-fights, or fights in places others aren't obligated to join in, that they can usually win. And their compulsory-combat exercises certainly don't stop when they are likely to lose, either. (There's a whole subclass of them who seem to especially love starting fights they can't win, and then escaping unhurt, in fact. Which I suppose is another kind of "winning" for them.)

Lusternia sometimes makes changes that help drain off the energy of those combat-monsters in some way that gives everyone else a chance to visit the rest of the buffet. The most successful technique has proven to be having periodic conflicts that can't be done constantly, like the old nexus world conflict system, order wars, and about half of the village influences. However, the trend has been away from these things; almost all of them have been either removed or altered to allow for a constant conflict in between the punctuated one (the current village feelings system is a great example of a good idea that turned out bad because of un-punctuating one of the few remaining periodic conflicts). The other thing that has been known to work is to make it so raids require some setup that can only be done every so often, and without that, the raids are either impossible or highly disadvantaged; however, Lusternia has almost entirely eschewed or discarded solutions like that. In fact, it's almost eliminated anything to drain off the combatlust of combat-monsters other than the whining-mosquito-buzz of constant, petty, meaningless raids which do nothing other than force people to do combat instead of everything else.

But this all is necessary only because the combat-monsters refuse to settle for combat that doesn't involve the unwilling. If we could only figure out a way around that twisted bit of human psychology, then all the rest would vanish in a puff of superfluity. Unfortunately, the people who have that need, and they are many, also seem to be blinded to the fact that they have it. Some of their rationalizations for why their behavior is not just justified but ideal can be painful to watch. If only they would fight each other 75% of the time, everything would just fall into place. I wish I could see some way to push them in that direction.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

This is why I stay away from PvP to the extent that I can in videogaming. I love fantasy combat. I love a solid combat system, I love a deep system, I love a system that rewards thought and cooperation. But I absolutely cannot STAND to be forced to fight because a 14-year-old yahoo somewhere decides it's time to throw down.