[GAME OVER] On Adapting the Tabletop Game

I’m currently playing Rogue Factor’s Focus-published Mordheim: City of the Damned (live-commentary reaction videos will start next week, captain, nothin’ to fret.)

Now, Mordheim is a title with which I have some history (in its tabletop incarnation) and I’m quite invested in this game doing justice to the original. While I didn’t know much going in to the PC version, I’d heard one or two comments from other tabletop fans that it “had nothing to do with Mordheim” – meaning the tabletop game.

Which is, as these things invariably are, somewhat of an exaggeration. Mordheim wears its aesthetic very well. For one thing, it re-uses a lot of the superb ‘Blanchitsu’ art from the tabletop game in its cinematics (‘Blanchitsu’, for those not in the know, refers to the distinctive Bosche-inspired outsider-art style of GW’s long-term illustrator and art director John Blanche, as well as a school of character, scenario and user experience design which feeds into and off that aesthetic.)

For another thing, it looks like the early-Renaissance Mittel-European City of the Damned as I remember it, as crowded and multi-layered as only the best of gaming tables could be. This is something I’ve always cherished about adaptations of tabletop games – if they’re done well they represent the peak of the experience, the big battle or the elaborate 3D terrain setup which is beyond the pocket-money investment I could make as a kid, the I-move-house-every-year-so-it-has-to-be-portable limitations of student life, or the I-can-afford-terrain-or-rent strictures of working-poor adulthood.

The one thing Warmachine: Tactics got right

However, the neckbeardish no-true-Mordheim response does have some weight. The gameplay is more like a Warhammer-skinned XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Percentage chances to hit, overwatch, gear micro-management, a revolving cast of active and off-duty warriors, areas-you-can-reach-based movement system (although Mordheim has some bizarrely FPS-like controls and a very sensitive camera, rather than the more distant third-person mouse-driven interface I’d associate with turn-based tactics).

Now, I’m not about to claim this is inherently bad merely because it’s not how the tabletop version played – that’s a fanboy’s claim if ever I heard one and it’s often not true. Warmachine: Tactics, after all, fell prey to exactly this fallacy – it cleaved to the tabletop game’s mechanics and like the tabletop game it’s frankly ponderous. In fact, it manages to slow itself down further by giving the disposable infantry ‘models’ multiple wounds rather than letting them die in one hit, a saving grace of their tabletop iterations.

There’s one huge thing to be said in favour of Tactics though. It cleaned up the virtual ‘tabletop’ a great deal; the tokens, counters, trackers, templates and widgets involved in playing Warmachine were mostly handled by the game engine and only visible when needed.

That’s a great strength of digitally adapted tabletop properties – they can automate an awful lot of the table clutter and the cruft and the remembering what stats your targets have and figuring out what you need to roll to hit them. They can – in theory – reduce cognitive load, and strip out the cumbersome or fiddly bits of the rules which are there to satisfy some idea of balance or simulationism or faith to the lore but which nobody ever manages to execute properly and which grind play to a halt. Things like grappling rules, which reduce tabletop roleplayers to fury the world over.

Exempla? Exegiesis? Exorcism? Vampire: the Masquerade – Redemption, anyway.

For all that I had fun with Vampire: the Masquerade – Redemption back in 1999 (when Mordheim hit the tabletop – there is a connection here, don’t worry), with the benefit of hindsight it’s a horrible game.

It takes the already-clunky Storyteller System and injects a further layer of complexity by making all the stats percentile, turning actions like feeding and healing and boosting stats into a Discipline tree, and giving all the Disciplines levels within their levels (so you level ‘sideways’ as well as up, deciding whether your XP go on more Dread Gaze or putting a token point in Entrancement so you can get Majesty).

I don’t know what this was intended to solve. I do know it’s a headache to spend XP, which convert into extra stat percentages or Discipline dots at varying rates, and which are needlessly granular in their own right compared to the tabletop game’s elegant “one XP for completing the objective, one XP for roleplaying, one XP for style, and your next Presence power costs [current level x 5]”.

Adding insult to injury, Redemption’s combat is frustratingly arbitrary. This is hardly unusual among Nineties computer RPGs. The genre was still burdened with faith to its roots, and insistence that the rolling of dice was integral. It never was.

Dice rolls exist to facilitate actions which a) have a significant chance of failure, b) have a relevant consequence for failure, and c) can’t be simulated with ease at the tabletop. That’s (partly) why most RPGs have so many rules for combat compared to anything else. Spinning a yarn to persuade a guard works. Using a hand-drawn map to indicate where we run to when it goes wrong works. Getting up and whacking the DM with the nearest sword-shaped object doesn’t really work (at least, not at my table), so we need an abstract system for resolving that, whereas with the other actions they’re nice to have.

Now. The point. The computer game can represent combat differently. Instead of using dice as the processing factor, the engine can simulate the combat environment and allow skill with the user interface to determine success or failure. It makes a lot of tabletop game mechanics redundant. You don’t need to roll to hit when you can click or press or fiddle and your aim/timing can determine whether you succeed or fail.

Since player skill is not character skill – I, personally, am a terrible shot and don’t want to be constantly reminded of that while I play games – most games have some sort of abstract mechanics hanging around. However, as a rule, I don’t think computer gaming should be governed by those abstracts in the way that Redemption is. Whether Christof hits someone with his broadsword or not has very little to do with me; I don’t even get to roll the dice myself! I just move him next to his target, click, and hope for the best.

Redemption is real-time, despite being built to imitate a turn-based tabletop game and having some sort of turn sequence involved in the AI behaviour. (If it’s based on time rather than turns… well, it’s not displaying any timers, so it’s still hiding the information we need in order to make our decisions.) Unlike the other RPG-to-PC adaptations of the time, the Bioware/AD&D greats like Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment, it doesn’t even have the decency to include a pause button so you can micromanage the behaviour of multiple characters to the extent that a turn-based combat system built for multiple players to control single actors demands. And don’t get me started on the AI…

Why am I going on about Redemption? To give an idea of what a truly awful tabletop to computer adaptation looks like. It manages to be both overly faithful to its origins (by simulating dice to simulate combat prowess rather than cutting out the middleman, and keeping the turn-based resolution architecture despite a real-time interface) and to betray that faith in a way that reflects badly on them (the stupidly granular statistics and XP mechanics, which are more complex than they need to be even in tabletop form). On top of that, it has a clunky interface and appalling AI.

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Mordheim: City of the Damn You God Why Can’t I Climb This Wall?

Mordheim isn’t that bad.

It’s still turn-based, for one thing, and a game which is going to wear its mechanics up front and encourage you to micro-manage had better bloody well give you time to do so.

What I can’t forgive is that Mordheim – the PC version – thrusts its new system right in my face, and it is so much more complicated than Mordheim – the tabletop version.

It’s still all hung around random number generation, but with percentage chances (more granular than the 1-6 linear or 2-12 bell curve probabilities of the tabletop). Damage – dealt or taken – is expanded into the dozens or hundreds rather than the “you’re either wounded or you’re not and you can take this many wounds before you drop” simplicity the tabletop game pulled off.

It expects me to give a toss about 10% extra this or -5% that or double-but-subtract 25% from the other when equipping my dudes, who have dozens of stats and choices on how to enhance them. It introduces a baffling array of stances – parry, dodge, ambush, aim, delay – compared to the tabletop’s relatively simple “move, attack, and let your defenses take care of themselves”. It handles things like choosing your stance through the same contextual “scroll wheel to select your action” system that it uses for looting, climbing and jumping – most of which you can only do when in very close proximity to an often arbitrary point on the screen. It governs movement range and number of attacks by an arcane system of ‘strategic’ and ‘offensive’ points and doesn’t even have the courtesy to highlight them in the HUD. It asks you to confirm and reconfirm your every action – which, given how easy it is to pick the wrong one, is probably for the best.

Now. Here’s my question.

Aren’t computers supposed to be labour saving devices?

Aren’t they supposed to take cognitive load away from us? Aren’t they supposed to automate fiddly, pedantic, precise calculations and enable us to make our decisions with clear heads, untroubled by minutiae? Don’t they have the capacity to simulate environments without throwing the mechanisms of simulation in our face at every turn?

Mordheim on the PC somehow manages to be more work than Mordheim on the tabletop, and I have to build things for the tabletop one. With my hands. It’s not bad because it fails to literally and faithfully replicate the tabletop experience, like the nerds say it is. It’s bad because it is harder to play than the tabletop game, despite being on a platform which was invented to make life easier for us. It’s bad because it makes a fundamental error in adaptation that should have been left behind with the Millennium Bug. Developers keep doing this: seeing the computer’s raw calculative potential as an excuse to throw in more and more mechanics instead of quietly managing and obfuscating the ones we have.

The worst part is, I still quite like it. It’s not as toothgrindingly awful as Redemption – it’s not real-time, it doesn’t force you to choose between breaking immersion (by pausing) or leaving a clueless AI in charge of your characters, it at least has the courtesy to tell you when a new turn sequence has started.

It still feels like Mordheim, too. Like XCOM it has that investment factor where a string of probability events create emergent narrative and character. The first two tutorials gave me my Skaven minion who cut down an ogre-sized Possessed, his sniper buddy who never missed a pistol shot, the Mercenary band who hadn’t figured out how shields worked and Dieter the super-halberdier, last survivor who beat up three Sisters of Sigmar with ambushes and charges.

That’s the sort of thing that hooked me on the tabletop version. That’s the kind of faith-keeping I want to see in an adaptation – the equivalent of translating a poem for its effect (or affect) rather than the strict definitions of every word. Recognising the essence of the original game and recreating it with a sense for what works in this medium, not with a literal, slavish devotion to the nuts and bolts of an analogue engine you might not even need.

I just wish Mordheim’s new nuts and bolts weren’t so bloody complicated.

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Thanks for reading. See you next month.