World of Warcraft, Modern RPGs, and the Gear Grind

February 10, 2013

After a full year of not playing, yesterday I jumped back into World of Warcraft. I’d heard enough good things about the latest changes that I decided to give it another shot. It remains to be seen whether that’ll last or not. Something that did make me pause, though, is the obvious reminder that WoW is based on a gear grind. As soon as my character, a worgen warlock named Exsecratus, made it to the new continent, I almost immediately replaced my raid epic gear from the Cataclysm days with greens. Today’s junk is better than yesterday’s hard-won treasure. That theme carries across many modern MMORPGs, but in all honesty, it’s also present in tabletop RPGs these days. Dungeons & Dragons is one of the worst culprits, but there are plenty of others. That got me to thinking. Is the gear grind necessarily bad? The perpetual need to have better equipment may seem like a thin excuse to keep people playing a game, but taken as a component of a larger and more complex system, it’s a reliable foundation to build on. In a game like my own Ingenium, where if you have too many static modifiers it makes the randomization provided by the dice useless, a gear grind based on incremental bonus increases wouldn’t make much sense. However, if there were a game out there that had more complex calculation involved with point bonuses, then having a Sword +513 wouldn’t necessarily be any more unbalanced than a Sword +3. The trick is that to get to that level, you need to involve multiplication and division in the core mechanic, and that’s the real holdup for a tabletop RPG. Let’s face it - most tabletop gamers don’t want to sit and recalculate their stats every time they pick up a new item. In video games it’s possible because the game itself handles it automatically in the background without the player even being aware of the math. To introduce infinitely-scaling item stats into a tabletop RPG, you would have to do one of two things - either create a phone/tablet app to handle the math for you, or make the math so simplified that it would be possible to calculate quickly. Being a web developer by profession, I’m partial to the first one. These days it’s not unreasonable to expect gamers to have a smartphone. How would you handle bringing the gear grind into a tabletop game?