Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 13 – Natural Selection

As we’ve discussed before, it probably goes without saying that one of the most satisfying parts of playing an RPG is watching your character grow and develop over the course of the game. In a party-based RPG, of course, you get to spread that joy across your entire party, watching each of them flourish into the doctor/safecracker/killing machine you know them to truly be. I bring this up again because it is in this that I believe Wasteland takes its biggest stumble.

Experience, lifeblood of the RPG character, is handed out in Wasteland for one thing and one thing only: killing enemies. And here I mean that very specifically: characters ONLY get experience if they deal the killing blow. In practice, what this means is that even if Eddard deals 99 damage to an enemy, if Tyrion hits it for that final 1 point, Tyrion gets all of the experience and Eddard is left with nothing.

In the early part of the game, when characters are limited to single-shot weapons and enemies tend to go down in only one hit, it’s not much of an issue. During most normal fights, every character (unless they are truly terrible at combat) is likely to rack up at least a kill or two. It isn’t until you start getting stronger weapons and facing stronger enemies that you will probably start to notice some characters pulling ahead of others. For me, it first became clear with Drogo. One other important note about experience is that any melee kills are worth double. Drogo, who is a big fan of beating things to death, began to pull ahead of the rest of the team during our time in Quartz. With his increased leveling, Drogo began to have better stats than the rest of the party, which in turn meant he was more likely to be dealing killing blows, and therefore was likely to continue to get the lion’s share of experience.

The mitigating factor in Drogo’s case is the fact that we don’t always close to melee range during combat. As such, sometimes he just sits around and twiddles his thumbs. Where the experience gap starts to be more of an issue is with Daenerys. In our adventures in Needles, once we had our hands on some assault rifles, because of her stats or just sheer luck, Daenerys began to rack up a few more kills per combat than everyone else. When this in turn led to leveling her up sooner, again, that led to higher stats and more kills.

Where this experience gap really begins to rear its ugly head is now, during our Vegas adventures. During the first sweep through Vegas, we got our hands on our first energy weapon: a laser pistol. Now, any character can use any weapon, but to use it without the appropriate skill is an exercise in frustration. Without skill, characters will miss pretty much constantly, jam their weapons, and on the rare occasion they do hit, they will do almost no damage. Laser guns, as you might expect, fall under their own skill category: Engery Weapons. Energy Weapons are a high-IQ skill, and can only be learned from a few specific libraries in the game. Of course, energy weapons are incredibly powerful, so having somone skilled in their use is a must.

In our case, Daenerys (who was the smartest in the party to begin with) is the only member of the party currently eligible to learn the skill. Thanks to her slight lead in levels, she has a high enough IQ and enough available skill points. So, with Energy Weapons now a skill under her belt, Daenerys can equip that shiny new Laser Pistol and get to shootin’. This is very, very good, because once we get back to Vegas will be facing even tougher robots that can hardly be damaged by anything less than energy weapons.

I’m guessing at this point you can see where this is leading.

As the most “advanced” character, Daenerys is now equipped with the most effective weaponry, meaning that in most combats from this point on, she is the one earning the lion’s share of the experience. As such, she continues to advance at even faster pace, which in turn leads to sucking up even more of the experience. With the winner-take-all awarding of experience, she is almost always in the position to be the one doing the most killing. It’s an insidious chain of events, and one that the player may not even realizing is happening at first. After a steady stream of one or two characters being promoted while the others are still struggling to figure out which end of the gun to point, it becomes clear there is a problem.

For me, the answer to this problem lay in meticulous micromanaging of some of the tougher combats we faced on the road ahead. I would actively take rounds where Daenerys and Drogo would do nothing, simply to give Eddard and Tyrion a chance to start earning some kills. Obviously, this made combat slower and a lot more dangerous, as letting enemies hang around shooting back at you is always a risky idea. Ultimately, though, I was able to bring the boys up to a point where they too could wield energy weapons (though, spoiler: this didn’t happen for quite a while), and from there on out it was less of an issue.

With such a strict experience award system, such a disparity seems a statistical likelihood, and is the reason I suspect you never see any games using such a method anymore. Lump experience for the entire party, or proportional experience based on actions/damage are more egalitarian ways to divide up reward, and ways that are more likely to keep your party members on roughly equal footing. While it is a joy to see your characters grow, it can be equally as joyless to watch some of them fall behind through no fault of their own.

Now, don’t misunderstand: this doesn’t make the game unplayable by any stretch. Honestly, it’s quite possible to get through the game with only one or two super-characters and the “normals” backing them up. But, like I said, a proud player usually wants all his creations to grow up big and strong, and in Wasteland that can usually only be done with some either some very good planning from the start, or some very meticulous scheming towards the end.

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