I've been playing Diablo 3 recently, and also played Diablo 2 in the past (never did play the first one though). I don't really like Diablo 3, the only reason I'm still playing it is that it's one of the very few games where you can play with a friend on the couch (who do so many games let you play with people on the other side of the world but not right next to you?). So the three of us have been grinding away characters. I've got a level 70 Crusader, Monk, Witch Doctor, Wizard, and Barbarian - my Demon Hunter is only level 55. Also got up to Paragon 83 and completed 61% of all the challenges in the game. Which, for those who have not played, means I've put a pretty good amount of time into a game that I don't really like. And while there are a bunch of reasons I don't like the game, one in particular I want to ramble on about for a few paragraphs - because it's relevent to my ongoing 13th Age campaign in a way.
The Diablo series is really about one thing, collecting loot. Yes, it has classes and levels and some RPG-like trappings, which don't mean much. A naked character is impossible to play, since all your skills do damage based on your weapon - you at least need a rusty nail to channel magic through or stab someone with. The bulk of your fighting ability comes from your gear, and the whole point of the game is to replay levels killing bigger monsters to get bigger gear. It is a very well-designed skinner box: random rewards at random intervals produce the most addictive behavior.
Now, as someone who has struggled with mental illness, namely depression but I've got plenty of other issues, I really don't appreciate game designers who deliberately design addictive behavior into their games. It's a part of why I like crafting, it is a system of clear goals and deliberate creation instead of the "random loot drop" paradigm in most games. It's also why I don't play most of the MMOs I used to play, eventually they tend to devolve into random loot drop timesink grinding as well. If a friend is playing I'll hop on with them (and if I had more friends I might play more)(though what I lack in quantity of friends I make up for in quality). But by and large when the game has run out of new experiences and story it just devolves into mindless addiction collecting, at which point I need to stop playing. Like I said at the beginning, I played Diablo 2, and didn't know about skinner boxes or appreciate my own mental issues at the time, and I spent hundreds of hours on it. Well, no, say wasted hundreds of hours on it. Because ultimately, when you have grind-ed the very best of all gear for all your inventory slots and reached the pinnacle of power, what the hell do you do? When killing the monsters is easy and offers no new reward, why keep playing? Where are you at the end? In a story-based adventure, you reach the end, you face the final boss, save the world, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset (weather you want to or not, damn you Fallout: New Vegas). There is resolution, closure. In a loot-grind like Diablo or most MMOs you don't end by killing the final boss, you've already killed him/her/it hundreds or thousands of times to try to grind a new shiny.
Now, I mentioned that this was related to my 13th Age campaign. See, what hit me was that as a GM I had been falling into the same sort of grinding rut myself - but this time inflicting it on my players. I tend to be the oddball GM, the guy who runs the game when we don't have any characters, have some new people, and want to start playing right now. I have developed a formula to deal with 30 minutes of prep time while my new group is making characters, I pick 5 groups of monsters and throw a veneer of story as to why the party would be fighting them. It is not deep, but when my own players have no concept of their characters (since we usually throw them together at that moment and most games don't have you do a lot of character-building during character creation, Fate being about the only real game that does with its Aspects) and usually we are not in any published setting (I've literally never played in the Forgotten Realms in about 30 years of D&D except for a computer game) so this is a fast and dirty way to give everybody something to do. Every game really has clear rules for "kill the monsters" and that is a pretty easy story to craft.
The problem is that this is loot grinding in a slightly different form, 'monster grinding' if you will. After playing the very long Rise of the Runelords campaign that was pretty boring overall, I really want to do something better, something deeper for my players and me. What sucks is that requires a lot of prep time and creativity. Thankfully we are now in a fixed situation, I know the characters involved, and each player has crafted some backstory to their characters (the One Unique Thing and Icon Relationships are great in 13th Age for helping to actually build characters instead of just combat roles) and we are committed to playing these characters for a while (11 more game sessions).
But what still sucks is that while the game has lots of clear and detailed rules for how to kill monsters, it hand-waves everything else. I want our next adventure to be somewhat of a mystery. Something bad is going to happen, its been fated to happen so my little 3rd level players can't stop it - but then can mitigate it. If they can figure it out beforehand and prepare themselves, then they can reduce the damage done and make their lives easier in upcoming adventures. They just have to solve who is going to do the bad thing and where and how, in the few days before it happens. Our first adventure was a pretty straight monster crawl except that the final boss monster wasn't really a bad guy and didn't need to be killed. Our second adventure had a series of rooms/encounters that were riddles to solve. So hopefully we are on a nice trend of doing things other than monster-killing (though we will get back to that in adventure 4, which is basically a dungeon-crawl with a few twists). Creating this has been a headache though. "Just role-play it" sounds like great advise, but this isn't a movie where we are all watching and waiting for the big reveal at the end; this is an RPG where the players have to do the hard work to figure out what the big reveal is at the end. And "role-playing game" has two complimentary parts, "role-playing" and "game." Games have rules, without rules they are just make-believe. And rules are good because they provide a foundation, a box if you will, that players can play inside or outside of. I think it was Joe Haldeman who once wrote "Art thrives on restriction." He was talking about how people would ask him to write a story for them, which he was happy to do - but they had to give him something, some event or concept or seed to work from and build off of. I think that principle applies very well to RPGs. The rules are not a straight-jacket, they are a spring-board (well, as long as you don't have too many rules, eventually rules bloat will crush anybody).
So this post has turned into an epic ramble, let me try to pull my thoughts together. Making a grind is easy, weather by just adding more loot or more monsters. But is that enough? Maybe for a one-shot pick-up game it is, but for a long-term campaign that you want your players to be invested in I'm not so sure. However, making non-combat and -loot activities is hard, most games do not support that very well and you are left with creating your own system of rules or trusting in your acting ability. Still, I think it is a worthwhile goal. Addiction is not gameplay, as I noted at the beginning; merely repeating the same actions in hopes of better loot or a higher level is a pretty small goal for something as vast and creative as an RPG. I wish I had a great system or advise on how to make deeper games, but I've got my hands full trying to figure it out myself (before next Monday when we play again).