Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Roleplaying losing its roots
In the open Sunday thread there was quite an interesting discussion whether massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) shouldn't have more "roleplaying" in the sense of "theatrics" in them. That discussion is actually over 20 years old, because even when people were still playing roleplaying games without computers there was a wide range from players solely occupied with tactics, stats and gear to players running through woods in costumes wielding foam swords (you could say the swords had been nerfed).
Of course either form of roleplaying is completely valid. But if we look at the historical roots of roleplaying, we must say that the original "roleplaying" game Dungeons & Dragons was clearly evolved from tactical wargames. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (recently deceased) came up with the bright idea that it might be fun to have fantasy battles in which the players didn't control whole armies, but which were squad-based, with every player controlling just a single character or "role". Even their company was called Tactical Studies Rules, later just shortened to TSR. For a couple of years the modules for D&D were simple hack'n'slash affairs, with lots of opportunity for tactical battles, and little story. With time players introduced more acting elements, and modules became more logical and story-based. The acting elements fell away with the first computer roleplaying games, them being single-player, and "roleplaying" was back to being a tactical game of controlling a single unit or squad in tactical battles, and making that unit stronger over time through various means (skill points, levels, gear, etc.). The possibility of acting a role came back with multiplayer roleplaying games, but that activity remained clearly niche.
Personally the question of whether MMORPGs are losing their roleplaying roots struck me as being relevant in way that the people who were asking it weren't aware of: I see signs that MMORPGs are losing their tactical wargaming roots. Thus for example my dislike of Malygos phase 3: That part of World of Warcraft has clearly more in common with an arcade videogame than with tactical roleplaying. But even outside vehicle combat, World of Warcraft is not a very tactical game. Many raid boss fights are extremely gimmicky, with arcade game elements like the Heigan "dance". Take away the gimmicks, and positioning in a WoW fight becomes nearly irrelevant. If a boss doesn't have AoE attacks, it doesn't matter at all whether the mage is standing in the back, or right in front of the boss. You can't outflank an enemy, and unless you are a rogue, even backstabbing makes no difference.
Again, of course arcade gaming is a completely valid form of entertainment, and many people prefer their games that way. But personally, as somebody who grew up with roleplaying games as being tactical, I feel something is missing when your success in a MMORPG depends more on hand-eye-coordination and fast reaction time than on making correct tactical decisions. I guess that is just me getting old. But I've already seen the strategy game genre go down that very same drain: If today you buy a game that says "strategy game" on the box, it is quite likely to be a real-time strategy (RTS) game in which your strategic decisions might matter less than your reaction time. Being over 40, I'm afraid of a future in which I can't play either strategy games or roleplaying games, because I don't have the fast reaction times required for them any more. And if you're young and laughing at me now, just wait until you have the same problem in 20 years.