Tobold's Blog
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.
Actually there was apparently a big difference between how the original circle of D&D players played and what the old modules looked like.

Their normal play was apparently very free wheeling and by the seat of their pants (basically very sandboxy) but when they sat down to write tournament modules they needed to make everything a lot more constrained than their normal play since they wanted a bunch of games run by different DMs to all be equally challenging. These tournament modules sold well enough that they kept on making more but they weren't supposed to be the main focus of D&D (just like raiding wasn't supposed to be the main focus of MMORPGs). However a lot of people took their cues from these modules and starting playing like that regularly. And a lot of arguments started that never really got resolved.

Basically they didn't have a very clear idea of how to put the sort of play they liked doing in module form, but you can see hints of it in a some modules like the original Under Dark ones. Later on (especially with 2 Ed) people started trying to be more story oriented than either the more random sandboxy stuff or the more tactical stuff but this often resulted in the DM decided what the plot would be ahead of time and herding the PCs through it.
Rose-tinted specs there David. I remember huge debates going on back then between the "Monty Haul" types who just wanted loads of loot and power and the ones trying to enjoy the journey.

I've played AD&D from 1978, mostly at a club with several other gaming tables, and at no point have players ever not been split into those who love story and those who love personal power.

With regard to the arcade nature of WoW I'd say it's very much a mix at the moment. A twitch type player is probably more dismayed that he has to absorb 100-page threads of Elitist Jerks theorycraft to play his character than one of us old dudes is about having to jump through hoops.

I'm not terribly good at the arcade type maneouvres but they are very simple and once you've practiced very easy. Malygos phase 3 was for me mostly a matter of getting my dragon in the same place as all the other dragons which in turn was a matter of figuring out how the raid leader was moving. Once I realised he was just pressing his strafe button while mouse turning to keep his facing towards the dragon that is what I started doing and suddenly I went from always dying in phase 3 to being effective.

They are arcade maneouvres aimed at being doable by 25 people in a context where you need all to succeed which is completely different from arcade maneouvres done as competitive moves against someone else like in Street Fighter etc.

Just practice mainly.
"Rose-tinted specs there David."

Well I wasn't there at the time, what I wrote is based on the writings of one of the members of Gary's original Greyhawk Group (Old Geezer on the boards). He claims that how they played was very different from how tournament modules were played, not really in the amateur theater roleplaying kind of way but in being a lot more sandboxy and free form.
Actually WoW is very strategy-dependent. It's just that these strategies are figured out by very few people and then made available via the web.
The only way to actually introduce strategy for the majority of players is to create random dungeons/random encounters. This is definitely one of the 'the next big things'. Blizzard already tried it (a bit) with Diablo once.
WoW is strategy-dependent? WoW has as much strategy as Crash Bandicot had. Jumping from red beams to green beams isn't strategic. Strategy implies that there is more than one way to beat a boss. The vast majority of the boss encounters in WoW must be beaten in a certain manner, just like most side scrolling or 3D action games.
Rogues and feral druids have special attacks which can only be used from behind, but all melee should attack mobs from behind to eliminate the mob's chance to parry. A parry can lead to a faster subsequent mob attack, which can possibly insta-kill your tank.

Positioning in WoW may seem to be a no-brainer, but good players learn how to maximize their effectiveness in both PvE and PvP by the use of position and movement. Most fights require movement -- Patchwerk being the exception -- and it's not trivial to maximize your DPS / threat / healing on the move while compensating for lag.
@ Nobs:
.. have you actually read more than the first sentence of the three I wrote above ?

Discovering the way to fight a boss is strategy at its best.
The problem is just that strategy can be written down. 99.9% of all WoW players do not need any strategy, because they can read the guide and READ what to do. THINKING yourself and FINDING OUT what to do is strategy; following a guide is nothing but mastering the keyboard & mouse (biggest problem for most players) and jumping when the guide tells you to jump - and yes: That's no strategy at all.
Most fights require movement -- Patchwerk being the exception
My point was WHY do those fights require movement? Because the ground explodes, or there is a wave of flame, or some other sort of gimmick that makes standing still unfeasible. Not because positioning is inherently important in the combat system.
Could the union-system of 'The last Remnant' where warriors, mages, etc are packed together actually be a way to finally get rid of the cursed holy trinity (tank, healer,dps)?
In a way the whole phenomenon of the "boss" is a video game concept, not from RPGs.

Having my own roots much more in RPGs than videogames, I never like the "boss" concept to begin with. It was originally just a way to put a cap on a level, and since processors could not make very good AIs the only way to put a big challenge at the end would be to just add a bunch more hit points. Now bosses are a little more complicated but still boil down to the same thing: just extra health and damage. To do this to a player character (doubling everything) would be "cheating", but for devs to do it to a mob and call it "elite" is somehow accepted as a good way to create a challenge.

But if you look at old modules, the bosses were in some ways more powerful (high level) but really were smarter than the guards and armies they employed. It would not be a stretch for the boss to be martially the worst fighter out of his whole army, yet still be the most intelligent. He might be more powerful in his particular element as a magic user as long as his trigger spells are ready, but other than that vulnerable as the PCs, which is why he needs the mazes and keeps and army to protect him.

But an end "boss" like that makes a poor videogame and might be less climactic tacticaly.
This was why UO has always been my favourite for roleplaying. There is very little 'game' for people in Ultima Online; it's more about what YOU make the game; perhaps thats why we still hang on in there.

For my tenure as Event Moderator on Europa, I tried to do events that were story based, and made an effort to have my RPC Jordan wander into roleplaying areas and just talk. Just by turning up, people created stories around him (but not about HIM - it was about *them*, the players!) such as a memorable set of scenes that eventually involved the RPC having a duel (and nominated champion fight for him) for the dignity of a Lady.

He lost. There's nothing quite so emasculating as that...

For people who can't spend the time to create stories - or just want to turn on and tune in, then fall out a bit later without too much time\life investment - there's games like WoW or LOTRO with a fantastic set of story-based-quests. Yes, there's nothing much that's *personal* about that, and the people you interact with in those quests are scripted, but it's so much easier to feel part of the 'big story' when you do that. Yes, every other bugger in the world has done the story, but it doesn't matter. You are the star for that point in time, and everyone loves feeling important.

Roleplaying is a huge effort. It's much easier to kill the rats and level, and then get to the stage where you're saving the world, then wave around blindly for an actor to wander on set to make you feel important. Look at UO now - people are still playing (with or without EMs) and creating their own stories. Sure, there's not half as much going on as there once was, but walk into Trinsic, Trammel on Europa at about 8pm at night, and you'll still see people running their own stories, events, and lives, and trying desparately to draw the rest of us lazy sods in!
"It would not be a stretch for the boss to be martially the worst fighter out of his whole army, yet still be the most intelligent"

***healing mysteroiusly stops***

omg hael11112121323



Sorry guys the end of level boss bribed me to let you die. Oh and btw he's pvp flagged the instance and invited an Alliance raid group in - have fun fighting your way out. Ciao!

I can see why Blizzard don't inflict clever bosses on their players - they'd win so easily :-)
This comment has been removed by the author.
I think the discussion should be that MMORPG's are actually a whole new kind of gameplay. It has nothing really to do with RPG's at all.

Computer Games have boiled RPG's down to essentially leveling a character up either with Stats or with Skill Trees. But that's not really RPG. RPG's in computer games used to be about taking a single character and developing a story-line for that character such that you actually identify with the character and care what happens to him/her. Its story driven. The act of getting more powerful and such should be secondary to the story.

Of course that's the ideal. The reality is that the leveling mechanism is now more important than the story for many games. The only True RPG bastion left is Bioware, whatever RPG game they come out with has a leveling mechanism but more than that you identify with the character, spend tens of hours with the character and even if you gloss over quest texts, you do at least know the over arching plotline. The only other non-Bioware RPG that comes to mind is The Witcher.

Games like Diablo2 and WOW while addictive are hardly RPG's. In these games its the leveling up and getting more powerful that matters. Most players have create and play more than 1 character. And how many people actually know the storyline of Azeroth? I've got a level 80 and 4 alts around 60-75 in WOW and aside from being set in this world called Azeroth I don't really know or care about the storyline. I just like doing dailies, getting better gear and playing the Auction house.

To answer your original question, I don't think Roleplaying is losing its roots but there are significantly fewer true RPG's being made. MMO's need not apply (The virdict on The Old Republic is still pending).
Heh... I used to be involved in a group that had battles using foam swords and pikes and "fireballs". Good times...
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