[MUD-Dev] Role-Playing Games Are Not Dead

Don Healey dhealey at bigpond.net.au
Tue Nov 27 04:19:15 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


I must apologise now for the length of this post. I have made up for
my numerical lack of posts by quantity of this one.

Raph made some comments about role playing games, which in his words
were "harsh" and "confrontational", so I wanted to make thorough
comments in response. In no way are these comments meant to be an
attack on him or his views.

My extensive comments can be briefly summarised as: Pen and Paper
role playing is important to the development of MUD's as it can
expose people (importantly designers) to the fuller, purer role
playing experience, thereby raising the bar for what can be
implemented in a MUD.

Koster, Raph wrote:

[comments on growth of gaming snipped]

> Now, I was fairly harsh--and to a genre I love. I grew up playing
> tabletop games. I don't have time to play them anymore, but I
> still love them. I still enjoy flipping through the books and they
> still inspire me.

> But they are, and I will say it bluntly, CRAPPY MODELS FOR MUDS. I
> simply fail to understand why everyone regards the pen and paper
> model as the savior of mudding. And I have to conclude that it's
> people who want to do more tabletop RPGing than they get to.

I am greatly interested in all the figures on the growth of the
various genres of gaming and the sales figures. I am totally amazed
that RPGing ever reached 5 million participants at any one time,
even World wide.

But I am most concerned about many of Raph's comments on what PnP
RPGing is, and what it can offer MUD's.

In particular the MODELS that Raph criticises are not models of
PnP/tabletop games, but a social model of how many people (maybe
most people) play those games. While RPGs may be played in a
module/party style, as referred to a bit later, that is just one
model of how they may be played. If people are only aware of a
limited format of RPGs, then their implementations will fall vastly
short of their full potential as is currently the case.

PnP RPG has the greatest possibilities and is the most unbound form
of role-playing. A good PnP RPG campaign will have enormous amounts
of background material that will give it more potential than any
other form of role-playing, more than any computer based, live
action, or trading cards.  By potential, I mean it provides the
players with the greatest possibilities and flexibility.

If you like, PnP is the purest role playing we have in a game. And
by role-playing I am not restricting the definition to where players
develop and assume a fully fledged personae other than themselves, I
mean a loose definition, ie any activity where the players are
represented by a character they can identify with and often can
develop.

And by pure I mean the complete freedom for the characters to live
out the story of their lives. Impurities are added by limitations to
the characters environment such as rule systems, development of
campaign worlds, social and technological restrictions.

Without the restrictions of computer limitations, PnP gives the
participants the freedom to go to the edges of their
imagination. The players actions are limited by the world they are
in, and the abilities of their characters. But within those
limitations their character is able to attempt anything.

There are of course also social restrictions on players. A group of
friends who meet regularly for RPGing cannot play in a highly
individualistic manner, but must mostly play as a single group or
party. Likewise, if they are part of a group doing a module
adventure, then socially it is unacceptable to go wandering off and
visit other unrelated countries in the game world. You are expected
to stay within the party until the adventure is over. But that is a
restriction imposed by the real world environment and (usually) not
the game.

This is all a long winded way of saying that in a PnP RPG, the
players have potentially total freedom of action within the
abilities of their characters.

By now I may seem to be a frothing RPG zealot, when in reality I
have no idea if RolePlaying games are dead or not - but I hope not
due to their (potential) importance in the development of MUDs.

While a lot of my description above may sound like theoretical
descriptions, amongst the groups I game in, it is the general format
for major RPG campaigns.

In these campaigns the GM will have designed his world, all cities,
countries, nationalities, towns, locales of interest along with the
myths, legends, pantheons, and histories of the countries. Each
cities will be mapped as necessary, along with all details and major
NPC's, secret societies, rumours.

Each player is given individual sessions, that is one-on-one with
the GM.  The player starts off as a resident somewhere and is free
to do whatever they like - they must find the adventures, but nearly
always the player has their own aims and ambitions, which can be
added to along the way as they interact with the world (ie rival
NPC's to chase down, secret societies to serve or avoid). There is
nothing the players cannot try - of course they may fail in actions
inappropriate for the skills.

The GMs produce their own magazine on a semi regular basis
containing more world background, news of any significant actions by
characters, and rumours, news, and NPC adverts of help wanted all
leading towards potential adventures. Wars may start (obvious
opportunities for players) or may have been caused by player
actions.

While players usually play alone they can meet up with others and
adventure together. In one campaign there was a royal wedding when
one player married a princess. All players in the game (about 20 I
think) came from all over the world to participate - many
celebrating, but some working against the planned union.

There were up to 4 of these campaigns being run at any one time
amongst the groups. That was not our exclusive format - we also did
module/group style RPGs.

I have written this rather lengthy response as this experience seems
to be so different from some other peoples experiences. And more
importantly it shows that the pen and paper module describe as being
CRAPPY is actually a social model for playing, not an aspect of pen
and paper role playing games.

And now back to Raph:

> To quote something I recently wrote on another list:

> start quote--->
>   I've come to think that the blind effort to replicate the pen
>   and paper game in MMOs is seriously misguided. Frankly, they are
>   not trying to do the same thing. An MMO is for thousands of
>   simultaneous players of widely disparate interests and
>   abilities; a pen and paper session is for six of the same level
>   and the same goals. An MMO is non-linear, and a pen and paper
>   game is (in the best ones anyway) a strongly directed narrative
>   experience. A pen and paper game relies on improvisation, and an
>   MMO relies on other players.  A pen and paper game is cliquish
>   and an MMO is the hoi polloi. How many of the problems we
>   identify with MMOs today come about because they are trying to
>   be someone's rose-colored memory of an AD&D session in junior
>   high?
> <---end quote

Actually my experiences are the OPPOSITE. Almost everything Raph
described as being typical of the pen and paper experience is
typical of my MMO experience, and most attributes listed for MMO's
match my RPG experience - and with only limited stretching.

I obviously accept MMO's are for thousands of simultaneous
players. But they do not interact all together at once. In fact
MMO's tend to encourage/force players to group together, and in
particular EverQuest forces players to form groups of up to six
(with reputed experience bonuses for a full group of 6), all of whom
must be roughly the same level, as it becomes harder and harder to
solo as you progress in experience. And as I mentioned the better
RPG campaigns allow individual action

I personally find MMO's to be relatively linear, they are an
aggregation of many linear components, namely quests/missions, or
just regular hunting. In fact for the current crop of MMO's, linear
may be too generous a term, as there is almost never any real change
in the worlds as a consequence of player actions - even in a quest
nothing really changes if they complete it or not. In the better pen
and paper games, there is not a strongly directed narrative (though
there is in the better stand alone modules) - but rather there is a
strong back drop of world events (actions of countries, and/or major
NPC's etc) that players may interact with tot he level they desire
(including ignore) and even change. Only in one of the campaigns I
mentioned was there strong direction in terms of saving the world
from destruction - but they were intermingled with competing quests
to save the character from imminent personal disaster.

As for improvisation - I cannot argue against that and see no reason
to, as many people in my experience seem to want that from MMO's,
the freedom of their own actions, combined of course with the
ability to make a difference in the world. Even in the RPG campaigns
I described, the players all feed of each others actions even though
they aren't present in their session - they can even be competing
against other player's plans and actions. They read about major
deeds in the GM produced magazines, but everyone is keen to discuss
any details (that don't give away key information that other
characters would not know) of their session and share knowledge of
world events.

I have always associated cliques with exclusivity, and I would
associate RPGers with being the excluded rather than exclusive. I
suspect the point Raph is making is that each group of players that
constitute a campaign are isolated from the vast majority of other
players of the same game - which I would agree with - and this in
turn prevents interaction with these players.  However I charge MMO
players with exclusivity on a number of accounts.  Firstly there is
the disparaging remarks levelled at newbies (newbie being used as an
insult) - though I notice it a lot less these days. Then there is
the exclusivity of guilds, and even to some extent parties. However
there is a benefit to the isolation of pen and paper campaigns - the
grief players don't get invited back.

I cannot dispute Raph's last suggestion from his quote above - that
many "problems we identify with MMOs today come about because they
are trying to be someone's rose-colored memory of an AD&D session in
junior high". In junior high the format people experienced was the 6
players sitting around a table running through a module. All the
players and GM's in the campaigns I mentioned were "mature" players
- in their twenties to thirties and had been playing for a number of
years. The fully fledged campaign is something that people seem to
mature in to.

It is disappointing that it is the social environment which has been
modelled by the MMO's not the gameplay or even good game rule
systems. It is possible that many developers have not experienced
the full potential of RPG's and that would inhibit their ability to
implement that level of game play.

In computer system development, the full requirements need to be
detailed before implementation, and extensive interrogation of key
users is required for large systems. I have often found that users
will limit what they request and expect on the basis of their
assumptions of capabilities, ie they will not ask for things they
assume are impossible (and of course they also assume some
impossible things are simple:). I try to get users to describe all
their desirable capabilities of an ideal system (as well as the
standard requirements information), assuming everything is
possible. Often you can provide to the user more functionality than
they hoped for.

But if the user hasn't had the experience of the ideal then they are
less able to ask for it. And I think that is a problem with some of
todays MMO's.  I know from what I have read that there has been some
young development teams (and certainly the computer system
development of some games appears to have been performed by teams
with limited commercial experience). It is possible that due to
their age and/or cultural/social environments that they have not
experienced (what I referred to earlier as) the purer form of
RPGing. I have certainly seen major MMO companies advertising for
staff with technical experience in the tools used for the production
of levels for games rather than good background in gaming. If the
designers do not know the destination, they will not take the
product there.

So to summarise what I have been saying lately: Pen and Paper role
playing is important to the development of MMO's as it can expose
people (importantly designers) to the fuller, purer role playing
experience, thereby raising the bar for what can be implemented in
an MMO.  If they don't have that experience it will be hard for them
to implement it.

> Again, perhaps needlessly confrontational. I should make clear
> that a) Neverwinter Nights is perhaps my most anticipated game of
> the next year b) I love the concept of player-driven content and
> authorship c) I still love pen and paper.

> But it's also been done. There have been MANY, MANY attempts to
> replicate the pen and paper experience online. They have been done
> in chat rooms, they have been done on web boards, they have been
> done on mailing lists and via email, they have been done in IRC
> and on muds, and they have been marketed as commercial products at
> least twice--and one of them even with a major license. Anyone
> remember the Storyteller mode in the computer version of Vampire:
> The Masquerade? Or heck, let's not forget Baldur's Gate
> multiplayer, since we're on the subject of D&D.

But have they really done it successfully? (success being measured
by an accurate representation of the RPG experience - not commercial
experience).  They certainly have implemented systems that can be
described as a role playing experience. Roleplaying is a
communication intensive experience - any time you reduce
communication from talking to the written word there will be
significant limitations. That is why 3d environments are appealing
for RPGs - the graphics transmit much of the information reducing
the amount of typewritten communication required for successful
roleplaying.

> Yes, I can relate to the desires of those who keep tilting at this
> particular windmill. I cheer them on. I want one of these games
> myself, one that works and is smooth and easy and fun and finds me
> the people I want to play with. Absolutely, heck yeah.

Raph you have lost the dream! SNAP OUT OF IT MAN! It can still be
achieved - the dream is still alive! <Grabs Raph by the shoulders
and shakes him violently, followed by a few hard slaps across the
face>

(I do not want to face the alternative - that no one will ever
implement the dream. Actually I wouldn't mind a decent set of rules
in an MMO.)

> But they will *not bring sweeping change to the online gaming
> world.* I could boil it down to the simple reason that pen and
> paper gaming is fundamentally a cliquish activity, but that would
> probably offend people some more. So let me just state that

>   - no form of online activity that discourages novices thoroughly
>   will bring sweeping change

I would apply this statement to MMO's more than PnP RPG's. None of
the first big 3 (UO, AC, EQ) provided adequate information for new
players to start playing straight from the box, with any chance of
success and understanding.  All 3 were woefully lacking in
documentation supplied. Information available on a website is not
sufficient - especially if it is a 3rd party website. In fact I am
sick of having to give half hour tutorials to new players I stumble
across. Half my requests/petitions to GMs/guides would be cut out
with adequate documentation - and in EverQuest frequently the guides
get the information wrong because the documentation is so sparse. At
least with pnp RPG's, all players can go to the shop and buy all the
rulebooks.

>   - no form of activity that requires heavy manual intervention
>   will bring sweeping change

Many (or even most) computerised systems are replacements for manual
systems. The better the capture of functionality of the manual
system, the better the product. But I do accept that the "manual
system" of a GM is a lot more complex than many others, and
successful implementation would be difficult.

>   - no form of activity which requires multi-hour sessions in
>   order to feel successful will bring sweeping change

And again I find MMO's worse in this case. Potentially they are
better allowing people to just play for a short time. But if a
character dies, players must recover the body before whatever decay
causes it to disappear.  Many times deaths cause players to stay on
much longer than intended. Often the requirement to help other
players does the same thing. PnP RPG's have the advantage of not
being realtime, bodies don't need recovery by the session end. And
travel doesn't take as long.

And sometimes nothing of significance can be accomplished in a short
time - in UO I found that newish characters spent half their time
wandering around shops trying to buy and sell.

> The reason we know this? Because muds already fail on these three
> counts.  They just happen to fail less egregiously than pen and
> paper does.

I am not saying that pen and paper RPGs will bring sweeping changes,
but there are still valuable lessons to be learnt from them.

> My crystal ball says that NWN will sell a lot of copies--a million
> or more.  There will be hundreds of servers up and running. The
> product will be excellent. There will be a devoted fan community.

Bet you're right. And in the future maybe products such as NWN will
be the creative creche I seem to be claiming pen and paper RPG's
are.

(I just wish the critters in NWN looked more like the original
Monster Manual critters. The images of 3rd edition monsters, which
NWN seems to have captured well, look a bit too trendy for me:)

> But it won't replace online worlds. And of those fans, the most
> devoted of them will be running muds with it, not single
> adventures.

Raph I am wondering exactly what do you see as the future of MMO
worlds? If they are not to be like pnp RPG's, do you expect them to
remain a sort of first person tactical game with less emphasis on
roleplaying and more on additional quests and problem solving, or do
you believe its the social interaction model that is going to be
changing, or ...?

> -Raph, who will gladly eat his words next year, because honest, he
> likes pen and paper tabletop RPGing.

Don, who would take a full year to eat his pile of words.

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