And Another Thing About RPGs

I’m gonna tell you what I hate about MMOs, and why I think the industry is going to continue a year-long decline into mediocrity. I’ve gone over it before, but in light of some recent experiences, and TJ’s post, I want to get into really specific detail about what bothers me.

And to do that I need to talk about tabletop role-playing games.

Tabletop RPGs are, broadly, a collective storytelling device with a probability mechanic. The most ubiquitous being D&D or some other iteration of the D20 game system. It’s fair to say that without the tabletop pioneers of yesterday, digital RPGs wouldn’t exist today.

The singular element of any RPG, whether a single-player adventure or a massive online world is that you can chose the general direction your character takes. This is usually represented with class and character building options, being able to decide where your character goes, and sometimes being able to impact outcomes in the game.

That last one is becoming more and more important.

I’ve played quite a few RPGs since high school, and whether it’s an online game with thousands of players or just 4 friends around a table, I’ve only seen two approaches to world-building. Ever.

I’m going to call the first approach the Static Setting Approach, which I would like to illustrate with a story. I played a game with some friends once where we had to go somewhere and stop some guys from exploiting some folks. So the party met those folks, got the mission and went to the place to have it out.

FiatThrough the process of trying and failing (or otherwise not being allowed to try) it became clear that this fight was inevitable. This was the way the adventure was written and, like hitting the invisible wall in Skyrim, there was no getting around it. Nothing we players could have done would have changed the fact that we had to fight.

This approach is sometimes called the railroading because the Game Master is keeping his players on the rails to do what he or she wants.

I’m going to call the second approach the Dynamic Setting Approach. This is an approach characterized by unpredictability and the appearance of choice. I say appearance because a good GM can probably get you where he wants you to go (most of the time) while making it seem like the player’s idea. A great GM responds to your choices with lasting changes.

It’s a harder road for a game-runner. It may entail meticulous notes, multiple endings, personalized relationships between characters and on and on. But, going back to the example above, it would have been a lot cooler if we could have bribed the thugs. Or joined them. Or avoided the combat altogether and changed the trajectory of things.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach. Both are totally legitimate, but my leading descriptions have probably telegraphed my preference.

Railroading begs certain questions. Like, if you’re forced into a fight by design, the GM isn’t really allowed to build a fight you can lose because he made you have it. Is the fight really anything other than a chance to roll some dice? If that fight had never happened at all, would anything really be different?

And that’s how all MMOs have approached world-building. Instead of a dynamic world full of people that need things, it’s an environment where players click on one faceless NPC after another. Every MMO is on the railroad, which is too bad because I think tabletop static settings are mostly a result of time constraints. Some folks are good on the fly, but the rest of us don’t have endless hours to fill a sandbox play area.

But companies have time. And money. And there is an opportunity here to spend less and get more. Pathfinder Online is in the works and they have a novel approach. What if all the non-starter armor comes from player crafting?

It seems innocuous enough, but if done right it could be a huge deal. That’s the foundation for a player-driven experience. Instead of killing the same mob over and over again for a drop (excepting material collection), you have to engage in business with other players. Players who have built characters to be skilled laborers. Characters who maybe ask for payment in services rather than money.


Yes, it’s still just Wow in a different flavor.

Those laborers could be other adventurers, but with some MMO creating permanent housing, why not allow them to have shops in villages or remote areas? Throw in some deadly serious PvP, and you’ve got the makings of a world where the players are cooperating in a community with each other – creating their own stories instead of following quest chains.

So what am I getting at? Well let me just quote me in a recent chat I had about Bungie’s Destiny:

That’s what I want. I want this game, with skills that I can use to create an in-game business to found a city. And then start an armada to protect my city. And then get impeached by my councilors. And then take my stolen imperial dreadnought and bombard my own city.

#@&%! That’s what I want!

And on and on I go. Look, what I’m really saying is I want off the railroad. Until that happens, I’m willing to say that all MMOs (possibly excluding EVE) are the same tired trick. Even the ones that look kind of different from each other. Instead of a game that asks me how I want to customize my outfit as I bounce aimlessly between exclamation points, how about a game that asks me how I want to customize my community?

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