You’ve read the same kinds of opinions that I have regarding RPGs, especially D&D, versus MMORPGs. Specifically, I’m thinking about the opinions that say, “If all I wanted to do was walk a bunch of miniature figures through a dungeon, fighting and looting, I’d rather do it with a videogame and not worry about knowing all those rules. Let the computer do it.”
It’s a fair point, and you can imagine that I like it because it says people want to play paper RPGs because they get a degree of freedom out of them that CRPGs can’t match. (Yet.) That’s great. I want people to keep being attracted to RPGs, and the best way to do that is to attract attention to the thing do well and other games do not, as several commentators have said in the last couple of days.
But one of those things that RPGs should do well, they often don’t.
I think one of the too-often-overlooked things an RPG can also do well — and this is a kind of roleplaying, but also a metagame — is tied into the MMO experience in a big way: Let the GM play the role of the game designer. That’s a roleplaying niche that a lot of RPGs don’t do very well or, at least, don’t supply much support for.
I think a lot of MMO players are like me: They’re battling trolls in the Misty Mountains (or whatever) and they’re thinking about how they’d have designed this quest or this encounter. They’re analyzing the game design as much as, or more than, the fictional actions going on in the imaginary world of the game. They’re not thinking about their warrior’s reckless battle in freezing rain against a drooling, screaming monster. They’re thinking about whether or not it was fair game to place super-tough monsters in this stretch of road, or if the cool-down on the Radiant Death-Blade power is too long (or too fast), or whether a troll should be taller and hairier. They’re not experiencing the imaginary thrills of the fictional world. They’re thinking about content.
After the thirtieth battle with a troll, and all the time an MMO player must spend calculating the right place and time to grind for Pristine Troll Toes (or whatever), it’s easy for the patina to wear off the experience. The trolls stop looking quite so much like trolls and start looking more like dressed-up XP or hulking one-shot slot machines. (“Come on, baby, just one more troll toe!”)
Every difficult quest, every trip back to the same field of giant rats for yet more grinding, every moment spent pixel hunting in the wilderness has the chance to evoke a powerful phrase: “If I was designing this game…”
D&D’s third edition did a great job at not only facilitating but adding structure to the player-niche of the DM. Cross your fingers that D&D4 will do something similar — and better. It’s much-talked-about-behind-its-back quest mechanics (about which I’ll write more later) may serve to amplify the visible role of the DM-as-game-developer and a player’s ability (and desire?) to slip into that role.
More than any other RPG, D&D has the opportunity to attract MMORPG players by opening up the role of the table-top DM (more powerful and prestigious than the MMO customer-service-style position of GM). It can’t stop with D&D, though. Every RPG is only as good as the GM or Narrator or Storyteller who’s actively running the game session. For a lot of people, Blizzard is probably the best DM they’ve ever had, what with the animations and the voices and the graphics.
The position of GM must be made more fun and more prestigious, or we’ll have no good reason not to just let the computers do it.