Monday, December 1, 2008

Intro to RPGs (editorial warning)

Up until now, I've limited myself to writing about video games and the like. But in doing so I have avoided a great and mighty area of my own personal knowledge. I speak of course of traditional tabletop RPGs. I plan on writing about specific topics in this area but first I thought I'd explain some things.

Now for those of you who don't quite grasp what I'm talking about, prior to video game RPGs, people would get together around a table with books, paper and dice and partake of a more rudimentary version of what you know of as Role Playing Games. And believe it or not they did so without computers. Their imaginations were the Graphics cards, their dice the CPU, and bits of paper and reference books the hard drive or the program (I don't really care, pick your own computer analogy here). In fact, video game RPGs were actually a rather clumsy attempt at recreating this experience. It was a truly wonderful social experience that tapped into the creative genius of all involved.
Now were surrounded by assholes who only think of Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft when you mention RPGs. *eye twitch*

Here's a quick lesson for all of you, my faithful (and few) readers. Video games aren't RPGs, though Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Games come at least a little close. "But why" you ask? "Why isn't _______ an RPG? It's got experience points and characters leveling up. Doesn't that count?"


The point of a RPG (or Role Playing Game) is that you take on a role of the character you are playing. You decide what choices and actions that character makes. You become involved in their imaginary life and as a result become very interested in what goes on in it. You also have a CHOICE as to what to do. Why isn't Final Fantasy 7 a real RPG? Can you decide halfway through the game to ditch Aeris and instead pursue a more meaningful relationship with Tifa (who seems to actually be interested in you)? Nope? Hmmm. Ok, can you use a phoenix down to bring back someone lost in a cutscene? No again huh? Can you tell both girls to screw off, ditch the party and seek out that strange yaoi relationship that fills so many god damned fangirls' perverted dreams? Not a chance.

Video game RPGs aren't really RPGs because they rarely give you any real choice in the outcome of the story and for the most part they direct you along a very linear plotline. There are the few gems that give you different endings based on what you did, but for the most part all you get to do is customize the characters you use to do what the developer's want you to do.Now there's a good reason for this. It's not realistic or even sane to ask otherwise of a video game designer because he's trying to cram an entire game into a single (usually) CD/DVD/cartridge. Sometimes you have to pick you battles.

Now the big online RPGs like World of Warcraft and Everquest come close because they allow the players to create somewhat unique characters and then do whatever the hell they want to do with them. You want to quit killing things and devote your undead warlock's unlife to selling fine merchandise at low, low prices? There ya go, enjoy. These games only come close to being real RPGs because you really can't do anything you want. You have choice, but it's limited to what they programed into the game. For instance, in WoW, can you decapitate the head of your neighbors and place them on spikes around your own personal bordello? How about this, can you come up with a plan to destabilize the economy of the region allowing you to buy up the cheap real estate and then broker that power in an attempt to overthrow the king? My point exactly. The one RPG that actually came even close was Second Life. But then it relied on its users to design and program it, and well, the great sea of lazy on the net far outshines the tepid pool of competent and willing programers.

That being said, table top RPGs are still around and kicking. They are a popular little sub culture of gaming and doing quite well in general. They are not however, a massive money making concept waiting to be tapped. A fact that has caused much worry in the gaming community as corporation after corporation fails to learn this lesson. More on that some other time.
These games come in all sizes and styles, from the simple to the insanely complex. There are detective games, horror games, Sci-fi games (take your pick, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, etc...), fantasy games, and on and on and on. There's a Final Fantasy game where you can do all of those things I mentioned earlier and more. All you need is a copy of the rules, some friends, and a place where you can hang out and play. Maybe some dice, but depending on the game it might not be required. At their core these are social games. Your experience is enriched by interacting with other people and bouncing ideas off them. By your decisions you create the game and drive the story.

Sadly it is not as shiny and happy a hobby as one would expect. I both regret and am thankful that there are many new gamers these days who know nothing of the darker times. The political bitching brought about by the likes of Grand Theft Auto, pales in comparison to what faced gaming all those years ago. There was a time when priests would give sermons denouncing the evils of such RPGs as Dungeons and Dragons (which became a generalized term for any RPG at the time). D&D was the first real RPG and it was the biggest too, which made it the biggest target. In comparison, imagine if a major news agency started going on and on about there being a baby raping scene in Halo 2, and despite the fact that it's a blatant lie with no backing at all, churches, schools and police begin believing it and start acting upon that belief.

Now things did get better, but it took awhile and there are still people out there who think D&D is a Satanist tool designed to attract young minds. This really wasn't made any easier when the Vampire: The Masquerade RPG (play as Anne Rice inspired vampires) started up a LARP. LARP stands for Live Action Role Play, which is basically where people dress up and play act as their ingame characters while using a dumbed down rule system. If you ever see people running around a park dressed like wizards, knights, jedi, whatever, and hitting each other with soft foam swords, now you know what they're doing. However the Vampire LARP, really started attracting the goth crowd and...well, it just got bad. Really bad. How bad you ask? You ever see those people who go goth, get their teeth altered to look like vampire fangs, and start insisting that they be called by names taken from "Interview with a Vampire"? That's how bad it got.

With that in mind I'll end by explaining that when you play a tabletop RPG, you do not have to act out what your character says or does. Sometimes a little of that where dialog in concerned makes the game a little more fun, but for the most part it just weirds the other players out. Most of time, the dialog in these games sounds a bit like this (so to speak).
GM (guy running the game): Ok, Bilbo is about to drop the ring in the volcano, but then he suddenly gets this strange look in his ey...
PLAYER 1: I shoot him.
GM: What?
PLAYER 1: My elf shoots him with an arrow. The little bastard finally went evil and I'm not giving him a chance to put the ring on.
(Player rolls some dice to see if he actually hits the hobbit. He rolls high enough and succeeds)
GM: just killed Bilbo.
PLAYER 1: And now I kick him over the side into the lava.
PLAYER 2: Wait! Get that magic shirt off him first. That stuff was pretty cool.
GM: Ok, well your elf feels horrible about killing his good friend like that.
PLAYER 1: Yeah, ok, fine. Though he still thinks it was for the good of all mankind. He'll go donate something to some orphans to appease his conscience later if that helps.

And let me leave you with this. While there is still an air of nerdishness and strangeness about games such as D&D, don't judge or let it sway you from giving these games a try. Hell, even Vin Diesel used to play.

(If any readers feel offended or angry over the content of this article, please bear in mind that the author is suffering from sleep depravation and neither his comments nor his stated religious, political, or moral positions should be taken seriously or really read at all. Doing so only encourages him.)


Anonymous said...

They always looked like a lot of fun, but they also seem like a huge time commitment. Maybe one day I'll try one out.

Richard R. said...

Tabletop RPGs are a shit ton of fun but yes they do require a huge time commitment. However, if you have a group of close friends who are willing to play it, it's totally worth it.

Tabletop RPGs only work when the people are fun around you, making it an interesting game. I have a couple of hilarious D&D stories; the best one being me and Paul trapped in a ship with wheat that we *accidently* set fire to.

Good times.

Stefan said...

Nice post! I always have to explain to people the difference between 'real' RPG's and the J-RPG's.

Still, most CRPG's are still seriously lacking in interactivity. Why can't I climb in tree? Why not hide under a cupboard? Of course, it would be hell if seen from a programming/design perspective...

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