Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Can I Hit Something?

Tobold has a post up about the new, 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a topic that's popped up in a number of my Feedly feeds of late. There's clearly a commonality of interest between the two hobbies, pen and paper/tabletop roleplaying games and MMORPGs, and most people reading this have probably tried both at some time or another.

My own introduction to traditional role playing games was slightly muddy, oddly mirroring the stages by which I later found myself playing MMOs. I came late to AD&D compared to most. I don't believe I'd even heard of it when I was at school. Certainly no-one there played. We did have a wargaming club and indeed my two closest friends belonged to it but I could never see the attraction.

When I went to university one of the first friends I made there shared rooms with an obsessive D&D player, who used to hold all-day sessions that drove my friend to find something, anything to do elsewhere until the madness was over. That was my introduction to the concept of "roleplaying games" and it wasn't one to inspire further curiosity.

It wasn't until about two or three years after I graduated that another friend, one who had never previously shown the slightest interest in either RPGs or the surrounding subculture, told me he was DMing sessions at his house on Sunday afternoons and asked me if I'd like to give it a try. Come to think of it, I have no idea why he started and he's dead now so I can't ask him. Some things we're just never meant to know...

I was, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic but for various reasons I found myself at a loose end one weekend so I thought I might as well give it a try. After a shaky, self-conscious start, something bit and stuck. I ended up spending most Sundays there, gaming, for something approaching five years. Everyone in that group was in their twenties, all but one of them married. Perhaps it's no co-incidence that when the group eventually broke up every one of us, bar the guy who's house we met at, was divorced.

Tobold opens his piece with an intriguing proposition:

"I have a very simple model of games in general: They usually have one core activity that is frequently repeated, and then some shell around it that gives structure to the sequence of core activities. In role-playing games, both on paper and on the computer, the core activity is usually combat"

I think that's a very useful and illuminating way of looking at gaming in general and RPGs in particular. Because my introduction to the hobby came via a relatively mature (in both senses of the expression) group, my conception of what it was all about probably evolved in an atypical fashion. We gamed once a week in a session usually lasting around twelve hours. I would guess that, on average, about eight or nine of those hours were spent on things other than combat. Nevertheless, combat did indeed represent the undeniable core of the game, around which we wrapped a shell of both in and out of character chatter, banter and storytelling.

There were rare occasions when we went an entire session without any combat at all but when that happened I think we all felt unsatisfied. Mostly we'd go for a couple of hours of amateur dramatics, argument and general chit-chat and then we'd all be ready for a fight that lasted a couple of hours more. Then we'd all stop for tea with MTV or WWF wrestling on in the background (our host had cable, very unusual back then, and he never missed an opportunity to show it off) before repeating the cycle until it was time to call for taxis and slope off home.

By the time I decided to buy Everquest in 1999 I hadn't played a tabletop RPG in over a decade but by then I had played a lot of CRPGs. Indeed, I was drawn to the scary, unfamiliar, expensive world of online gaming largely because Mrs Bhagpuss and I had run out of new offline RPGs to try.

Now with added highlighting. Didn't have that in my day...

It would be neat if I could say it was a direct, linear progression from AD&D to offline CRPGs to Online MMORPGs but it wasn't quite that tidy. Before I ever played D&D, going all the way back to when I was at University, I played a lot of computer games. One of my favorite genres of the time was the Text Adventure.

Text adventures seemed to have almost no correlation to tabletop gaming and precious little with most graphical CRPGs, which soon pushed them into the wilderness of extreme hobbyism. It was a surprise, then, even a  shock, when I stepped out onto Norrath for the first time, (eventually) found myself face to face with my Guildmaster and discovered that he expected me to communicate with him using the exact same, gnomic hint-and-guess routine that had so cardinally failed to lead me to The Golden Apple all those years ago..

In Everquest all these things, along with a host of others I don't have time to mention, seemed to come together as a gestalt. Rather than the Frankenstein's Monster it might have been the whole edifice grew inexorably to become something very much more than the sum of its disparate parts.

The chat channels, the groups and the guilds all emulated and expanded on the socializing of those Sunday afternoon sessions;the deep, rich, mysterious Lore of the game world matched and easily surpassed the narratives of the CRPGs; the seemingly endless arrays of NPCs willing to hold conversations eclipsed the limited, linear options of the classic text adventures. Once I fell down that rabbit hole there was no climbing back out.

And yet, despite all that richness and complexity, despite all the subsequent innovations and improvements that have burned through the MMORPG genre over the succeeding years, the core of the game remains as it ever was: combat. The shell that surrounds that core now is vast, a Dyson Sphere around that dense, central star. The shell contains all the socializing, questing, character growth, narrative, storytelling, exploring, homebuilding, collecting, sorting, codifying and just plain hanging out that make up the majority of the time many, probably most of us spend in these imaginary worlds but without that core glowing steady at the heart all the rest of that frenzied, fervent activity would slowly ebb and die.

When it comes right down to it, even I can only sort my inventory for so many hours before I really, really need to hit an Orc with an axe.


  1. I think that one of the reasons that combat lies at the core of most if not all RPG's, be it Massively Online ones or PnP, is that as a species we thrive on conflict.

    Beneath our veneer of civilized behaviour there is still that primal aggression that allowed us to survive for hundreds of thousands of years in a world once dominated by other species, though luckily for the most part we found ways to cannalize those urges once we became 'king of the mountain'.

    Now we watch movies, read stories, follow the news, all about things the Chinese proverb describes as 'interesting times' - situations we wouldn't REALLY want to be in but are still fascinated by.

    A second reason is more practical. There is no way that we'd act out those voilent urges in-game 'for real', while on the other hand say a debate or other verbal task decided by a dice-roll becomes rather bland. We can accept that our character is a great swordsman and his actions are decided by dicerolls (as to a large degree are 'traditional' MMORPG's), but a character that is a great debater feels hollow if his actions are decided the same way as well 'because you can always talk' , there is less excitement. Suspense of disbelief and all.

    Or, in other words, while it would be exciting (to some at least) to see say e.g. Boston Legal's Alan Shore and Lord Blackadder (2nd series and further) square off in a battle of words and wits, you can't really capture it with dicerolls. Combat however can obviously work.

    Not sure if I explained it well, but I think that has to do with it.

  2. I think you explained it pretty well and I think you're definitely onto something in terms of the motivations involved. That said, only the other day I read this article on he BBC website. As the song goes, "I can't read and I can't write but I can drive a tractor".


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