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我们身处在一个悲哀的国家, 我们同胞的血脉中流动着短视的劣根性, 我所从事的行业正处于黑暗的时代, 我没有热血,但一息尚存。

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D&D and MMORPGs  

2006-03-26 21:18:35|  分类: 游戏设计 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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D&D inspired the MMORPG genre. It spawned it like pulp fantasy fiction and tactical wargames spawned D&D.

D&D is the first of all modern role-playing games. As such, it is valuable and demonstrative of what RPGs are about, and what they are as a medium, a craft or an art, depending on the people you talk to (the qualification of what the RPG-hobby is and isn't relates a lot on personal investment and thus opinions of each gamer taken individually).

When I hear some major designers in the hobby talk about the lost battle of D&D versus MMORPGs, that makes me cringe. Why? Because I consider tabletop role-playing games can't be compared with MMORPGs, much like The Lord of the Rings itself could not be compared to The Lord of the Rings role-playing game.

Let's compare LOTR and LOTR-RPG. LOTR is a novel. It takes the mind of the reader into a grand epic as a viewer, spectator of world-shaking events that trumpeted the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. For short: it's a book to read. What's LOTR-RPG now? It's a game that allows to use Middle-earth as a backdrop for the GM and players to play out characters and situations for their entertainment. These are two completely different things.

How could we define a tabletop RPG? I would define it a social game where the participants play out events/adventures in a fictional world either invented by them, one of them or provided as a supplement to the rules regulating the world. Some of the specificities of fantasy novels are comparable to tabletop RPGs: they provide a fictional world in which the reader (participant) can immerse himself, but the critical point missing is of course the means of intervention and creation in this fictional world: the reader here is just spectator, pictures the story in his/her mind's eye but cannot affect it by any means besides the frequency of reading s/he adopts.

The same type of comparison applies between MMORPGs and tabletop RPGs. In MMORPGs you have participants immersed in a game world. There is a social aspect, but the nature of this social dimension of MMORPGs is radically different from the one of tabletop RPGs: in MMORPGs, you have people playing on their computer. The computer screen is the interface with the game world. There are no people around the player, but he can interact with other alter egos through the computer.

Tabletop RPGs are social in another way: people are sitting around a table with other people made of flesh and blood. They are sharing pizza, jokes and the presence of each other. That's a huge difference right here.

Further, with tabletop RPGs, the only interface to the game world is one's own imagination. Each participant to the tabletop game will imagine things through verbal descriptions and dialogs exchanged between the players. Words will be interpreted differently by each player individually. Sometimes this leads to problems of interpretation, but this also can lead to a better enjoyment of the game (since interpretations of pictures in the imagination will often be made according to personal taste. For instance, if a DM says this character's cloak is "crimson", the word "crimson" will look different in each player's mind, and generally in a good way, according to one's preferences in terms of shades).

The main difference is that here the brain is active, not passive. If you are looking at a TV or computer screen, your brain is passive (this was shown enough through numerous medical studies for me to not dwell too much on that point): you perceive colors and shapes in front of you, with the occasional click as a matter of choice (which calls for the reasoning area of the brain). Imagination is an active activity for the brain. When you play a tabletop RPG, you are thus using both imaginative/artistic and reasoning areas of your brain.

With MMORPGs as they stand now, you don't imagine. You see and react to set values and shapes. You can't change the parameters regulating the world. If the programming doesn't include the possibility of bashing through a wall in the gaming environment, you just can't do it unless you are a programmer yourself. Sure, some video games similar to MMORPGs (I'm thinking of Neverwinter Nights) allow the creation of modules and adventures, but still you are limited to the choices the program (Aurora in NWN's instance) allows you to make in terms of game elements available, type of actions that can be undertaken and how they would be undertaken. The only alternative to this would be to program your own game.

With tabletop RPGs, you have a rulebook and maybe a setting. If you don't like the setting, you create your own. You don't need any particular skill to create a world. You just need imagination, probably a little bit of culture (pertaining to whatever you want to base the world on), some paper and a pen. The same way, with the rulebook, you have all the "program" of the game layed out right in front of you. Nothing stops you, particularly not a "design software", from changing half the rules ("programming") if you want to. You don't need to be "a programmer" to change the rules: you just need to have read the rules, understand them and know where you want to go with your modifications with the implied effects any changes would have. No rules to bash through a wall? You can make one up as you play the game. Want to pee on the corpse of your fallen foe (don't laugh, I've seen it in a session)? You don't have to worry whether characters in the game include genetalia, which color and shape they would be, and what the flow of urine would look like. Okay, that's a trashy example. But I'm sure that at this point, you see what I mean.

I'm sure I've just scratched the topic here. I can add that I believe RPGs should be appreciated and nurtured for their own particular qualities, and not designed or practiced according to the standards of other, different types of media. For instance, judging RPGs according to the standards of novels, movies or comics or designing them according to these media's standards of quality is a mistake. RPGs should stand their ground on their own, according to their own identity. That's a bit like the quality of movies was understood using criteria of quality for novels in their infancy - and still now for at least some critics - and that just sucks.

So, crying about the fall of RPGs because this or that MMORPG does this or that, or is that popular, is just misundertanding the nature of tabletop RPGs. Worse, basing a marketing strategy on the idea that "because MMORPGs are today more popular than tabletop RPGs, tabletop RPGs need to be more like MMORPGs" is wrong and defeatist. That's destroying the particular identity of RPGs and would just make their disappearance beyond certain. I just cannot agree with that.

Tabletop RPGs have to evolve on their own, according to their own styles and ideas, not because they would be different from other types of games that in the end, cannot even be compared to them once one looks beyond cosmetic appearance.

Of course, I'm taking the stand of a passionate gamer interested in the well-being and long life of the tabletop RPG hobby. There are other, probably more important considerations to care of when you are an executive of a game company. Investments, profits for the company ensuring its survival on a market more and more competitive, that's important. Let's take Wizards of the Coast and Star Wars as an example. I understand they have a limited agreement with Lucasfilm Ltd when it comes to the number of SW products they can publish a year. SW miniatures sell much more than SW tabletop RPG, so selling exclusively SW miniatures and not further develop the tabletop RPG makes business sense. But that sucks, from a passionate gamer's point of view, of course.

I think tabletop RPGs can evolve and adapt themselves as products that can sell now, and in the future, because they are different from any other hobby I know of. Sure, they will probably never sell as mass market products do. I'm not even sure one could wish for such a thing, because that would mean making many, many compromises to appeal to a larger audience. From this point of view, they certainly shouldn't give up the identity/particularities that make them potentially original when compared to MMORPGs, board games, fantasy novels or movies.

 

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