Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Guest Post: The Best Thing to Happen to RPGs

A couple of friends in my gaming circle generously offered guest posts for this month, to help me round out the year with some different voices and ideas. Today's post comes from Sherri Stewart, my wife and fellow gamer. She brings a different set of tools to thinking about games- as a woman and as a DBA. In discussions about rpgs she inevitably manages to clarify my thoughts about rpgs or turn me towards something I hadn't considered before.

The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Tabletop RPGs

MMORPGs.

What was not to like? Online RPGs had it all:
*...continuous incremental reinforcement and accrual
*...instant calculation of complicated “simulation” formulas
*...loot and quests and and tons of content—always something new and always something for any mood—player's choice
*...constant reassessment of class balance and additional skill improvements. No one strives harder for “fair” than the MMORPG designers
*...whatever versions of “social” worked for each player—be it guild leadership/politics, anonymous assholery & griefing or just chatting with acquaintances on a friends list
*...visual reinforcement of player achievements
*...strategic planning with others for epic battles—cooperative play that required strict roles and orderly implementation of a plan
24/7

Everquest took the first toll at our table—and World of Warcraft stole away a lot of the fence-sitters. Once the dust cleared after all the desertions, things looked different. And with every passing day, they look better.

We seem to have permanently lost a few players—most were problematic--needy for the constant continuous reinforcement or to have the content revolve around their whims. MMORPGS really were a better fit for them than tabletop.

A few players who left later returned. Some people, even among the tabletop stalwarts, still play MMORPGs. There's plenty to like there. But when they sit down now, they know better why they are there. Appreciation for the games is at an all-time high.

And we've gotten some new players—wives & sisters & friends of friends who would never have considered sitting down at table if they hadn't gotten sucked into the MMORPGs; these 'novices' come to the table with a vocabulary of strategic cooperative battle and the desire for something ...more.

These things are merely anecdotal evidence. Still, when I look around the table and I see how much things have changed, I'm amazed. There is more to it than just the passing years. I imagine these phenomena have occurred elsewhere. Certainly, the RPG industry seems to have changed. To my eyes, RPG designers began thinking harder about why people were at the table—or maybe just the RPG communities did- paying increased attention to products that delivered that 'something more' and thinking hard about what did make the hobby fun.

I haven't seen a lot of discussion of the MMORPGs in the RPG community– what I have stumbled across treats MMORPG players as an entirely separate customer base or hobby community. But they're not. MMORPG players are RPG players—past, present and future.

What the industry response has been, whether a direct response to MMORPGs or not, is a boatload of really amazing and satisfying RPG material and some interesting back and forth about what RPGs really are.

In the last few years, we've seen some the corporate RPG houses take a distinctly business-like tact. The Old School community, on the other hand, is keeping their chin up and throwing some punches (and a lot of insults). Indie gaming has deployed their agents to every lecture hall, three-ring circus and performance art venue in the industrialized world. Different responses, each of them—but ones that each distill a distinct set of essences from the RPG paradigm and proffer it as the 'more' that fills the MMORPG voids.

It's The Real Thing
Some MMORPG players came out of those games expecting 'fair and balanced' systems of some complexity, lots of skill options, strong roles with important duties assigned to each role, and constant updates. If they came back to RPGs, they came back because they wanted more of the same at a slower pace and in a less-populated (and possibly as less-competitive) setting. Corporate RPGs sensibly filled that need. It was an established (and large) consumer base—why ignore it?

THE Corporate RPG, D&D 4e, opted for video-game simulation. Weird, huh? It's popular with the kids after all. And they're right. A great deal of what drew tabletop players to MMORPGs is in 4e. What's the difference? It's much slower. It's not 24/7. Players get all the crunch, but don't need the reflexes or the attention span or the patience for organizing a guild raid. And no one can get ahead by playing more hours. The balance, the strict roles and the constant changes/improvements...nerfs?...to each class—as well as a ton of mechanics to allow players to leverage their every experience point—still gleam with promise. But the pace is so much nicer. And 4e has all the usual tabletop charm—socializing, a little story, a character to call your own. Like all the best-known brands, it's got a comfortable universality too—lots of other people are playing it.

Now I'm also going to categorize Paizo's Pathfinder as corporate. Don't hate me. I know they're not WOTC. But they took the old corporate package, cleaned it up, tied a bow on it and taught the RPG community all over again about what's important to have from a corporate RPG system: good packaging, familiar system, large user base, steady stream of new product including new options & modules, and the ability to maintain a semblance of concern for customer feedback. They share the same feature list as 4e for post-MMORPG appeal. Just by virtue of not being entirely new (because we all know it's 3.5 in a better tailored suit), they've acquired a thin coat of attractive sepia-toned nostalgic lacquer that the the Old School revolution claims as their own.

Of course, not all corporate RPG designers joined the revolution. GURPS, for example, is still the same old attempt at a blow-by-blow simulation of everything under the sun. It has it's niche and it's loyal players and those don't seem to be going away—but GURPS hasn't changed nor has it's community. White Wolf blew it's setting up and rebooted with more mechanics on top of their old system—and while a few of the new lines were strong, they lost a lot of their loyal fans by changing their heavy hitters. They seem to be responding more to changes in the publishing industry than to changes in the RPG community. Plenty of other true-to their-tradition RPGs are still out there treading water.

And while neither exactly traditional or corporate, D20 did manage to become the Linux of the RPG world; it inspired a bunch of DIYers by giving them an open-source version of a less-than-cutting-edge system. It's had it's heyday—but the overwhelming number of mediocre products undermined it's credibility. If it tapped into anything that resonated with the post-MMORPG crowd, it was the joy of creating—but this was at the level of the publication and not a process that occurred at the table. Some interesting content was created—and some of the best thinkers about that system (or minor variations thereof) put together very good materials. Mutants and Masterminds remains the greatest standout for me—one of the best superhero systems yet made. But I don't see it or any of the other d20 products/offshoots as being a response to MMORPGs. It was more a reaction to the idea of open-source than to MMORPGs.

Nostalgia Makes Everything Prettier
The Old School community responded to MMORPGs by digging their heels in. They knew what was good—and if you couldn't see the charm of the Old School RPG, you weren't right in the head or one of the club or something. And they were correct enough. No MMORPG offers the experience of the Old School canon (or their new stuff). And curiosity has a purpose.

The Old School movement maintains that the charm of RPGs lies in the very quirkiness of the old mechanics and settings and the shared experience of playing those modules. Balance be damned. This is about gaming history and the fun of mining a pre-designed setting and doing it by the book. These are the champions of the funhouse dungeons and the Runes of Death. And, frankly, it's the province of something that MMORPGs are definitely not—this is where heroes, loners and munchkins all bow to the inscrutable failure. Old School knows the dice will kill you—and if they don't, a single bad choice can. Did you look in the chest? You die! Or are possessed! Or find the key that you absolutely need to leave the dungeon! And there were no hints! Okay—maybe it's not all like that. But it's there. Sometimes it's about 'rolling a character'-- where there are clearly better and worse options—and you are stuck with what you roll. The sickly, ugly, unskilled beggar and the handsome, well-trained noble start out in the same group—and, yes, the beggar is truly a wretch in all ways—no hidden talents or secret organizations...

And the fun of it is that every group who plays the module or the setting has to survive the same hazards. Failure is okay. It doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't get you kicked out of the guild. After each untimely death, you just roll up a new character and get back in there. Who knows, maybe this time you'll be to be a pit fighter or a circus acrobat. And hopefully you laugh a lot and rejoice in your hard-won triumphs. That idea is pretty gorgeous.

It also stinks of old-timey fun that isn't always all that fun. Like a croquet game in whites on a too-hot summer day, the stories afterward may sound intriguing and a little romantic. But if you are truthful, the pleasure of the game was 9/10s the company you were in and only 1/10 the game and the costumes and the setting. Still, there's value in re-visiting the old stuff—there were snatches of brilliance. And the ability to laugh off a horrendous outcome for a fictional character that you enjoyed playing is invaluable to enjoying all the rest of your RPG years. So if I'm not convinced that nostalgia is actually the response to MMORPGs that fills any need except for the wish to draw a line in the sand and establish us/them on experiential grounds and bragging rights, well, that's probably because I don't have a great many fond Old School memories. Maybe I didn't play the right Old School game.

There! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ...
An Indie game? Hoo boy. Here's where the theorists are at work. It's a feast, if you're in to that sort of thing..and by that sort of thing, I mean any sort of thing. There's an Indie game that's just as in to that sort of thing as you are. The ones that seem to me to have gained currency due to the MMORPGs involve a few core concepts: 'the RP stands for roleplay', genre simulation, shared creation and increased player control. There's too many to even get close to listing all the note-worthies—so I'm going to point to a few examples.

I tie these to MMORPGs because they are exactly what no MMORPG can give anyone in satisfying measure. A MMORPG player is an insect in swarm—a well-served insect, but still, a mere insect. Sometimes the MMORPGs come up with some system to respond to the behavior of the swarm in a permanent and world-changing way—but a single gnat never makes a difference. And there is no roleplay—you can blather all day in your character's 'voice' but you can't really do anything outside fighting/crafting/questing/sightseeing the same things everyone else can and does fight/craft/quest/sightsee.. And no amount of creativity will allow you to turn WoW into a shared spy caper. You can't trump the random-number generator of the MMORPG engine no matter how important the situation is to you. You can't make up your own city and have any meaningful content there.

And here's the thing. RPGs are a form of creative play. There's the creation and acting out of a character. There's a story that is being told—but who's telling it and how that's arbitrated decides what's getting told and how. There's a setting and a reason the group is in the same place—maybe that's decided by genre, maybe by the GM or maybe by the players. MMORPG players have got their constant continuous reinforcement—but that doesn't mean they have found satisfaction. They come away from the swarm wanting experiences that are unique, stories that they can get involved in right away, characters free to do what makes sense...and they want to have some control when the random number generator betrays them. After years of grinding their characters up to max level, they've been rewarded with ...the opportunity for more grinding? No—there must be somewhere their devotion pays off.

This is not to say that corporate RPGs or Old School RPGs don't have anything for some of these issues—but the majority of those systems consist primarily of extensive mechanics for skirmish. The roots of war-gaming is apparent. And so, if the antidote for a malaise borne of hacking your way through a dungeon online is to hack your way through some other whatsit at the table at a slower pace and with fewer people, then you're definitely okay with one of the above. But it might be time for something a little different.

What about horror? Don't Rest Your Head
What about hard-boiled action? Hollowpoint
What about dark comedy? Fiasco
What about drama? Dogs In The Vineyard

What's interesting is that these are NOT just setting books plunked on top of a system...these are games that build the genre conventions into the mechanics. The games are engineered to deliver the mounting suspense and the inevitable (and often tragic) endings of their genre—and to do it fairly, logically, evenhandedly and ruthlessly. These are genre simulations. First time players are going to come out of these games amazed at what has just happened that they willingly helped happen.

It doesn't take a degree in Drama Engineering to make an RPG that can simulate a genre. The time-honored method of using a good rules engine and altering it to fit a genre lives on. The trick is to choose a rules engine that features some of the desired qualities. FATE gives the player quick access to an interesting playable character and control when the dice play hard-ball—and the system has been beautifully adapted to a range of genres. For instance, Diaspora, a FATE adaptation for sci-fi gaming features player-created clusters that serve as the home base for the players, mini-games for different conflict types and an array of interesting ways to use the simple FATE mechanics to drive dramatic scenes—ways available to both GM and players. A FATE adaptation of Kerberos Club actually delivers a surprising amount of the Steampunk you may have been wishing for and never finding elsewhere. GUMSHOE was built for investigative games and has been adapted to multiple genres--and it has able handlers in Robin Laws and Ken Hite. Burning Wheel has a couple variations—including it's own strange fantasy setting and Mouse Guard (which is one gorgeous RPG book)--and it has a unique method of sharing control between GM and player that may be exceedingly palatable to players coming from the absolute GM-control world—Burning Wheel is not at all loosey-goosey.

There is no game that more clearly reveals the honest pleasure of shared creation than Microscope. Further validation of the players' efforts by incorporating the results in a standard RPG campaign just keeps the good feelings rolling. The game itself is simple enough that people want to argue that it's hardly revolutionary—but they are crazy-wrong. Try it. Play it with people you've known for years—especially ones you think you know backwards and forwards. Play it with mere acquaintances. You will come out of the experience with a completely new appreciation of your gaming circle. They're brilliant people, it turns out. At least, I hope for you it turns out that way.

And then there are the Indie games that put the roleplay back into RPG. I do think these are the ones the haters are most afraid of. Kagematsu is certainly a fearsome beast—and Love in the Time of Seid is not for the faint of heart. But dang, even if I never get to play these games, I need to be thinking about these types of games and surrounding myself with people who would play these games so that I can remember that roleplay is more than funny voices and awkward explanations when you choose to do something suboptimal. Because if I want to be heroic, I've got to learn to risk being foolish or tragically wrong...

So I wrote this.

Next year: more games, more risks.