Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 12, 2012
Many years ago, I read a book entitled “Shared Fantasy,” a sociologist’s exploration of the RPG subculture – back when the hobby was new and not so much computerized. As a member of said subculture, I was a little defensive when I started reading it, but soon found that author Gary Alan Fine was pretty accurate in his depiction of the gaming groups and their psychology and social constructs built around their hobby. His analysis seemed pretty reasonable from my own experience.
One of the observations that stuck home to me was about how the role of role-playing shifted. Younger male players, in particular, tended to gravitate towards playing a role that was an idealized version of themselves. The characters were calm, cool, strong, competent, independent, in-control, good with the ladies, often mysterious and dark, etc. Everything that they, themselves, were not.
Shortly after reading that, I was in the leadership of a medievalist / larping group and I saw forms of “characters” being played by all these teenaged young men. And they were all alike. Almost every single one described the same character with only a few variations. We’d laugh about all these orphaned young dark, brooding heroes who trusted nobody but themselves, but were nevertheless super-competent with the blade in spite of never needing or receiving training (or help of any kind) from anybody else. We had a full roster of introverts who desperately wanted everybody to pay attention at how awesome they really were on the inside. I guess that was something the players and their characters had in common.
And yeah, while I pat myself on the back for making characters in my younger years that were a little bit deeper than that for various role-playing games I participated in, many of my early characters were pretty much wish-fulfillment for myself. They were intended to be badasses at level 1. I gave them a few quirks to make them interesting, but in some ways I wonder if role-playing wasn’t a way for me – and lots of other teenaged kids like me – to “fake it ’til you make it” – to envision myself as I’d want to be, in hopes of achieving those qualities within myself.
Did it succeed? Maybe. Though I still aspire to some of those qualities. 🙂
Later, however, I noticed that role-playing among my peers shifted purposes. Mostly. We’ve had an active weekly game going almost every week since college, so it’s been a long time, and we’ve played a lot of different characters of all kinds of genders, professions, personalities, races, sexual persuasions, and goals. In a lot of ways, role-playing games create kind of a social laboratory for experimentation with character traits. How would a person with X and Y trait respond to situation A or another personality B?
(Good) fiction writers get to do the same thing, but the lab is entirely in their own mind. That’s where their characters come alive, and the results get reported on the page for others to read about. Dice-and-paper role-players (and LARPers, and others…) get to do the same thing in a shared fantasy, testing their creations with other living, breathing participants and their creations. It provides feedback, and sometimes some real frustrations as the feedback doesn’t match your expectations as a player. You’ve got some general ideas about a story you WANT to build around your character, but it doesn’t match what the game master and other players are providing.
But those frustrations aside, that’s a big part of the fun of role-playing games. Whether it’s trying on an idealized persona, experimenting with a role, or acting as an interactive author of your character’s story, role-playing for its own sake can be an extra layer of fun on top of the hacking and slashing and looting and coming up with bad puns to make your friends groan.
It is also something that is extremely difficult to translate into computer games. It’s often very difficult to maintain in tabletop games or even LARPS, as well. But once you have the computer acting as both medium and (in multiplayer games) an intermediary between players, it gets even harder to keep that aspect of RPGs going. After all, the game world itself is completely immune to all but the most coarse of interactions – very little more beyond “destroy,” “loot,” and “trade” – so aside from some canned dialog or story options, there’s really no way to express the subtleties of character. You can’t wink at a barmaid to try and catch her attention, or bribe some of the street urchins to tip you with information when they catch site of your rival, sneer at the mayor as he welcomes you to the town, or treat your horse to an extra bit of oats and an apple and a good brushing to reward it for its courage and the hard run it made to bring you back to the town in safety. These are things that might not make much impact in a human-moderated world either, but might at least gain some acknowledgement from the other humans around the table. They’d at least make a mark on their collective history of the game world to register what kind of person your character is.
Computerized game worlds don’t do that. Yet. And probably at no time in the near future. Computers aren’t any good at that.
Now that’s easy enough for me, a guy who slings dice with friends every Saturday night, to simply acknowledge that this is one way in which dice-and-paper games are superior to their CRPG cousins. I have the luxury of playing both. Well, sometimes. Don’t have nearly the time to play CRPGs as much as I’d like, and I’ve pretty much had to swear off MMOs …
But I do wonder what else can be done to bring some of that subtlety and role-playing into CRPGs. Even single-player games. It seems like it would require more of a simulationist approach than modern RPG design favors these days. But you could make a full-fledged RPG with all the simulation detail of ten Dwarf Fortresses and still not get anywhere near we’d need to really capture what I consider a true “role-playing” feel.
There are a few ingredients I think that CRPGs (single-player or multiplayer) would need:
Generalized, Abstract, Flexible Actions
One solution is a generalized, abstract mechanism to simulate a variety of specific actions. As I’ve suggested before, The Sims series provides a good template for this kind of thing. Players can fill in the specifics in their own minds. In multiplayer, perhaps the players could provide more description to the abstract actions. In game terms, the player may be talking to an NPC using a number of social skills – or skill settings – intimidation, seduction, diplomacy, oratory, whatever. In a tabletop game, a player might describe their actions in specific terms, and the game master does his or her best to translate it into more general game terms. In a CRPG, the player himself may have to provide that translation. But it’s possible.
I’m not saying that everything should be abstracted. And I’m well aware that this could cause a horrifically complicated UI. After all, if there’s all these things you can do with an NPC besides attacking them or talking to them, ALL THE TIME, those choices have to be represented somehow.
Consequences for Everything
Actions should have consequences, and an impact in the world. Too often, we limit this discussion to big, canned events that change the direction of the game plot. Those are definitely fun and interesting, but sometimes it’s now so much how you change the story, as the little choices you have to make to navigate it. Consequences may be minor, but there should be at least the potential for ’em – good or bad or in-between – for every action. Impactful choices shouldn’t be limited to a few canned decisions or a simple faction system.
The causality doesn’t even have to be explicit – and maybe it’s better if it isn’t. At least, not always. If there are enough hints as to causal relationships between the player’s actions and events in the game, players will see causality even when there is none. It’s enough to ignite the imagination. And in the end, that’s really what we want, right?
NPC Perception of Player Actions
I guess you could say this is a second-order consequence thing. But canned actions generally have only direct consequences. What about indirect ones? What do the other characters in the game perceive? How do they react? If you kill someone on the street, do the other townspeople freak out? Do they try to understand what you did and why you did it? If you are seen talking to an untrustworthy fellow, do they start treating you with suspicion?
History / Memory
One of the best ways for an action to have an impact is for it to be remembered by someone (or something) other than the player. And not just in big “Hero of Kvatch” ways, either. Maybe the barmaid starts wondering why you don’t wink at her anymore. Maybe a farmer complains that somebody stole the five gold pieces he had hidden in the barrel behind his house that you looted by habit earlier in the game. While a lot of history may get baked into certain mechanics, (like a faction system), it’s even more fun to see permanent changes or a history of specific actions reflected in the game world. Especially actions that reflect choices you, the player, made on your own rather than prompted by a canned event.
And yes, I know talking about memories of “specific actions” here may seem contradictory with my appeal for common, broadly abstract actions above. And maybe it is. This is fodder for thought and experimentation, not a formula. 🙂 And hey, as long as I’m making wishes, why can’t I wish for some way of making them work together, huh?
A Different Approach to Game-Building
In traditional scripting of quests in an RPG, an NPC might have a key piece of information that you need to complete the main storyline. What happens if you piss that NPC off?
Generally, you can’t, or he’ll have to give you the information anyway regardless of attitude, or the designer has to create some custom alternatives. Traditional game-scripting tends to follow pretty exact sequences of events. The player must follow rigid steps in sequence to advance the storyline, although there may be alternate paths to give the player some choice in his or her approach.
If some of the above ideas above get implemented in a more open-ended, simulationist CRPG world, things can get out of control with this approach very quickly. In response, a designer could abandon the idea of deep human-generated storylines and create a Daggerfall-esque game of procedurally generated content. Appropriate, but not very satisfying.
Or – this might suggest a completely different approach to how CRPGs get scripted. Is it possible to have the game decide how to trigger specific events at run-time based on game state? To delay the binding of who is an “important” NPC in the game (with critical information or quests) until the player has selected these people through their own interactions? To set up the quests as more generalized events and triggers that leave the player more freedom on how they accomplish (or fail to accomplish) goals?
This would be a pretty cool thing to experiment with on a small, indie basis. I see it being far too risky for a big AAA game, and something like this would probably need to go through several prototype iterations of varying degrees of suckage to get right. But it’s something to noodle on.
With all the game genres now borrowing “RPG elements” to blur the lines between categories (which I approve of, BTW), this is an area of exploration that could really make the genre more distinctive, and add a lot of new fun possibilities…
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