Editor's Choice
Roleplaying: Evolved

Jeff Tidball | 4 Aug 2009 12:22
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But even then, the roleplaying game was moving away from its roots as a competitive game. For one thing, the opposing sides were no longer symmetrical. Roleplaying games divided participants into a group of players in one camp and a Game Master (or, in D&D's case, a "Dungeon Master") in the other. The Game Master was more a referee than a contestant. As time passed, pen-and-paper RPGs instructed their Game Masters more and more strenuously that their proper role was to provide a challenge and tell a story, not to win. The 1984 tabletop RPG Justice, Inc., for example, has as its first rule "a Game Master is an entertainer." It goes on to instruct the Game Master that "you will find much more satisfaction in the thanks [the players] give you for an enjoyable evening of gaming than you will in killing off all of their characters."

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Although explicit "victory" conditions persisted in RPGs - bring the murderer to justice, overthrow the crime boss, kill the evil wizard, etc. - they became more open-ended and began borrowing from the creative and critical vocabulary of dramas, from short stories to TV shows. Now, in a modern tabletop RPG like Primetime Adventures, the players and their characters essentially make up their own goals on the fly, modifying or abandoning them at will with their invented back stories and free-form personalities the only governing authorities. (See also, for example, Second Life.) These games have multiple, infinite or perpetually postponed endgames, and concern themselves more and more with character arcs, dramatic climaxes and openings in medias res.

But as I stressed earlier, "March of Progress" isn't meant to illustrate a one-way street where one species replaces the last one wholesale and whole hog. Today, there are plenty of sub-categories among both tabletop and computer RPGs, and they plant their flags all across the spectrum from Chainmail to Second Life. We see games as close to improvisational theater as those in the Scandinavian Jeepform style, and as close to competitive games as the PvP-oriented MMORPG of the moment. Reasonable gamers can argue about whether these fringe cases even fit roleplaying's core definitions, much like reasonable scientists also argue about what, exactly, constitutes tool use among primates.

Regardless of the taxonomy of these outliers, allow me to make a modest proposal: Maybe now, in 2009, it would pay to eradicate a few of the more vestigial characteristics of the earliest roleplaying games, the ones that just aren't helping us move RPGs onward and upward. Maybe it's time for marching progress to leave the roleplaying game's appendix in the dust of history.

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