213: Roleplaying: Evolved

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Roleplaying: Evolved

Games have evolved a lot in the last century or so, but evolution doesn't always mean progress. Jeff Tidball offers a broad look at roleplaying games, and explains why some of the genre's most fundamental mechanics may be holding designers back.

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I'd have to disagree with getting rid of the level system in RPGs. I think the level system is a cap to a character's abilities which allows the player to gauge whether or not it's worth fighting a particular foe.

For example, one wouldn't want to tangle with a Minotaur Lord (Level 20 beast) in Oblivion right at the beginning of the game.

But the stats system is also a good idea, it helps flesh out a character better. If you want to be good with a bow and stealth, you can - just don't expect to be able to slug it out with half a ton of enemies at once like a warrior can. After all, your character is an assassin / thief - not a battle hardened brawler.

The stats and level system provide a good base for any character and NPC in a role playing game. But more fundamentally, it keeps the game fair.

I believe the stats and level system are as much for the player's ego as they are for any game mechanics.

We've all played pokemon, there is some pride in getting a team to lvl 100 status.

Or in some other RPG having X strength lets you wade through the lesser enemies with ease.

Play an MMO and suddenly your stats are how you compare yourself with everyone around you.

It's not so much an outdated method of character description as it is a tried and true method of showing progress and teaching the players about what they can and cannot handle and giving them a feeling of accomplishment.

I think the major limit to the 'evolution' of roleplaying games is the gamers themselves: it is easier, and it is still fun to roleplay with and around stats. From what I've seen, you effectively have to ignore stats entirely for 4th ed D&D to roleplay (you can't hit anything unless you have at least an 18 in a stat, and from what I remember, you have to be outrageously smart or interesting with an intelligence or charisma of 18).

Roleplay games are about escapism - of being somewhere else, being someone else. Rolling a die and concluding either 'I kill you', 'I outsmart you' or 'I charm you' is it at its simplest form, and to be honest, not every roleplayer is actually as strong, as smart or as charming as the character they play would be.

There are plenty of games out there that do away with levels and stats and suchlike, but the limitation is the appeal of those games - gamers *like* fiddling with numbers. It's simple.

This article started off great, and I appreciate the perspective from tabletop RPGs....

However, for those into tabletop GNS (gamist-narrativist-simulationist) theory, narrativism is NOT necessarily "progress" -- it's just DIFFERENT. Dogs in the Vineyard and Primetime Adventures are good examples of modern narrativist games, where the emphasis is on telling a coherent and entertaining story and the game mechanics explicitly reinforce this. A gamist game (such as any version of D&D) is mostly about conflict between the players and the gamemaster. A simulationist game, such as GURPS, is mostly about running and, well, simulating a detailed and coherent world usually with a high degree of verisimilitude.

I agree that computer RPGs have traditionally been heavily gamist, but I'm not sure moving toward narrativism is the answer. I would argue stats usually help simulationist games, and computers are great at crunching huge numbers of stats and formulae without problems and can do it in the background. The problem with narrativism is that it is hard for a computer game to help you tell a coherent story; usually we end up with more railroaded scripted garbage and end up playing through a movie someone else wrote, which defeats the purpose of interactivity.

There are perhaps other routes such as emergent gameplay and players finding their own stories, such as Dwarf Fortress, but I would argue that's much more a simulationist game than narrativist -- it just simulates a world and any story there is to be "found" by the player rather than explicitly written by the game designer.

I guess to sum up I would say that it is probably very hard for computer games to replicate the experience of Dogs in the Vineyard or other tabletop narrativist games, as it would take AI capable of telling a story. I think it is better to play to computers' strengths at number crunching, stick with the stats, and develop rich and complex simulationist worlds instead where human players can find meaning in their own emergent stories.

DojiStar:

I guess to sum up I would say that it is probably very hard for computer games to replicate the experience of Dogs in the Vineyard or other tabletop narrativist games, as it would take AI capable of telling a story. I think it is better to play to computers' strengths at number crunching, stick with the stats, and develop rich and complex simulationist worlds instead where human players can find meaning in their own emergent stories.

I would go a step further and say that most players of computer RPGs aren't even interested in roleplaying, or know what it is. In and of itself, roleplaying is an activity where the player rewards himself for playing a character well. It's like being an actor, but without an audience. It takes a good DM, or a well designed game, to actually provide an explicit "in-game" reward.

The closest thing to "real" roleplaying in the computer game world* is so-called "emergent" gameplay where the player can create his own "game" within a particular, erm, computer game. Setting your own goals and fulfilling them is a precondition to subsequently assuming a persona for your in-game avatar that is different from your own, and then playing the game in a manner consistent to that persona.

On the plus side, computer games are very good at putting the player in the position of a particular person, and allowing us to see what the world is like from their eyes. (aka immersion, which most table-top games struggle with).

*MMOs are clearly exempted because there are a whole lot of roleplayers in those games.

This article contains something that requires clarification:
Fallout 3 utilises the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute system developed for the original Fallout. This system was, as rumour intermingled with fact has it, created when the developers were denied the right to use the GURPS roleplaying system because of the violent content present in Fallout. Bethesda, in my opinion, continued to use this as a means to reach old fans of the series, whom they feared would dislike the game if it wasn't grounded heavily enough with its roots.

The problem with suggesting that videogames ought to move away from listed attributes is that computers can only work with specific numbers. Number crunching is part of every game, in one way or another. Even first person shooters fall into this number crunching trap; each weapon deals a specific amount of damage, has a specific ammunition capacity, a specific rate of fire, a specific maximum range, a specific accuracy et cetera and enemies and players each have a specific number of hitpoints, so choosing the correct weapon is simply a matter of crunching a few numbers.

The difference between the aforementioned shooter genre and the roleplaying genre is just how aware players are of detailed numeric specificity, and how much control over those numbers and, by extension, the experience the game offers. Realistically, I prefer to know exactly how much damage my character will take so that I can customise them to perfectly fit the circumstances of combat. One example of this is my character in Knights of the Old Republic II who had such a high defence as to be nigh unhittable, and such a high Wisdom as to have unstoppable force powers.

My ideal gaming experience (as far as game mechanics are concerned) would be one which synergises both player controlled number driven combat and the potential to throw out unexpected challenges and random events that force me to shift my playstyle accordingly. This would also add enormous replay value to the game; each time it is played, the player is rewarded with a new experience.

I was pretty dissapointed that after 2 pages of exposition, he didnt even tlak about exactly how to get rid of said vestigial numbers.

PS- Fallout was originaly aligned with steve jackson's GURPS- not dungueons and dragons as the person above me asserts. Unimportant detail.

This article was ... bad. A three-page article that doesn't present its thesis statement until the bottom of the second page? Self-indulgence, thy name is Jeff Tidball.

First, you never actually make the case that levels are "vestigal." Levels perform at least two useful tasks: they present (if you're familiar with the Bartle Test) A-type personality gratification, and they offer a way to estimate parity between the player character and other characters or encounters. Some players or game designers may find levels so simple as to be simplistic - an insult to their skill or what have you. That is probably why games studios like Vampire: the Masquerade's White Wolf or Shadowrun's FASA released games without levels.

Second, while I'd never heard of your Dogs in the Vineyard example before reading your article, a quick glance through web resources regarding the game (especially http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/dogsinthevineyard/chargen.html) indicate the game's mechanic takes a point-build system of "dump your points wherever you want," mixes in the worst of D&D's "make sure you have thirty each of d4s, d6s, d8s, and whatever else," but with a "make up whatever you want" Feng Shui (http://www.atlas-games.com/fengshui/) attitude towards skills and abilities that is probably very empowering for people who don't like reading thick rulebooks, don't like being limited to the "official" sourcebooks, or who enjoy "battle of wits" scenarios (like the "wizard's battle" between Merlin and Mim in The Sword in the Stone, or the riddle contest in Neil Gaiman's Sandman between Morpheus and the demon).

**However, none of that is new or evolved.** You've simply defined a spectrum, Rigid Rules vs. Free-Form, and arbitrarily declared Free-Form superior.

Interesting article, but I agree with some other posters that some kinds of tabletop RPG styles aren't going to make it into CRPGs because they only work when you have the creativity of other players and a real, human GM at hand.

Frex, I love the pulp action "Spirit of the Century" (based on the Fate System), where the numbers are kept to a minimum and you just gain more schticks ("Aspects") after you finish an adventure, but we are not anywhere near a programming tech level where we could use that kind of system in a computerized setting. It requires both player and GM to be extremely creative and adaptive in how you apply your abilities and both your and scene Aspects ("I figure there are curtains in the room and I use my sword to cut them down, so I am laying the aspect 'Covered in Curtains' on the room").

Until we have sufficiently advanced AI, let games like that stay where they belong and work best: on the tabletop, with your friends and a good GameMaster.

CRPGs work using numeric mechanics because you don't HAVE a good creative GM there. You need a strong numbers system to determine probability in order to be fair. The ability scores and levels are there two things: mediating combat, and making sure combat remains balanced as your character gets more powerful, because the computer can't adjust for someone's tactics the way a GM can. The few CRPGs that have tried to have characters build their skills through a non-leveling system--for example, where you build a skill through using it--usually have resulted in very abusable and broken systems. Or at least systems where you end up hopping all over the continent in hopes of becoming more Athletic.

I think game MECHANICS need to be left as they work for what they do: resolving skill and combat challenges. For the rest, you need to improve WRITING, not the numbers. You don't have a GM, but you CAN have a good writer/area designer who tries to account for what a player might do in an area as much as reasonably possible, and I think the more we see that, the better. In my book, what usually makes a good CRPG stand out from a bad one isn't mechanical creativity, it's story and character design. The problem I see in contemporary RPGs is that there is an emphasis on production and appearance--in other words, all the money goes towards graphics and voice acting. The parts that need the most time spent on--story and world design--get gimped in the process. There's a reason why, even accounting for the starry mists of nostalgia, many of us long for a game like Planescape: Torment or Baldur's Gate 2 again, and it's certainly NOT because we are pining for the days of calculating THAC0.

(Well, I'm sure someone is, but let's assume the majority isn't, okay? :) )

If you re-made Torment now, it would be half as long, with half as many choices, and the creators would be complaining that they couldn't afford to pay Dan Castellaneta to read every single one of Nordom's lines (which would be reduced to three lines as a result). But, the publisher would promise us, you can see EVERY SINGLE SCAR in vivid detail on the Nameless One's back, so surely that's AWESOME! and why should we "kids" want lengthy dialogue (especially if you have to READ it! Pft! What kind of gamers read anymore?) and complex philosophy and grey morality anyway? It wouldn't matter at all if the game had the best most awesome and innovative game mechanics ever with no character levels; it would still be a shallow mockery of itself.

You can certainly reduce and streamline game mechanics (honestly, comparing the RPGs I played in the 80s to the ones I play now, most RPG mechanics have been simplified--not "dumbed down" but made more efficient, with fewer redundancies (really, Fallout 1 and 2? We needed "First Aid" AND "Doctor"?). You can get rid of levels, but you still need some way of improving your character (because it doesn't make sense that your character's abilities don't get better), and levels work. It's an easy way of seeing when and how your character improves in terms of external ability. And as for the more dungeon crawly action RPGs that have their roots in Roguelikes and before them Gygaxian dungeon crawls--number crunching is what that stuff is all about. Things can improve--but if we scrapped it all, what would really, truly work in its place?

It's not a matter of obsolescence, it's a matter of not fixing the unbroken.

DataShade:
This article was ... bad. A three-page article that doesn't present its thesis statement until the bottom of the second page? Self-indulgence, thy name is Jeff Tidball.

I agree. A long introduction followed by "Hey, Dogs in the Vineyard is pretty cool" really isn't a good article. Dogs in the Vineyard is five freakin' years old now! We've had plenty of time to grapple with its intricacies and really say something about it.

DataShade:
**However, none of that is new or evolved.** You've simply defined a spectrum, Rigid Rules vs. Free-Form, and arbitrarily declared Free-Form superior.

You're getting the wrong impression. Something the game's author stresses is that the rules are compact but they're also deliberately written to be demanding and intrusive rather than rules that try to "get out of the way".

DitV's design isn't about emphasizing freeform over rules. It's about this.

-- Alex

DeathQuaker:
Frex, I love the pulp action "Spirit of the Century" (based on the Fate System), where the numbers are kept to a minimum and you just gain more schticks ("Aspects")

Thats because spirit of the century is made up of awesome & so are the people who have played it. I love focus on story & character rather then sitting around looking at the pretty graphics.

I have a copy of prince of persia 4 & even though it is stunningly beautiful to look at, i still feel the game would have been infinitely better if the story had made more sense and the characters had been characterized in a sensible way... with voice actors who don't sound like they are just to cool for school.

-M

I suppose I came in here to mostly echo what the others have said; i.e. what Mr. Tidball describes as evolution and "inessential statistics" are very much not so.

Visible statistics serve as a means of making ones character unique, and are essential in the clamor for both individuality among peers and variety within the game. For instance, the Strength statistic exists to be high as much as it exists to be low, as it describes both what the character has talent in and what he does not. This allows the character to "specialize" at the cost of less talent in other areas, which leads to different in-game abilities and different approaches to in-game problems, which in turn leads to different gameplay experiences. (NB: Fallout 3 is a terrible example of this for many reasons I will not get into here.) (Side note: I personally believe that it's this level of customization that really separates the genre of "role-playing" from its peers - i.e. you play the role that you want to play, not the one assigned to you by the game, with different levels of flexibility, of course. And JRPGs are on the whole different. But I digress.)

Levels and classes are different beasts and do serve purposes (namely, rough estimation of power and available specialties) but as with all tools may be more or less useful as the situation merits. For instance, in Fallout 3, levels are used to distribute (and eventually cap) hit points, free-floating skill points, and perks, and are therefore essential to the system. For how would they be distributed otherwise? In Mass Effect, classes are used to indicate what skills and abilities are available to the character, so not every character has access to (and by reasonable logic, would choose) the best weapons and abilities. At least in theory.

But that said, I do believe the article has merit, although perhaps not the one intended by the author (who seems eager to trim away what he does not like about the genre). As is stressed in the article, evolution is not the linear march towards the penultimate but rather a branching path, where the unsurvivable meet their end. Computer and video roleplaying games have yet to offer a separate path besides that of the heavily number-crunching games, and have yet to fully realize the potential for immersion. Modded Oblivion is the closest to this kind of experience, but really that's the only example that comes to mind. Now, there are many reasons for why this is, however, there is no particular reason why it shouldn't be attempted nowadays.

Although honestly, because RPGs are in some sense about growth and development of characters (in the computer sense, that equates to stats, as computing is pretty much the only thing computers do well), most of the time people want to see their growth and development. Hence, stats. So a more static medium might be better at immersion. Maybe we could see some radical experiments, like fuzzy dialogue trees (a la Mass Effect) and character-relationship development without the character-power buildup. Like a modern adventure game, a game about adventuring rather than the old-school "solve-the-puzzle-and-follow-the-plot". That would be cool.

Also, in steep contrast are JRPGs. You will level up but you won't even know it most of the time. Perhaps that would be better for immersion than the western approach.

I'll with others that the article was kind of a letdown... I expected 3 or 4 more pages considering its pacing.

But I think -- and it's hard to say without the article being "finished" -- that Jeff's suggestion was not the elimination of stats from the game's mechanics, but rather that the stats should not be at the surface as part of the player's experience.

I have to agree with that sentiment, in so far as I'd like to see more RPGs that can convey my character's "growth" and change through "softer" or "fuzzier" means. If I need to know that any specific stat is greater than an opponents stat in order to make a decision, I'm not really playing a role as much as I'm crunching numbers. In other words, I think stats are a *crutch* that we rely on to convey information we're not confident enough to express otherwise.

On the other hand, I agree with an earlier commenter's point about Type-A folks and numbers. So, I wouldn't argue that with or without numbers is a question of better or worse, just that it'd be interesting to see what game designers could do without having to show the numbers to the player.

FavouredEnemy:
Roleplay games are about escapism - of being somewhere else, being someone else.

Not everyone's in it for the escapism, though.

I kinda hate the escapism, actually. I don't play tabletop RPGs to escape anything or to become anyone.

-- Alex

the fact is that the vast majority of RPG video games ultimately rely on the same system of character development. does EVERY game need an XP/LVL system? does every game require HP and MP in some form? tabletop RPGs have been much, much more innovative in design over the past few decades, which is the exact opposite of how it should be. i think that's the point he was trying to make.

Hmm... didn't hate the article, but I tend to agree with some of the above comments.

My 2 cents: I play RPGs because they are a fun group game that you get to use your imagination to build a character to have whatever skills you want them to have. You get to be strong, smart, charismatic, whatever, even though you may not be in real life. The levels and points are there just define those abilities numerically (like an IQ or fitness test in real life).

I play certain video games because I actually have the talents necessary to play those roles. For all the "dice rolling/number crunching" in Fallout 3, if you can't aim and move your character using your thumbs on the joysticks you will still fail to effectively shoot enemies regardless of the in-game skills points assigned.

cobra_ky:
the fact is that the vast majority of RPG video games ultimately rely on the same system of character development. does EVERY game need an XP/LVL system? does every game require HP and MP in some form? tabletop RPGs have been much, much more innovative in design over the past few decades, which is the exact opposite of how it should be. i think that's the point he was trying to make.

Maybe the solution is just to come up with a new genre. As we see here, intellectual prowess of a normal poster just can't penetrate the wall erected by the current definition of RPG and all it entails.

If we call it UEIS (user experience interaction simulator) maybe people won't have to go trough all the trouble of dissasociating all that terminology they struggled so hard to learn.

I do think that the distinction between competitive games and RPGs is apt, although it seems that you're forgetting about adventure games. Stats like level and strength are there to summarize your player's progress and development. I would say this is what RPGs are all about: character development, which needs to be quantified in some way. You can do this with methods besides raw numbers, but often this is the most easily understandable way to track and express your character's growth. But if you're not interested in that and would rather have narrative, play an adventure game.

I'm beginning to think you just wrote this entire article as an excuse to use the word verisimilitude.

So, non-standard leveling systems. It's been tried a few times, the earliest being Final Fantasy...2 was it? It was one of the ones that wasn't released outside of Japan. It had an innovative leveling system, but because it was innovative it ended up being highly exploitable and hardly smooth at all. For instance, the way you got more hit points was by losing them - which makes sense logically, as your body adapts to the amount of damage you take, it learns to take more - but in practice it punishes smart play by avoiding damage and rewards neutering the last enemy in the battle and smacking yourself in the face with a rod.

Other non-standard leveling systems that come to mind include some of the SaGa games, Quest 64, as well as Morrowind and Oblivion. Those two Elder Scrolls are especially notable as they do use levels, but levels are gained after a certain number of Major Skill increases, which are gained from use (levels are used to increase hit points and general statistics, as well as monster level in Oblivion). But they have their kinks as well - in Romancing SaGa, the stat increases are largely random and grinding the increasingly tough scaled monsters is the only way to increase them, and in Oblivion the way to get the best stat increases is to level up as many Minor Skills as you can before getting enough Major Skills to level (in practice, the Major Skills are the skills you use least, rather than the driving force of your class as they are meant to be).

Furthermore, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (very wordy titles, to be sure) both use a point-experience system that allows you to distribute a pool of points across various statistics and abilities, which is the standard way of doing things over in tabletop RPG land. While it works well, it's hardly immersive as the player has to stop and check to see if he has enough points to purchase the next tier of powers, which he immediately gets access to. At least in Oblivion you don't spontaneously invent your next, most powerful spell in the middle of a fight with a necromancer.

(A funny story about Romancing SaGa and its scaling monsters: so early on in the game I ran across this one area that's guarded by a big, scary bug-thing. Being curious, I saved and went in, only to have my party be wiped clean, without making a dent in the thing. Okay, that area's meant for later, sure. So I went on a few adventures, did some story stuff, and eventually the story itself wants me to go back to that area beyond the bug-thing. So on the way there to the bottom of the dungeon, what do I encounter but another of those same things as a random, normal encounter, with a few extra baddies to go along with it! Yes, same attacks, same vulnerabilities, same monster. I didn't go on that many side quests, and although I was more powerful, it was still not an easy fight. It just felt...wrong.)

psamathos:
I do think that the distinction between competitive games and RPGs is apt, although it seems that you're forgetting about adventure games. Stats like level and strength are there to summarize your player's progress and development. I would say this is what RPGs are all about: character development, which needs to be quantified in some way. You can do this with methods besides raw numbers, but often this is the most easily understandable way to track and express your character's growth. But if you're not interested in that and would rather have narrative, play an adventure game.

I'm beginning to think you just wrote this entire article as an excuse to use the word verisimilitude.

Unless, of course, you factor in the White Wolf games (Exalted, Scion, etc.) into this. They prefer to be the RPG that focus on the adventure itself and actually gives the people who would rather play as the group's happy-go-lucky version of Brad Pitt who prefers to smooth-talk his way through trouble like Remus Keido.

DataShade:
they present (if you're familiar with the Bartle Test) A-type personality gratification,

Exactly one of the two points I was muttering grumpily at my screen as I read the article. Just look at the phenomenon of people shouting "DING!" on an MMO when they level up. Its an achievment and a reward, and its also a mechanism to keep the player engaged and sitting there playing the game. Because theres always another level, and another, and another.

Secondly, levels and skillpoints etc serve a very useful purpose from a programming standpoint. How do you write an algorithm to determine success or failure in ANY task the player interacts with in the game without some kind of stat points? Obviously in a shooter or action game, player skill quantifies it, but action games arent the whole enchilada. Computers crunch hard numbers, not gray areas, and youre never going to make game logic work without some bedrock of a statistic or a behind-the-scenes roll of the dice.

Thirdly, if Im playing an RPG game, how do I customize my character as I progress through the game without levels and skillpoints? By a base character class? Sounds as shallow as Dungeon Siege.

Dont get me wrong, a few good points in the article. And its always good to look ahead to the future. But levels and skillpoints DO serve a good use other than just tradition, as the article flat-out states.

It seems to me the author's point was this: the numerical systems used in tabletop roleplaying games are the way they are because there's no other way to actually play the game. The system has to have very little complexity so that we can do the math in a reasonable amount of time, and players generally need to know their scores because they're required to do some of that math themselves.

In a computer RPG, MMO or otherwise, those rules don't necessarily apply. A computer can crunch some seriously beefy formulas without breaking a sweat, so the numerical system doesn't have to be simple, it can be arbitrarily complex. And because the computer is mediating every interaction the player has with the world, the player doesn't need to do any of the math him or herself.

In this article, I never saw the suggestion that there be no numbers ANYWHERE; just that there may not be a reason to shove those numbers in the player's face. The mathematical system behind the gameplay could simply be hidden complexity, just as damage scores and hitpoints and such are hidden complexity in a fighting game or a FPS. There are myriad ways to judge and customize your character's specializations and abilities without resorting to "yeah I have 19 dexterity and 60 ranks in marksman..."

The reason we still have a constant barrage of numbers, numbers, numbers in the RPG genre is because we've been conditioned to expect them. The numbers themselves, and watching them increase, become their own reward. I think that's a sad state of affairs, myself, because the rewards should be coming from the story or the gameplay, not from the conditioned stimulus-response of a "DING!" when someone gains a level. Getting the players addicted to seeing numbers as their own reward allows the developer to ignore their responsibility to make the story and the gameplay acceptably compelling in their own right.

Sorry to inform you, but Fallout is "NOT" a RPG. It's an Action/Adventure game that has been "Tagged" with the RPG acronym. If you stop and think about it; a person playing a game can call it "Role Playing" because they are performing some Role, ergo Role Playing. True Role Playing Games are very Story Driven, Do have the essential attributes, such as; Level, Health, Agility, etc., and a "whole lot more" (to much to mention in this post). Some of you may have taken notice that the Gaming Industry has slowly begun tagging games as "RPG", to get RPGers to buy them, but for the most part they only have a few subtle elements of a real RPG. Sad as it is, even Square has begun going "away" from the real RPG into the more Action/Adventure Genre. I believe that after Final Fantasy VII, they slowly began changing their games. You can call it "Evolving" if you like, but it's the RPGers like myself who want to stay with True RPG Games. I believe that only Atlus and NIS are doing pretty good staying true to RPG's. KOEI, Konami and few others are putting out an occasional "real" RPG as well, but Square is going totally opposite. Really Sad !!!

gamero1:
True Role Playing Games are very Story Driven, Do have the essential attributes, such as; Level, Health, Agility, etc., and a "whole lot more" (to much to mention in this post).

The whole point of the article is that these supposedly "essential" mechanical quirks are holding back the development of more meaningfully story-driven games.

As far as I can tell, Tidball pins the allure of "roleplaying" on the fiction and the fictional world, not on Armor Class and Hit Points and Charisma scores.

-- Alex

You are "Right", Alex...
However, the point I was making is we need to go "back" to real RPG's, not away from them.

gamero1: What you consider to be "real RPG's" still exist, only as technology advances and more becomes possible, there is becoming more variety among (I suppose) "non-real RPG's" and RPG-derivatives. Is this a bad thing?

Fallout 3 is considered to be an RPG because, as an example, the damage inflicted by the character using any given weapon is based on the related weapon skill and related perks. This is clearly a derivative of western RPG traditions, and very closely related to many games, especially the percentile-die-roll branch that is still alive and well today. (See: some versions of Call of Cthluhu, HARP.)

Also: western RPG traditions are largely rooted in character-driven narrative rather than purely story-driven narrative. In fact, shunting the player characters into specific parts designated by the story is very much frowned upon. This is kind of a prerequisite to the strong types of narrative gamero1 mentions, as the narrative in Fallout 3 is very open-ended. You choosing not to be your father's child is prohibited, but you can choose whether you care for him and what he's doing, whether you follow him or stumble across him, whether you ultimately save the area or leave it to its own devices. If done correctly, allows the players to work through the plot points on their own terms, which is essentially the apex of western roleplaying (although player-GM interaction provides far more flexibility as the GM can change the plot points at will whereas games are stuck in their programming).

It's people like the guy who wrote this article that are holding the genre back. You, along with the entire mainstream industry, want to take RPGs and strip every ounce of actual gameplay away from them until they're nothing more than games of dressup and looking at the pretty trees.
Why don't you all just become LARPers that way you can have even more of your precious immersion without that pesky game design getting in the way.

pneuma08:

as the narrative in Fallout 3 is very open-ended.

Really? Because I wanted to join the enclave, kill my father, and enslave elder lyons.

I didn't see any proposed alternatives to the level and stat system. It has worked well so far. What do you propose to replace it, and how would it be a definite improvement over the previous system?

This article would have been helped immensely if it had given me any clue at all as to what Dogs in the Vineyard actually does differently, to replace those base stats like Strength and Level. What bounds do the characters have, if any? How does anyone know what they're capable of? Or are the games simply an extension of two children running around in a parking lot, yelling "I shot you!" "No, I shot you first!"? Not a single word here has told me, and nothing here has given me the slightest impetus to go looking for myself.

bhlaab:

pneuma08:

as the narrative in Fallout 3 is very open-ended.

Really? Because I wanted to join the enclave, kill my father, and enslave elder lyons.

Open-ended doesn't mean able to do anything you want. Although I agree that not being able to join the Enclave is unfortunate. Perhaps open-ended is a poor term - let's revise it to, "Fallout 3 has more degrees of freedom than most games".

Just remember that for every significant, game-altering choice there is in the game is one more thing that basically doubles the time needed to be spent on the story. Tabletop RPGs avoid this increased complexity by making the choices in realtime, which cannot be represented in something written like computer game code.

Have you ever played Growlancer 2? That game has one of the most expansive storylines I've seen. For instance, towards the end of the game, the lead villain asks you to join him, and the game prompts you with a simple yes/no box. But selecting yes means that you turn on your former comrades which alters the course of the game significantly. The game has several of these choices. As a consequence for this, whatever storyline path you follow is very short.

pneuma08:

Perhaps open-ended is a poor term - let's revise it to, "Fallout 3 has more degrees of freedom than most games".

Though acres less than, say.... Fallout 1 or Fallout 2 (which were released 12 and 11 years ago respectively)

The Rogue Wolf:
This article would have been helped immensely if it had given me any clue at all as to what Dogs in the Vineyard actually does differently, to replace those base stats like Strength and Level.

Very true.

I've read it and played it. Let me fill you in a bit.

Dogs in the Vineyard is an independently-published roleplaying game written by Vincent Baker. It came out in 2004. It's part of an "indie" design movement that generally emphasizes focused rules that help the players address the game's subject matter.

So, to understand why it works how it works, you have to understand the overall thematic focus of the game.
Here, take a look at these excerpts.
Fundamentally, DitV is a game about community in crisis. The player characters find towns in trouble -- in trouble because pride and sin have disrupted the community and opened the door for calamity to strike. It's the Dog's job to clean things up.

The Wikipedia article summarizes the mechanics and setting a bit.
The game mostly relies on player-created traits.
Every character has four main stats: Acuity, Heart, Body, Will. Which ones you use depends on the conflict.
The player-created stuff falls into three categories:
- Traits describe your character. "Good Shot", "Book-Learning", "Short Temper",
- Relationships describe your character's attachments to other people.
- Belongings describes your signature stuff. Every Dog has a coat, for example, created by the people of his or her home town to represent the trust and pride of the community.
These are all rated in dice, like d4 or 2d8. As you play, you'll raise and lower these stats and occasionally add new ones.

Players don't really make "skill checks" or anything. You're either engaged in free narrative or a game-mechanical conflict.

A conflict is about something. You define what's "at stake" and then take turns narrating stuff, using the dice from your attributes to back them up (see the Wikipedia article for an overview of the back-and-forth).
Essentially, every turn we take is about proposing a consequence. The other player then averts it or "takes the blow" depending on how he uses his dice.
If you run out of dice, you lose. If you're low on resources, you can try to call on additional attributes to shore up your hand. You can also "escalate" the conflict -- for example, if you're losing an argument, you can try to turn the tide by pulling a gun. (But it means you pulled a gun! That's not something people do lightly. Remember that you're not dealing with monsters here -- you're dealing with people you're supposed to help and save, many of them your own kin!)
You can always choose to lose the conflict. People do this in play a lot. Why? Usually because they'd rather lose the conflict than suffer the consequences of sticking it out.

"Taking the blow" can be worthwhile, too. That's how you improve your attributes and gain new ones. Unless "taking the blow" means getting, y'know, shot in the face -- that's how you lose attributes or get killed.

To summarize:
- Characters are defined in terms of aspects that their players consider important to the character and the story.
- Players engage in conflicts to achieve a goal. The mechanics are about seeing how far your character will go for that goal.
- Characters grow over time, chiefly by learning from their losses.

Generally, if the Dogs all work in concert and they don't care how much bad stuff they cause, they'll pretty much always win a conflict. In other words, a group of canny and coordinated young people with rifles or big-ass Dragoons can massacre a bunch of town people in the streets to get their way. Usually you don't want to do that. ;)

Now, I'm kinda ignoring some of the bits that make the game awesome here, in favor of keeping the description kinda short and mechanics-focused.

The Rogue Wolf:
What bounds do the characters have, if any? How does anyone know what they're capable of?

You have the stats described above. Everybody's supposed to point out weak conflicts or poor ideas.

The players define the tone of the game in play. See the excerpt on supernatural stuff, linked above.

The Rogue Wolf:
Or are the games simply an extension of two children running around in a parking lot, yelling "I shot you!" "No, I shot you first!"?

I think you can see from the conflict rules that it's not just, err, arbitrary.

The whole "I shot you!"/"No you didn't!" thing is kinda a red herring, anyway. While a lot of RPG players and a lot of RPG books mention this as an example of "why we need rules", Baker is quick to point out that many, many people actually play freeform games all without ever running into this problem; as such, he thinks it's trivial.

The Rogue Wolf:
Not a single word here has told me, and nothing here has given me the slightest impetus to go looking for myself.

When I want to "sell" someone on "indie" games, I usually show them this little story about actual play -- it's not about DitV but it really summarizes what this style of RPG is all about. If you only read one link, this is the one:
[Trollbabe/Conan] AP: The Heart Ripper

-- Alex

Nice article, Escapist person. Strangely, I find myself drawn to both sides.

On the one hand, I've created a simple homebrewn RPG system and I've played it with a few people, mostly over the internet, for what may have amounted to be around ten years. I liked it a lot, but it turns out that combat and level-up in the game are highly strange, which means that whenever there's a combat a lot of time is missed. I'm currently experimenting with a system that has as little numbers as possible, focusing on the storyline instead.

On the other hand... oh man, you guys do it on purpose, I'm going to bring up NetHack again. NetHack's characters are essentially a bundle of numbers, but the effects of those numbers are so complext that, from a gameplay perspective, they stand in for the story. Having a high STRENGHT does not just means that you are STRONG and do more DAMAGE RAR. It means that it's easier for you to kick open a door, to push a boulder, to carry weight, etc. It has a lot of depth, and it's only possible because there's a computer behind all this to run all the difficult calculations.

Essentially, I think that relying on numbers is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Relying on numbers is one of the things a computer does best. And when you make a videogame, you can rely on the computer to remember and calculate numbers that humans couldn't manage well, at least not without a lot of stopping and thinking. On the other hand, computers are quite bad at narrative theory! That's because everything on it must be programmed, and programming the effects of direct attributes such as strenght and agility is much easier than the complex results of gray morality actions. (I haven't looked at the Dogs in the Vineyard resources, but do you think a computer could be programmed to run it smoothly?) The notion expressed in this article seems to stem from the notion that games will only become TRUE ART when they are able to convey NARRATIVES OF MASSIVE COMPLEXITY, whereas I think that games can find their true artistic value not only through that, but mostly by the things that tell it apart from other media, the most important of which is gameplay.

So my point is this: leave the numbers to the computers, they're much better at it. I wholeheartedly defend less numbery tabletops, though a bit of hack-and-slash can be welcome if you have a good GM that can count quickly.

The Random One:
I haven't looked at the Dogs in the Vineyard resources, but do you think a computer could be programmed to run it smoothly?

I think this is the wrong question to ask.

D&D-derived RPG video games (the vast majority of all RPG video games) aren't replicating the exact same play experience as D&D, after all. They're using part of the formula and modifying some things to suit the medium.

The thing is, pretty much all of these D&D-derived video games tend to rehash the same kind of D&D-like story: a zero-to-hero fantasy bildungsroman full of combat, treasure, and black-and-white morality. That's... getting really old.

-- Alex

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