A Roleplayer in Azeroth

CRPGs aren’t RPGs. I’m a snob about this, always have been.

To me, Knights of the Old Republic was a complex adventure game with too many chances to make character advancement choices I’d regret later, not an RPG. The story was fun, but the longest, most difficult route through any satisfying narrative is a CRPG. I thought it was the illusion of freedom on the road through a fixed story that bothered me – I would rather have watched KOTOR than play it – but Morrowind proved me wrong. For all its freedom, I was bored.

In comparison, one game that feels like an RPG to me, but isn’t, is the fantastic Thief: The Dark Project. Its castles and cityscapes are like miniature solo dungeon crawls. Its grim, creepy world is as immersive as an RPG adventure should be. Its gameplay makes me think and feel like someone else, like I’m playing a role, not just steering a themed avatar around a map.

Like a lot of roleplayers, I started with Dungeons & Dragons. My first exposure to the game was the night before I started middle school, at a friend’s sleepover birthday party. His dad ran the game for four of us: his son, a quiet kid who lived down the street from us, a loud-mouthed smart-aleck with a Luke Skywalker haircut who harassed me at school (I’ll call him Miles) and me.

D&D wasn’t the beginning of my geekhood by any stretch, and Miles passed the time at school by using my geekiness to make fun of me. (Also, I was a spaz, so he found me to be easy work.) He was a funny guy, really, but cruel. If I’d known he was going to be at the party, I probably would’ve stayed home, ’cause who wants to be the butt of a sleepover? But I didn’t know, so that night, I ended up sitting on my friend’s floor with the old “red box” books, rolling up my first Fighter.

Miles played a Fighter, too. I was swords, he was maces. I was plate armor, he was chainmail. By the end of that night’s adventure, though, we were battling giant scorpions back-to-back and working together to lure out and vanquish a minotaur.

In all honesty, we were barely playing D&D. It was what the modern RPG player might call “rules light”: ability checks, attack rolls and damage were the only game mechanics we used. It was a game of problem solving and play-acting, not THAC0. I didn’t even learn about leveling up until the next session, when I took my first turn as dungeon master (DM). Sure, now I get off on game rules and genre emulation, too, but they’re not the undertow that pulled me into this sea. It’s the real-time interface of imaginations I love, the interaction between DM and PCs, between the Storyteller and the players. That’s what makes an RPG what it is.

The undeniable flaw in my definition, of course, is I’m outnumbered. Millions of people played KOTOR and called it an RPG. Am I just being contrary to flaunt my snobbery? Not on purpose. CRPGs just don’t deliver what I play RPGs to get – instantly gratifying escapism in a room with friends. But if the rest of the planet agrees that any game in which a PC advances over time is an RPG, is that what an RPG is?

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In theory, MMORPGs capture the true spirit of table-top RPGs by granting players the freedom to roam a fantasy world and interact with a vast cast of ever-changing characters. This is, in many ways, what D&D promised back in the day (and what it challenged the DM to deliver). World of Warcraft delivers this with a clean focus. Floon Beetle, Lead Production Artist on Lord of the Rings Online supposes interaction between players puts the RP in MMORPG. It’s hard to disagree. Yet these games don’t really capture the crackling improvisational power of a great table-top RPG session. So, what do they do? I had to find out, which meant I had to play an MMORPG longer than it took me to get sick of killing rats in EverQuest.

Like a lot of people, my first MMORPG (for keeps) was World of Warcraft. Exploring it over the past few weeks has had me questioning my definitions. The game is instant fun. It instantly delivers the simple joy of killing monsters and taking their stuff. It expertly grants the ancient thrill of exploring a fantastic land and meeting its people. And it does all this without tasking a DM with number-wrangling and paper-herding. Nice.

My gut reaction: It’s still not an RPG. The immediate interaction between the Storyteller and the player is missing. My secret confession: I don’t care, I’m having fun. My sudden epiphany: It’s an RPG.

I found it in the interaction of the players in my guild. Like many RPG players, they were gathered together because they each wanted to play the game, to advance their characters and imagine dramatic adventures, but conversations often turned away from the game and to ’80s movies or stories from work. Players wandered off when they felt like it to do their own thing. They got together to chat as much as to play.

So, here’s the thing: World of Warcraft doesn’t deliver what I play RPGs to get, but it delivers what I often get when I play RPGs. It doesn’t scratch the same itch as a table-top RPG, but it’s close. Now, after I get home from my table-top games, I stay up too late and play online. If you want to group up and chat about Aliens or The Temple of Doom, I’m about to start a new human Paladin alt. I’ll call him Myels.

Will Hindmarch is new at this. He is also the developer for Vampire: The Requiem at White Wolf Game Studio.

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