I have been ill. Unable to sleep, I found myself that the best way of filling the time once the rest of the family was in bed was to play on the Xbox. I downloaded trials of Dragon Age II, Dungeon Siege III, and Castle Crashers. All of these are described as RPGs. Even Castle Crashers, which makes Gauntlet look sophisticated.
Oh, there are CRPGs, in the same way that there is a genre of music that is called RnB. But just as RnB is not ‘rhythm and blues’, CRPGs are not ‘role playing games’. They might share some mechanics, they might share setting, and atmosphere, with role playing games. But they lack what makes tabletop role playing games such a distinctive experience.
There is no inter-player interaction that makes a role playing game so much fun. The very best party-based CRPGs, in which different party members are more than simple collections of statistics, but have different motivations and personalities, paradoxically reveal the very emptiness of the role-playing aspect. Even in the great CRPGs, from Baldur’s Gate to Dragon Age, the interaction between party members, and even the actions of the primary character, the nominal PC, are scripted. There might be a handful of different options, but there is no freedom. How does the ‘PC’ develop as a character? Entirely along the lines determined by the hand of a ‘dead’ GM.
And the worst? The worst mistake levelling up and getting new gear and ‘feats’ as character development. They mistake the mechanics and terminology of a role-playing game for the thing itself.
A ‘dead’ GM? A human GM responds to the actions of the group and invents the world and the events of the game on the fly. Sure, he may do so by drawing on the crystallised labour of other GMs – from the rules themselves, through encounter tables, to whole adventures. But the golden rule, or rule zero, or whatever a particular game calls it, is that nothing is fixed, everything can be house-ruled, improvised, bent to suit the people playing the game.
But worst of all is a lack of any sense of peril in CRPGs. By way of ‘Save Game’. A GM might fudge a roll, he might power down an encounter. But I have never played with a GM has said, ‘well, that encounter didn’t go as well as it might. Let’s start again from just before you kick the door down.’ Where a GM has said that again, and again, and again, until a satisfactory end to the encounter has been reached. The save and reload isn’t just a way of dealing with TPKs, but also with the death of single characters, with conversations in which the wrong option has been taken, with the failed skill rolls when searching for loot.
Don’t use the save function? Well, what sort of game would Baldur’s Gate be then? Endless replays of the first few maps, most likely. The game, like the vast majority of CRPGs, is designed to be played with constant saving and reloading, not for playing through as one does a role playing game adventure or campaign.
What of MMORPGs? Don’t they have player interaction and even, at a stretch, an active, ‘living’ GM? Potentially, yes, an MMORPG could be a role playing game. But the first M – Massive – renders it highly unlikely that this potential could ever be fulfilled. The ‘Massive’ aspect places the hand of the GM at such a remove the world has to operate mechanically and programmatically, and means that rather than a group of players collectively producing a fantasy world and narrative within the confines of a game system, you have just let a thousand – no hundreds of thousands of loons – into your game. Loons for whom RPG means just what they have been taught by CRPGs – relentless grinding and gold-farming, practiced min-maxing, endless meta-gaming, and worst of all, juvenile ‘pwning’. I was going to say anti-social ‘pwning’, but that is exactly the social convention by which many MMORPGs operate.
If you want to play role-playing games online, try play-by-email, try Skype, try RPOL. Human GMs, small numbers of human players, and interaction, improvisation, and invention.
No, computers can’t do role-playing games. But they can do good ‘adventure games’. Some of these call themselves CRPGs, and some do not. The Grand Theft Auto games, Red Dead Redemption, even some FPS such as Bioshock, are all ‘adventure games’. That they lack the mechanics and terminology popularised by Dungeons & Dragons is irrelevant, they are no less, and no more, a role-playing game than CRPGs.