Mark P. Tjan
Social Gaming and the Legacy of RPGs
It's been happening for a long time. MMOs be damned. Check out our January editorial.
01.16.10 - 9:13 PM

I'd like to talk about two issues, both related to one another. First is the idea of social gaming and what physical proximity may mean. Herein, traditional gaming has become more and more important to me. Second is the idea of what a console or computer RPG should provide, if it is to be a genuine social experience and live up to its legacy.

I used to GM Dungeons & Dragons campaigns quite frequently in the past; an experience which has always stuck in my mind as being socially vitalizing. It was engaging material, and being both player and co-author of adventures set in the game's context was eye-opening. The only problem was introducing it to more casual gamers, who didn't want to spend 2-3 hours learning the system and creating their first character.

In the last few years, I've started playing a lot of communal board and card games. Things like Munchkin, Talisman, Runebound, Make You Gunfighters, and Settlers of Catan have all made their way into my increasing library of traditional games. These, by comparison to D&D, are much easier to get into, and don't take nearly as much time out of a day.

Would it be possible to marry the ease of use found in Runebound, with the level of customization I like in D&D and use it in an electronic medium? Would it also provide the same communal value that something like Munchkin or D&D engenders? These are questions I'd like to address.

The real value of communal games is that they've brought me closer to my friends and created a framework for us to both play a mentally stimulating game and be socially interactive as well. It's a really big change from video games, which were once a similar source of entertainment, but have since become less and less involved. Even where online or multiplayer games are concerned (with certain exceptions!), I don't derive the same experience from them as I do from traditional games. This is exceptionally troubling for me where RPGs are concerned. While I can have a social experience with Mario Party or Street Fighter, it's rare that RPGs go beyond the single-player experience. Even with games like Secret of Mana that offer a multiplayer option contain no real investment from the second player. It isn't "their" story, it's yours. They're just helping out.

Save for MMORPGs and MORPGs, this genre tends to foster an insular experience. You don't typically play with others. This is true of RPGs developed on both sides of the Pacific, whether one plays the next Fallout or the next Final Fantasy. This is a departure from how RPGs began. Consider that the earliest war-games and pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons were (and are) social experiences. D&D is in its 4th edition now, having streamlined itself to be more accommodating to the casual player. It offers a temporary means to be someone else, complete with tools and locations which facilitate the terms of that experience.

Now, one argument may be that online RPGs offer a similar experience. It's true that they can, but not that they do. There are roleplaying servers available on World of Warcraft, but the actual efforts made to use them pale in comparison to the typical player who simply plays the game straight. These games lack true GM tools. Games like WoW provide largely automated experiences and don't allow for deep customization. There is no human being helping plan the adventure, setting up NPCs, providing dialogue options, and skill tests. It's all run by machine, which reduces the experience down to a rather paltry shadow of what it should be.

Imagine for a moment that an offline RPG could be truly multiplayer. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles on the GameCube tried to engender this, but in a roundabout way that ultimately hurt the game. The simple fact is that everyone may own a GBA, but not everyone has a link cable. Certainly, not everyone is going to buy one for a single game. Furthermore, FF:CC didn't have GM tools either. For a roleplaying game to really live up to its legacy as a social experience, the adventure has to be customizable and the players need to have authorship. While FF:CC did provide one kind of experience (physical proximity in a multiplayer RPG context), it failed to account for the core idea of an RPG.

Consider if there was a game called Final Fantasy VII that came with a set of author tools. What if you could develop your own adventures in the context of the world FFVII had set up? Dungeons & Dragons has its own world with its own terms, but you, the eternal user, get to assert how to employ those terms.

Now, the elitist in me does protest: "But imagine all the crappy adventures that'd come out of that! It would ruin FFVII forever!" My elitist side is half right. Many badly written adventures would come out of such a toolkit, but the same is true for D&D. How many thousands, even millions of poorly planned and plotted adventures have been wrought for that game? None of them actually reflect upon the quality of D&D.

Another argument may be that if FFVII were to have an author toolkit, then Square Enix would not need to make an FFVIII, or FFIX, and so on. This is also not true. Just because D&D exists, doesn't mean Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and RIFTS don't also exist. Hundreds of thousands of people play them as well and enjoy their variety. Final Fantasy VIII would, for instance, provide a pseudo-modern world with a different aesthetic, different toolkit for combat, new kinds of monsters, and of course, a card game. You could even make booster packs for that kind of thing with a modern DLC component.

There are concerns as to how exactly these would then be played, and certainly the older consoles would have certain limitations. Still, assigning a party leader for overworld movement would do, and using FFIX's multi-scenario viewing system would allow each player to take their turn and do things. There are always ways to make the multiplayer experience happen.

My point is that none of these games offer author toolkits, but they could, and be better games for doing so. They would be true "roleplaying games," complete with player authorship of the adventures. It isn't that this kind of game doesn't exist, mind you. There exists Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures. FR:UA was part of the Gold Box era of D&D games that allowed players to create their own campaigns with relatively little work. To this day, a strong community abides, creating new adventures nearly twenty years later. Neverwinter Nights (not to be confused with the 1991 game by AOL) is a more recent implementation of the D&D universe that also features strong campaign creation tools. As FR:UA was an implementation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, NWN is an implementation of the third-edition rules, and tries to follow the series' open world concept quite closely. Both approach being communal games in a sense, and NWN is, by and large, an online game with its own virtual community. But they aren't communal in the physical sense, and in FR:UA's version, barely in the online sense. They are also implementations of the D&D universe, which unfortunately does not reflect console and computer RPGs at large.

In the end, console and computer RPGs have great potential to be socially vitalizing experiences. MMORPGs provide one kind of experience, but they still don't have authorship. More important, I feel, are games that can offer this kind of experience in a physical context, with players sitting next to each other and being interactive. RPGs can be much more than just basic sandboxes or linear, single-play adventures, and I hope that someday soon, developers bring that into focus.


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