This was originally presented in the Pecha Kucha format at an internal work conference, I reposted it here on request. Images squarely stolen off of the internets, credits noted where known.
So let’s start out by talking a little about Dungeons and Dragons, the first mainstream roleplaying system. It sprung out of wargaming origins and retained many of the concepts, such as detailed rules being a central tenet. Core concepts involve earning experience points, levelling, stat lines and random event tables. Realism is secondary to allowing the players to power through the dungeon; exposed mechanics are everywhere.
This includes, to some extent, even how characters are expected to behave. A character has an alignment telling you whether it’s lawful or chaotic and good or evil. The character is expected to follow this alignment; not doing so will give you some sort of a game mechanical drawback. So while the concept of choice with consequences exists, it tends to be extremely black and white - and of course, non-compliance of doing the Right thing according to the character has consequences defined by rules.
To give you an idea about the distribution of effort, let’s have a look at Quagmire!, a D&D adventure from the 1980’s. The actual plot and backstory for why the characters are doing something is less than one page. The rest would be random encounter tables for various types of terrain while getting to the target dungeon; there’s literally a table for the risk of encountering a gale or a hurricane based on what month of the year the characters are travelling to the dungeon. You’d also find room-by-room descriptions of the dungeon and of course stats for critters encountered in the dungeon or on the way there.
D&D was designed by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax; for the purpose of this presentation, I’m referring to these types of games as Gygaxian style games, no matter if they’re manifesting themselves a pen and paper RPG’s, Live Action RPG’s (LARP’s) or computer RPG’s.
The polar opposite would be the nordic style games, generally identified by a lack of rules, possibly a lack of dice and a limited player ability to interact with the world in any way they choose. Whereas in D&D you could argue that the DM should bloody well roll the dice The Book says to roll for an orc attacking you, in nordic style games, the focus is player interaction, immersion and story. Mechanical rules tend to be geared towards providing narrative rather than winning.
In The Monitor Celestra, a Swedish Battlestar Galactica themed LARP, the mechanical rules of combat were simply “biggest gun wins”. If someone has a gun, he or she is in control of the scene. No hitpoints, no weapon damage, no armour values. Other than that, it was all about interaction and immersion.
(Image credit, John Paul Bichard)
You also tend to get a different kind of narrative springing up of the nordic style role playing - one which is not about beating the dungeon, but about experience. This picture is from Just a little lovin’, where the setting is something as upbeat as the breakout of AIDS and how a rather gay circle of friends deal with “the gay cancer” creeping into their lives over the course of two years. A far cry from dungeon bashing.
But the topic of the day is the evolution of the computer RPG. I’d like to argue that we’ve seen two evolutions taking place, and blur the lines of what’s an RPG and what isn’t. Looking first at what we traditionally call a computer RPG, you get a fairly typical casting of the Gygaxian tradition style game; you have a character or a party, you travel between dungeons, you beat shit up. You have thousands upon thousands of monsters doing nothing useful with their lives other than stand watch in a cave, waiting for you, the adventurer, to show up.
Once you kill said monsters, you’re of course free to loot their corpses. This is where computer role playing games is taking a turn for the retarded part of worse. When you play a pen and paper RPG, chances are that once you kill the crap out of a bunch of orcs, you won’t go about looting their bodies of anything that might or might not be valuable, since you actually have to signal intent to the dungeon master and it sounds like a pretty awkward thing to do. In computer RPG’s, the “Loot all” button is staple. After all, it makes perfect sense to try to get tattered and likely bloody robes off the corpse of your slain foe, stuck them into your backpack and then sell them at the nearest generic vendor’s.
This is of course not restricted to combat. The concept of opening every chest - even if it happens to be in someone’s home - and smashing pots if you encounter them just in case they might contain loot - is also a staple. Why? The mechanics encourage it, since it takes half a second to click and there might be a reward. In most games, there aren’t even any ill effects by doing this.
Even in the heavily story driven titles, such as the Mass Effect series, where you have a very impressive story branching tree for the overarching story and actually well developed characters, you tend to fall back on Gygaxian staples, such as picking up random loot from slain enemies, progressing by means of earning experience and as such, levels, and a pretty shallow set of actual choices in the story.
Commander Shepard gets two distinct choices in progression; Paragon vs. Renegade. The game will allow the player some leeway in choices, but it’s heavily implied that it really boils down to simply Good vs. Evil, where picking the evil choices even makes you look more and more evil. So overall, the Gygaxian tradition, while it can be packaged in a pretty nice manner, hasn’t really progressed far beyond its initial set of ideas.
Looking at the Nordic school of roleplaying instead, you find it in unexpected places - the FPS world. Starting out with Marathon and Half-Life in the 1990’s, you had games where you sure, shot through oodles and oodles of enemies, but still had an overarching narrative and little to distract you from it. There were few mechanical bits to get in the way- looting was limited to clips and the story progressed as you ran along.
Over the years this progressed into more expensive productions borrowing a page out of the Hollywood playbook, with AI friends and enemies carrying the narrative forward and less and less mechanics to distract you. Nowadays, the only numbered mechanic you tend to be exposed to is the ammo counter, and the effort put to storytelling outweighs the effort put towards mechanical design by far, and full voice acting and many scripted events per level is staple.
You also see what we’ve traditionally known as Adventure games - the Lucasarts tradition of point and click adventures - delve into what could well be called a Nordic style roleplaying experience. Heavy rain, for instance, is all about story and character interaction; it’s not about good or evil, it’s often about picking between multiple bad choices.
You also see this in games such as The Walking Dead, where the dialogue often centers around the mundane and trivial rather than the epic good vs. evil choices. The games tend to be designed in a way that encourages you to pick an option rather than overthinking your choices, to the extent that if you don’t pick a dialogue option within a limited amount of time, the character simply remains silent, which the other characters will also react to.
They also often limit the agency of the players. In a Wolf Among Us, you’re the fairytale create Bigby wolf, a.k.a the Big Bad Wolf, set in a 1980’s era New York, tasked with keeping other fairytale creatures in check. Few other characters like Bigby, and your dialogue choices won’t affect this much - the best you can do is usually to just not prove the other characters right in assuming that you’re a horrible bully. Interestingly enough, they also encourage choices that could be seen as evil by presenting them as the default.
The action sequences of the games tend to be centered around pressing the right button in a limited amount of time. After you’ve done this a dozen or so times in a fight scene, you tend to keep mashing whatever buttons show up. For instance, at the end of one of the longer fight scenes, you’re casually presented the choice of tearing the opponents arm off, again with a very limited amount of time in which to react. Evil? Sure, but it’s also packaged and presented as a viable option, as opposed to an obviously evil and dastardly act.
One of the game changers here is Virtual Reality. It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but if consumer VR is successful in the marketplace, my guess is that the roleplaying tradition that’ll be best suited for it is by far the nordic one rather than the Gygaxian one, with VR being all about immersion.
I’m also predicting that we’ll be seeing that the idea of what a roleplaying game entails will shift, as immersive storytelling and hidden mechanics become increasingly popular in pretty much all sorts of titles but the traditional Gygaxian computer RPG ones. This is probably a good thing if you like roleplaying.