Thursday, February 03, 2011

New Dogs and Old Tricks

That computer RPGs have been heavily modeled on D&D goes without saying. From the earliest iteration of Wizardry all the way to modern MMOGs, we still see much that we recognize as the basic core of D&D: hit points, armor class, spell lists, niche protection through classes, dungeon and wilderness exploration, etc.

Since then, the relationship between D&D and computer RPGs has been one in which D&D mostly went its own way and computer RPGs swiped bits that fit their medium. Attempts to program various iterations of D&D into CRPGs have done a lot to draw the two communities closer together. That said, from the beginning, D&D held at its core aspects that computer RPGs just couldn't touch. Advances in computing power and algorithm design have still not given us anything close to what a live and creative DM can deliver. But there have been some advances that have narrowed the gap somewhat. The sandboxy aspects of the Elder Scrolls games (and the Ultima games before them) were an early example. More recently, BioWare has been pushing a design ethos heavily based on consequences for player choices and a plot structure that looks very much like an adventure path.

ArenaNet is currently building buzz for the launch of Guild Wars 2. As usual, they're crowing about unique design, how their game is going to be different from the competition. Also as usual, you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt; there's usually something of a gap between what the game promises during development and what it delivers in actual play. They’re pushing a "not your father's MMOG" look and feel. Clearly, they want to stand out as not just another WoW clone. Still, and despite their protestations that their game will not include the traditional class triad, we're clearly looking at another fantasy-themed combat-focused game.

There is some interesting stuff in the design manifesto published last April:

Let’s say a village is being terrorized by bandits. You don’t want to find out about that because there’s a villager standing there motionless with an exclamation mark over his head who says when you click on him, “Help, we’re being terrorized by bandits.” You want to find out like you would in GW2: because the bandits are attacking, chasing villagers through the streets, slaying them and setting their houses on fire. You can stand up for the villagers, or you can watch their village burn to the ground and then deal with the consequences.

This is your classic "show, don't tell" writer's advice. And it is very, very good advice. The mysterious cloaked stranger in the tavern is still something of a classic in tabletop RPGs, but you don't see him much in actual published material. I suspect you don't see him much outside of tournament play and other one-shots. Since at least the early 90s, you're far more likely to start an adventure by visiting a local village during market day and then suddenly finding yourself up to your Helm of Brilliance in hill giant marauders intent on stealing the prize-winning largest pumpkin.

There is also new fun to be found some of the oldest tricks:

We think of GW2 as the first MMO that actually has a cooperative PvE experience. When I’m out hunting and suddenly there’s a huge explosion over the next hill – the ground is shaking and smoke is pouring into the sky – I’m going to want to investigate, and most other players in the area will too. Or if the sky darkens on a sunny day, and I look up and see a dragon circling overhead preparing to attack, I know I’d better fight or flee, and everyone around me knows that too.

Yep, it's the good old wondering monster with a bit of a twist. Granted, part of how they make this work is by giving everybody who takes part a full share of the loot, which pokes as many holes in my sense of verisimilitude as does 4e’s insistence that defeated drow cannot be plundered for their equipment.

Still, I'm heartened to see the industry still pushing gameplay envelopes and not relying on graphics alone to draw traffic. I'm still not likely to pick an evening of Guild Wars 2 (sorry, Jesse ;) ) over any of my Labyrinth Lord games, but the computer world is inching closer, bit by bit, to the sort of play I think I would enjoy.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. If they ever get the idea of those loot rewards not being the main motivation to complete a task in the game world they may be on to something. :)

Cross Planes said...

2 bonuses to me for Arenanet: Jeff Grubb & Ree Soesbee are working on it. Ree is a very talented writer who worked for AEG & WotC.

trollsmyth said...

Anonymous: The Diku heritage of the modern MMOG runs a bit too deep for them to make that sort of shift anytime soon. I suppose Second Life kinda comes close.

Sunsword: Jeff Grubb? Now that is interesting. I'm curious what sorts of aspects were due to his influence.

Joseph Gambit said...

It's not really video games that have taken a separate path from traditional D&D, rather its the attempt to use AI to create an artificial GM that is, and always will be lacking in computerized versions of role playing adventures.

Cross Planes said...

Here's a link for his role at Arenanet.

Ree got my looking, Jeff kept me looking.

Cross Planes said...

BTW, I've been Beta testing Rift from Trion. I've played several games that were as good as WoW, IMHO. But none that would make me try to persuade my friends to move over and were worth throwing away the investment in WoW. Rift isn't changing the wheel, but its, for me, better than WoW. You build your Class with 3 Paths & can adjust your Role in the game as well.
YMMV, of course.

1d30 said...

I think divorcing treasure from the game goals is silly. Think from the perspective of your character: if a shiny pile of money is available, wouldn't you want it? That's the traditional motivation for D&D. Not the slaying of monsters, and to a lesser extent the saving of villagers from Dickwolves, but going after the loot.

Note too that a typical D&D dungeon has loot in it and monsters but it's possible to get the loot without killing all the monsters. You rarely see decent loot carried on a monster. Instead it's hidden behind a secret door, or under a trap, or in a locked treasure chest, or in a pile beneath the dragon. If a dragon is flying over and you kill it, guess how much loot you get? Exactly zero, ever. A smarter dragon-hunter injured his prey until it flees and follows it home. An even smarter one lays out bait (a cart full of pigs traveling down the road, or a gilded coach) and follows without the dragon noticing him. Point being, there is no reason to make the game world aim for less than verisimilitude. Why aim for a scrawny and pitiful consolation game world?

So yea, bandits attack the town instead of just spawning in and standing around in the meadow outside. Yea, you actually have to defend the buildings and people and crops and animals instead of just returning with 15 Bandit Testicles while more bandits spawn outside. That's progress. But it's nowhere near where it should be. I expect to be able to do the following:

* Sneak in and poison the bandits' stew, wait until they sicken, then leap to attack.
* Infiltrate the bandits with my own soldiers who pretend to be deserters from the wars in the south.
* Fly over on my magic carpet and Fireball the bandit camp until it's a smoking crater, actually damaging buildings and preventing the bandits from recovering for some time.
* Tunnel beneath and undermine a wall with a summoned Earth Elemental, opening a gap for my mercenaries to pour in.
* Hire a unit of archers to fire flaming arrows into the bandit camp.
* Beseige the bandit camp and catapult rotting meat into it to sicken them.
* Divert a river using a Wall of Ice to flood them out.
* Call for a parley with the bandit leader and hire him, bribe him, fail negotiations, or suddenly spring a surprise attack - and maybe he has set up his OWN surprise attack!
* Use my speechcraft skills to rally the townsfolk into following me to fight the bandits.
* Lure the bandits be feinting with a mob of peasants, and when the bandits come out completely devastate them with a unit of Elves hiding in the woods.

And that's just what I came up with off the top of my head. When a game can give that level of freedom, THEN let's talk about whether a CRPG is actually an RPG in the tabletop sense rather than the scrawny and pitiful shadow it is (albeit with better spectacle).