The Draw of RPGs
Clarification: When I discuss RPGs, I am referring to role-playing games and not rocket-propelled grenades. Except for the times when I am talking about rocket-propelled grenades but those are few and far between.
We here at somewherepostculture are fond of many things. Derek loves puns. Kait loves pulpy fantasy stories. I hate everything. If there is one thread of unity which binds the three of us together, it is the role-playing genre. Albeit, my sister is a neophyte when it comes to your traditional RPG goodness, she still expresses that kindred longing in every post-novel lapse where she fills her head with mighty adventures of her going through the wonderful worlds that she loves and adores. I know this, because every time I write a story she immediately makes a spin-off of it. Also, despite her reluctance and adamant denial, she has enjoyed the few times she’s played an RPG. She’d be totally hardcore if it were more convenient to her schedule.
Granted, this shouldn’t really be surprising. There’s a lot to love about RPGs. They are, in essence, the the age old entertainment from when we first were capable of language and cobbled our kin around the primordial fire and–bored–filled ears of any who would listen about people and places that weren’t this fire. Entertainment at its core is simply selfish empathy wherein we peek into the lives of another in order to vicariously experience their highs and lows without actually having to risk those highs and lows ourselves. Of course, to tickle those dopamine receptors to their max, the listener has had the proud and long standing tradition of heckling. It wasn’t until we got so adept at sharing our stories that we faced the immutable forms of the written word which can only bend to our personal whims through sheer force of mindful inattention.
Then we had the wonderful role-playing game step in and restore that give and take between teller and listener once more. Dungeons and Dragons, of course, is the grand daddy of the modern role-playing genre for taking what, on reflection, is a very simple idea. What if we could have our tabletop war games but instead of mindlessly waging conflict between our two different players, we took all the mechanics and instead wrapped it in personal adventures and stories?
I have spoken at lengths about the merits of D&D, often around the time I sit down to create a character. It’s a fascinating topic for me to study since there are so many elements at play with the game that it truly does have widespread appeal. As I’ve stated, my personal bias is the narrative construction of the game and though I like to paint a universal portrait for the importance of story-telling in our day to day lives, the truth is there are equally valid components included that attract people that may not give a rat’s ass for the cultural mono-myth of our existence and lives. For these undeveloped plebeians, there are other worthwhile draws. Some of my most die-hard D&D fans are attracted to the system itself. This surprises no one as RPGs and math nerds are like espresso and overpriced tiny cups–you just can’t serve one without the other. For these fans, the enjoyment comes not from the back and forth experiences between the Dungeon Master and the player but taps into the old war game roots. For these players, there is an enemy and that is the stated foes listed in the monster supplementaries. Their goal is a simple one: master the system so thoroughly as to leave any battle not only alive but as the clear victor.
If I had to create a spectrum, however, I’d place these power games–for it is the power of the system which they seek to master–diametrically opposed to me, the role-player. But that is, perhaps, another discussion. All I know far too well is how these power gamers have a tendency to ruin the best portions of D&D by trying to stick their swords in pretty much any situation which extends too long without someone mindlessly throwing some dice on the table.
However, just like D&D’s atrocious alignment system, the breadth of the fans can not be properly placed into two camps. There are also the tourists, who enjoy investigating and navigating another world and see the game through the frame of a puzzle to be solved. They are the people who always wish to know more about their environment and visiting fantastical places. They can cast themselves off to these places which are not here and can imagine a world that is not their own. Whether they view this world through a lens of scientific intrigue or childhood wonder varies from person to person, of course. There are other elements as well, of course: co-operation amongst a group to overcome challenges, social interactions and living a character, shoes and bags of holding.
I make mention of this because I feel that D&D remains the undeniable king of the genre. With the advent of computer gaming, there is a plethora of attempts to bring the RPG genre to the digital landscape. However, despite the huge steps in technological advancement, I feel that the game will always be best represented at the table. There are just too many factors involved for a single game to capture them all. The biggest problem, of course, being that we still don’t have any computer which has the processing power of our own imaginations and rivaling that tech will probably never happen in my lifetime.
As a consequence, discussing computer role-playing games can be a difficult thing. Given the inherent complexity, sacrifices have to be made in order to see a game come to fruition. As such, most games will excel in one or two areas at the consequence of others. It’s why when asked what my favourite cRPG is, I have to give an incredibly varied list. It’s why Derek and I can have endless debates over the merits of Bethesda’s entries. Whether I like a cRPG is going to depend on which aspect the developers decided to place their focus. If its on an element for which I don’t truly care, then I’m not going to really jump into it.
My favourite example to use, of course, is The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Skyrim is kind of a big deal. It was released at a time when the most successful games on the market included heavy multi-player aspects. Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series had always been a single player experience and people were begging at Oblivion’s release and after for a massive multiplayer online game. This would, of course, completely destroy what the Elder Scrolls are about (and coincidentally, people can see the difference given that The Elder Scrolls Online is a thing and has recently gone free to play–perhaps indicating it wasn’t as successful as Skyrim). Derek loathes Bethesda’s games and I can’t fault him for that irrational hatred. They lack a lot of what he really likes. Their mechanical systems have always been functional at best. Their characters are about as detailed as one can get when they have to create a thousand of them. Interactions between the player and the characters and plot on any meaningful basis is never going to happen.
And that’s because the Elder Scrolls are focused on exploration. They aren’t about epic narratives or compelling characters. They’re about stepping over that ridge and stumbling across a dungeon, delving inside to find strange grottos or hidden pirate lairs. You are invited to live in the world and play the part of a tourist. Take a look around the scenery and follow these exciting short dramas that are created within it. As a cohesive whole, the Elder Scrolls leaves a lot to be desired. But the only other game that gives you that “discover a new world” feel is procedurally generated Minecraft.
We’ve recently finished Divinity: Original Sin (expect a review shortly) and its world is probably one of its more laughable qualities. Whereas both share set pieces in their design, to be sure, you just can’t compare the two. I mean, The Elder Scrolls is designed from a first person perspective which, I would argue, is the strongest one for creating immersion. D:OS, however, is an isometric top down perspective that makes you feel more like you’re moving pieces across a chessboard than an individual exploring a world.
However, D:OS makes Skyrim’s combat a joke. The amount of interactions between abilities as well as the complexity of even the most basic encounters with zombies is truly astounding. Every time you draw your weapon, you have a calculating strategy battle that demands you position and chain your abilities properly in order to rival your foes. Otherwise they will (especially on hard) murder you. It’s the sort of combat that would be impossible in Skyrim, partly because of its reliance on a party and partly because the creation of Skyrim’s breathtaking world has to drop all the data for interaction between items and abilities. And neither of these are touching on my favourite elements: character and narrative.
In a sense, it’s a shame. My “dream game” would basically combine all the best qualities and recreate Dungeons and Dragons for a digital space. However, there is some joy in exploring titles and seeing the refinement of a specific element that might otherwise be ignored. There’s some exploration within the genre itself and it means that there is still things that can be pleasant surprises. My only word of caution would be in blindly trying to sell the games more than what they are. I can’t take anyone seriously that argues D:OS has terrific writing, an engaging world or gripping characters. It doesn’t, especially not compared to the games that actually focus on those elements. If I were to solely compare D:OS to Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines on those fronts, there isn’t even a debate to be had over which is better. Bloodlines would take D:OS to the cleaners. But turn the tables and start discussing combat systems and suddenly things aren’t so bleak for D:OS.
So there’s an aspect of finding what you like and looking into the titles that do those the best. But there’s value to be had in looking at those that extol the virtues of elements that may not be the favourites either. Dark Souls is another game that emphasizes combat and boss encounters and I loved it for that.
There’s lots of reasons for loving RPGs. The quest for you is to find your own.