I’ve played all sorts of pen & paper role-playing games when I was a kid (nowadays I’ve played board games instead). Then at some point I started playing these “role-playing” games in computer. No matter what the game, the idea was something like “kill monsters, get quests, get experience and repeat”. I remember playing one MUD where I tried to role-play my character troll character: acting like I was “strong & stupid troll” (didn’t know about MUSHes at that time), but it kind of didn’t work for so long as the game was still much about “kill monsters, get quests, get experience and repeat”.
At one point I got Fallout 1. I liked the game quite a bit, and played. And I almost could call it a role-playing game, but it really wasn’t. Again it was more about “kill monsters, get quests, get experience and repeat” with a very deep storyline where your actions could affect the world. But it wasn’t roleplaying. The fact that you get additional options for speech if your character has high intelligence doesn’t make a game a role playing game. Gaining reputation doesn’t make it a role playing game.
Don’t get me wrong: Fallout 1 is a good game. It’s a deep in story. It has a great world. But it’s not a role playing game.
You don’t really get to play a role nor have a game where you could do things that you can do in a pen & paper role playing game.
In year 2001 I got Vampire the Masquerade PC game. I played the game a bit but thought that single-player game was a bit limited. Then I tried the multiplayer mode and thought that it was brilliant. I knew that this is a role playing game. I started finding out how the storyteller mode works and took notes on what kind of sound effects there are and things like that.
Storyteller AI beats computer AI…
Then I took time to write a brief vampire session. (As a side note I have to say that I just spotted the old notebook – it’s still here, and there was several pages of texts listing item, character, sound and other file names. Not to mention something about the story I had created.) My notebook didn’t have the full details in it, but I think the story was something like this: “Players go towards a weapon shop. They meet a strange man (it might have been Ventrue Prince) who gives them a piece of paper to be delivered to somebody (sorry, can’t remember who it was). Players visit a hacker who helps them locate somebody. At some point the players meet some really old vampire who gives them money (this might have been in the really beginning) and then the players go to fight Brujah vampires in the area. (hey, it’s like 8 years since I wrote the session, don’t expect me to remember the details)”
Anyway, even though the story was really basic (“bring paper to somebody, get guns and kill somebody”) it had something that typical video game RPGs don’t have: human player as the storyteller. When players met some stranger in the streets, they could have done anything. They could have attacked him, but they choose to talk. As they talked, they used their own words and the stranger replied exactly to their words (since I was handling the NPC talk anyway).
When players discussed with the old vampire, they needed to act politely – if not, they would be in trouble. When players met the computer nerd, he discussed them first and asked all sorts of questions (and gave answers) based on what they wanted to know.
The “final boss” was also first discussing with the players, but eventually they ended up fighting.
There was other factors too…
In Vampire, the enemies actually didn’t have to have hitpoints. Thus, players could try attack them but no automatic reduction happens. This meant that I could bring an enemy in the field, and if players chose to attack it… I could control how it went based on what was going on.
I could also play sounds in the game, so players would hear the hacker typing the computer… or a sound of thunder when the old vampire was speaking.
The difference was, that the storyteller could react to what players were doing. In some games they attempt to do this (for example, Fallout has very deep dialogues) and Never Winter Nights might have been one of the the best roleplaying video game made after this as it allowed some sort of storytelling (I never really tried the game though, so don’t really know how well they handled it).
Analogue with books versus movies
I kind of feel that computer role playing games versus pen & paper roleplaying games have an analogy with books versus movies. Lord of The Rings movie had actors who tried to look like elves but failed 90% of the time – they didn’t look the way elves should look in my mind. Gandalf from the movie looked exactly like it should have: that’s the guy I “saw” when I read the book. Hobbits were sligthly different too. Orcs (Uruk-hai) were really good – just something my mind would accept.
The thing is, movie was a representation about the stuff what was in the book. It was visually displayed – but it wasn’t the same that I had imagined when I read the book. My own imagination brings me my own ideas about how the characters look.
I think it’s bit same with computer RPGs: they kind of like sometimes try to be something that they aren’t. In pen & paper role playing games, the imagination is the end. In video game RPGs, the code is the limit.
And… to me there’s hardly any role playing video games available.
But that of course doesn’t mean that these “RPGs” weren’t good. I just think they should replace the “R” with “A” (for “adventure”).