I’ve Played Loads of Computer RPGs, But Only 1 Of Them Was a Role-Playing Game (After I Made It Such)

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”).


Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Perhaps it’s not a question of physics (restrictions like money, level, power, age, conservation of energy, etc) or no physics, but a question of HOW MUCH. It might be dependent on the audience. How much role-playing do they want, where they’re an actor and a storyteller, as opposed to just being themselves in a world with a likeness to their own?

    Now, returning to the topic of pure roleplaying-games, I want to explore the idea of adding minor amounts of physics in order to bring about order. Now, it might be that order can happen some other way or maybe it’s not even neede, but for the sake of this reply I will assume it’s.

    I’m imagining …. limited sets of models that people can use. Perhaps medieval, or high fantasy, or sci-fi. This would be a constraint. This way, whatever you create, will have a similar feel to other things in the world. Also, I see there being a limited amount of points you can spend on things you change or add to the world. Further, other players could grade you based on your work. Perhaps every piece of content in the world would be authored or would list author(s) and each could be credited for their work. Players could form communities and perhaps there could be a varinat of democracy. Maybe players could form governments that would have the power to ignore a players work (remove) that’s in their territory? Who knows.

    Do you think a world in which people can have anything they wnat and do whatever they want and add whatever they want can have order without any kind of restriction? That’s the question I wnat to leave here.

  2. And, sadly, I have found more things that require clarification.

    The comment:
    “All of these things require time and patience because the underlying game depends on numbers and those numbers don’t budge. It’s like the physics in our universe…”

    Should probably read something like the following:
    “All of these things require time and patience because the underlying game depends on constraints (physics) and those limitations don’t budge. It’s like the physics in our universe…”

    I didn’t really expand on this. Basically, a world that has a resemblance to reality also must have its restrictions. In other words, it must have a physics. You can’t be whatever you want to be. You can’t make money out of nothing. Anything that happens must be built or made to happen from the elements present in the environment. You cannot be a pure storyteller as the storyteller is limited by the physcis of the game world. For example, land has a price, so you cannot role-play a god that owns all the land of the world. You’d have to own all of the land to do that, and that’s not possible in a game world that has a hard physics. All of these limits add credibility to the word. People who’re looking for a lite version of the real world desire these limits because they have a likeness that’s familiar to them and enriches their enjoyment.

    Belive it or not, but I have thought about what it would be like to have a game where you can be and do whatever you want. It’s hard for me to grasp it, as it would not be a sandbox or a world in the way I understand worlds to be, but I think it would be closer to true roleplaying. I think a true role-playing world should not limit what you can do or where you can go or who you can be. You don’t have to earn it, you just have to role-play it. And that’s what’s different from a simulated world. It would allow a players imagination to trully flower. So instead of being a participant in a universe like this one, they would transform into a hybrid storyteller that’s both an actor and a writer. The question I have is, if the world has no underlying physics, what would bring order to it?

  3. In the previous post, my comment:
    “I’ve thought about how players are tending more often to “roleplay” themselves, as opposed…”

    It should actually, more appropriately, read:
    “I’ve thought about how players are tending more often to “play” themselves, as opposed…”

    Because that reflects the intent of that part of the post. I was trying to say that i think mmorpgs, as they’re today (not as true role-playing games might be) will move from being numbers-based to being knowledge-based. To put this more succinctly, the game gives you credit for what your actual knowledge is, as opposed to what your level might be or whatever number currently represents you in the game.

  4. Ya, code has limitations.

    It’s not easy to role-play. If you want to roleplay an evil, powerful wizard, you first have to spend 8 months leveling up and then you have to join a raid guild, and on top of all this you’ll have to play probably 20+ hours a week. Similarly, if you want to role-play a rich capitalist with earnings in the top 100, you have to jump through an equal number of hoops to make it possible.

    All of these things require time and patience because the underlying game depends on numbers and those numbers don’t budge. It’s like the physics in our universe. They don’t budge much. We still haven’t found anti-gravity. And if I want to roleplay bill gates, i’ll probably have to wait for my next life (if there is one). God knows I have billions of dollars to go. So, you can’t really call it role-playing, can you? There’s no human being that can fudge the rules on the spot. The game is fixed.

    Todays games are simulations of varying similarity to the real world we live in. They resemble sandboxes. Players are like a boy that plays with army men. They log on, make a character, and wage wars and do things they wouldn’t normally do in real life. The goal isn’t to role-play, it’s to create a new experience for themselves.

    Roleplaying is different. In order for todays games to allow for it, they would have to eliminate leveling somehow, or any kind of constraint on what they can be or do. They would literally need to allow players to have whatever they want, whether it’s items or money or fame or whatever else. Alternatively, you can have worlds run by a GM or DM that has the flexibility to allow you to be and do things with little limitation or even none at all, while at the same time giving the illusion of money and constraint within the world that the players exist in.

    The catch, of course, is that true role-playing games have little resemblance to the real world. No DM or GM can maintain a world as complex as the real one or even a simulated one anyway. Computing power is able to keep track of everything, including all of the restrictions that roleplayers (and those with little patience for it) tend to not like (money, leveling, grinds, etc). If people are looking for a real world on training wheels (real life: lite), a place where they can fulfill all their fantasies and do things they can’t do in reality, then they’re not looking to role-play. They’re looking to play as themselves, essentially. They want to earn everything.

    I’ve thought about how players are tending more often to “roleplay” themselves, as opposed to their character, as it’s represented in code. For example, if your skill in blacksmithing is 65/100, but you already have multiple characters with 100 blacksmithing and there’s no mystery to it, then playing an alt with 65 blacksmithing doesn’t make much sense does it? They want a game that gives them credit for what they already know. If they already know what comes next, the game shouldn’t constantly throw it at them like it’s the first time. So players, increasingly, are wanting a game that lets them play as themselves, with no hard limits. They’re not asking for a game without limits, rather they’re asking for a game that’s less reliant on the character’s numbers and more based on the players -actual- knowledge.

    Of course, this might have the effect of increasing content costs because players will eat it up faster and ask for new content at a more feverish pace.

    I’m talking about an mmorpg that’s knowledge-based, not number-based. In effect, if a player has all of hte items to produce a weapon, for example, and they know the process required to make it, then they can. There’s no number restriction in the code to stop them. So long as they got the items and the know how, they can do it.

  5. Human players are the core of role playing games. They would be really difficult to relpace by something artificial.
    I remember playing NWN in multiplayer, when I was only a beginner.
    I met some other player, he was a beginner too.
    We were walking by ourselves in the areas near the village.
    We didn’t fight a single monster, but just finding our way in the area was providing a lot of content for reoleplaying.
    For instance, there was one place with a prop of an animal skull, we started to act like we are scared.
    It was really fun.

  6. In Vampire you could “freeze all players” to stop them moving was a really good feature. Similarly, having fences (and then removing then to let players move) was another good feature.

    The locations were also quite small (or I somehow made them small… ;) to prevent splitting.

    Also simply saying players to “keep together if you want me to act as a storyteller” worked wonders ;)

  7. I agree on the APG instead of RPG, but it’s nice to see someone has made an effort to transcend the usual seek and destroy/claim pattern of regular adventuring games. I didn’t hear of the GM functionality in Vampire (multiplayer) gut I guess it’s only used by few.
    Problem is probably how to make the perfect tools for the GM. The usual overhead in pen and paper is easy. The GM can control the environment because ever response from the environment has to come from GM, but players in a conputergame could spread out, start beating up npc’s without giving the gm time to come up with a reaction and so on. It would probably help, if developers focused on making the environment able to take care of alle the minor events, so the GM could focus on dialog and the big red line, and let the cannon fodder minions do their stuff with scripted behaviour.

    I know of a small company working on the storygeneration parts (not on gm functionality) and it would be great to see some more of this in game development instead of focusing on physics and polys. http://www.openstorygroup.com/index.html

Comments are closed.