Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A Defined Role

I've been thinking about Roleplaying games a lot lately. Possibly the recent fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and the associated articles have put in my head. Ther';s a pleasing circularity to the relationship between wargaming and role-playing. Role-playing was originally a development of historical wargaming, that went on to inspire fantasy and science fiction wargaming, which in turn have influenced historical wargaming. There's probably a blog post in that. But this isn't it.

One thing that is striking, and easily forgotten, about role-playing games, is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were a huge craze. In many ways this was very unlikely. Consider what a roleplaying game actually requires. You need a group of at least two, but preferably three or four, ideally willing to regularly give up a good two or three hours of time together. On top of that, the game places a hugely disproportionate burden on one player, namely the games-master, dungeon-master, referee or whatever else you want to call him or her.

As well as controlling all non-player characters, describing the setting and keeping track of everything that's going on. This player either has to read through adventure books, in detail, possibly adapting them to suit the group, write fresh adventures from scratch on a weekly basis or have the improvisational skills to make it all up as they go along. Often, this player is the only one that fully understands the rules. This a hugely demanding role, requiring a combination of actor, accountant, writer, editor, rules master and referee. Frankly, given the requirements of the job (and it pretty much is a job), its amazing that any role-playing groups were able to get off the ground. Let alone that it became a craze.

There is another oddity about role-playing games. The genre sells itself on the idea of complete freedom. The players can be anything or go anywhere. And yet, so many of them are built around the same basic template. The players roles are a band of highly specialised and dedicated killers committing acts of small-scale genocide against a variety of semi-humanoid opponents in exchange for money that is mostly spent on equipment and training to make them even more effective killers, set in the backdrop of a world whose disaster management is so poor that in times of crisis they have no choice but to recruit a band of freelance troubleshooters. This is the essential template of most role-playing games. The settings vary, fantasy of one sort or another is standard, but the same basic template has been exported to science fiction, the wild west, pulp adventure serials and even various periods in history, albeit with a few liberties taken.

Of course this doesn't represent all role-playing. There have been a number of games that have emphasised other aspects of human experience and have reduced the emphasis on violence. But the interesting thing about these games is that they are taken as being reactions against the norm. And, weirdly, there has recently been a sort of reaction against the reaction in the form of the “old school renaissance” in which a number of games have appeared that actively try to be more like “traditional” role-playing games.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on combat is the fact the RPGs grew out of wargaming. Obviously a game genre that developed from wargaming is going to have an emphasis on combat. But beyond this, it also develops out of a tradition of confrontational gaming in which two, ostensibly, evenly-matched players, attempt to defeat each other on the field of battle. RPGs transfer that conflict to a similar, but slightly different context, in which the group takes on the games-master. It's significant that many early RPGs treat the player/game-master relationship as strictly confrontational.

But, when you think about it, why should that be the case? The concept of RPG's, a collection of players taken through a scenario by a games-master, could have developed from board games, experimental theatre, book groups or any number of places. Why did it develop out of wargaming in the first place?

I think part of the reason is the demands placed on the games-master. Given the amount of work required to be a good games-master, any reduction in the workload is going to be helpful. The advantage of the simple confrontational setup, is that it significantly reduces the amount of work that has to be put into the scenario. Writing, adapting or improvising a complex plot that can go in any direction is a lot more complicated than filling a dungeon, cavern or evil Wizard's tower with monsters is a much simpler task. And the players know what to expect and don't react against the template. At least not in groups that actually work.

If seen from that point of view, Role-playing games could only have grown out of wargaming. It's the only setup that makes it practical.

And yet, by placing such an emphasis on clearing monsters out of dungeons (or variations on that idea), RPGs place an inherent limit on their central concept that leaves them fatally exposed to their competition. I'm talking about computer and video games. The kind of “do anything, go anywhere” that RPG's could theoretically offer isn't anything that video games could duplicate, even today and certainly not in the early 1980s. On the other hand, populating a dungeon full of monsters is simple.

So the very limitation that allowed RPGs to develop in the first place is the very thing that ensured they would be overtaken by something that could do the same thing just as well, but with less effort. Of course pen and paper RPGs have continued to influence the development of computer RPGs to the point where MMORPGS even replicate the need for groups of people to set aside time to play together. But, by taking over the role of games-master, they replace the most difficult part of the experience.

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