The Future of Role-playing


There are two sort of fools: the fool who says 'This is old, and therefore good'; and the the fool who says 'This is new, and therefore better'.


What is the future of role-playing? Each year a number of new games are launched: some become great commercial successes; some acquire a small, cult following; many fail to capture anyone’s imagination and are consigned to oblivion. Publishers, of course, claim that their games are full of exciting new ideas, settings, rules and concepts; even that they are ‘the future of role-playing’. In private, they often hope that they have created The Next Big Thing. But is there really much scope for innovation in games design? Even if there is, is novelty alone a goal worth pursuing?

One of the Big Things that these new games sometimes offer is a new setting—a new world or a new genre in which to set one’s adventures. Increasingly, the phrase ‘new role-playing game’ means ‘new setting’. Innovation in this area is rare: indeed the field can look appallingly conservative and derivative. Too often what passes for a ‘new idea’ is actually a cast-off cinema cliché. One could wish that companies would spend less time imitating last years’ Big New Idea or trying to anticipate next years Big New Idea and more time pursuing excellence irrespective of novelty. A setting that combined police procedural with monster movies would not necessarily be worth playing just because no-one had done it before.

New games also offer rules innovations, and here, one does occasionally see the appearance of a genuinely new idea. It’s now nearly ten years since the Star Wars role-playing game rejected conventional character design systems in favour of a list of broad, stereotyped character ‘templates’—an idea that has been imitated by virtually every new system since then. Rules-modifications of this type are really suggestions about approaches to story telling. In the case of Star Wars the templates were a means of encouraging a particular sort of characterization. Such ideas do not radically change the nature of role-playing, of course: one is still taking parties of adventurers through scenarios and one is still sitting around a gaming table asking the referee questions. They might better be seen as enabling devices, making it easier for gaming groups to produce stories of a particular style. In recent years, games designers have shown more and more ingenuity in devising enabling devices of this kind.

Occasionally, new games attempt to go further and propose new ways of role-playing. Ars Magica and Wraith would be two examples of this: a game in which you play several members of a community is different from one in which you play a homeless adventurer: a game in which you play the evil side of another player’s character is different from one in which each player plays a single individual. At one level, these sorts of structural changes are simply another type of enabling device. The shadow-player in Wraith is a mechanism to create gothic horror. But in so far as these ideas experiment with the relationship between players and their characters, between players and the referee and between players and the story-line, I think that they also have a legitimate claim to be genuine innovations. On the other hand, the changes that even these more experimental games make tend to be relatively small and fairly conservative.

Superficially, computers games are changing and developing at a much faster pace than role-playing games. Indeed, the whole idea that a new game should supersede an old one has probably been forced on us by the computer gaming industry where the rate of technological change is such that even a two-year old product can look extremely tired and dated.

Looked at as interactive narrative, on the other hand most computer ‘role playing’ games are decades behind the best table-top games: they represent, not the future of role-playing, but its past. This remains true even if, as Ray Winninger argued last issue, the vast majority of table top role-players do not make use of their game’s potential. For all its excellence as a game Doom is actually an implementation on a computer of a rather blood thirsty D&D dungeon crawl. Computer ‘role-playing’ games have jettisoned character interaction—the one thing which table top games do really well—and replaced it with real time action, the illusions of speed and movement, and, at best, an all but imperceptible interface between the player and the virtual world. There is a sense of immediacy here for which many people are willing to forego the freedom of action or input into the plot which role-players take for granted.

Doom advertised itself as a ‘virtual reality adventure’. The three dimensional, smoothly animated cartoon graphics of the game, are, indeed a triumph of the programmers’ art, but the term Virtual Reality is being applied to them only because it is a popular buzz-word: a shibboleth meaning the same thing as ‘new’, ‘futuristic’ or ‘the next big thing’. Yet those of us who value role-playing as an art-form may have reason to fear that if true Virtual Reality technology ever becomes available as a gaming medium it is going to be applied to scenarios that are even less sophisticated than Doom. Isn’t there a danger that ‘the future of role-playing’ really come down to more impressive graphics hiding more and more primitive games?

A book publisher would be foolish if, on being presented with an excellent novel about growing up in Catholic Ireland; coping with AIDS; or living on the Home Front in World War II, they replied: ‘There is already a book on that subject: go and write me something new.’ They would be mad if they said ‘We have already published a novel; go away and create a new narrative form.’ The question for the writers of fiction is never ‘is it new?’ but always ‘is it good?’ Gamers would do well to learn from this. If this years’ Big Thing happened to be a game involving dinosaurs, then it would not follow that the market was moving inexorably into a dinosaur phase, or that reptilian games represented the future of role-playing. It could just be that people liked Dinosaur: The Extinction because it was rather a good game.

Real innovation creeps up on us unaware. Probably the single biggest innovative idea to come about since the original version of Dungeons & Dragons was the invention of live action games. Yet the first LARP centres were not trumpeted as ‘the future of gaming’. (Nor, come to think of it, was first edition D&D, nor—to give Wizards of the Coast its due—was Magic the Gathering.) Early LARP, as we all know, fell into precisely the same trap as Doom: it attempted to produce live-action versions of extremely superficial role-playing games: dungeon and wilderness quests of a sort which the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons had long since abandoned. Yet out of LARP grew what are called ‘freeform’ games: mutli-player open-ended games with relatively little referee input. This was a much more fundamental innovation than the idea of replacing a bag of dice with a foam rubber sword. In terms of the relationship between players, characters, referee and story-line, freeform games represented a new type of game—or at any rate, a different one.

Elsewhere this issue, Phil Goetz describes something similar is happening in the field of on-line computer games. The earliest Multi-User Dungeons were implementations of something very like a D&D dungeon bash: but some MUSHs (‘Multi-User Shared Hallucinations’) are beginning to use similar technology to run much more sophisticated role-playing games. These games seem to have all the advantages of face-to-face gaming, but with a depth and intensity of involvement and a sense of imaginary community that few conventional games have aspired to. Such games are using technology as a tool: as the ultimate enabling device. Surely this is where the future of the hobby lies.

It is tempting to dream about this future. Massive freeform MUSHs with thousands of players, being run in fully-immersive virtual worlds. . . . But it is not likely that this fantasy will be realised in our lifetimes. Even if it were, I do not think that it would supersede or abolish the verbal role-playing games we know today; any more than freeform games have superseded Dungeons & Dragons, or, for that matter, role-playing games have made television and the novel obsolete. Whatever new technology may become available, people will continue to publish new role-playing games: some good, many bad. Many of these games will have the words ‘This is the future of role-playing’ printed on the box: but I think we can be fairly sure that then, as now, it won’t be true.