Thursday, December 16, 2010

Role Playing Games: A GM's Perspective

I wrote this article for the Computer Game Developer's Association in 1996. I thought I'd republish it on my blog, just for fun.

Role Playing Games: A GM's Perspective

Multiplayer Internet Role Playing Games (MI-RPGs) promise a new paradigm of computer game playing. Proponents believe that it is the future evolution of computer gaming. As computers evolved the Internet, the Internet will evolve Virtual RPG Worlds. Those elements that made for good traditional RPGs will have to be translated by MI-RPG designers into the new medium. As some of the startup companies are finding out this is not necessarily an easy thing to do. The first task in the process must be a review of what makes a good traditional RPG.

The chief attribute of the traditional RPG that makes it so exciting for many players is that it is a social game in which they can build and role play their own completely fantastical fantasy Character. In addition, one of the things that makes them so marvelous is that, when designed well, the RPG can incorporate a wide variety of other games in one concise package known as the "World". The players are challenged to exercise their imaginations and game playing skills in a wide variety of areas. You must employ the same tactical and strategic skills of hex war, calculate the odds of success in the same fashion as you do in backgammon, and occasionally astonish your friends and enemies with the all the cunning and skill that you employ in poker.

Another aspect of the successful RPG is that you don't merely play it, you participate in the creation of virtual history through your Character. Most RPGs are run over a long period of time developing their own unique histories. There is no limit to how long your Character may adventure in such a World. A long lived and historically significant Character in a well loved Campaign can be very rewarding.

Most RPG players agree that there is one thing especially that makes for a great RPG. The Gamesmaster. The GM is the central focus of the World. The entire atmosphere and mood of the World is created by the GM. GMs with a sense of their proper role in the game are essential to a good RPG.

The expert GM has a natural sense of the way that a good story goes. He or she can instill an air of mystery, a feeling of awe, a fear of peril, and all the while a sense of humor into the Campaign whenever it is needed. The proper role of the GM is to act as one who guides, but does not control the action of the game. It is a very subtle art. The GM must allow for the direct interaction of the players, "think" for all of the NPCs and monsters spontaneously, and manage to maintain a cohesive "historical" plot line. It is not a skill that everyone is born with. There are those few, however, who seem to make their Worlds come alive. Most experienced players agree that one good GM is worth 10,000 cleverly designed modules from Gygax's treasure horde.

Design Issues for MI-RPGs

With the advent of Multiplayer Internet Role Playing Games (MI-RPGs) the design flaws of the traditional RPG can lead to extreme consequences due to the vast numbers of players that are likely to be involved. What is barely passable in a traditional RPG among friends can become a brutal business disaster with 12,000 or more paying customers on the Internet. Since there seems to be an odd tendency to rush-to-market-like-a-bat-outta-hell these days, I expect that the first wave of MI-RPGs are going to be pretty rough rides. The good MI-RPG is going to take a LOT of consideration to get right, up front and in advance of getting onto a server.

The quest for the MI-RPG designers is to find a way to migrate the best elements of the traditional RPG into a Virtual Reality World. The most difficult aspect of this will be to figure out how to incorporate the charms of good Gamesmastering into the game. Obviously, it will not be possible to merge some of these aspects of the traditional game because the players will be separated from each other and the Gamesmaster. However, by comparison to the single player computer games that try to simulate the RPG environment, the MI-RPG will be a vast improvement.

A/I reliant worlds are going to run into some major long term problems. These Worlds operate on the principal that the GM is unnecessary to the game since the story line will be guided by the players who will make it interesting by their own interactions. A danger with this approach, however, is that Worlds that have no GM guidance will most likely degenerate into all out warfare among players. When there is no authority to guide either the moral dimension nor the macro story of the Campaign then it is an invitation to chaos. Think "Lord of the Flies".

Even with artificial intelligence as good as it is, when you are dealing with a long term on-line environment, predictable monsters will eventually drag a World down. After a while players learn what to do to overcome a computer A/I monster, and then they have an advantage which can lead to lost balance in the game. It is one reason why computer game developers are impressed with Mutliplayer games. Humans always play more cleverly than computers. This is especially true when it comes to GMs.

For Worlds that choose to incorporate live Gamesmastering, special attention should be paid to the quality of the GM who is designing and/or running the World. It is simply a fact that badly designed and/or run RPG Worlds die as soon as their novelty wears off. We witnessed this aplenty in the traditional RPGs. However, it is to be noted that some Worlds that were well crafted from their inception have endured these last 18 years with no loss of enthusiasm on the part of their players.

In terms of the technicalities of MI-RPG design, it should be understood that there are two distinct factions of players in the Multiplayer Internet Gaming (MIG) market place. There are the so-called "twitch game" (DOOM(tm)) players who have little or no interest in RPGs, and there are RPG players who do not seem to care a wit for twitch. These have formed two distinct and separate markets. Some like it hot and spicy, some like it sweet and sour.

The difficulty for MI-RPG designers comes in with the consideration of the combat. The issue can be segregated into two basic categories. Should the MI-RPG lean towards the twitch game in design, or should it emulate the traditional RPG?

For instance, should the game be levels oriented (traditional) or keyboard skill oriented (twitch)? In the levels based game, the Character's percent chance to hit an opponent is calculated according to the level of the Character which goes up according to the number of "kills" for the Character. As the Character gains in levels his or her chance to hit increases. Thus high level Characters are tougher. In a twitch game version (DOOM(tm) style play) the Character is controlled by the key board, so there is no question as to who is higher level. The faster twitcher wins the combat. A combination between the two is possible which would look like DOOM(tm), but incorporate levels by having the size of the "Hit" area widen as the Character's levels go up. Thus, while twitchy, would improve the high level Character's chances to hit. The downside to this, however, would be that twitch players would have an even greater advantage in such a combat system. But only against Characters of their own level or less. A high level Character played by someone with less advanced twitch skills could still score against a low level Character played by a very expert twitch fiend. Thus, game balance.

A related question would be whether or not combat should be interfaced with the 3D first person style (twitch) or a hex-war overview? Hex-war style has certain advantages which can be categorized as strategic and tactical. If all you can see on your screen is what is directly in front of you in 3D perspective (DOOM(tm)) then it limits your ability to plan moves. You might squeeze tactics out of such a combat system, but you'll hardly get strategy.

In the case of MI-RPGs that do decide to go with the hex-war overview combat, the next question will be, should the combat be turn based or real time action? In turn based games the combat is sequential. You make your move, we role the combat dice, then I make my move. Back and forth like chess. In real time hex-war style games, while you are moving, your enemy is also simultaneously moving. There are no turns. If you take too long to decide what to do, you get ravished. Which is better? Turn based has the advantage of giving the players time to consider their moves and play carefully. This tends to cultivate a better understanding of strategy because you have time to consider the entire situation. Real time action games tend to favor the cultivation of tactics. In a MI-RPG environment, if you have a hex-war combat system it is desirable to keep the action flowing, and turn based could take too long. One would also have to contend with how to manage a large number of players in either case. A possible solution might be to have the entire game turn based, but have each turn take 5 or so seconds for everyone across the board. Other related issues involve planning for the use of Magic and Clericy in a World.

One of the most pernicious dilemmas facing the MI-RPG designer is the issue of time and distance. What do you do with the party, for instance, that has a 20 day journey by sea? Make them wait 20 real days to play next? Or sit on deck and watch the waves for 20 days? If you try time compression then how will you synchronize different groups of Characters? Of course you could just keep your World really small. Or disallow voyages by sea. Or you could have conveniently located teleporters near your major cities.

Even more pernicious, and something that strikes at the very heart of every RPG player, is how do you handle the issue of death? Do players role new Characters? Or do the re-appear at some "saved" location? Can they be raised from the dead by other players? This particular rule issue is actually very critical to player acceptance of an RPG.

Additionally, questions of political and theological proportion must also be thought out by the MI-RPG designers. All of these issues require consideration and detailed planning for a game to last for more than a short time. I know of a number of companies that are hoping to launch MI-RPGs in the near future, but have not given enough consideration to the systems they will use or how they will run their Worlds. Their thinking seems to be that their programmers will somehow be able to figure these things out. As one who has spent a Godzillian hours refining and designing RPG systems I know that this is not a realistic expectation. There is a great deal of potential in MI-RPGs, but it will take a very good team of experts in each of their fields to make it successful. Companies that are willing to devote the extra time and resources required for R&D have a window of opportunity to establish a beachhead in the MI-RPG gaming market and from that an industry can manifest and prosper.

While it may well be that the same steep percentage of Worlds drizzle into oblivion as they did in the traditional RPGs, it is nevertheless the case that great Worlds have the potential to become the nexus of gaming activity on the Internet long into the future.
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