To Play or Not to Play: Electronic RPGs


I hate electronic RPGs. I know that I'm somewhat old fashioned, but I grew up on roleplaying games that used pen, paper, books and dice. Games where people could use fake accents and props, tell jokes and say and do stupid things during the game. Games where the story was tailored to the players and their characters, where the dialog was spontaneous and no one, not even the GM, knew what would happen next. So what would it take to make an electronic RPG that's worth playing?

I know that a lot of you will send posts telling me to try EverQuest or World of Warcraft or KOTOR II or Final Fantasy XI (see Disillusioned with MMORPGS for more on FFXI --Editor) or some other game. Some of you will tell me to try MMORPGs because they allow you to do whatever you want.

Yeah, right.

I have yet to find an electronic roleplaying game that:

If I want my mage to use a broadsword... then I should be allowed to.

  1. Isn't level based. I abhor level based games. I know it'd be too much to be able to custom design a character with a classless point-based system like GURPS. Instead of choosing a fighter, thief, cleric, mage, or something else, why can't I just assign points for advantages, stats and skills? If I want a mage, then I'll put points into being able to cast magic, spells, and intelligence. If I want my mage to use a broadsword, shield, and a spear, and join some mercs, then I should be allowed to.
  2. Allows you to completely customize your character. In most games, once you get past the attributes and the character's name you're pretty much stuck with what the designers give you. I know, I'm asking an awful lot to want to be able to custom design my character's looks like I can in Tiger Woods' Golf. Instead of making an elf and having to choose one of eight elf faces (with maybe an option to change the hair color), why can't I start with a basic elven face and tweak it to look like I want it to? What about the elf's body, clothes, haircut, jewelry, weight, height, weapons, tattoos, piercings, etc.?
  3. Lets the character do what they want while still following a linear storyline. I'd like to have the option of playing an innkeeper or merchant or something similar while playing in a world with some cataclysmic war going on. Can you imagine trying to play an innkeeper in Falme during the Seanchen occupation (Robert Jordan) or a merchant in Icewind Dale during the Crystal Shard Invasion (R. A. Salvatore)? I'd be insane to expect an epic online campaign with a true storyline like Dragonlance, the Wheel of Time, or Star Wars, but I do.
  4. Has an AI that's so good that a player cannot differentiate between the AI and another player. If I want an AI that can perform as well as a human player would, then I think that I'd have to sell my soul to get it. Otherwise, it's not gonna happen.
  5. Doesn't Monty Haul magical items and money. I've actually heard of people paying REAL money to buy magical items in MMORPGs. That's just stupid.
  6. Doesn't reward characters for killing other characters, but doesn't make it impossible to do so. If 4, above, is effective, the player wouldn't know anyway. Honestly, how many times have you heard of players killing other players to get their magical items or get more experience? I know of games where you can't even kill another player because that type of playing is so out of control that they put blocks in to stop it. How petty, immature, and pointless would it be to go around killing off other players just for their stuff? Grow up, it's just a game.

One of the only games that really comes close to these standards would be Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and its sequel, KOTOR II. KOTOR lets the player customize the character's stats, skills, and force powers, which is cool. KOTOR has a great storyline with lots of opportunity to do whatever the player wants while eventually forcing the player/character to choose between good and evil, which is also cool. But the player only has eight premade faces to choose for their character's appearance (almost all of them are ugly), and only three classes to choose from, which isn't cool. It also has NPCs that all look the same within the different racial variations, very uncool.

Why is it so hard to make electronic RPGs that would be worth playing?

Why is it so hard to make electronic RPGs that would be worth playing? The basic tools are already a reality. The hardest part would be the AI. An AI that would be able to handle millions of people interacting in a fantasy world, each person doing whatever they want, is a daunting task. But it is a possibility. It has already been accomplished on a somewhat limited basis with the MMORPGs that already in existence.

Creating a vibrant, realistic world would be the most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the creation process. Actually, if the game designers used some of the old school world designers from the early RPGs then they'd be pretty set up. The same teams that dreamed up worlds like Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Cyberpunk, White Wolf, Mystara, and the Underdark would easily be able to make up a believable world to interact with. After all, they've been doing so professionally for over twenty years already.

The easiest part would be to populate the world. Just use the players for almost everything. The U.S. Army has a free MMORPG where every single character that you meet is played by a real person. The only thing AI does is keep track of the characters, missions, and environments. The game is called America's Army and can be found through the link above or picked up at the nearest Army recruiter's Office.

If the Army can do something this advanced, then why can't anybody else? Why should you pay twenty to fifty dollars a month to play a second rate pointless game? For that kind of money I'll stay with my pen and paper games, thank you very much.

Imagine a game where you never know who's being played by an AI or another player. A game where there is an epic story (perhaps a war) going on, and the characters can do whatever they want, choose which side to work for and how, or choose to avoid the war for as long as possible by plying a trade (legal or otherwise) in a far off city. A game where characters don't kill other characters to get experience or magical items because there are no levels and magical items aren't massively powerful or common.

Maybe if electronic RPGs were set at a higher standard then I'd play them. Maybe, just maybe, someone will wake up one day and realize that as long as people are willing to pay for inferior products, then the companies that put out those products will have no reason to improve them.

Of course, maybe it's just me...

"Until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore,
you will not know the terror of being forever lost at sea."

Some of the things you want have been done, in bits and pieces. Your whole list has yet to be rolled into one, awesome game, but I submit to you that it's only a matter of time.

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind comes very close to having a classless system. Yes, there are defined classes, but they're widely customizable, and you can even create your own. The closest thing I've seen to a classless electronic RPG was Fallout 2, which is excellent on many other levels.

The engines for customizing character looks aren't quite advanced enough to do what you want yet, but the Character avatar builder for City of Heroes is darned close. A friend of mine has a little boy who logged on CoH and built a slew of characters just to use the avatar builder. One of his best was a 7'-tall black guy wearing a pink mobster suit, knee pads, and a pink army helmet. My lord, it is funny.

Lets the character do what they want while still following a linear storyline. I'd like to have the option of playing an innkeeper or merchant or something similar while playing in a world with some cataclysmic war going on.

Morrowind and Fallout 2 both meet this criterion. Fallout 2 has one of the best plot designs I've ever seen in a game anywhere.

Has an AI that's so good that a player cannot differentiate between the AI and another player.

That's kind of a frightening concept to me. I'm sorry, Calamar, but I cannot allow you to jeopardize this mission any longer...

I played KotOR and its less-great sequel, KotOR2. I'm a fan of both. I'm currently in the middle of Jade Empire and loving it. I don't play MMORPGs for a lot of reasons, starting with divorce court, but you name a lot of my other considerations.

In my book, a well-designed electronic RPG can be very nearly as much fun as a tabletop RPG. I'm a GM in a crowd full of people who don't seem to want anyone else to GM in order to be a player, I usually have to turn to computer games. Bioware's RPG products (KotOR, Baldur's Gate, Jade Empire, etc etc) have pretty well-developed NPCs, complete with changing NPC attitudes over time/in response to your actions. Yes, I sometimes dread the choose-your-own-adventure style conversation interface, but no one's really put out a halfway-decent alternative since Ultima IV.

Finally, I'm with you on the no-classes, no-levels thing; but try to remember, we're in the minority even in the realm of tabletop games. d20 has proven (or rather, reinforced the truth that D&D established) that class-and-level-based systems can make a fair amount of money. There's a ready market for them, and people seem to like the principle that their characters will always get stronger over time. In order for us to see a classless, levelless electronic RPG, the tabletop versions will have to build up a stronger market share. I'd like to say that will one day happen, but it isn't a foregone conclusion; after all, GURPS has been around since the '80s, and as much as (in my opinion) it beats the everloving snot out of any d20 system or D&D variant and leaves it bleeding on the floor, it's never caught on.

I almost hate to bring this up, but a lot of wrestling games use a point based system and not a level-based one. You're stats are compared to others in terms of overall spent points...not what "level" you are. For example, you can dump all your earned skill points into Speed rather than Strength.

But, then, wrestling games have very little role-playing ability. There are generally only 2 responses to any given a good guy, or be a bad guy. Those games also have horrible re-play value.

Now, I write this as a fan who enjoys BOTH tabletop games and electronic RPGs. In fact, I'd say that overall, I prefer tabletop, and I urge you to keep that in mind.

First, America's Army is *not* an MMORPG. It's a multiplayer first person shooter that has some single player training missions that you can play to unlock extra multiplayer stuff. It's _good_, but it's neither an MMO, nor an RPG (although there are some interesting RPG *elements*).

Likewise, creating vibrant, rich worlds in eletronic games is vastly different from writing a good TT setting. The analogy simply doesn't work. Having never been in on a tabletop game development cycle, I cannot say for sure which is "harder," but I assure you that the skill of development a tabletop setting and environment is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to creating an environment inside an electronic environment. The mere fact that there could be arbitrary technical limitations on what you can accomplish is a huge difference.

Electronic RPGs... can't afford to cater to everyone's whim, so the likelihood of there being any sort of in-depth gameplay for an innkeeper is pretty unlikely.

But hell, really, what this article basically says to me that what you want is an electronic RPG that is a tabletop RPG in almost every way. That's still a some years away at this point, but more than that, I think you've missed the point.

Electronic RPGs are a medium like any other; they have advantages and disadvantages compared to other media. There are some things that electronic RPGs do well, such as systems sophisticated enough that handling them IRL would be a pain in the butt. You can play a game with hundreds of people in the world at once. You can _see_ beautiful scenes and thrilling action, rather than having to rely on your GM who-- bless his heart-- might not have as vivid an imagination as, say, a bunch of guys at BioWare or Blizzard who spent _months_ on this thing.

Now, if it's not your thing, then maybe you can wait some years and you'll get something much closer to what you want. I have no idea how the tech will go, but it's not unreasonable to assume that within 10 or so years, electronic RPGs will be drastically different. At this point in time, though, they serve different purposes. Each has its particular brand of fun that the other does not.

One last thing.

I've noticed that you mainly hear complaints about level based systems in ERPGs from one of two groups: people who either play tabletop a lot, or people who are looking for something to complain about.

I can see the complaints in a tabletop game; it's fun sometimes, but not having anything else would suck. However, when you're playing a computer game, it's really not that big of a deal. At all. The good games incorporate many other ways to customize your character's abilities, such that you aren't just plodding through levels in order to get slightly better at hitting things.

Besides that, there are plenty of electronic RPGs out there that are good enough that complaining about something as trivial as a level-based system is silly (e.g., Planescape: Torment, Morrowind, KOTOR, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes). A level-based system can be fun in certain situations, and some games use it very well.

'kay, I'm done.

- Tra'Hari

calamar, i've got quite a few comments, but, alas, not the time.

however, i have a short question for everybody:
why is it that every computer game that has more than two numerics (a.k.a life and ammo meters) is called an RPG?

there's absolutely no ROLE PLAYING in getting +2 to "damage with pointy things" , so how come every game which allows you any minimal choice ("jump better or shoot faster") is said to "have RPG elements" if not called an RPG outright

Shoot, zip, there's absolutely no role-playing at some of the table-top games I've joined. =)

I think the answer to your question is that any computer game that attempts to mimic the rules systems of an RPG is considered an electronic RPG.

I like that comment - they slap RPG on the title of damn near anything that resembles the rules of TT RPGs. (man:that acronym almost sounds dirty.) Even if it only resembles them at 50 paces, through fog and wearing a disguise.

I'd say they should go back to calling them "Adventure" games. There is a story, a plot, action for the player...but it's not like the role you take on has meaningful impact on the outcome of the story.

I love my various CRPG series/games - Neverwinter, Baldur's Gate, Morrowind, etc. But on very few occasions have I seen any system that allows the player to express a personality or make choices other than the railroaded PC who's destiny is hardwired into the story arc.

One game I thought had potential for new story telling style was Deus Ex. If you made different moral choices, the story line changed. However, it came to a point where you ended up on the "good" side one way or the other. And the ending was more like 3 separate ending scenes tacked onto the final part rather than 3 functionally different endings based on your choices throughout the story.

On many levels, I hope that PC games mesh the "sandbox" game (which has no actual end) with the rigid story arc: Let me make choices that change the story. Give me the "choose your own adventure" arc in a world that has lots to explore beyond simple mission completion. And make me (and my party) the center of the story. (Something MMOs cannot offer at all...everyone is heroic and the AI population simply can't compete.)

Just for the record, Adventure is an entirely different genre - Monkey Island and King's Quest are Adventure.

Although if they incorporated the Adventure genre with the ERPG genre and came up with something that wasn't stupidly done on one end of the scale or the other - and there are plenty of games that FOCUS on the adventure genre and do a terrible job with it - then they'd have quite the something.

As for AI that is indistinguishable from humans, they'd have to make the computer STUPIDER. lol u r gonna trad with me XoCutieGirloX? Yah lol i hav good stuf Viperdeath456485

wineshark, the games you mentioned (NWN,BG,MW) are actually RPGs. in my book, at least.
but what about diablo 2 and jedi knight? i've seen those two touted as RGPs...sheesh.

That was my point - the "rpg" genre has very little to do with ROLE playing. Your choices are often limited to class or race, but little else. You are hardwired into some "destiny" story arc and your choices have little effect on the outcome of the are just there to jump the hurdles and defeat the evil blahblah.

The "adventure" genre of yesteryear has fallen out of favor, but can still be used to describe many of these games - they are adventures. Maybe it's not the industry standard naming convention, but it does describe them better, IMO.

All I was saying was that the "RP" in "RPG" is non-existent. They get this misnomer by their association to anything with a resemblance to D&D or other tabletop RPG.

I think they have broadened the definition too much, that's all.

I said they were rpgs...specifically computer RPGs. And that I like them a lot. Morrowind, especially, had a free-form feel that I really enjoyed.

Diablo 1&2 always seemed more Gauntlet-esqe, rather than an RPG. As a friend once said, Diablo 2 is quite possibly the best maze and cheese game of all time. Again - my definition is that you have to have some sort of choice and effect on the story to constitute an RPG.

For instance - BG comes dangerously close to not being an RPG, despite its D&D ties. No matter what class/race you are, you are destined to be the child of Bhaal, and you must move the story forward based on that.

Morrowind was far superior in making the player the target of events that you wanted to get involved in as you discovered more about your past. You could run around making yourself rich and having your own adventures and never HAVE to deal with the meta-plot. (or at least it was easier than in BG 1&2)

It's rare that the player has to choose what to do about the great evil XYZ. Rarely do you get to choose to join the bad guys, instead of fighting them. This is because you have to work a lot harder on story design to accommodate many ways of doing things, and some of the work will go unseen in a single play-through, which makes it a hard sell to people who manage game development and man-hour budgets.

I have never, never, never seen an RPG setting (tabletop or otherwise) that wasn't riddled with holes in its logic and internal consistency, and the more players that have to interact with each other in a setting, the more glaring those inconsistencies become.

The more glaring the inconsistencies become, the more they lead to petty bickering among the players as each vies to be heard as the last voice of the "true" interpretation.

I don't play the graphic MMORPGs, just the old-style text MUDs, but the effect is the same. An online world with hundreds of players is guaranteed to have an abysmal GM-to-player ratio, resulting in almost no individualized attention for most players, and necessitating that the setting act as its own GM as much as possible.

So please: let's not compound the existing misconception that most online RPG designers and players already bring to the party. What's cool and workable for a tabletop setting does not and cannot translate directly into a cool and workable online setting.

If you joined my home game and said, "I want to play an innkeeper," I would let you. 20 minutes into the first session, enemy troops would either occupy your inn and use it for officers' housing with you as their new butler - or they would torch it to the ground.

Who would want to play a character that was uninvolved with the main story of the campaign? That doesn't sound like any tapletop game I'd want to play in. I'm not a hack-n-slasher by any means, but something has to HAPPEN in a good RPG. Sure if the players don't bite on my first hook, I have to make sure there are plenty of hooks - that's part of being a good GM. But if my players don't want to go out and get involved in the world because they have to turn down the beds and get the dinner menu ready, I wouldn't blame myself when I killed the campaign and started looking for other players.

I haven't played any video games in years and have been heavy into table top for several years now. I just recently bought an Xbox and played KoTOR on it. It was an absolutely terrific game. I also played X-Men: Legends, another terrific game with the ability to improve (aka level) your characters and interact through dialogue (limited) - although no one seems to refer to X-Men as an RPG for reasons that escape me.

Neither of these is even close to something I would refer to as role-playing. I don't think you can create a true RPG for the computer. Just like when you play Madden 2005 you aren't playing football. Maybe in time both of these things will be possible.

But why can't forms of entertainment be enjoyed as their own thing? If you don't like video games, then just say so! There are people who only play computer RPGs and think they are role-playing. They are clearly completely ignorant of what role-playing is and the game industry has no interest in correct the situation with a new category that might not have cross-over marketing appeal. But you aren't going to educate them either, not on any significant scale.

It seems to me that most of the complaining about the limitedness of CRPGs comes from the fact that are one, two or at most three possible story arcs. The people who make these complaints want a world where they can do absolutely anything, like in TT roleplaying. Many of them are the kind of people who want to do something that is no fun for the rest of the party (like opening a tavern and wanting the rest of the party to do nothing for a year of in game time while the tavern becomes prospers enough to start paying for itself). They're the kind of people who, intentionally or not, derail whatever adventure the GM had prepared by perusing useless side events. Now, this isn't always a bad thing, but it can be very frustrating to GMs to have to put up with it every time they play. Most of the people who complain about the restrictiveness of CRPGs must have pretty incredable GMs.

CRPGs have big, epic story arcs because those are interesting to a wider group of people and often produce more interesting stories. Compare Baldur's Gate to Icewind Dale. In BG, your character is a Somebody with a destiny. In ID, your group is just a bunch of random, personalityless adventurers. Which game is agreed to be the better one? Epic sells better. Designers do have to watch the bottom line.

Of course, there is such a thing as "too" epic. One GM I play under always starts a campaign by telling the players their characters have a destiny or a higher purpose or something along those lines, and reveling it to the characters within the first few sessions. People loose interest in these games fast, even though he's a good storyteller with an excellent handle on the rules. It's just too much too soon. If he let the characters grow into whatever roles their personalities, backgrounds and adventures led them to, interest would keep up much longer (at least in my opinion).

Don't get me started on naming conventions. I could go on for pages.

Human-equal AI is still a fair ways off, but I would bet game designers want it as much as players. Some of the possibilities have been mentioned above.

Isn't "pointless game" redundant?

Ok, so this post was a bit disjointed. I'm a little tired. Also, I don't intend any of the above as an insult or flame towards anyone. If I pissed you off, respond calmly.

RG, do you see what i meant?
"People loose interest in these games.."

Uh...yeah zip...I see...

...and, uh, like I said...typo.

It's my sincere hope that you don't actually stress over other people's grammar and whatnot -- I kinda feel there are more important things to harp on.

I've been gaming since 1978, mainly Fantasy RPG with occasional excursions into 'true' wargaming and also various tabletop games and other RPG genres.

My experience with CRPG/MMORPG is admittedly limited, but I still play tabletop D&D with a group who meet regularly for a weekly session (several of us go waaaaay back). We are playing 1st edition with a fair amount of house rules and interpretation (par for the course with 1st E!). The current campaign has been running for 7-8 years.

Interestingly, all of the other players in our gaming group beside myself have, in recent years, become regular MMORPGers.

I have two reasons for never having gotten into MMORPG in the same way as my (mainly single) friends. The first is that the demands of marital life and fatherhood don't give me the flexibility to log on with impunity when the rest of 'the gang' decide to gather in WoW or CoH for a clickfest (my terminology).

The second reason is that, being an IT professional who spends his working hours slaving over a hot server farm I'm less than excited by the prospect of getting home after a hard day's work (usually rather late) and making my fingers do the QWERTY dance for the few remaining hours I then have before hitting the sack.

Anyhow, my observations of the MMORPG genre and the way my friends relate to it tend to concur with those posters on this board who've complained that the 'RP' in MMORPG is a bit of a misnomer. Now, don't get me wrong - I'd be the first to admit that there is nothing intrinsic within the pen & paper format that ENFORCES good roleplay, and there are many tabletop gaming groups whose level of roleplay is simply diabolical (including the groups I played in in my 'larval stage' as a gamer!).

However, there does seem to be something in the nature of MMORPG that actually seems dissuasive of good roleplay; and the on-line format cannot achieve the atmosphere-building that can sometimes occur in a really good session of tabletop RPG (with a skilled DM who's 'on a roll'!).

When my group get together for our regular session, there's usually a bit of an MMORPG 'debrief' going on - people having a bit of a face-to-face about the goings-on in WoW during that week and so on. This generally lasts about half an hour before people settle down and start rolling dice and getting their heads 'into the real world' of our D&D campaign setting (which is still considered by all to be superior entertainment).

The interesting thing about this WoW 'debrief' is that it's very much 'Min-Maxing' oriented. The focus is not on roleplay but on how to work the system to maximum advantage.

And discussions about other characters encountered online rarely emphasise their in-game 'character' aspect. They are spoken of in terms of being actual people controlling avatars, and the way those people play - in other words, the commentary is on their playing style. Their tactical skills, and how well they can work the system.

Paradoxically, what should in principle be a more immersive environment for roleplay seems to be LESS SO than the environment of bits of paper, dice, a few rules and plenty of imagination! The characters people play in our tabletop D&D campaign are somehow more 'real' than the digital avatars that roam World of Warcraft. And as for storylines and atmosphere, well it would be like comparing, say, 'Excalibur' or 'Henry V' with 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' or worse.

That's not to say that my friends who play WoW don't enjoy it, of course - heck, they wouldn't play it if they didn't! But it's NOT about roleplay. It's a different kind of game altogether. Yes, you DO get some people who will play 'in character' when on-line. But the prescence of all too-many players who txt and chat out of character shatters the illusion of a believable fantasy world.

When playing table-top, the interesting thing is that all participants have in their heads a subtly different and very personal view of the fantasy world their characters live in. Yes, their views have a good deal in common but each person has their own unique view of that world. And out-of-character activity doesn't need to intrude into that world because the player's mind excludes it as inconsistent with the imagined reality. I don't think it's so easy to draw this distinction in an MMORPG setting because you aren't creating the world in your imagination, it's 'in your face' on the computer screen - warts and all.

People who have never experienced 'quality roleplay' (if that doesn't sound too snobbish a description of what we do in our D&D sessions) will not realise that their on-line gaming bears little resemblance to this phenomenon. Perhaps those people who buy and sell magic items and treasure 'off-world' through e-bay, thus short-circuiting the game mechanics, don't realise that they are surrendering their roleplaying credentials when they do so. Of course, perhaps they don't care, or simply have a somewhat loose definition of roleplaying. Although the looser a definition is, the less useful it becomes. Personally, I consider good roleplaying to be more than just being an expressive actor; it also entails interacting with the virtual world in a manner that does not degrade its consistency as a whole. A good litmus test of 'quality roleplay' is to take a step back from the game action and ask the question, 'Would this make a great film?'. Here's a clue - a monotonous sequence of combats and plunder-gathering does not a great film make. That's not to say that our D&D sessions are light on hack'n'slay either, but there's WAY more to our game.

Although there are various functional and structural diferences between Pen & Paper and MMORPG (the most frequent criticism of the latter being rule inflexibility and class/level style progression) I have instead focussed here on the way users of systems interact with those systems - my main point being that the very nature of present-day MMORPGs (at least the one's I've seen) tends to lead to a rather different gaming experience, culture and social dynamic than pen and paper systems. Asking the question 'which is better, pen & paper or MMORPG' is rather like asking 'which is better, red wine or lemonade?' Of course, not everyone enjoys both. Personally, if forced to give up drinking one over the other, I will choose to give up lemonade, but not everyone will make the same choice.


Hey. I resemble those remarks! (Both as player and GM).

I think that people who like to bash CRPG on the basis of its inflexibility are probably reacting to the tiresome claims of a certain kind of computer gamer who gushes on about how CRPG / MMORPG are "Just like pen & paper RPG only much better!".

The two genres are good at different things. This is something that the CRPG groupies just don't get. I think they may eventually converge but only when the human-computer interface becomes much broader and more sophisticated, and the back-end engines and AI become much more powerful (cf 'The Paperless Office' that has been predicted for half a century and hasn't happened yet...).

(On a side note, in our group we usually handle all the 'I want to buy a tavern\theatre\brothel' type stuff out of game-time in a play-by-email fashion....)

Perhaps it would be entertaining to envision a CRPG or MMORPG of the future where the players could interact as easily as if they were gathered at the dining room table.

First there should be full voice high quality audio chat so that players can talk with one another. It is hard for me to suspend my disbelief when listining to someone talking about raiding a dungeon in a voice that reminds me of CB radios a-la Dukes of Hazard. The game could even add in filter effects for when the conversation is taking place in an echoing cavern or what not.

All the MMORPGs I've seen have these wide angle views that make it hard to focus in on another character's face, and for good reason. There is usually nothing going on there. Playing together through an electronic medium doesn't have to stifle creative role-playing. If a MMORPG rendered your character's face with your own speech and expressions in real time as realistically as say Half-life 2 does now... that would be really sugoi. Look at the motion capture tech used to make Gollum in LOTR. Focus a camera on the player's face and bring some futuristic computing power to bear so the in game avatar could lip synch in real time and follow the player's expressions. The MMORPG could take on a dimension of true role-playing.

While we may not be able to create NPCs that come up with their own dialog on the fly like a GM could perhaps we could make them respond to spoken keywords.

I guess what this is all leading up to is this; if pen and paper role-play is a bunch of people writing a story together. Computer Role-playing has the potential for those same people to make a high-budget movie together.

then, do you require a high level of acting skills from your co-players?

I just had a thought about this.

When I play tabletop RPG, I am imagining a virtual world in my head, along with its virtual inhabitants - my character, the other player's characters, the DM's NPCs.

Now the thing is, when I am roleplaying a character, particularly a character of long standing, I don't feel as if I am controlling the character - rather, I feel as if I am relaying the actions that this character would WANT to perform. In other words, based on their initial attributes, guided by their player, influenced by their experiences during their adventuring career (eg developing phobias and so on) the character gradually seems to take on a life of their own, . I am sure that actors feel the same about roles that they play, especially those that play characters in long-running television series or film franchises.

When my character speaks in the virtual world, I do not imagine them as having the same voice and mannerisms that I have. Although I define the raw content of what they are saying, I imagine them speaking in a more authentic, 'in-character' way. I know that some players do seek to express the vocalisations of their characters in a dramatic way and the DM does read out verbatim pre-prepared NPC dialogue but on the whole people fill these details in with their imaginations. It usually goes like this: Player says 'Palomides make a dramatic speech to inspire the troops before going into battle', DM says 'Make an Oratory roll' and the dramatic speech - or lack thereof - is taken as given.

This is where MMORPG is failing to fulfill the promise of better roleplaying. Because it cannot address these issues, and these are the very fundamentals of roleplay. Instead it offers non-autonomous avatars that speak in the voices of their players; placing the onus on the player to work even harder at roleplaying.

Now, let's fast-forward to the future, where we have better AI. Now, without getting too far into philosophical debates about whether an AI is really self-aware, the way I can see computer gaming becoming a 'truer' roleplaying experience is to have our characters as semi-autonomous AIs. Does that sound weird? Actually, I think it is more like 'true' RP than having a 'dumb' avatar that you control and speak for.

Just imagine - you feed your character an instruction to make a dramatic speech -

- and the AI takes over and actually MAKES the speech!

This isn't so far-fetched. We already have software that can write prose novels and poetry - not very good prose or poetry, to be honest, but it's still early days.

How about software that can voice-recognise your own speech, translate it into medieval english and re-issue it, complete with charismatic intonation (at a level appropriate to your character's Charisma of course)?

If it's really smart the AI can learn the personality of the character that you envisage over time, being guided by the way you control the character. It could learn, from the way you prompt it, your characters likes and dislikes. Gradually, you have to do less and less work, only intervening to make key decisions (Yes, there are elements of 'The Sims' in this idea....). You could set limits on how much autonomy the AI has. You could even have the AI ask you questions, so that you are acting as it's 'inner voice' in response - eg the AI doesn't know what to do in a certain situation so it asks you. Built-in indecisiveness allows you, the player, to stamp your own persona on the character.

The idea of relinquishing control of your character to an AI might seem odd, but tabletop RPG never requires you to detail every single little nuance of your character's actions, you just provide an 'outline' of what they are doing and the rest is filled in by imagination. In my proposal AI is filling in the blanks in an interesting and quasi-authentic way.

If you are feeling really brave and the AI is really good and well-trained you could even let it carry on adventuring in your abscence.....

Just had ANOTHER thought.

Once we introduce AIs into the scenario, it puts another perspective on the whole 'should we allow rape, torture and death in an RPG'? we need to care about the welfare of the AIs?

Now here I'm sliding into the whole 'does an AI experience conscious self awareness' debate which I really want to avoid as that one could go on and on and on.....

Very briefly I think that it IS possible for an AI to be consciously self aware - but not the kind of AI characters I envisage in my future-MMORPG scenario.

Because the avatars are not really self-contained fully autonomous entities - they are 'personality templates' that interact with a centralised 'AI engine' - and the external player, of course.

The central AI engine itself might be sufficiently complex and 'smart' to be considered self-aware. It might need to be, to be that creative. It in itself would not necessarily suffer if a character dies, however - indeed, if we believe that it can experience suffering we need to put appropriate protection mechanisms in place.

Basically, I'm aware that AI self-awareness and 'rights' will possibly be an issue by the time the scenario I've described comes to pass. And there will be plenty of people who will deny that an AI can be truly self-aware (namely, those people who don't want the added expense and hassle of having to treat their AIs like they have feelings).

Sometime during this century these things are going to become a real issue.

Yikes. Here's another problem.

The welfare of potentially self-aware AI's aside, how about the welfare of the players?!

Imagine how upsetting it would be to watch your character getting tortured on-screen.

Or violently killed.

Imagine having to deal with bodies after a combat action (something that's always glossed over in most RPGs)

Censorship would certainly be an issue with a truly realistic MMORPG. But different people need different levels of censorship. How does the central AI running the game world discriminate? How does it know the ages and proclivities of the people watching what's going on on-screen?

I think you'd possibly need, say, different servers running seperate games at different 'strengths' and age verification for people logging in. But kiddies can always cheat their way past age verification. And then you'll get the people who think they can handle anything logging onto the 'No Holds Barred' server who then suffer PTSD when their character gets agonisingly crisped by dragon breath before their very eyes and they end up sueing.

It's a real can of worms!

Imagine how upsetting it would be to watch your character getting tortured on-screen.

This doesn't really pertain to the issue you mention - it is a peripheral observation. Still: in Knights of the Old Republic, Admiral Saul Carrath (sp?) made me watch him torture Bastila, a character to whom, despite her notorious bitchiness, I'd grown deeply attached. It was a well-done and very upsetting sequence to me, even though the torture took the form of the "sanitized" bolts of lightning you mention earlier.

On a similar level, I was forced to watch a vampire abduct and "embrace" (to use the VtM term) my girlfriend in Baldur's Gate 2. Also upsetting. And it totally hooked me to the plot.

Nephandus once observed on this site: nothing gets people more involved with a story than Bad Things Happening to Good People.

I realize you're talking about seeing such things happen to your own character, but still.

Or violently killed.

Playing Fallout 2, I observed my character being killed in almost as many, and in far more violent, ways as Bill Murray's meteorologist dies in Groundhog Day: melted, mangled, riddled with bullets, disintegrated, electrocuted, and literally blown limb from limb by massive damage.

Just sayin'. In a sense, we've gone there already.

Hmmmmm. I take your point, but i'm speculating here that it would be more traumatic to watch bad things happen to your character on screen if they were an AI that you had nurtured (possibly for a long period of time) so as to autonomously manifest an apparently distinct personality, rather than just a digital 'husk' more or less under your direct control.

I know that in games like Fallout 2 the NPC-AIs can get wasted but I don't think that's quite the same.

Hey, I know this thread is kinda dead but...

You guys are forgetting one thing. It doesn't have to be all or nothing! As consumers we can certainly ask for and look forward to the product's evolution. AI really has very little to do with it. I hear the AI argument all the time, but you know, there have been lots of computer games/video games with more stamina and story than some of the recent games you guys are talking about, and they didn't need 21st century top shelf science, either.

If more games had 6 instead of 2 story archs, a dab more puzzle, and a splash more reactionary writing, we'd be in business. The real issue is that these simple things are not considered competitive additions at the present time. Everyone wants an equal playing field (read: one story line, one track, one race) so a player can clearly state, "I am the winner, you guys had the same chance, but I won." Think split screen action game, only the screen is split into 6 million pieces. Players, on the whole, don't want a varied experience, because then they can't rank winners in a definite fashion.

It's completely within possibility NOT to make this the focus of a game, but right now, that's what businesses see dragging in the subs. When the whole mmorpg thing gets a bit older, it will settle down and some variety will pop up. ...just like anything else.

I'm not forgetting any of the things you have mentioned. I rather think that you may have missed a point here.

My gaming group meet only once a week for face-to-face tabletop gaming, because various time constraints prevent us from doing otherwise.

Most members of my group are also MMORPG players on a regular basis. However, given the choice they will log off and gather for a tabletop session at the drop of a hat, because they consider tabletop to be a superior experience. One of my players often remarks, at the end of a really gripping session, 'I think we should do this every night!'

My point was a response to the self-posed question, 'What would it take to persuade us (and others like us) to abandon tabletop gaming entirely in favour of MMORPG? What is the X factor that's missing? Is it something more than simply the opportunity for face-to-face social interaction?'

Or to couch it in other terms, what would enable MMORPG play to feel like you were a participant in a really great movie?

Now go watch the Leeroy Jenkins video clip and tell me that you'd feel like you were watching a really epic movie, or reading a powerful novel and imagining what it would be like to be there.

Your suggested ingredients of better and more diverse story arcs with more cerebral challenges are only a part of what's missing. These however will not be the things that qualify the 'RP' part of MMORPG.

My suggestion for player character AIs that could 'learn' from the player's instructions so that the player moulds the character rather than (perhaps rather badly) tries to act the role themselves, or else simply doesn't bother at all (more often the case than not) was an attempted insight into the nature of the X factor that keeps the players in our group coming back to the table.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that PC-AI is necessary for greater commercial success at this point in time. In fact, I rather suspect that many of the current generation of MMORPG players would not be comfortable with it - for precisely the reasons you cite!

I am going to hazard a guess that the majority of MMORPG gamers these days have never fiddled around with polyhedral dice or thumbed through a monster manual in their life (I'm including the non-english speaking world here as well, by the way. I'm certain that there's barely a gamer in South Korea who has ever opened the cover of the D&D rules or dabbled with COC.)

As you say, what the market wants now is an electronic version of the kind of game that I and my friends played as teenagers.

The MMORPG market may mature, as you say, but only when it stops expanding, and if it then needs to diversify in order to maintain its income stream. And this need isn't a given if people are hooked on what they've already got. Not all mature markets diversify. A look at the singles chart now compared with what was in the charts in the early seventies should be instructive. (The fact that there are more 'defined categories' of music these days than the 'Rock', 'Pop' and 'Easy Listening' of the 70's is disingenuous when you consider that the difference between modern-day musical categories is often just a difference choice of rythmn on the synth console)

My proposal for PC-AI wasn't a prescription for greater commercial success. It's simply an assessment of what's missing from MMORPG that us tabletop diehards get out of pen & paper - with the 'AI' bit presently supplied by our imaginations.

If a gaming house brought out the kind of game I envisage it might not be a mass popularity phenomenon, as the emphasis wouldn't be on winning on a 'level playing field'. But then again the kind of gamers it would attract might be us older fogeys who might just possibly be in slightly higher income brackets than the munchkins....

I'd like to think there will always be a market for pen-n-paper / tabletop gaming.

I enjoy a good PC game (say, Baldur's Gate II for argument's sake), but I'd much rather gather with the guyz for a night 'round the game table.

It's kinda like movies and books. Sometimes, a good movie is the way to go...but, sometimes, there's no amount of budget that can replace a finely told story that sets one's imagination afire.

But...I know folks who'd rather watch than read...and I suspect there'll always be folks who'd rather play PC games than gather 'round the table.

I don't think you're wrong there, RG. Although I've suggested PC-AI as a means of getting the 'RP' into MMORPG, to be honest I still don't think that I would entirely abandon the P&P gaming format (though I might be tempted to spend more of my time and money on an on-line game with this characteristic).

The appeal of pen and paper and dice is more than an in-game thing. It's the tactile and social aspects that also appeal. The best analogy I can think of is that I don't enjoy reading second-hand books simply because I like the story. I also love the smell of old books!

Has anyone tried using something like Second Life for a TT substitute?

"Who would want to play a character that was uninvolved with the main story of the campaign?"

Have you ever heard of a game called the "Sims"? "Sim City, Sim Rollercoaster, Sim Ghetto"? These games, especially "Sims", are wildly popular, make insane amounts of money, eat up massive amounts of time, and the player is just living someone else's day to day life... How boring! But people are actually willing to pay for it...

"People are stupid."

You mention Baldur's Gate and Ice Wind Dale as examples. Let me give you a better example of what I want. 20+ years ago a team of extremely talented and creative people working at TSR created a world called Krynn and a campaign for it called DragonLance.

DragonLance was first a creative effort for a new marketable packaged setting. Then the creators played through an epic campaign which was also published, as playable adventure supplements and novels (2 of the players became highly paid published authors). Dozens of other novels and resource material had been published since, along with some extremely high quality (especially for roleplaying) artwork.

Here is a massive amount of source material that game designers can use including maps, plots, characters, races, history, gods, the list goes on. Most of the creative effort has already been done. Why is it so hard to make a world like this for a computer? I'd love to be a Solamnic Knight, or a Kender Wanderer, or a Red Mage...

That's what's so hard about all of this. We have the capability, but not the drive. Kinda like the Houstan Texans...

I wouldn't graphically depict rape or sex at all. However, some things like torture, death, corpses, nudity, are all things that are common in stories. Especially fantasy stories.

Princess Bride for example, has everything that I listed except for nudity. (I wish...) Remember, this was a children's movie.

Bad things happen in a story, that's what makes it interesting. No I don't WANT my character to be tortured, raped, and killed, at least not without giving me a way out. It all depends on the story and the characters and their actions.

"I'm not a geek! I'm a 14th level Palladine!"

have you guys played any chat based d&d because thats what I am doing at the moment,I happen to be helping with a site at the moment I am one of the dms and am runing the site by the books as i own most of the 3.0 books

I've done email based D&D games, off and on, for about 6 years now.

The main reason I did this was to keep the game going while various PC's had moved away (temporarilly, as it turned out).

For a time, I opened the game up to folks I'd never met in person and, for a time, I had about 4 sub-plots going with these folks. But, most of them got bored with it pretty quick and only played a couple dozen rounds or so.

But, there's still the ony guy who's been going strong for some 6 years and just sent me his 236th reply.


This is an old article, I guess, but I had to put in a suggestion.

Try Neverwinter Nights online with a live DM & some other players. is a good game-matching service if you are looking ot get your feet wet. Or go to and look for some top-rated gameworlds. You'll find persistant worlds and one-shot adventures, as well as weekly games to play in. NWN is about as open-ended an online game as I've ever seen.

While an online RPG will never match the experience of PnP, NWN can come very close, depending on who you play with and what server you play on. NWN offers a good deal of visual customization, and the d20 rules system -- while admittedly nowhere as perfect as GURPS -- offers a wide variety of options.

Thanks Smolin, I think that I'll give that a try in a month or so (after I upgrade my POS computer). Are these free services, contracted, or pay as you go?

I've played other games based on the D20 system, namely Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and it's sequal, and I had a lot of fun. I think that as far as video games go, the D20 system is pretty decent. For more long running games, like open ended RPGs, I'd prefer a point based system like GURPS.

Thanks for the info though...

"Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know whatcha gonna get."

Hi Calamar. The cool deal about NWN is that it's all free free free. Once you buy the game (& 2 expansions). There are more gameworlds than you can shake a stick at, of varying quality from crapola to really immersive & fun. And the folks who made KotOR (BioWare) also made NWN, using much of the same code.

But NWN is coming to the end of it's lifespan, soon to be replaced by NWN2, which promises many improvements to the original. The good news is that whatever rig you have now will most likely run the original NWN, and you can pick it up along with both expansions for pretty cheap.