The Vegan Militia

... because we are all made out of meat!

The Poverty of Computer RPG


I was introduced to both computers and Dungeons and Dragons around the same time. I did not even see a computer until I got to high school, and soon after I could be found in the computer lab every day after school playing a number of role playing games including Temple of Apshai, Akalabeth, and, Ultima II. I got my own computer not long after and was able to spend way too much time playing those games and others including Ultima III and SunDog. Note that I am only mentioning role-playing games.

I also started playing D&D around this time and it was clear that those games all owed a lot to D&D, in fact the basic mechanics of the games all clearly were derived in some ways from D&D mechanics. The one problem with D&D is that you can only play as often as everyone in the group can play, which was weekly to monthly through the years I played. The advantage of a computer game is that you can fire it up at any time, and play at your convenience. As a result, I began a long search for the holy grail of an immersive game which could be as fun as D&D.

Once in college, I was introduced to Unix and many games including a number of roguelike games like Rogue, Nethack, Omega and a few others I forget. A friend of mine set up AberMUD on a spare machine and I dabbled in that. As GUIs developed I played Crossfire and others of the sort. Years later I tried playing Neverwinter Nights, dabbled in Runescape, Second Life, Vendetta Online, and Neverwinter.

I spent a lot of time on these games in the times I couldn’t play D&D. But thinking back, for all the time I spent on each, I never once thought after a D&D session, “Wow! That was a waste of time”. But most of my time on various video games was usually followed some level of regret, of time wasted. Whenever I play D&D with my friends I have always come away happier than when I started and never a touch of regret. Why is that?

I remember someone jokingly saying that tabletop role playing games were “a bunch of numbers theory disguising itself as a game”. But really this is more true of the computerized versions. The bare mechanics of tabletop roleplaying games were transplanted into the computer, but the actual role playing, the human spirit, the creativity, was left behind. There is no “role playing”, even when there are actual choices to be made, the mechanics are always foremost in any decision. There is a satisfaction to choosing the optimal build, and making all the right choices and getting the higest score. With a computer, the choices are, perforce, limited, such that it is always a railroad. The number of tracks can be greatly increased, but in the end you are on a track, with countless options out of the question.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, which is why this story has sat half-finished for at least 5 years. If my step-son ever locates this story, he will write a lengthy critique explaining how wrong I am, and I am certain he is not alone. So it was comforting to find, at the end of chapter 6 of Joseph Laycock’s fantastic book Dangerous Games a few pages on this very subject, declaring “These are not characters in any narative sense, but collections of attributes and numbers. … in most computerized role-playing games, playing a character does not entail articulating and reflecting on the world, but is really an exercise in arithmetic as the player seeks to advance through a prewritten narrative by manipulating the mathematical representations of fantasy elements provided within the game.”

While I am certain the state of the art has improved greatly over any of the games I have mentioned above. And with recent advances in AI, it is only a matter of time before the game play will become more sandbox than railroad. However, as the years have gone on I have realized the holy grail I was searching for is illusory. What I crave isn’t the bare mechanics of a game, but rather the creativity and camaraderie of a group of friends sitting around the table weaving a story. Or perhaps the holy grail was not illusory, but rather, it was in my hands the whole time.

Tags: rpg dnd