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Sunday, October 04, 2009

~The Garden and Droplets: Role-Playing

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Garden: Role-Playing

There is one Form used entirely for storytelling, another Form used for resolving short-term conflicts, and a simulation strategy system for long-term planning. When these three distinct gameplay systems are present and dominant, you've got a computer role-playing game.

This complex Form should not be confused with the original (Dungeons & Dragons-style) role-playing games, which I think were actually a simple Form. Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to spend any significant amount of time role-playing in the old sense, so anything I say on that subject ought to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems to me that the dominant element of original role-playing is the improvisation of a story. This improvisation is usually guided by a "game master", a player who controls the world of the game. Lots of rules (and therefore strategy, puzzles, and luck) were added on to make the game more consistently entertaining, but they were subordinate elements to the improvised storytelling.

At some point, someone came up with the bright idea of having computer games mimic role-playing. It obviously didn't really work, because you can't really improvise a story within the rigid framework of a computer program (and without a human game master guiding you along). So a lot of the complicated structure of role-playing games was kept intact, but with much less focus underneath it. That's the computer role-playing game, which for the sake of convenience I'm going to refer to as the RPG.

Like any complex Form, the RPG's primary content is story. The genre is almost always fantasy or science fiction, and the format of that story is also rather specific. It's a story where the player is given:
  • Context for the character(s), in relationships and history and ongoing plot
  • The opportunity to experience the moment-to-moment struggles of the character(s)
  • The opportunity to chart out how the player would like the character(s) to progress
So even though the triple-faceted structure of the RPG comes from a strange place, it does make a certain amount of sense. The player is experiencing the lives of a character or group of characters from three very different angles, each one simple in itself but together forming a more comprehensive view of the story.

Let's start with the simulation strategy, since it's what RPGs have come to be most known for. The traditional RPG simulation is built around a vast collection of statistics. Some numbers represent how strong a character is, some represent how skilled the character is at specific tasks, some represent how well-defended against specific kinds of attacks. There is almost always a central number of general experience for each character, called "experience points" or "EXP", which pushes all the other statistics up when it reaches predetermined points. All this comes handed down from Dungeons & Dragons.

Where the strategy comes in is in deciding which attributes to augment, and which collectible items to use -such as weapons, armor or spells- to do that. There is typically a wide array of items to find in a game of many types, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Another important decision the player needs to make is when to engage in conflicts. If a conflict is won, experience points are gained. But if a conflict is lost, the player loses progress. So the player needs to choose his conflicts carefully, fighting when better statistics are needed but running away when the risk is too great. The player needs to decide how to best use money to acquire the items necessary for conflicts. Finally, a player can usually decide on the characters' jobs or skills, which can drastically change what those characters' roles in the conflicts will be later. (Granted, little of this strategy is very involved in most RPGs. But if you imagine each element of the strategy taking itself seriously, you can see why this complicated simulation makes gamistic sense.)

This set of rules is almost constant among all RPGs, and has become so associated with the Form that any game (of any Form) which uses experience points or (to a lesser degree) collectible skill-endowing items is said to have "RPG elements". Nonetheless, the definition I've given of RPGs does not assume the presence of any of these specific rules, just that there should be a simulation strategy system of some sort controlling long-term character growth. The list of standard rules I've mentioned should be seen as a long-standing tradition, nothing more.

The conflicts themselves have a similarly long-standing tradition, but there's been much more experimentation with radically different kinds of gameplay. The tradition is that conflicts should be a battle strategy game (distinct from the simulation strategy), where the player and the computer take turns picking actions to take. These actions are usually as simple as one character attacking another character, though a series of menus is usually provided to allow more complicated operations such as using items in supply and supporting other characters. Each character has a statistic called "hit points", which indicates how far away from death that character is. That particular element is so useful that it appears in nearly every version of the RPG. The battle normally continues until either all the player's characters or all the computer's characters are killed or incapacitated, at which point play resumes from wherever the player was before.

A sub-Form called the "tactical RPG", "simulation RPG" or "strategy RPG" (depending on who you ask) expands each battle into a much longer and more sophisticated strategy game. In such games battles can involve moving characters around a large board, interacting with objects or buildings in the area, and even speaking with non-player characters. As such, the storytelling Form (while still present) is minimized in importance and length, since many of the elements it would provide the RPG with are already covered by the battles themselves.

Another sub-Form of the RPG is the "action RPG", which as you might imagine uses a direct action game for its battles. The player controls one character (with any other characters on the same side being controlled either by computer or by other players), and moves around and fights with that one character. This action game can take any form; the most bizarre I've seen was Sigma Star Saga, in which the battles were side-scrolling space shooters. I've also played one game (Mario Tennis: Power Tour) in which the battles were tennis matches.

There are lots of different RPG battle systems out there. Some are hybrids of action and strategy. The strangest I'm familiar with is the sub-Form "puzzle RPG", which has for its battles abstract puzzles. The reason RPG conflicts haven't been stretched any farther than that is because RPGs are expected to tell fantasy action stories, and there are only so many Forms that can fit that narrow genre. Theoretically there are few Forms that couldn't serve as the conflicts in an RPG of some other genre.

A battle can start at any point during the game: it can start by itself at random intervals, it can be started by the player deliberately (making that choice a part of the simulation strategy), or it can be started by a plot point in the storytelling section.

Now let's talk about that storytelling section. The most usual medium for it is a complex combination of adventure game and film. It could work just as well (or better) with a simple Form -either adventure or film, one without the other- but this particular combination allows the developer to eat their cake and still have it: to say that their storytelling is interactive, but to make all relevant points of the story 100% noninteractive. In truth, there's no need for this section of the game to be interactive. Tactical RPGs rarely have interactive storytelling in this third section. I don't know what public reaction would be like, but gamistically speaking it's perfectly valid to have nothing outside the conflicts and strategy except film. I also think that the adventure game is perfectly capable of handling whatever emotions the plot requires all on its own. Other possible Forms are comics, text, audio, multiplayer improvisation (to be more like Dungeons & Dragons), puzzles, strategy, pure exploration, or even some sort of story-writing tool which would leave the story entirely up to the player. Just so long as the story that's not being told via strategy and conflicts is being told somehow, it doesn't matter what the format is.

But few of these options have been seriously explored, and most RPGs just use adventures with cutscenes. There's nothing to say about the cutscenes (It's film. You know film.), but the adventure part has accumulated some traditions of its own. The game will normally be split between areas that are thin on plot but heavy on conflicts, and towns free of conflict but heavy on plot. This affords the player a break from the tension of constant fighting. In the towns there are usually many people who need help; this help usually boils down to getting things from one person and bringing them to another person, a simplification of the adventure game formula. There can also be puzzles and exploration, since those activities are associated with adventure games as well. This adventure-lite gameplay is a small element of RPGs, but it was fleshed out into an entire game in the RPG-derivative Animal Crossing which also inherits from the simulation strategy system those elements that one would find in an RPG town (collecting, shopping).

I've already mentioned all the sub-Forms that you get just by substituting some kind of gameplay for the battles. Another important sub-Form is the massively multiplayer online RPG, which builds an entire online society on the foundation of traditional role-playing games. The wide range of perspectives on a character that the RPG brings to the table are perfectly suited for the experience of creating and maintaining a character in a virtual world.

The only Form that the RPG is particularly close to is the strategy game, since most RPGs have strategy as two-thirds of the experience. The game Warcraft III danced around a little on the border between real-time strategy games and RPGs, so it's worth bringing up. The game was a standard RTS with cutscenes like its predecessors (though perhaps with more cutscenes than its predecessors), with base-building and deploying troops and searching the map for the enemy and trying to break past their defenses and all the elements you'd expect. But the game also gave the player a single "hero" character, which would get EXP and items and learn new skills. Warcraft III is certainly a strategy game, but whether you also call it an RPG depends on how dominant you find the elements of simulation strategy in the larger experience. If they are subordinate to the RTS gameplay, then it is not an RPG. Otherwise it is. (I say it's not.)

There are many possible genres that RPGs could tackle: soap-opera, comedy, political, horror, abstract. Each would doubtless demand a different kind of simulation and a different kind of conflict gameplay. That explains why these subjects haven't been tried. But I do think that in the future, they will be. Some day, RPGs may be the most broad category of game out there with a kind of character to appeal to any person on Earth. The online RPG communities will become bigger and more welcoming, and much of the world will identify more with the RPGs they hang out in than the countries they live in or the races they were born to.

Meanwhile the single-player RPG will evolve in a radically different direction. They will get shorter and more focused, with more interesting characters experienced in more diverse ways. Those without the luxury of time will gravitate to these shorter experiences, designed to be played for short periods at a time. Some RPGs will be serialized, with new plot points being introduced that the player's version of the character will react to in his/her own way. Judging by potential, I fully expect the RPG to replace movies and TV as the most popular storytelling medium for any genre.

When gamism expands to interface directly with our brains, and everyone intuitively understands how to play the most complex RPG just by turning it on, RPGs will be both the place to get mind-expanding experiences, and the place where everyone in the world goes to relax. Single-player RPGs will let players understand interesting characters more fully than they understand themselves. And multiplayer RPGs will finally have the technical capability to bring back the element of improvisation, to allow the millions of players of the game to together determine how the story plays out. Like most everything about the RPG, its future is complicated but exciting.

Droplets: Role-Playing

Adventure game (with dynamic interface) for conflicts. There are branching paths, where one wins the conflict and one loses the conflict and either way the game continues. Progress in the simulation strategy unlocks paths in the conflicts, and not all those paths would be good. (But it's always nice to have more options available.) You'd have to keep making decisions of which option to choose, and it would never be entirely obvious which is best.

Dealing with several teams of characters, rather than characters on their own. You decide who goes in what team, try to get the teams to work together, and then most of the moves you have in conflicts are joint attacks that an entire team pulls off together. Statistics like experience points, and specific items, are thrown out. All the simulation strategy comes from getting people to work together.

An RPG set in the real world about managing a business. There is no violence: conflicts are arguments, usually with employees but sometimes with the bosses (and I mean the word literally). In the long-term, you're positioning the company to compete in a harsh economy. Meanwhile, you're dealing with personal problems at home. So you've got conflicts, strategic planning, and story context, but it's a totally different genre of story!

Simulation strategy following the model of Civilization, with real-time strategy battles. When you're not fighting and there are no pressing matters of state, you explore your kingdom and watch the people in it just living their lives, and in their behavior you understand how social and technological progress is affecting them (both negatively and positively). You also get to wander through all the magnificent cities you're building, and the landmarks which are a testament to the greatness of your empire. So as you're playing emperor, you're also thinking about the story of your people and how everything you do affects them. So again, there are conflicts and planning and context, and it's an untapped genre for RPGs.

An RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG whose storytelling Form is an RPG. Yeah, I'm not exactly sure how that works either. :D

An RPG serving the purpose of a puzzle, where the player can travel backwards and forwards through time as needed but the character doesn't. The character is off on a very-nearly-impossible-but-not-quite fantasy quest. "Not quite", because there is one (and only one) very complicated way to play the game in which the character can possibly survive the story. The time-traveling isn't a part of the story, it's the way you figure out what that one correct timeline is. You can rewind the story as much as you like, and you can fast-forward the story as much as you like. Rewinding undoes anything that's happened (good or bad), and fast-forwarding skips all the tedious gaining of experience. So you can tell your character to get better at a certain job, then fast forward until he's amazing at it. But by that point years have passed, and the world has gotten much scarier in that time. So you rewind until you're just good enough to beat whoever it is you know you need to beat. The important fights can't be fast-forwarded through, you need to do them yourself. And they're really complicated strategy games (which are entirely unwinnable unless you've meddled with the timeline right). You look for the points in the timeline where the bad guys gain their power, and try to prevent those. Oh, but look at me go on. I do think I'd very much enjoy this game.

A serialized space opera RPG, Star Trek-style. What's being simulated is the goings-on on a starship, where you try to promote those who are doing a good job, decide what to do with those who aren't, deal with morale problems, and generally improve the efficiency of your crew. It's not precisely predictable, but you can usually guess how your crew is going to react to your actions, so this is strategic. The efficiency of the ship matters for space battles, and the morale of the crewmembers (and their relationships with each other) determines how they'll behave on missions. In each episode you come to an alien planet, learn about the situation via an adventure game, and encounter many problems that call for RTS fights. Nothing you do can ever be taken back. Depending on how your ship and crew are functioning, it might be very difficult to get the good ending in an episode.

A soap-opera text RPG. You have a complicated flow chart showing how everyone feels about everyone (this would include a lot of statistics and facts), and the strategy is in trying to get that to someplace healthier. So you try to pull people away from people who are no good for them, and get them to spend time with people who you think are good for them. Because there are so many possibilities to program, the way it plays out is read in plain text. Conflicts are conversations, as turn-based strategy. You pick one person to play in the conversation, and the other part will be automated. You have a lot of options of what to say or do, and each one says exactly how that would effect the statistics. But the other character also has a bunch of options of what to say or do, that effect the statistics just as much, and you can't control what the computer will pick. (The computer might pick any of them, but some are much more likely than others and that all depends on the statistics.)



There are probably some notable sub-Forms which I've overlooked; I'm not particularly qualified to know. That lack of qualification is why I've put off writing this post for so long. But I figure it's better to get it out of the way than hide from it. If I'm wrong about things, I'm wrong about things.


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