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volume 1, issue 8

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Beaker's Bent:
CRPGs are not RPGs






By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff


I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...

his week I'm beginning the Trespasser recovery process - yes, that's right, as far as I can tell we've shipped (if you've ever worked in games, you'll understand how these things can be a little undefined at times). Please though, no more letters about ship status and ship date, there will be an announcement to all the regular gaming news sites as soon as things are official.

Anyway, the two games I've most been wanting to play after finishing Trespasser are Half-Life and Baldur's Gate - especially Baldur's Gate (BG). I'd really been hoping the timing would work out just right, and BG would appear on shelves shortly after we got done, but things don't seem to be going that way. So to work the Dungeon & Dragons (D&D) cravings out of my system, it's time to spew another plethora of acronyms and look at the differences between computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) and traditional pen and paper roleplaying games (RPGs).

Now I don't have a whole lot of RPG experience under my belt - I played some Call of Cthulhu and Shadowrun at a convention when I was a kid, and more recently part of a GURPS campaign and some D&D. So RPG purists, feel free to leap down my throat if I somehow misrepresent your favorite pasttime. However, I feel I've played enough and had good enough RPG experiences to understand what it's about.

If you haven't played a real RPG, and you can convince yourself that you won't be forever doomed to geek loserdom if you ever utter the phrase "My cleric bashes the Orc with his +2 mace," I'd urge you to find a good group of players and try (it helps if they're friends). RPGs, D&D especially, form the basis for a great number of today's computer games - think for a moment how many games you've played, even those far removed from tunnels and trolls, which use the phrases "hit points" and "experience points." Yet once you have seen what a good RPG is really all about, you'll be amazed at what pale shadows CRPGS are of pen and paper RPGs.

The major facets of a good RPG are not the character building procedure, not the combat system, not the number of monsters or spells in the rulebooks, but rather the interaction between player characters (PCs)and non-player characters (NPCs) - usually played by the games master (GM) - and the freedom of choice the PCs have in pursuing the plot. These two features can be summed up as Talking and Improvisation.

It is entirely possible to play an RPG without any rules whatsoever - I have seen sessions of Cthulhu run without ever once using any dice, and in Paranoia, the GM is actually encouraged to disregard the rules altogether and just make rolls randomly to make the players think the rules are being used. An RPG really consists of a group of players imagining themselves in a different world, and interacting with each other and the NPCs they come across (the Talking). The rules and character statistics and spells and experience points and all the trappings are there to provide some traditional, rules-based gameplay, to give the GM a chance to think of the next plot twist, and so that players don't feel like they are being cheated by the GM if their character gets killed or loses items or is otherwise inconvenienced in some way. (Except in Paranoia, where the GM is expected to fudge rules and PCs are expected to die - over and over again. Paranoia is great...). The Improvisation comes in whenever the players fail to pick up on some clue the GM has been beating them about the head and neck with, or when they decide that they don't really want to accept their primary quest right at the beginning of the adventure. Players can easily steer a campaign in a completely different direction than the GM was originally planning, and that's perfectly all right - maybe at some point they'll all end up joining forces with the ultimate bad guy, and the rest of the campaign will consist of fighting off the goody two-shoes who try to stop them - that's exactly what an RPG should be all about.

Compare the Improvisation and Talking in an RPG to a typical CRPG: even in Fallout, which had some of the most varied NPC reactions I've seen in a CRPG, you always played the same plot, dealt with the same people, and heard many of the same words. In other CRPGs, you hardly have any choices in the talking at all, going all the way to the extreme of Final Fantasy VII where every single event is pre-scripted. CRPGs are all about the battle system and spell effects and character building, and finding the next better sword or armor, right to the extreme of Diablo, where the conversations might as well have been, "go kill things and bring me the mushroom," and, "do you want to buy a sword?" It is especially rare to have great opportunities for improvisation in a CRPG. Even the games which let you play a bad guy usually end with you achieving the same goal that a good character sets out to achieve (like Fallout).

I believe that it is impossible to bring the real RPG experience to computers for a single player any time soon. Computers simply aren't good at Talking or Improvisation. However, multiplayer games have a lot of potential to create an RPG-like experience. I don't believe that Ultima Online (UO) or any of the current online CRPGs succeed at this, however. The Talking is there (though in my opinion, not satisfactorily - human players slip in and out of character, and computer NPCs react in all the typical robotic ways), but the Improvisation is not there in a big enough way. If a bunch of PCs in UO (there go those acronyms again) get together, they can't decide to cast a spell to summon a world-ravaging demon which wipes out Britannia, or to go into a dungeon, clean it out permanently, and turn it into a new city. There is no provision for such major, game-altering plans developed by players, because UO, just like a single player game, is too much of a CRPG - unless the creators decide to make something like this possible and enlist players to do it, it isn't going to happen at all.

As an RPG fan, I don't even really like massively multiplayer CRPGs, in fact. They are missing what I feel is the third important aspect of an RPG: Heroism. Online CRPGs allow much greater freedom in Talking, and a little bit more in Improvisation, but in exchange, they turn into a world where a great number of people are essentially just low-level serfs. In an RPG, every member of the party is going to reach god-like levels of power, and have a major impact on the world of the game. Yet current online CRPGs require players to spend a good deal of time at low levels, hoping they don't get whacked (if the world allows player killing), and often having to essentially beg for equipment and help from upper level characters. Many players won't even have the patience to stick around long enough to ever become very stoked. It's real hard to feel like the savior of the world when you're killing chickens while someone else is nonchalantly offing dragons. To me, your average online CRPG can be summed up as a standard CRPG with a chat riin - and has all the usual downfalls of a chat room: large numbers of illiterate fools, a huge amount of useless and immersion-breaking chit chat, and a lot of unfriendliness.

I think current online CRPGs at the very least need GMs who are active participants: these GMs shouldn't just be customer service reps there to fix problems and boot people, but rather active participants with the godlike powers pen and paper GMs have to create monsters and magic items to keep the game interesting for players. Some online CRPGs have GMs who do this, but only to a limited degree, and rarely for all players at all times. What I'd really like to see is something more like a computer-assisted online RPG - every group of 5-10 players should have a single GM, and ideally should adventure completely separately from the rest of the players most of the time, so that in their world they can be the biggest heroes and save the day.

Give the GM even more powers so that they can essentially construct the world as the players pass through it, and here you have a true RPG but on computers, where you can have all the animation and complicated battle scenes and graphics that you don't get in a pen and paper RPG, but still have all the freedom and immersion that you don't get in a CRPG. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Dream Park series give a good description of a live action version of a computer-assisted RPG (there are in fact already non-computer assisted RPGs already happening, but if you have trouble uttering the words, "my cloak of fire protection wards off the fireball," dressing up like an elf and bonking your friends with a rubber sword is probably far beyond the pale for you). An even better example of the computer-assisted RPG is Melissa Scott's Burning Bright, which is pretty much exactly how I imagine this kind of game should work (once we can all jack into cyberspace, that is).

Now even though I don't really like online CRPGs and have already noted how different CRPGs are from RPGs, I have to say that I really do like CRPGs and Baldur's Gate remains my most anticipated game of the season. What CRPGs offer up very well are character power growths which take forever to achieve in pen and paper RPGs, many more combat situations than you could ever hope to resolve on the tabletop, and most importantly, visuals for all those things you can only see in your mind when playing a traditional RPG. This is why I think that Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) is an exceptional CRPG, even though a lot of American reviewers gave it a bad rap for not allowing any choices in dialogue, and for throwing up seemingly countless random battles. In FFVII, you feel like a hero more so than in almost any other game - give me a single set of well written, almost excruciatingly melodramatic dialogues over half a dozen greetings based on your Personality rating in something like Fallout. Allow me to go from dealing 12 points of damage to dealing 4000 regularly rather than from 10 to 100. Give me increasingly pyrotechnic spell effects, and obscure secrets which I'm probably going to have to play through a second time with a hint book to find instead of a game which can be gone through in 20 hours even if you don't have a walk- through. Give me a hundred different weapons and armors and allow me to slay a thousand monsters, and I'll be happy.

It's a losing proposition to keep hoping the latest CRPG can be like an RPG. Online games may someday have everything that RPGs give, but for now, embrace CRPGs for what they are, and RPGs for what they are. I leave you with the statement that the most fun I've had with any pen and paper RPG was with Warhammer Quest (WHQ) - a very simplified, fast playing RPG notable for randomized dungeons playable in three or four hours, and a set of different collectible characters who gained a set of unique and wacky powers as they grew through the ten levels they could attain. WHQ had NO Talking or Improvisation of any kind - it was like a much more interesting version of Diablo on the tabletop - essentially a boardgame CRPG. And it was a hell of a lot of fun. So I guess when it comes down to it, while I like RPGs, I really love CRPGs.


- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.



Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1998 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.