There have been a few conversations floating around these past few weeks that have caused me to consider getting into MMO’s or spending more time in a deep RPG. I’ve never played the former, and only periodically get into the latter. I’ve always told myself it is because I just do not have the time. But as I listened to a recent podcast about tabletop RPG’s, I hearkened back to my earlier days and put my finger on why I really only play CRPGs of any type rarely.
The reason is that they do not fulfill my true yen for a bona fide role-playing experience. Games still, for the vast majority of what gets published each year, are about achieving a set of objectives. Beating the game, essentially. In fact, this concept is so worn and tired on me that whenever I still hear someone say, “Oh yeah, I beat that game in like three days”, I pan around the room for a time-traveling refugee from the 1980’s. My gaming life has moved to a place where beating a game is very far down on my list of what I want out of any game, much less an RPG.
The reality is that discussion trees and stats do not replace the vibrant social and acting aspect of in-person pen-and-paper RPG experiences. When I used to play those games, the “winning’ was in the accolades you got from fellow players on playing a role well. Coming up with a unique voice, sticking hard to your alignment or ethos, and original thinking either tactically or via deduction were the hallmarks of good role-players. Not Googling into the corners of the Internet to figure out the byzantine secrets of how and when to buff or aggro for maximize advantage or determining the best statistical build for a given character class in the latest CRPG.
While CRPGs are artistically amazing in their own right, and I have found some that meet my desires for action-RPG elements, they still do not meet that need of mine to truly immerse myself in a singular character acting performance. Most RPGs boil those acting experiences down to raw metrics. They are more a game of statistics. Making choices in a game that get you to either the “good’ ending or the evil” ending is just not the same as leading a character through their life in all aspects.
The other limitation that grates me is the limited pallets and models for character creation. While different colors and faces are fine, and sliders for cheek structure are better, I still can’t always make a character with an eye-patch, or a hand-crafted tattoo or an exquisite scar in an unusual place. Worse still are the games that force you to play pre-made characters. As many great things as I hear about Marvel Heroes, what I loved about old super-hero RPGs was creating my own character and teams.
I can still recall memories and stories of some of my favorite characters I played in those old RPGs. My super-hero team in Villains and Vigilantes, my thugged-out Dralasite with anger management issues in Star Frontiers, my Ukrainian spy in Top Secret, and my AD&D bard who went on to settle down in his older years and become a landed noble. I cannot recall but a handful of my builds in CRPgs, and even then, they are just that; builds. They are predominantly nameless in my memory. Their deeds are simply a path that I figured out how and where to take in a given game. These are not the memories of throwing my GM a total loop that he never saw coming, or betraying another player-character and selling them down the river.
I am not sure that it will ever even be possible for a software application to encompass all of the randomness that real humans interject on each other when they are given comparatively unlimited freedom for their characters to act in whatever way they choose.
Yes, tabletop RPGs have their limitations, too. For a guy like me who lives 2 hours from work, 2 children, a house, a dog…the opportunity to spend six hours with four other people on a weekend living in a spoken and written alternate reality is limited to non-existent. And players in tabletop RPGs can be just as petty and vindictive and crass as people in the real world. For every two RPG groups that I had a great run with, there was one where I had a run-in with a d-bag and had to leave the group.
Yes, for the most part, video game RPGs are some of the best replicants that we have of those experiences. The closest thing we can get to rolling dice across a wooden table. And many of them are excellent games in and of themselves. I know that there are other outlets. Local comic book stores that host tabletop RPG groups, online portals that allow you to connect remotely for the same experience, and MMO’s can bridge some of the gap if you group with those who are looking for a similar experience. Maybe one day I’ll try one of those out. In the meantime, I have yet to really see a video game that I would truly qualify as a true RPG. Most of them are very advanced choose-your-own-adventure books with (hopefully) superb combat and background lore. They scratch an itch, but never really succeed in fully replacing the experiences that I loved. Such is life, I suppose.