Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The State of Fantasy RPGs, Part IV--Why World of Warcraft Matters

In a couple of places in the last few posts, I have made the claim that the shift toward more story-based and narrative focused games in the tabletop RPG space is not just because of the popularity of Critical Role or the design features of Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition, but reflects a broader, more structural change in the tabletop RPG hobby.  And, I think that change has to do with the ubiquity of video games, and more specifically the existence of MMOs like World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls Online (for purposes of this post "World of Warcraft" is going to be used as a stand-in for all fantasy MMOs, because everything that applies to World of Warcraft for purposes of this discussion applies to those other MMOs as well).  Those games fill a space and provide a play experience that originally was filled by tabletop RPGs, but video games do it better.  As a result, tabletop has drifted toward experiences of play that MMOs can't recreate.

Let's unpack that a bit.  I would venture to say that the vast majority of people who play tabletop RPGs also play video games to some degree.  And the vast majority of people who play either of those two forms of games have a limited budget in terms of both disposable income and free time.  So, at least on a conceptual level, a hour spend playing a video game is an hour you could instead be playing a tabletop RPG, and visa versa.  Video games and tabletop RPGs are, in that sense, substitute goods.  That's not to say they are the same, or that there is no reason to prefer one over the other, but that to the extent you spend more time and money playing one, you are likely to spend less time and money playing the other.

In an absolute sense, all video games are substitutes for tabletop RPGs, as it would be seen as a faux pas to be playing Fortnite or Minecraft while you are in the midst of a climatic battle in 5e or Pathfinder, so you have to pick one or the other.  But, in a much more specific way, games like Skyrim and the Witcher series are a more direct substitute, as it allows me to play a character in a fantasy world that kills monsters, collects gold and other loot, interacts with NPCs, completes quests, explores new areas, etc.  In other words, playing Skyrim allows you to do many of the the kinds of things that you do in most tabletop RPGs, so it makes sense that if you can't or don't want to play D&D, you might play Skyrim instead.  But an even closer substitute is an MMO like World of Warcraft, because World of Warcraft lets you do all of the stuff you can do in Skyrim but also allows you to interact with other players.  So MMOs also allow you to get some component of the social dimension of tabletop RPGs, alongside the loot and quests and what have you.

If it is the case that World of Warcraft and D&D are substitute goods, why would someone pick one over the other?  To answer that question, the place to start is to look at what each of them bring to the table that the other does not.  Approaching it from the WoW side, the biggest thing that you get with a video game is the visuals.  Instead of having to imagine your character, the monsters, the terrain, and all the rest, you get to see all of that, often in beautifully rendered detail.  There is a definite benefit and joy to imagining things yourself, but the visual representation has definite advantages, especially in complex situations like combat.  Second, MMOs provide better options for a solo experience.  You can make a character and go on quests without having anyone to play with.  Plus, keep in mind that when WoW came out in 2004, there was no such thing as Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds--if you wanted to play a tabletop RPG, then you had to gather together people physically in the same spot.  If you were in an area or circumstance where you didn't have people around you to play with, you basically couldn't play a tabletop game, whereas with MMOs you could meet people through the game and get that social interaction that way.  Finally, the resolution of mechanical actions in video game is faster, as the programming is able to calculate hits and damage, and translate that into game action, at a speed that no tabletop game (no matter how simple) can do.  As a result, actions in MMOs, especially combat, moves much, much faster than even the most streamlined tabletop RPG.

With that in mind, consider a classic form of tabletop RPG scenario--the mega-dungeon.  In its classic form, it is a big, set-piece series of primarily combat and loot-oriented encounters, with large groups of players approaching it in a primarily tactical way.  In other words, precisely the thing that WoW is best at recreating in its high-concept raids.  A WoW raid gives you all of your combat and loot-oriented tactical mega-dungeon goodness, except everything moves much faster and you get to watch the thing unfold in real time.  I understand how others could disagree with this, but I think MMOs provide a better experience for playing those kinds of games than tabletop RPGs do.  And, in an environment where MMOs and tabletop RPGs are substitute goods, some significant segment of people are going to migrate from the tabletop to the computer or console.

In light of this, there are basically two choices.  One is to try to splice elements of the MMO experience into the tabletop experience, essentially co-opting the advantages of the MMO for the tabletop.  In his excellent video on 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, Matt Colville makes the point that many of the design decisions behind that edition make much more sense when you realize that the original plan was for the game to ship with a dedicated virtual tabletop platform.  People complain that "4e was trying to be an MMO," and that is true in the sense that the designers were thinking about how to take the things that MMOs provide that the tabletop experience does not and integrate them into the play experience (as opposed to the way that phrase is usually deployed, which is to accuse the designers of 4e of "selling out" and mindlessly copying WoW).

As we now know, a combination of unforeseeable bad luck/tragedy (the original lead designer of the online tools committed a murder-suicide just after the launch of 4e) and a perhaps over-optimistic timeline made the virtual tabletop component of 4e vaporware, leaving a game that was in some meaningful sense incomplete.  But someone is going to go back to the well and try this again in the near future, perhaps with an even greater focus on the visuals.  I am really interested to see how the game master mode in Divinity 2: Original Sin grows and evolves over time, because that might reflect the ultimate end-point for some of the concepts they tried to roll out for 4e.   Imagine a game platform that allowed for both pre-scripted, WoW-style content and game master generated content that a single character could seamlessly transition between.  And, because the rules mechanics where the same in the computer game and on the table, you could then port your character to a home game sitting around a table.  Isn't that, in some sense, the ultimate version of something like Pathfinder Society? [and why isn't Paizo exploring that path as opposed to whatever the heck Pathfinder Online is?]

That would be very cool, but it doesn't exist right now.  So, the alternative is to push the tabletop experience toward those things that you can't get via video games, even MMOs.  Tabletop RPGs can't compete on visuals, and they can't compete on combat speed, but they have a human DM or GM who can change and swap out story elements on the fly, manage character and interpersonal interactions, and otherwise bring all of the story and narrative parts of the game.  MMOs can't do any of those things.  Think about how crude the dialogue options are in something like Skyrim or the Bioware RPGs as compared to the kinds of dialogue that you get in a normal tabletop game session.  No video game can have the player decide, 7th Sea style, what sort of quest he or she wants their character to complete and have the system whip it up out of the ether.  Video games are necessarily constrained by their systems and their need to design elements (or at least the mechanisms that generate the elements) in advance, while the tabletop experience can transcend those limitations.

Because of this, it makes sense that people who are looking for something different from MMO-style experiences are going to be drawn to tabletop RPGs that are oriented toward story and narrative, because that's the thing they weren't getting from the MMO experience.  I have been struck, in my totally informal survey of Youtube channels of people new to tabletop RPGs evangelizing for the form, how many of them say "I was big into WoW, and then I found Critical Role and was inspired by the storytelling to try tabletop RPGs."  Narrative and story is where tabletop RPGs have a comparative advantage over video games, and so pushing in that direction is the way to showcase the things that the form does better than its alternatives.  I can do something that looks a lot like the Temple of Elemental Evil on a computer screen, but I can't recreate anything like a session of Monsterhearts in the same way.

It follows then, as video games get better (better visuals, more complicated quest structures, better online and collaborative functionality), it makes more and more sense for RPGs to push toward the place of its comparative advantage.  It's not surprising that mega-dungeon style play was more popular in the early days of the hobby, as that was before you had robust substitutes on the video game front.  A game like Ultima I, with very basic visuals and constraints on story complexity imposed by storage limitations, is an inferior substitute to playing D&D, even if all you are looking for out of either of them is killing monsters and taking their stuff.  As video games get better, they make a stronger case as a substitute for tabletop play; as video games make a better case as a substitute, tabletop is encouraged to push into places where the video game is not a substitute, i.e. narrative and character-focused play.  I think this is what we are seeing in the tabletop RPG space right now.

This does not mean that playing a dungeon crawl on a tabletop is Badwrongfun and everyone should take up a narrative style or they are Doing It Wrong.  But some of the folks who are rather vocal in their disdain for narratively-focused play tend to present the trend in that direction in almost conspiratorial terms--nefarious outside elements intruding on the original truth of tabletop RPGs and imposing alien ideas and concepts.  That's nonsense--people aren't moving from mega-dungeons to character stories because they have some secret agenda, but because they think they can get the mega-dungeon experience better by booting up a computer.  There are clear "market forces" at play, and not simply in terms of tabletop game designers wanting to make products that sell (though, that, too).  "Do what you are good at" is always a solid piece of advice, and narrative and story is what tabletop RPGs are best at, especially when you take into account the alternative vehicles for some of the other modes of play.

Once again, the moment you buy tabletop RPG books is the moment get to play however you want forever.  I'm not interested in triumphalism or gate keeping.  The point is not that old-school play is not fun; the point is that many people find they can get that same fun in a more accessible form by turning on a computer.  Instead, they are coming to the tabletop RPG space looking for something different, something the computer can't provide.  And the tabletop RPG space is providing that, and will likely be focused on providing that more and more as time goes on.  The move toward a more narrative style is a natural and I think an inevitable product of people thinking about the kinds of things tabletop RPGs do best, especially when compared to alternatives.

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