In his fandomlife.net blog, Ian mentioned that our session of Red Box Hack (detailed below) was very much like a face-to-face version of WoW. We created a WoW zone, we had characters which developed into WoW archetypes and we followed a WoW style quest path. A number of threads of Story Games have asked the question - 'Why has RBH taken off so quickly?'. I've been trying to unpack both these things for the last couple of days and the answers I have come up with are very, in my opinion, illuminating.
I have a couple of oft mentioned beliefs around this topic. The first is that WoW does D&D better than D&D does D&D. The second is that a lot of our roleplaying hang-ups are tied to the hobbies wargaming background.
The first one can be seen as a little glib but from a 'kills things, take their stuff, get harder so that you can kill harder things and take their stuff' point of view - that being the core mechanic of D&D - WoW simply presents a more accessible, better presented and more integrated and fundamentally more fulfilling play experience. Note that I have not mentioned roleplaying in that lot. Controversially, from my memories of Red Box D&D and my crumbling AD&D books I cannot remember a whole helluva lot of guidance on roleplaying. To mentions of story or plot, motivation or arcs - it was just 'find patron, kill monster, take stuff, level'
However when you try to inject roleplaying into WoW it all takes a horrible nosedive into madness. Name-Nazi's report players for having names that they believe are not in keeping with the rules. The very worst excesses of faux-Shakespeare come out as everyone gets a little Kenneth Branagh on their ass. And strangely, all of their personal quests have stopped being to confront the Lord of Molten Core and now rotate around Outland. Hmmm.... It just doesn't work in the same way.
Addressing my second point, what D&D also suffers from is a heavy reliance on some very pointless rules. Movement, Range, Encumberance, a Vancian magic system that would never have made 'Mage' a choice to be given at a Careers Day etc. The problem with all of these is that they tend to be quite abstract things. In WoW they are not - you move as fast as you move, you carry whatever you can until your bags are full, you are either in range or you are not and you either have the mana and components to cast a spell or you do not. The machine engine does the work for you - no book-keeping needed.
What 'out of the box' D&D and WoW do share is a very straight forward adventure structure based around questing. Get quest, go here, go there, go back again, go here, kill Big Monster, get treasure. Thats basically it. Where WoW wins again is that D&D has these annoying things called Wandering Monsters whereas WoW has mobs which you can run around (unless they are bloody hyenas or murlocs!). Wandering monster serve no purpose except as a resource depleter.
So whats this got to do with Red Box Hack?
I believe that Ian is spot on - the design of RBH is like an MMO transfered onto a tabletop. Its stripped down all of the shite from out of the box D&D and replaced it with transparent and easy to handle subsystem. Range is simply a matter of arenas and movement is similarly a simple matter of move or fight. Encumberance is now a case of 0,1,2 or 3 'slots' being taken up by weapons or armour. Spells and abilities are constantly available but limited in scope.
And it is at a table - and that makes all of the difference. It takes that simplicity of execution from the MMO stance and places it down onto the familiar gaming surface, thus allowing us to inject the personal into the play. This happily removes the pitfalls of RP servers that I outlined above. So MMO playability and personal social interaction in a face to face environment? Sounds appealing... I think so.
I firmly believe that RBH has tapped into the fun that we all remember from our youth playing D&D and WFRP and Rolemaster and a number of other old school dungeon bashing systems - a fun that we are increasingly familiar with from the MMO side of things. Its a testimony to the breadth of the hobby that a game which is so unashamedly rooted in old-school play is so popular in the face of the more serious, self-reflective, heavily narrative structured games that are being published by the same sources at the moment.
We all need a bit of fun once in a while! Whether RBH will be able to maintain this momentum into the future or whether the joke will run thin quickly is another matter altogether.