Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RPG or MMO? U Decide!

In his 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.



Anonymous said...

I also believe this is exactly the sort of approach that 4E is trying to take.

I wasn't sure about it until I played Red Box Hack - now I think they are onto something.

It will be more complex or have more depth / options, depending on your point of view, but I think that old school 'just create a Wow Zone' approach to play (Keep on the Borderlands was probably similar, I guess - never seen it) is what they are aiming at.

Which is good, screw setting.


Vodkashok said...

Well, rather than a blanket 'screw setting' I would rather 'screw setting where you have a massive pre-game buy-in before you can even contemplate using the system which is so intimately tied to the setting that making a mistake complete spoils your fun and say hurrah to player owned and authored settings which grow with the game, have minimal buy-in but retain ownership of the table'

But that would be a very long sentence to say instead!

Alternatively you could just say 'screw new Werewolf!' >g<


Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's what I meant. After all, it's very hard to literally have no setting.

But setting as something valuable in and off itself is bad. Screw that!

No Myth of Reality FTW!

I used to by game lines. Albeit not obsessively, but I had a few were I bought more than the main book. I can't imagine why I did that anymore, as the only reason you'd buy them is for more rules or more setting. I've not decided which is worse.


Vodkashok said...

I think that was a problem with a lot of the games that I bought in the 90s - the system and the setting were so intertwined and the buy-in for the setting was so high that they were virtually unplayable without a commitment which most groups were unwilling to make.

My heartbreaker in this case is Blue Planet. I love that setting but its one that needs a good long hour to explain to a point where people can buy into the game. We even created our own little heartbreaker in Crescent Sea - anytime we have tried to use it since it has required a great effort by the new players to understand things to a level where they 'feel' the same way as the older original players.

The 'big' settings which do work are those that are so iconic that everyone understands the premise and can add to it without needing to consult 'canon'. Arthurian Britain and Buffy The Vampire Slayer immediately spring to mind.

There is one setting that I think is ubiqitous enough to work and yet has a large buy-in of material and thats Old World of Darkness Vampire. That basic premise of clans and princes and cities etc. is familiar enough to be used in another game.

There are maybe some others.


Anonymous said...

I will simply say that your experiences of early gaming with D&D and mine are very very different.


Anonymous said...

I remember my Basic, Expert, etc D&D days consisting of hex maps with trees and mountains drawn in them.

First campaign started with the 1st level character losing the city he was meant to rule and trying to get it back.

Second campaign involved ruling the city and using various rules from the later sets.

But there was hex maps ;)

redben said...

Red box represented my first awkward fumblings with the hobby. Shy, struggling with the bra strap, desperately trying to summon up the bottle to go all the way. Fortunately our dalliance was brief and I was able to quickly move onto her more sophistacted sister. Now I look back and wonder what I ever saw in them.

Vodkashok said...

Andrew said I will simply say that your experiences of early gaming with D&D and mine are very very different.

You reckon?! My first ever D&D game I ran was B1, no not Keep on the Borderlands - the one before that. I played it in a bona fide coal shed, sitting on actual piles of coal. Being a good GM I randomly rolled the treasure and one of the goblins had a cursed ring on him. My mates little brother put the ring on and was cursed. He burst into tears. He was devastated. His brother told me that I had to change it. I told him I couldn't because they needed to use the Remove Curse spell and that was 2nd level (or whatever - it was a loooong time ago). He told me if I didn't change it he would tell his Dad that I made his little brother cry. And voila, around the next corner a priest appeared who would Remove Curse for 1 measily gp. And all of this, in a coal shed, in a back street. Its like something out of Monty Python. I wish I had some sort of wonderfully inspirational first gaming experience but that sort of shit was it for a couple of years until I found a gaming club and well ... it all went downhill from there when I found real gaming politics and snobbery.