Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Roleplaying Interlude

As I've written before in this column, my first love was always roleplaying games. Though I'm sure I played games like Stratego and Twixt before I ever touched an RPG, it's the roleplaying games that I really remember playing throughout my youth.

Dungeons & Dragons was the first, but there are many games beyond that, and even before I moved to Berkeley for college I played a decent share of them including the science-fiction game Traveller; Stormbringer and Hawkmoon, both based on the works of Michael Moorcock; and RuneQuest, a fantasy game that I found odd at the time, and that I've grown much more enamored of since.

In the last couple of years I've grown closer to roleplaying games again. My best friend and long-time gamemaster left the country, and so I stepped up to run a regular game, something I hadn't done in several years, and that rekindled an interest in me. Board and card games are still my largest recreation today, but RPGs are there every week, and they get an increasing amount of my enthusiasm.

So, with all those things said, I'm going to take a bit of time today and talk about RPGs--from the perspective of board gaming.

It's Not Just About Role-Playing

First I'd like to correct a misconception and say that roleplaying games don't entirely have to be about roleplaying(1). There can be as much chance for tactical and strategic depth in an RPG as in a board game. It all depends on what you play and in what style.

Roleplaying games, after all, did grow out of more strategic venues. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were both miniature wargamers when they designed Dungeons & Dragons; after playing with ideas of man-to-man battles they chanced upon the concept of each player playing an individual character. Thus their earliest dungeon delves were pure strategy that probably wasn't that different in feel from Fantasy Flight's modern Descent, with players moving their miniatures through dungeon maps.

After the release of D&D it was a while before companies could really define what was a roleplaying game and what wasn't. TSR, the publishers of D&D shortly thereafter released two more games of note: Boot Hill, a game of man-to-man Western combat, and Warriors of Mars, a miniatures war game set on Barsoom with some individual heroes. The first one is usually considered an RPG and the second not, but the difference is tenuous.

Admittedly, the roleplaying industry has changed a lot since the 1970s, and much of that growth centers on individualizing characters further and changing RPG adventures from dungeon delves into stories. In the 1980s these trends amped up even further with the advent of the "storytelling" branch of RPGs which really pushed ideas of collaborative storytelling over individual glory. But there are still strategic elements in many RPGs, while a few play them up notably.

Battletech is one such example. It's another game that I played quite a bit up through college. It was created by FASA, an early publisher in the RPG field, but it was a hybrid game. The core of the play was giant mecha combat on a hex grid, but there was also opportunity for pilots to improve from battle-to-battle and there was even an add-on RPG called Mechwarrior where you could have adventures outside of your mecha cockpit.

The modern edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which was published in 2000 then refined in 2003(2) is perhaps an even better example. I kicked off a new D&D campaign called The Savage Tide a few weekends ago and I'm playing it pretty precisely by the rules. That means all combat is done on a square grid with plenty of different maneuvers possible. It's a pure strategy game in the middle of a roleplaying game and I've been enjoying it quite a bit.

The Modern Market

Another interesting element of RPGs, when viewed from the board game side of things, is how different the market is.

With a board game you buy a game and you play it, and to experience something new you have to buy a new one. With a roleplaying game you can buy a game and play it pretty much forever if you're willing to come up with new ideas for stories or grids for combats (based on what sort of game you're playing). Granted there have been board games sold as "kits" like this, such as Icehouse, but I'm not aware of any that are large financial successes. Board gamers like to have their games handed them complete, which on the one hand makes sense in a more competitive environment, but also suggests a somewhat different clientèle.

Another interesting difference in the RPG market is the existence of virtual publishers. Since the turn of the century an increasing number of roleplaying publishers have put out professional products as PDFs, to the point where there are now a few different high-profile PDF e-stores in competition. Though I'm unconvinced that PDFs really grow the market because of their very small sales footprints, nonetheless it does seem that they've generated some new creative enthusiasm in the market. At the present this sort of thing is all but infeasible in the board game market, but it suggests that a virtual board tabletop, a concept that comes up every year or two, might provide some rapid growth in the industry.

Final Notes

There is, of course, a bridge between board games and RPGs: adventure games, of which I've written before, and which I'm going to touch upon again now that Talisman is back in print. Descent in particular is a pretty fine transition that's not too far removed from the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons. If you like that, don't be afraid to take the next step; ask if your local game store hosts roleplaying games too.

And if you're interested in learning more, check out RPGnet, which is the largest roleplaying site on the Internet other than industry leader Wizards of the Coast. It's full of forums, columns, reviews, and everything else you could want to read about RPGs, with a 10+ year history under its belt.

1. Since I first drafted this entry, this weekend, Ryan Dancy wrote a blog entry about how we should change the name from "roleplaying" games to "storytelling" games, which misses the point even more. There are storytellers in the industry and roleplayers and strategists and tacticians too. It's a big tent.

2. As they say, the times, they are a'changing, and thus another update since I drafted this article. Last night rumors started leaking that Wizards of the Coast was planning on announcing a new, fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, for release starting next May. RPGnet's d20 forum is currently full of discussions on the topic.


Anonymous said...

"With a board game you buy a game and you play it, and to experience something new you have to buy a new one."

While I think I understand you're point, (I'm also a fan of RPGs and boardgames), I have to disagree with the limited experience you ascribe to boardgames.

If you want to gain a new experience with a boardgame you already have you can:

1. Try a new tactic or strategy
2. Play with different opponents (which often leads into #1)
3. Play with some variant rules, either homemade or an official variant.

If I buy a chess set and play it once, I have not experienced everything I can with chess. The same goes for pretty much any game out there, everything from Ticket to Ride and Lost Cities to Hannibal Rome vs. Carthage and Tide of Iron.

While I love getting new games, I think a trend on BGG is to "play and forget"- buy a game, play it once or twice, and then get something else, without ever diving deeper into the first game.

All that being said, I completely agree that rpgs provide a different type of experience than boardgames. A good rpg and a good boardgame both have depth and replayability though.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I certainly agree with that, I just think it's an order of magnitude difference.

I've played Ticket to Ride around 100 times, for maybe 75 hours of play, and I think I can fairly say that I've plumbed much of its depth.

I've played the Ars Magica RPG through something like 150 sessions, for a total of about 750 hours of play, and I could easily start a new and original campaign tomorrow.

And, this isn't something that's necessarily implicit in the mechanics of the respective games, but rather in their components.

It's easy to add to an RPG. You write something on a piece of paper, or just come up with something in your head. Adding a new board for Ticket to Ride takes a lot more work. When my wife & I created something from the net it was an all-day affair, and when I tried to design a new map on my own, I spent many hours fiddling with it before I gave up.

Anonymous said...

I too am starting to make my way back to roleplaying. I also started with D&D, but have fond memories of using Into the Labyrinth from Metagaming. The original Melee microgame was one of the first games I can remember buying, and it was strictly for combat simulation but we made up rules what we needed. I'm excited about introducing my kids to roleplaying, and I'm planning on using D&D just for the sake of nostalgia.

Pawnstar said...

It's funny; just the other day I was considering throwing together a campaign for one of the old RPG's. I doubt I'd get the players for it; but it's interesting that after so long out of the hobby I am now experiencing a slight (not overwhelming) desire to return to it. I've already drifted back to light wargaming when there aren't enough boardgamers around, so who knows - I could be GM'ing some hack 'n' slash again soon.