The Soapbox: The classic Dungeons & Dragons problem

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|09.18.12

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The Soapbox: The classic Dungeons & Dragons problem
Not pictured: figuring out in older editions why ancient elves were unable to figure out how to be paladins.
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Older tabletop roleplaying games are a mess.

I realize that some our readers may not have had the unique pleasure of getting introduced to gaming via a handful of dice and a pencil, but let me give you the very short version. A long time ago, a game called Dungeons & Dragons was written, and it was the first roleplaying game. Since then, we've seen a lot of other roleplaying games come out with different ideas and different themes. We've also seen a lot of other roleplaying games meant to intentionally hearken back to the days when Dungeons & Dragons was the only game in town.

This is almost never a good idea.

Nor is the idea unique to tabletop games. In fact, we're seeing the same thing in the MMO space. There are games that market themselves by promising to be a return to the days of Ultima Online or points related, a throwback to the old school of gaming. I'm pretty sure Vanguard was the first of that movement. And while I understand the sentiment, it pretty much always ends in tears for some very good reasons.

Many things become more awesome in retrospect.You're remembering a time, not a game

The first thing we all have to accept here -- and I'm including myself in this -- is that we, as human beings, are beyond terrible at separating something from the circumstances surrounding it. And it's here that I'm going to use anecdotes from my misspent youth as a kid with a copy of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and similarly geeky friends in middle school.

I'm not saying that roleplaying games were the only thing we played in middle school. Magic: The Gathering had just come out, for instance, and when we were at home, we would play RPGs on whatever game system we had. But when we all got together, we would just sit down, bust out the dice, and have ourselves a grand old time. Monsters were slain, doors were kicked open, weapons were enchanted, and somehow it never mattered too much that the game world we played within didn't have a name or a central government or even plausible geography.

It was wonderful fun. A lot of my love of games in general stems from those marathon sessions of playing. And every time I've tried to play Dungeons & Dragons since, I haven't had nearly as much fun, even when I dug up my old notes and tried to just run it exactly as we had back in the day.

The game itself is the same. But when my game collection started and stopped at one game (AD&D) and my tastes were aimed at precisely one playstyle (kill everything and take its stuff), things looked very different. As I've gotten older, my friends have drifted apart, and my environment has changed. Suddenly all of that stuff just isn't as fun any more. These days I want my roleplaying games to have actual plots and stories with characters and motivations. I don't want every single game to be defined by a stop in town followed by entering a dungeon and killing things.

MMOs are the same sort of creatures. We get invested in games partly due to the community, partly due to the time in our lives, and partly due to the actual game itself. I remember camping for hours for single kills in Final Fantasy XI and enjoying every minute of it, enjoying the lead-up and the rewards and the whole experience. Right now, if you tell me that I have to wait six hours for a respawn, I'm uninstalling your game and mailing you a copy of a better game to serve as an object lesson.

We can never go back again. Not to those times when the games were new and the world was new and we likely had absolutely none of our current responsibilities. And we can't go back to having our first impressions of the genre be new, either, which is part of the problem.

Since I assumed this would be the part of the article most likely to incite rage, I've provided a picture of an adorable kitten.  Enjoy!Not everything was actually good

Let's face fact: A lot of older games out there weren't very good games.

This isn't meant as an insult, exactly. By the same argument, Beowulf is a pretty terrible novel, the Lascaux cave paintings aren't good art, and the Model T is a miserable car. The best you can be at any given time is directly informed by the amount of material you have to draw on for inspiration. Blaming the people behind Ultima Online for not making a better game isn't the point here; they produced something incredibly original that's clearly worthy of respect.

But that doesn't make these games good. It makes them influential and novel, but a lot of times they were also broken beyond repair. There's good reason that a lot of players elected to pass on MMOs until World of Warcraft's launch. I certainly wasn't interested for a long time because the thought of enduring tediously broken gameplay and online communities didn't entice me on to the field with vigor.

And I've heard the stories. About half of Star Wars Galaxies just plain not working when it launched, about Asheron's Call II not being able to handle something as fundamental as a chat interface, about EverQuest players who quit in a rage after their corpse fell somewhere irretrievable. And I remember Final Fantasy XI, which was a product of its time and was frequently just plain miserable to play.

Seriously, even if we ignore the ideas that were unique to Final Fantasy XI (such as a combat system with all the grace and elegance of a blind bear setting out fine china), the game is a singularly frustrating piece of work. There was nothing quite like waiting for hours to get a party to level your character, finally ticking over to the next level, and then getting hit by a stray whatever and losing that level. Or having to take a day off of work to travel in real-time across what seemed to be the state of Rhode Island by foot just to grab one reagent for a crafting recipe you subsequently failed to craft. And I suppose the combat system does deserve a mention, seeing as how this was a perfectly acceptable model for combat in an MMO when it was released.

Let me tell you, there's nothing like the joy of knowing you're in a fight you cannot win but having the whole thing take eight minutes to actually end in your level-reducing death.

Obviously, we all kept playing despite the rough edges these games had. Heck, FFXI is still on my computer any time I want to go back to it. But there was a lot of maddeningly frustrating stuff, elements that directly led to designers moving on to games without all of these rough edges. And some of the roughness was directly tied to how broad older MMOs were.

Focus is a good thing

Before we get into this, I'm going to quote Kurt Vonnegut because somehow I've gone three years here without having done so prior. When it came to writing stories, Vonnegut put down a number of rules, and my personal favorite is this: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

This is true in pretty much every aspect of life, and it is equally true when it comes to MMOs.

Not pictured: focus.
One of the reasons a lot of older games played like a mess was that they were a complete mess. Ultima Online didn't really have a focus or an idea of how players would actually use the game; it was just a huge collection of different systems and ideas that functioned together in a broad sense but didn't really offer any sort of direction. No system wound up being tremendously polished because how in the world can you polish that off? You've got a team split in several dozen directions, and you don't have an actual idea of how the game is going to flow. How are you going to refine that? What refinements need to be made?

Again, this is said without blame. Giving birth to a genre is something that should be approached with a certain amount of reckless abandon, and when you're tying something totally new, you should feel free to just throw every idea you have about creating an online world into that space. But it's been a long time since then, and we've reached a point at which that same sort of thinking just doesn't work any longer.

You can complain that modern games are more feature-light, and sometimes they are, but they sure as heck know what they're trying to do. Wurm Online is entirely focused on your survival and carving a path for yourself, and the fact that it has trimmed-down combat and some brutal systems is meant to reinforce that idea. Star Wars: The Old Republic wants to give you the rush of an adventure at the highest speed possible. EVE Online wants to be a cutthroat deep-space society simulator. These games have goals and direction, and the stuff that doesn't serve these goals is trimmed out and placed to one side.

Some of this gets framed as a sandbox vs. themepark debate, which I've always argued is kind of pointless. As two random examples, housing and directed questing get along just fine. It's a question of whether the game as a whole works toward a single goal or just has a long list of features that get thrown together in a big old dog's breakfast of a game.

But let's say all of this doesn't apply to you. You know all of this and you still want a game that speaks to your most nostalgic impulses, and you've assembled a group of people that agree with you. There's still one last hurdle.

If your game bores me, I can be inside City of Steam in about two minutes.  And I don't even have to load a new application.  Think about that for a moment.You don't have to stay anywhere

Maybe you miss Ultima Online because it had housing and an open system of non-combat progression. Maybe you miss it because it had open PvP and some harsh death penalties. Maybe you miss it because it had a skill-based system that you particularly liked. All of these are valid in their own way.

The problem is that they don't necessarily dovetail.

I know there are people who love a good housing system but absolutely hate open PvP. There are people who love open PvP and skill-based progression but hate harsh death penalties. There are people who like nothing but those harsh penalties for dying. All sorts of people might want something that's nostalgic... but they might not be blissfully nostalgic about the same elements.

And part of what made the game work back in the day, beyond just your old friends, was the fact that everyone was playing the same game. That the folks who disliked open PvP were rubbing shoulders with the folks who loved it, whereas today, if you don't like open PvP, you can just go to one of the countless games where it's not a thing. There's no need to keep subjecting yourself to it.

Part of that, again, is that this was a time that's since moved on. But it's also worth noting that if you really liked one aspect of a game, rather than asking for the game to come back, you're better off asking for that aspect expanded and improved. Instead of missing the days when open PvP was a thing, why not actually examine how open PvP works? Why not focus on a game that allows people to enjoy open PvP in a way that isn't normally available, that takes the core of a system and actually expands and updates how it plays?

The old days are never coming back. And MMOs can do a lot more for development if they take those older elements and breed them into something new and different rather than create pale imitations.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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