September 2, 2003

Playing the Arbiter

Capcom fighting games are going tabletop RPG, which makes me want to ask the question: What do tabletop RPGs [note] offer us that computer games do not?

This question has been sitting the back of my brain for several weeks now, even since (pardon the geek out moment, for those friends of mine who still snicker at the phrase "twenty-sided dice") my Neverwinter Nights (a computer RPG) druid wanted to protect some animals rather than slay them. The situation? A multiplayer game with myself and a companion (playing a mage), whereby the mage's idiot familiar decided to go toe-to-toe with a bear that I had just charmed in my nature friendly way.

See, druids, they get along with animals (at least in the fabled game world in which they exist). So when your companion wastes it with a healthy fireball ... well, there's an issue, you see. It sort of ruins your ethos.

In the P&P game, it's easy. I would tell my companions to step back; I'd feed the bear some berries, maybe chat with it using a druid-y spell, and then move on. Job done. But the druid's companions in Neverwinter Nights - say, a saucy wizard with a fireball at the fingertips - they will be attacked even if you, as calming druid, are not. Thus, bear for dinner. But what is my druid wants to be a vegetarian?

The computer is programmed to initiate conflict between certain animals and PCs (player characters, for those still snickering about "twenty-sided dice") in outdoor environments. So, in towns, dogs will bark, but not attack. But stroll outside of Neverwinter's gates, and that wolf (or boar, or bear) will bite, although the deer will just run away. In other words - the druid - friend to nature - is more likely to encounter friendly animals in the city rather than in the druid's more natural environments. Presumably, in a "roleplaying" game, you adopt an ethos with your character. In certain classes - such as a druid - the ethos is a bit more clearly defined; generally a friend to nature (though not necessarily to people), druids defend nature's balance. They typically do not, for example, allow party members to blow animals to bits with balls of flame likely to initiate raging forest fires. Perhaps I'm being a bit deterministic about how I think a druid might be played, but the point is, so is the computer game.

Neverwinter Nights, in my estimation one of the more interesting computer RPGs on the market, is based (loosely, at times) on the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 ruleset. Dungeons and Dragons is a pen and paper game; play is guided by an arbiter - the Game Master or Dungeon Master (GM or DM, respectively) - who interprets rules, depicts scenarios and settings, and plays the roles of the NPCs (non-player characters, ranging from passive barkeeps to a dastardly antagonist). What fascinates me as I play Neverwinter Nights is how the program both limits and evaluates your play - both how the program functions as a DM as well as how programming functionally limits and enhances the scope of the Pen & Paper rulebook.

My druid, for instance, suffered no consequences after participating in such an ecological attack. On the other hand, I was immensely pleased that I was able to non-violently resolve a situation whereby an unusually intelligent wolf was eating the cattle of a nearby farmer, but the game did not reward or punish me for such a play. In other circumstances - when I believed that the social circumstances deemed that a prison escapee deserved another chance, for example - the game clearly determined that I had faulted by adjusting my alignment score towards "Evil" (alignment, for the uninitiated, is a scale, from Good to Evil on one side, and Law to Chaos on the other, that helps shape the personality of a character). Compassion towards animals merits little notice, but clearly Neverwinter Nights believes in a just prison system.

One method that I have noticed that helps the player maintain a feeling of control over these circumstances involve the difference between dialogic and non-dialogic instances. Dialogic instances are moments in which active dialogue between the PC (e.g., you) and the NPC allow for a decision to made. In many cases, although not all, a careful exploration of the dialogue tree (a series of potential conversations that a PC might pursue with an NPC) provides enough information for you to make the "right" choice. If an NPC reveals a certain enjoyment in the violence of their escape from prison, chances are that you can collect the bounty with a relatively clear conscious and little fear of an alteration of alignment. Those who make claims about the open-ended nature of hypertext clearly have not been called "Evil" by a computer game.

On the other hand, there are plenty of times where non-dialogic instances - spaces where the player must make a decision based on evidence and experience, rather than guided discussion - influence the experience of play, if not the evaluated morality of play. Thus, a druid who has no chance to tell the bear to back down - it just isn't programmed into the game - instead enjoys his first taste of crispy bear meat.

Pen & Paper games, however, are almost always in dialogic mode - a constant conversation between Dungeon Master and players that perhaps allows for a more supple roleplaying experience, if a more time-consuming one. In these cases, the mechanics of gameplay - dice rolling, reviewing rules, making such decisions - can be a hindrance in and of themselves.

*A brief NOTE: tabletop RPGs fall generally into two categories whose borders tend to blend. I tend to classify tabletop RPGs as traditional Pen and Paper (P&P) roleplaying games, in the vein of Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons (and its subsequent versions up to the recent 3.5 edition), GURPs, White Wolf, and various other types. Some might assert that tabletop RPGs, per se, are different from P&P in that they are a mixture of strategy and roleplaying, often played using miniatures and sometimes elaborate sets (Warhammer is one such example). While I think that ultimately the distinction is worthy of further investigation, for this little piece I'm more interested in the distinction between human-mediated and computer-mediated games.


personal asides (pay no mind):
- contextualize in relation to AoIR conference paper.
- for future discussion: die rolls and the Wi Flag in Asheron's Call

Posted by Jason at September 2, 2003 5:25 PM | TrackBack

I'm going to stop short of calling you nostalgic, b/c I know you're not a Luddite... just playing your own devil's advocate; however, I have to question the real "dialogism" of the pen-and-paper D&D scenario. Consider that the DM still has a set narrative. While there are smaller innovations and alterations that players may choose to make along the way, the general narrative is still directed toward a number of limited outcomes. The DM prepares the adventure in advance. Despite the illusive flexibility of real-time, real-human interaction and conversation, the outcome changes very little. If the character survives, the character remains on the same trajectory toward the same possible outcomes.

For example, a party of adventurers begins a D&D quest. The DM spends hours preparing the adventure and therefore preparing the multiple ways to respond to various choices that the characters might make. Still, the DM has either through a purchased adventure kit or self-created adventure determined the basic plot of the narrative. He has stocked it with the possible interlocuters (therefore limiting the number of possible narratives) and then comes up with a series of possible endings. Only in the most rare (and most miserable from the player's perspective) instances is the DM truly making up new outcomes to the adventure with every decision the party makes.

True, the druid *could* have more flexibility with characterization; however, how much that alters narrative design is still questionable.

What seems important from this discussion, though, is that you're considering that "character development" and plot are inextricable. That, then, does have some impact on the degree to which dialogism is possible... So while there may not be truly two-sided discourse in either the pen-and-paper or the computer versions, the illusion of discourse is so seductive that we want to believe in that illusion... and therefore are willing to believe that the dialogism exists even when it doesn't.

Posted by: Lisa at September 2, 2003 11:31 PM | Permalink to Comment
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