Forty years old and still ahead of their time

The role-playing hobby is, give or take a few years and who you ask, around forty years old. Even so, other hobbies are still only just beginning to catch up with elements of RPGs that we, as gamers, just plain take for granted.

For example, one of the hot buzzwords in computer gaming right now is asymmetric gameplay where one (or more) player has a widely different feature set to the other gamers. This is as opposed to symmetric gameplay where all their characters are roughly balanced, such as in a multiplayer first person shooter. Asymmetric gameplay is expected to be a new (and intriguing) feature of upcoming games on the Wii U in particular. For example, there could be a Tower Defence game where one player sets up the towers while the other players are the invaders.

In contrast, role-playing games are asymmetric by design, with one player acting as DM controlling the monsters, story and terrain while the other players control their PCs to explore the land and experience the adventure. While some RPGs do toy with the formula (such as Ars Magica where players run multiple PCs with different power levels, or Mythic’s DM-less engine), asymmetric gameplay is the norm. The DM takes on the role normally handled by the AI in a computer game, but it creates a whole new dynamic that computer and console games are only just beginning to realise.

Another phrase that is increasingly popular in computer games (thanks to Minecraft, most likely) is procedural design where the world and environment is created using a set of rules rather than built by the game designers in advance. Anyone who has created a random dungeon, city, nation, castle, town or village using RPG tables and dice rolls is familiar with that concept – heck, we’ve been doing it for decades! The alternative to procedural design in RPGs is using published adventures (or possibly the tried and trusted “making it all up as you go along”), and I suspect that most DMs use a combination of all three. That’s another strength of RPGs which seems not yet to have crossed into computer games – we can use what works best, rather than sticking to being all procedural or all pre-designed. I’m looking forward to the time when computer games use a combination of pre-designed elements mixed with procedural “glue” to hold them all together. Soon, perhaps.

There are, doubtless,  more examples where traditional pen-and-paper RPGs lead the pack in innovation and gameplay features (some elements found in MOBA/DOTA games for example).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

3 Comments on “Forty years old and still ahead of their time”

  1. The concept of a sandbox setting (a preset world open for exploration) is relatively new in computer games (about 15 years or less) but has been around since the earliest rpg game.

    I was actually thinking about this topic yesterday. Much of modern media is directly driven by the concepts of D&D and rpgs. Books, computer games, film – all find much that is derivative of D&D. Fantasy as a book genre (as split off from the earlier science-fiction label) is a result of D&D.

    Maybe I’m giving D&D too much credit. Instead I should call it a symbiosis between D&D and Tolkien – the two driving forces that together created the media juggernaut that is fantasy.

  2. D&D, Star Wars, Tolkien, Comic Books … I think all of those things have had a big influence but dont get much credit.

  3. Interestingly enough, it appears that there is more and more of a push in the TTRPG business towards more symetrical play. To eliminate the fiat ability of the DM, or even to eliminate the DM position all together.

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