Roleplaying = Fighting
This relationship and its origins were alluded to in the "Grandfather Clause of Stupidity" section. When one looks at the gamut of roleplaying games, from the first iterations of D&D through modern server-based MMORPG’s, they all seem to be about one thing: fighting. The original cause for this is that all modern RPG’s were spawned out of tabletop miniatures battle rules, but the trend is perpetuated by some other, equally noisome, factors. First and most importantly, there are the human factors:
- Players are generally dull unoriginal people who prefer to pretend to kill shit than think about plot development
- Referees are generally dull unoriginal people who prefer to run adventures about killing shit than work on plot development
Nothing can be done to help these people. Their best option is to either find a system with a combat system which is actually good (Street Fighter STG), resort to actual battlefield simulation games, or load up a computer game about fighting people and go to it. Eventually they will give up on RPG’s and turn instead to Playstation or WWF to relieve this need for constant carnage. However, a fair chunk of this populace insists on considering themselves "RPG fanatics," thereby increasing the market value of RPG’s and MMORPG’s that are all about fighting, thus lowering the value of these games to the gamer who is actually interested in character development and plot.
However, let’s consider some other factors, equally important, that mandate combat effectiveness as the primary concern for a character in an RPG, paper or computer based.
- Combat is Dangerous. It may be all well and good to play the bookworm research mage, the pacifistic wandering healer, or the law student with a knack for solving mysteries, but if the game setting is typical of the RPG genre, at some point a fight will break out. The first time this happens, depth-oriented noncombat characters like this will be killed, thus hindering their chances of further development. Meanwhile, the guy who put all his points into Guns skill or the barbarian with 18/00 strength will merrily slice and dice through the enemy, and live to see another day and another load of experience. Even in cases where death is not final, like in overly-generous paper campaigns or in any MMORPG, it’s still inconvenient, frustrating, and probably carries some kind of penalty. Players of nonfighting characters are railroaded into rerolling combat monsters just as effectively as if their character had been killed forever, along with any intent they ever had about roleplaying that sort of character.
- Designers are Unimaginative. This is about the same as the human factor given above, but here it deals with something more insidious than the GM/referee/developer’s inclination to steer toward combat in the first place. Here, the referee knows that he should do something to make skills besides "Hit Things" and "Don’t Get Hit By Things" some utility… he’s just very bad at implementation. In a pen and paper game, this means that the poor guy who dumped half his creation points into stuff like Investigation, Computer Op, and Lore is screwed by the utter lack of anything to do in every adventure. In a computer-based game, it means the players who opted for low physical characteristics and concentrations on things like Gambling and Cooking are relegated to the position of mules, unable to advance in a level-based system or forced into hours of mindless repetitive clicking in a skill-based system, all for the chance of maybe one day being able to perform one task that was patched in for them out of pity 6 months after final.
- Abstract Values Don’t Roll Well. Noncombat skills people tend to make use of in an RPG setting are typically skills like Investigation, Disguise, Alchemy, etc. These are rather simplistic terms for very complex and hard-to-quantify activities that have a lot of other abstract factors influencing the "chance of success." Pen and paper rules for the use of these skills are usually extremely long, describing ways to reduce these outside influences to a die roll modifier, and when all else fails, the GM assigns arbitrary modifiers based on how the player describes his activities. Obviously this doesn’t work at all in any sort of computer-refereed setting. On the other hand, combat is relatively simple. You roll to hit, you roll damage. Any factors that modify this roll like range, target size, attacker position, etc., are easy to define, and factoring them in becomes less of a judgment call and more a matter of how complex your attack algorithm is.
How to deal with these problems? In a pen and paper RPG, it seems easy enough, although the incompetance of the prototypical GM will still get in the way. In these cases, it is fully up to the GM to make sure that noncombat skills and abilities matter in a way that contributes to the survival and advancement of the player character. This requires careful balancing, and the GM must be careful to keep things within the system of his choice. Of particular note is the player who "fakes it" (I am personally notorious for this). This is when a player character, through acting and roleplay, manages to do things that his character would be incapable of, like fast-talking the guard into looking the other way, securing a trade agreement, or forcing the information he needs out of a suspect… without buying the appropriate skills. The GM can allow abstract die roll modifiers for histrionics like this, but if the character in question still has a Diplomacy skill of 5 (on a 3-18 scale), good freaking luck.
In a computer-based single-player or single-run RPG like Baldur’s Gate II, it becomes almost impossible to make noncombat skills and character types really matter except through the most contrived scenarios. Need a purpose for your thief? Well, every dungeon has zillions of traps only a thief can deal with. Want to be the nice guy smooth talker? Just pick the appropriate responses from the multiple-choice conversation dropdowns. In almost all cases, it still comes down to how well you can kill the other guy, but there’s a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe by the next generation of single run computer RPG’s, advanced technology will be coupled with the unlikely possibility of advanced storywriters and these games will be more than this. (I’m not holding my breath though.)
In the current state MMORPG, there isn’t even the faintest glimmer of hope. Of the big three, the one that provides the strongest case for the noncombat character is Ultima Online, where trade skills actually matter and there may in fact be a purpose in life for your blacksmith. This only seems fantastic when compared to the other two MMORPG models for tradeskills: Asheron’s Call, where trade skills are something you raise on an allegiance mule to help your real character kill more stuff, and Everquest, where trade skills are basically a waste of time and ultimately even more boring than the monster camping that comprises 99% of the "action." Even in UO, your master of mercantile pursuits is still dead when he missteps out of the guard zone and gets jumped by a few murderers who then loot his house. You cannot conduct diplomacy with a computer-controlled NPC in these games… hell, you can barely have an intelligible conversation with another player. The closest you can ver get to performing a mission like spy or a thief, obtaining the objective without combat, is by exploiting bugs or by jumping someone else’s quest, or possibly muledrop thievery and player scamming. If a system like UO does allow for thievery, eventually so many people complain that thieves get bizarre and arbitrary limitations slapped on them, effectively ruining the class. MMORPG’s have not yet been able to deal with the provision of a meaningful existence for the non-killer, and so they actively steer content toward the killer, encouraging more combat optimization, more powerful attack potentials, and less variety.
It seems bleak, and it is. This is one of the reasons that jaded players of MMORPG’s and CRPG’s have gone back into the roulette game of pen and paper, hoping against hope to find a GM and/or players who do not suck. As a general rule, though, most people do suck, and are incapable of telling an RPG from a glorified shooter, which is what many so-called RPG’s actually represent. It is my fervent hope that the RPG, particularly the MMORPG, will rise above the level of "bad Doom with character levels" and manage to present an immersive and compelling storyline that draws players in, rather than continuing on their current slide.