Roleplaying games

Given that (1) I have a passion for roleplaying games - and I’m primarily talking about the kind you play face-to-face with friends, not the computerised ones, and (2) believe that IF and RPG are closely related media that could learn from one another, I would really like to know what the IF-community’s relation with RPGs is.

More than once I have read a review of a piece of IF which accused the piece of "being an RPG’, which apparently meant “characters have numerical statistics used for fighting monsters, gain experience which turns them into better fighters, and die random deaths”. This is obviously an unproductive charicature, but among other things I wonder whether it is prevalent in the community.

So this is a question to all of you: what is your experience with roleplaying games? And what is your idea about the relationship between IF and RPGs?

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If by RPG, you mean pen and paper games then my experience is limited. About, oh, fifteen years ago I got together with a group of friends to play an RPG but they spent so long arguing over the rules that it put me off them for years. Apparently someone had read an article in a magazine which superseded one of the official rules, but the DM (or is it GM? I forget which) hadn’t seen this and so refused to let him use it. The two spent the rest of the session arguing the toss over this point, and in the end we didn’t get much in the way of roleplaying done at all.

If you mean computer RPGs, then I’m a huge fan. I rank Baldur’s Gate 2 as the best game I’ve ever played and Baldur’s Gate 1 as a close second. I even started a thread on the Adrift forum a while ago about the idea of turning one or both of them into an IF game, but the sheer scale of the games daunted me so much I never got beyond the “wouldn’t it be a cool idea if…” stage.

I’d love to see an IF RPG one day, but the few times such a thing has emerged – the notoriously bad Westfront PC or even Graham Nelson’s Reliques of Tolti-Aph – leave me cringing in dismay.

I’ve played a number of CRPGs, ranging from turn-based to real-time. I have quite a few I haven’t played yet, but in recent memory I enjoyed “Summoner: A Goddess Reborn” or Gamecube and “Sudeki” on XBox.

I’m in a D&D group that meets every once in a while (although not so often, now). It’s all pen-and-paper, although the DM is tracking stats on his laptop. After a very brief introduction many years ago (I was in 5th grade), I’m kind of a late bloomer, playing this character for only a couple of years now.

We also took a few weeks off, maybe a year ago, and played through a brief campaign in Call of Cthulhu (using D20 rules with “insanity” points). It was pretty fun, but I think I prefer the fantasy setting of D&D instead.

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Traditional IF is more closely related to CRPGs than RPGs, don’t you think? And CRPGs draw most heavily on classic RPGs such D&D. However I think you favor the ‘new’ RPGs, and since nearly everything I have learned about the new RPGs is from reading, that is to say, lurking on, your blog and sites like story-games.com I don’t know what I can tell you that you don’t already know! Nonetheless I have a few ideas about the relationship between IF and RPGs.

IF and RPGs are not closely related. Most RPGs are multi-player and collaborative. Most IF is single-player and solitary. You could say that the IF player collaborates with the author, but this is not true collaboration, rather the author guides the player. Here is where IF is more similar to classic RPGs, where the game master guides the players. Also both IF and classic RPGs are essentially linear. You can talk about the non-linearity of IF, but most of the time I find IF to be essentially linear enterprises with little regard for real non-linearity. Most RPGs deal heavily in game mechanics, where IF usually has little purchase. Players inhabit roles in RPGs for extended periods of time, in multiple sessions, and not only that, in most RPGs players intend to develop their character over a long period of time. There are very few, if any, IF works with such an emphasis. So here you have some similarity but mostly difference between IF and RPGs.

This is something I personally would like to change, and I see great potential in writing IF that is more collaborative, game-like, and serialized, that seizes some of the concepts of the new RPGs and transforms these concepts into elements of interactive fiction. However my perspective may be skewed from all those years reading game books in elementary school, writing D&D campaigns instead of doing my homework in junior high school, making RPGs instead of writing term papers in high school, and playing muds instead of writing my thesis in college…you know, there’s some pattern here that I can’t quite put my finger on. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that having played RPGs and recently IF, I think the potential for the relationship is rich, but at present the reality is not much. One thing though, I haven’t actually played a table-top RPG in years. Recently I got interested in RPGs again and I went to a local game shop. It seemed heavily into D&D, I should say D20 I suppose, and its derivatives. As is de rigueur, there were some gamers there. Frankly the vibe scared me off. So these days I don’t think I’m cut out for D&D. Kind of sad, really. :wink:

I’ve played a little classic D&D, some Nobilis, and several campaigns of Seventh Sea. I enjoyed all of these, but I’m not sure I found as much direct applicability to IF as one might expect. For one thing, many of my favorite moments in RPGs tend to come from some creative inspiration, where a player comes up with an innovative way to use a skill or ability, and the GM improvises around it. It’s hard to program a computer game to improvise around an idea that the author didn’t anticipate – sure, you can build a simulation of a specific mechanic that might turn out to allow some unexpected exploits, but it’s hard to build in the same kind of flexibility.

The other thing I enjoy in live RPGs is the banter with other characters – you’re partly performing for their benefit, partly riffing off their input. There’s no audience in an IF game; if you come up with a witty remark on the action, or do something with startling dramatic repercussions, there’s no one there to react to it.

If you strip out the GM improvisation and the by-play with other players, what you’re left with is pure mechanics (I think – I’m not nearly as up on RPG formats as you are, so I may be missing something). The mechanics don’t always translate very well to IF, especially ones that involve dice-rolling. I tend to dislike random elements that affect gameplay significantly; it’s usually possible to UNDO around them, unless the author turns off UNDO entirely, which produces frustrations of another kind. (For that matter, I don’t enjoy very dice-heavy parts of standard RPGs either; too much waiting for things to resolve.)

All that said, I get the impression that RPG theorists are wrestling with some ideas that are useful to IF designers as well. I just don’t see any easy or obvious lessons we could be taking from RPGs.

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Thanks for the responses! The questions from the first post still stand, but I’m going to react to some of you and tell you how I think that we may be able to be inspired by RPGs.

Emily: those are very good observations: part of the fun of RPGs is improvisation and having an audience. Improvisation is hard to achieve on IF, and presumably not worth the trouble. I wouldn’t underestimate how much the game itself is the audience when you play IF, though. As an example, “Losing your head” is famous for the part where you can kick a head around. I believe that this has no positive impact on the story, doesn’t solve any puzzle, or whatever. So why do people find it cool that the game recognises “KICK HEAD” and reacts appropriately? Because the game (the author of the game) becomes an appreciative audience to what you thought was a funny idea.

However, there is more to RPGs, and what the ‘more’ is depends on the RPG. It is probably not so useful, as you indicate, to look at specific mechanics. You don’t really want to implement the combat system of D&D in a work of IF, for instance. But you might learn something else from it: say, resource management. If I remember correctly, David Whyld used hit points in his Spring Thing 2006 entry as a resource that allowed you to get past puzzles that you were unable to solve. His mechanics were different from how D&D implements hit points, but the underlying game idea is basically the same - there is a resource that dwindles whenever you act suboptimally.

As another example, consider the modest indie-hit “Dogs in the Vineyard”. The central dice mechanic of this game is rather complicated, involving dice of several different sizes that are used in a kind of bidding contest. Implementing this in a piece of IF would be impractical, to say the least. But let’s consider what the point of the mechanic is. It is constructed to lead to the following two situations:

(1) Sometimes, you can only win a conflict by putting your own health and possibly even life on the line. This raises the question: what are you willing to risk for this cause?
(2) Sometimes, you can only win a conflict by escalating to fighting or shooting, which involves the risk of hurting or killing your opponent. This raises the question: are you willing to kill for this cause?

Are you willing to beat up your nephew to make sure he stops drinking? Are you willing to shoot at your own father to make sure he doesn’t lynch the escaped slave?

Those questions could be implemented in IF, though you would have to device a different mechanical way of doing so. (In this case, you may not need new mechanics at all. You just have to make sure that the player clearly sees the two possibilities that lie before her and knows that the choice is really, really hers.)

Just thinking aloud. :slight_smile:

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I agree – figuring out how to articulate choices for the player is a major part of developing interesting and effective story-oriented IF. And I think it’s often a mechanics problem for IF too, though of a different sort: whatever choice you have in mind, it has to be something that the player can express with command-line actions. That doesn’t have to mean that the critical choice must be represented by a physical activity; it could take the form of conversation or a magic system or using abstract actions of some kind. But you do have to have designed some such mechanic and taught the player what it is.

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I had been thinking about this thread when I ran across this:

manifestogames.com/node/2348

I’m going to pull a long quote from it:

Notwithstanding that a piece of IF and Quake are very different beasts, and that Costikyan isn’t saying anything exactly new, I think he makes an excellent point that applies very well to what Victor and Emily are saying in their posts. In the context of IF this is not so much about algorithmically generating story content, though it could be, as it is about setting up the rules of the IF. One caveat is that I presuppose a more game-oriented IF, though again perhaps this wouldn’t be a necessary presupposition.

The rules do not have to be extensive, in fact there could be one rule. But in defining the rule you allow the player to come to deeper terms with the IF, not only reading the story, the ‘surface words’ as it were, but also wrestling with the underlying and fundamental raison d’etre of the IF itself.

One thing I wonder is if the presence of rules (which of course eventually could be well understood and predicted by the player) would make the game not as interesting as something defined aprocedurally by the author, who will incorporate random, illogical ‘tricks’ into the story. On the other hand, no doubt this is not a zero-sum game.