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Side Quest: The Avatar and Me

by Brian "Dhruin" Turner, 2006-12-13

When I was 13 years old, I was a classic geek.  Books, crystal radio sets, the rudimentary computers of the day...the audio/visual club at school.  Like many cRPG players, I first discovered “roleplaying” through Dungeons & Dragons...it was an experience that transported my small circle of friends to a fantasy world where we were heroes and villains, freeing us from our suburban drudgery and geekdom.  Our early adventures were crude, combat-oriented affairs driven by the excitement of victory and tasty loot but as we matured, the sophistication of our roleplaying grew.  Still, each of my friends continued to approach D&D from a different direction – some remained obsessed with loot and advantaging their cool character over any other consideration, others with genuine attempts at roleplaying.  And so it is with computer games.

In many other game genres, the avatar is the player -- but the avatar has a special role in cRPGs.  Some “hardcore” definitions of an RPG include a strict delineation of the in-game character and the player: the role is interpreted through the avatar and its statistics with success or failure dependant on the character rather than, say, the player's reflexes.  The reference point for this argument is often PnP: players roll a die to resolve combat -- they don't, so the argument goes -- draw swords and physically have at it.

But is this abstraction really at the heart of PnP roleplaying, or just a matter of practicality?  Did Arneson and Gygax want to create an abstract gaming system with D&D or was this the best fantasy simulation they could reasonably create with pen and paper?  Did they really want an abstracted character or would they have preferred to be the character?  More to the point: do cRPG players want to play a character or simply put themselves into the gameworld?

There has been an inexorable move toward action/RPGs for many years (in fact, the term is redundant – they’re almost all action/RPGs) but since the success of Oblivion, there’s a sense that the general player base has awakened and co-opted the genre -- finally, they’re saying, RPGs have crawled out of their grognard past and caught up with modern gaming.  Rules-based play is old-fashioned and out-moded; being the character on screen in a cinematic first-person action extravaganza is real roleplaying.

I’m not criticizing those individual elements, nor Oblivion or its supporters.  Oblivion is a polished piece of work with a load of content that many, many players enjoy.  But don’t believe the wave of sentiment that claims rules-based RPGs should crawl back to the past and make way for the new generation.

Let’s consider some of the criticism of NWN2 from Matt Peckham’s pulled review at 1Up.  Here’s a sample:

I'm cruising for a bruising (don't I know it), but NWN2 is a splash of cold water to the face: A revelatory, polarizing experience that -- in the wake of newer, better alternatives -- makes you question the very notion of "RPG by numbers."

There's not much doubt that "newer, better alternatives" means Oblivion (although Oblivion – like every RPG – still has plenty of rules and numbers).  Peckham is saying, in part: the rules-based determination of interactions (from “hit” calculations to dialogue) in RPGs should be replaced by live action mechanics that place the player directly in the gameworld.

Fantasy action simulations.

Here’s my response: separating the player and the avatar provides the tools to enable better gameplay.  Forget the current mood in the broad gaming press that rules inhibit player freedom in cRPGs -- embrace the good use of rules-based systems for the sake of better gameplay.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about NWN2 is the return of stat-influenced dialogue.  Building characters with Diplomacy or Intimidate offers more character options and allows game designers to create more points of interaction – more choices, to put it plainly.  Play Fallout as a bumbling idiot with extraordinary luck or Arcanum as an ugly but genteel half-orc. Now, imagine these rules-based systems are removed…is the game improved?  The dialogue choices can still be offered and no character is excluded from taking any response…but we have no mechanism to judge the success of, say, trying to intimidate an NPC.  Empty choices make for hollow gameplay.

The key thing is this isn’t a mutually exclusive issue.  Large, open-ended gameworlds don’t preclude character-based dialogue choices.  Visceral, action-packed combat with advanced physics doesn’t preclude NPCs that respond to charisma, appearance or factional alliances.  Of course, having rules systems doesn’t automatically mean they are well designed or well used –- that’s up to the competency of the design and the development team.  Nor does supporting rules-based systems invalidate action or mean there can be no evolution of the genre…but it does mean those action/RPGs can open up greater potential to offer depth beyond an adrenaline rush and nice scenery.

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