When I was fourteen years old, I bought the complete Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set from my older teenaged neighbour for $10 (including colour changing dice!). I remember shaking with anticipation as I got home, imagining all of the amazing adventures that my friends and I would go on together. When I got home, I called three of my closest friends up and asked them if they wanted to come over and play a game of D&D together. The response was less than enthusiastic, and the game ended up collecting dust on my bookshelf, along with a dozen-or-so character sheets that I laboriously worked on.
I grew up in a time and place where the word “D&D” was tantamount to declaring yourself a sexless nerd, loner or devil worshipper to the entire junior high school. It was the early 1990′s, and the intense popularity of Dungeons and Dragons in the 70s and 80s was wearing off fast. The idea of sitting around a table with a few buddies and calling up fantasied worlds with a roll of the dice was coming up against the harsher realities of grunge music and the gulf war. The farm town I grew up in was predominantly Catholic. Films like Mazes and Monsters starring Tom Hanks (a teenager who suffers from psychosis and starts to live out his D&D character in real life), and the religious backlash of the 1980s against D&D was firmly embedded in the memories of parents and us kids.
In this article I consider the major comeback, at least in my life and those people around me, that pen’n'paper roleplaying games are making, and consider the repercussions that this will have for how the youth of today will experience future cRPGs.
1990: CRPGs Emerge in the Golden Age
To fill that gap, I turned to computer role playing games like the Ultima series, the Quest for Glory series, Wing Commander: Privateer, Betrayal at Krondor, and (years later) Fallout. These were games that had strong central characters who were on quests to save the world, involved dark and esoteric forms of magic or skilfulness, and demanded an imaginative leap from the player. I had to identify and empathize with the characters of the world if I was going to devote dozens of hours to saving it, and this gaming fulfilled a gigantic imaginative and moral gap in my life as a teenager, allowing me to explore dangerous or taboo topics in a safe manner. These games, while not particularly approved of by most parents and friends (I am sure that my parents worried at how many evenings I spent with Ultima VIII: Pagan), at least were too new to have acquired the stigma that D&D had. If the 1980s was the decade of pen’n'paper gaming, the 1990s was the decade of the CRPG.
(This is fairly consistent with the timeline that Matt Barton draws up in Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. Barton argues that the late 1980′s and early 1990′s usher in a “Golden Age” of computer and console roleplaying games.)
Being a teenager during the Golden Age of CRPGs meant that I was in an awkward spot – I was part of a generation who bridged the older pen’n'paper tradition with a new CRPG-literate generation of gamers. I learned some of the language of role-playing through fantasy books, some through my brief flirts with the D&D Basic Set, and most through the dominant CRPGs of that time. My understanding of an RPG was that it was part imagination, but mostly set in a world of characters and places that were pre-determined by the author or designer. Sure, they could come up with non-linear ways of telling a story (i.e. Wing Commander: Privateer follows a largely player-directed story arc) but the content of the game was largely predetermined. Or, if the plot was predeterminate, I might focus on customizing my character and focusing on certain skills and abilities that I found important, such as my Magic User in Quest for Glory. If the game were particularly involving I might invest myself emotionally in the quest by imagining myself into the role of the Avatar or hero, making moral choices that reflected the character whom I wanted to ‘play’. But lost in all of this was the participatory storytelling that made pen’n'paper roleplaying games truly unique.
CRPG Becomes the Norm
What emerged in the late 90′s and early 2000′s was a CRPG-literate crowd of gamers with very specific expectations about what a roleplaying game is. We wanted games with statistics – lots of ‘em. We wanted games with all kinds of open-ended exploration. We wanted games that let us customize our character’s abilities. We wanted party-based adventuring, even though 4 of the 5 party members were computer-controlled. We wanted epic stories that took dozens of hours to complete, each replete with subquests or sidequests to keep us entertained while on the “main” quest.
But lost in this emerging literacy were the original pen’n'paper games that created the metaphors for gameplay that CRPGs aped algorithmically. Kids born in the mid-1990′s have grown up in a world where Dungeons and Dragons no longer carries any meaning beyond being a particular brand of computer role-playing games. Many of the teenagers in our “Art Guild” after-school program are very literate when it comes to playing computer games, but the idea of playing a pen’n'paper adventure seems quaintly confusing to them. Like driving around in your Ford Model-T when you have a Porsche sitting in the garage.
Discovering that the Old is New
Of course, D&D has not remained dormant for the last 30 years. In fact, there are probably more pen’n'paper systems available today than there ever were. So for the last few years, my wife and I have had the great fortune to have participated in a number of campaigns – some as DM, some as players – from Deadlands to Planescape to a re-imagining of Ultima VIII: Pagan. Each time we play, I am struck by the rich and complex social scene that plays out before us.
A few weeks ago I brought in a D&D Basic Set to the Art Guild, and asked a handful of teenagers if they wanted to “play a real role-playing game”. Only one of them had played a pen’n'paper game before, and the rest were curious but totally unfamiliar with D&D. So we sat down, rolled up some very basic character sheets, and began our journey.
DM: “You are standing on a 30-foot high cobblestone wall.”
Player 1: “Why?”
DM: “I’m not sure. You hear the sound of a gong behind you, along with villagers screaming ‘get him!’ and ‘he’s on top of the wall!’
Player 2: “What do I do?”
DM: “I’m not sure. What do you want to do?”
Player 2: “Ummm. What are my options?”
DM: “Well, the wall is a 30 foot drop. You figure that you might be able to climb down if you take your time. There are handholds in the rough cobblestone.”
Player 2: “I want to climb down then.”
DM: “Give me a roll on your D20.”
Player 3: “Which one is the D20?”
And so on.
Three hours later, they had been assaulted by guards dressed in red gowns, fled down a steep switchback mountain path, clung for their lives after falling off the steep sides of the path, got lost in a forest, were assailed by pygmies, and buried a skeleton that they found laying alongside the road. In each of these situations, the characters found themselves arguing over complex issues of trust, greed, courage, friendship and disloyalty. They bargained with one another, joked and teased one another, and learned to tread the fine line between what is ‘in game’ (their character) and what is ‘out of game’ (themselves).
At an individual level, I noticed that each player learned how to communicate their actions and express their thoughts in a much more clear and articulate manner than usual. Ambiguous speech acts like “I walk into the dark forest” were usually met with clarifications from the DM “Well, which direction? In front of you? Do you have a light?” or sometimes with outright remonstrations from the DM, “You walk into the dark forest without a light. You are now lost.”
I also noticed that a few players also took risks that they would have never taken in real life. Stealing something from another person would be impossible for most of these teenagers, but in the game they were able to explore iniquitous acts without serious repercussion. They learned, for instance, that a character needs a motivational space that makes sense of their action – they can’t just walk off the side of a mountain without a sensible reason, or commit an act of evil without some kind of moral context.
Recovering a Tradition
What I am beginning to appreciate is that there is a new generation of CRPGers, who were previously unfamiliar with D&D that are just becoming familiar with pen’n'paper games. Judging by the two three-hour sessions that I have played with the teenagers from the Art Guild, D&D is by far the most successful group activity we have had in 7 months. Already several of them want to learn how to DM and create their own worlds, and take other players out on adventures.
The upshot of this, I hope, is that this new generation of gamers – who are now playing pen’n'paper games – will create a desire to completely revitalize the idea of a CRPG. I don’t think that we need another Baldur’s Gate. I think we need to recapture the vitality and rich social space enacted in pen’n'paper sessions. Designers of the future need to remember that role-playing games are primarily played with friends and involve working out complex social relationships that exist outside of the game. I think that we need CRPGs that aren’t about “choosing moral option A or B”, but rather about having the player ask themselves, “what kind of character is s/he? Would s/he do this?”
Games like Mass Effect 2 and BioShock have returned us to the original problem of telling a story in a coherent manner, while inviting input from the player, but still have not addressed the more fundamental problem that an RPG involves: learning how to clarify one’s own decisions and emotions within a safe, bounded, environment.
I appreciate that CRPGs have become their own modes of expression with standards of their own that do not refer back to pen’n'paper games. But, judging by the quality of the RPG sessions I have participated in, they could still learn a thing or ten. I hope that this new generation of gamers creates a desire for richer CRPGs – games that are more connected to the human feeling and morality that is expressed in the average pen’n'paper session.