This is prompted by a bunch of only vaguely related posts (linked below the fold).  Collectively, they recalled to me a time, long past, when my high school buddies and I crowded around an Apple II, deep in the bowels of the high school where the computer lab was placed (no doubt to limit the spread of the infection), playing Wizardry I, taking turns at the keyboard to control our character, and in the interim talking about how cool it would be if we could take all that, add in everything from our nightly D+D campaign, hook it up to a cold fusion reactor, sprinkle liberally with fairy dust, and create an online RPG world.  My god, it will be beautiful…

From Nerfbat, at the end of the post titled Genre Reset:

I hope to see traditional fantasy MMOs of today reaching with fervor to the olden days of Dungeons & Dragons and Earthdawn and other role-playing games. I want to see the infinite potential of P&P in modern MMOs. I want that same feeling that has long been absent in online games of possibilities and heroes and anti-heroes, of a world in which I can make a difference and be known throughout the world, and of a place that is so epically vast and so real that I lose myself within it blissfully.

From Anyway Games, titled PaP (Player-among-Players):

These differences are important because we identify ourselves by them, and others identify us by them. PaP content is about enabling that sense of self. It’s about moving beyond mere archetypes and creating a personal space in the virtual society. At its deepest, it’s about taking players from “What is my character? Well, he’s an orc shaman.” to “Who is my character? Well, where to begin…?”

From mmorpg.com, an article titled Dungeon Masters, Anyone?

This is another place where I think MMOs-as-DMs fail – as advanced as our graphics and technology are getting, they’re still hugely primitive when faced off against a human-run event. When you play D&D, you can do anything – I remember playing a campaign where two jokers bought parchment, crapped in it, and set it on fire on an inn stoop. Did this do anything for the game progression? No. Could they do it? Did it affect the game world in a lasting way? Yes, yes it did. In D&D you could do anything, and the DM could account for it in any way they pleased. You could attack gazebos, use anything as a weapon, come up with crazy but brilliant plans. MMOs don’t let you do that.

Plus additional material from a blog by Jesad linked in that last article, found here.

In each of these posts, I hear a faint echo (or not so faint) or see mention of an element found in roleplaying, but not in the MMORPG or CRPG of today.

No, I’m not talking about typing everything in Ye Olde English.  IMO, those… people… don’t understand roleplay any more than those that think an RPG is entirely defined by simply having a system that defines character progression.  Each one misses the point, simply in different ways.

By my definition, at least, roleplaying is about allowing each character (and thru that avatar, each player) to tell a story: specifically, their story.  Their audience will vary: some times, it may be as small as an audience of one (themselves).  Other times, it may be an audience of dozens or hundreds.  The key is 1) a story is being told, and 2) it is yours, and yours alone.

So far, even the best CRPGs (let alone MMORPGs) have done little more than allowed you to tell yourself their prescripted story.  Sure, you could skip a few pages, change a line now and then; every once in a while you are given a choice of three paths, all of which lead to precisely the same spot, tho by different routes.  Still, not quite the same.

The sole exceptions: the “sandbox” MMOs, such as UO and SWG (pre-NGE).  If you’ve ever wondered why anyone looks upon such games fondly… this is why.  They were designed with the intent of allowing you to create your own story, even to the extreme of providing no story at all for you to even initially orient yourself in the world.  A trial-by-fire for the imagination, indeed.

Such freedom was not a given in pen-and-paper RP, either, btw, in case you think this is another paean to Old School Gaming.  I was a player in (far too many) campaigns where you were going to do this module, by the numbers, and god help you if you deviated from the pre-printed material…

Example, the first:

  • GM: Okay, that’s the last of them.  One of the orcish guards isn’t quite dead… you finish him off, and…
  • Player: Whoa.  Let’s wake him up and interrogate him.  He’s got to know where some of the traps are, what the guard rotation is… let’s see if we can get something out of him, in return for letting him escape.  I know orcish, and so does the elf…
  • Chorus: Good idea!  Yeah, let’s do that!  Maybe he knows where the ogre chieftain is?
  • GM: …the NPC warrior hacks the orc’s head off, muttering something like “only good orc is a dead orc”.  So, you finish off the orcs, and…

Example, the second:

  • GM: So, you’re walking down a dark alley in the bad part of town…
  • Player: WHAT!?!? What the hell am I doing there?  I was just headed to the temple to load up on heals?
  • GM: You got lost.
  • Player: IN MY OWN HOME TOWN?
  • GM: Shut up… and give me a surprise check, while you’re at it.

It was a self-correcting problem… those campaigns didn’t last long, usually… but it was still far too common.  (And yes, both of those actually happened in sessions I played.  Always a great reminder to me of what NOT to do when I was GM.)

Are there challenges to allowing/enabling this?  Good Lord, yes.  If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago.  And there is the serious real-world question/consideration of how large the audience for such an experience really is.   My own opinion is that anyone looking for WoW-like numbers will need to shy away from this concept… many people simply do not have the energy or the imagination to enjoy being the storyteller.  They want to be told a story, not to have to make up their own.  Personally, I blame television.  (/joke)

All that said, I do think there is a market here.  Look at all the bloggers, the people who spend more time on the forums than in the game, and the commenters and lurkers at MMO news sites.  Look at the people who call for player-created content; stump for families and lineages; pontificate about the lack of innovation in MMOs these days.  This is not an insignificant crowd, and they have a story they want to experience, to tell… so badly that they create work for themselves simply to lament that they can’t.

A point to ponder, perhaps.