D&D: one of the culprits why MMORPGs are so bad
I understand for many “Dungeons and Dragons” is one of “holy cows” for gamers and fantasy geeks. And many MMO gamers still have fond memories of pen and paper gaming. It is undoubtly true that D&D played a central role in the shaping of CRPGs and thus in the long run also of MMORPGs. The early computer RPGs were all more or less attempts to bring the dungon runs of D&D to computers. They functioned in the same, simple formula of D&D: make a dungeon and fill it with mobs. That was the central formula of D&D since it’s early days: monster slaying.
Now while for once and then this is fine and nice, as someone who plays tabletop Pen and Paper games for almost 30 years now, I always felt D&D was a bit “simple-minded”, in the way that it presented a doubtless great world, most popular the Fearun Forgotten Realms setting. But if I compare it to other PnP games, I always felt D&D was in the essence almost solely about slaying monsters. I know the German “Realms of Arcania” (“Das Schwarze Auge”) is quite unknown in US and overseas. Maybe some may know the old Northland Trilogy or the first two Drakensang RPGs (which have nothing to do with the new Drakensang MMO btw.), there was always a much greater emphasis on socializing and roleplaying in Arcania and other PnP games. If you examine a typical D&D char and compare it to a char from Arcania, D&D chars have considerably more skill which are based on combat than a char from Arcania. And this was of course the paradigm of D&D: a simple fast paced dungeon run. I mean, there is nothing wrong with this, but in our days, it sort of weighs down all attempts to make different games, because we are so biased and blinded by this D&D heritage that we are still unable to imagine and manifest other ways to “advance” a game than by giving XP for mob kills as in the days of D&D.
My experience as DM of Arcania showed me there are a plethora of other ways to give experience to a group of characters other than how many mobs they killed. And if we look even at the most modern MMOs in the making, GW2 and SWTOR, they still give XP for mobs killed. Yes, you have a story-reason and you may not get the XP so much for the kills as to gather some badges they drop, but in the essence the are still kill counters, however elaborately masked. When I recall an adventure evening I DMed in Arcania, often an entire evening of, say, 8 hours went on with maby 1 fight or some even without any. The group would try to sneak by, or make diplomany or explore or do any number of solutions to the issue other than kill things, and it still way cool and interesting. So why don’t MMOs do that more often? We heard it as a promise or plan often enough, but in the execution, it was always more a figleaf than a really new area. Example: The Vanguard diplomancy card game. It was a great idea: you needed a diplomat to open new stories or to find alternative solutions to quests. But the realization was only some side-note fun cardgame.
In Arcania, a character has a legion of non combat skills: Convincing, Heraldic, Etiquette, Dress-up, Disguise, Bluff, Streetwise Knowledge and many others, all to be applied to find other, non violent ways to proceed through a quest. Unfortunately D&D has sort of developed back to a pure mob killing game recently with the newest D&D 4 system, where a ton of potential social skills have all be cut away and you get XP purely for mob killing. A D&D dungeon romp has no diplomatic solution, and this heritage formed the perception of what a MMORPG has to be to this very day. You get XP for killing stuff.
Only here and there we saw a glimpse of other ways. SWG had with it’s sandbox elements something different, especially with the Image Designers, Doctors and Entertainers there were entire subsystems which did not revolve around killing things, and to this day I am quite astonished why something so popular as the Entertainer system never was seen again in any form. One small hope is that SWTOR at least with have *some* decisions where you can get the same XP by nonviolent solutions, at least to a degree. It is not because I am such a pacifist, but it is because there would be need to have a much greater variety HOW to solve a quest, HOW to proceed through a “problem”.
In our days, it doesn’t make a difference whether you are a Priest or a Ranger or a Paladin: you always kill things. Why can’t a Priest try to be diplomat and negiotiate with the robbers at the street, trying to convert them? Or he can go to missions of healing, teaching and preaching rather than killing? Or a Ranger could find other pathways through the wilderness for a group of travellers instead of just killing the robbers on the forest road. There are many ways a “problem” (quest) could be solved, depending on the skills of a character-role and the decisions of the player. And this thinking outside the D&D-box of mob-killing is what I miss and what I yet haven’t really seen in MMORPGs. In this I think many developers are still too much confined in this 1970ies ideal of: “fantasy-game = monster killing”, where noble attempts like Ultima IV already tried to break away from over two decades ago. But alas, this is a step we yet have to see in MMORPGs: The emancipation from the D&D heritage.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand