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Real Roleplaying?
Justin Hall

Can computer and video games ever take the place of traditional gamemaster-driven role-playing games? Justin Hall investigates.

To most semi-literate gamers, a role-playing game, or RPG, is a party of adventurers, a fighter/thief/cleric/mage combo, combing dungeon corners for magic swords and the chattering skeleton king. To Bruce Runnels, role-playing games offer the chance to play Charles Baudelaire, a noble pirate from the 17th century who owns a tavern and derides those without a sense of fashion. In a game he once refused to sleep with a beautiful courtesan because her corset was two years out of fashion! (This takes place in Seventh Sea, a pirate RPG.)

Who is Bruce Runnels? Well, he works on GRIP, a dream program for dedicated role-playing gamers who have moved away from their primary role-playing cohort. Gamemasters purchase the GRIP program, use the map editor to draw up a map, and add their own narrative text. Their group of roleplayers downloads the free client software, and connects to the gamemaster's computer for an adventure through the Internet. Roleplayers chat together, making up their adventures in text, as the gamemaster shares narrative, pictures, and even sounds at the right moments. It sounds great if you're already a dedicated role-playing gamer.

From what Runnels reports, a healthy community of players has already grown up around GRIP in the year since its invention. He says that people have an easier time roleplaying behind a screen (certainly Sherry Turkle would agree with him), and users have no problem making up their own tools and expanding the software. If they provide all these tools for people to build adventures, would they ever set up the program so that people could adventure without a gamemaster? This seems to be crossing the line from “traditional” role-playing games to computer role-playing games. Runnels was adamant about the importance of a gamemaster—characters couldn’t propose wild solutions to problems in the game without a living, breathing moderator there to develop a story around that tangent.

Suddenly Massively Multiplayer?

Recently and without warning, massively multiplayer computer games, such as Everquest, Ultima Online, and Asheron's Call, have become some of the most popular games today. Thousands of people connect to these games through the Internet to seek their fortune in fantasy worlds. But before there were graphically rich worlds where all the monsters and treasure were spelled out for you, people used words to make massively multiplayer online worlds — in MUDs, or Multi-User Domains.

Now hopes to attract a large audience by offering sophisticated text-based role-playing environments where people can roleplay and seek their fortune. In this case, the moderators work in advance to build descriptions of buildings and non-player characters. Then, they hope, the players themselves become the plot. You want to be the mayor of San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849? Fine, but you may have to deal with those in competition for your power.

Lisa Disterheft of Skotos is scripting that San Francisco adventure. A long time roleplayer, she enjoys Call of Cthulhu on weekends with her co-workers ("hopefully without the CEO — I see enough of him as it is"). Once the game is running, she expects to return to seed the game world with events, an unexplained murder, or a new vein of gold somewhere, through the in-game newspapers. was at GenCon this year seeking storytellers, people to write the stories and characters to populate these online worlds. The stories they have so far are all fantastical, the stuff of pen and paper RPGs: Lovecraftian horror, fantasy castles, OG, and Paranoia. Someday, if all goes according to plan, they hope to have hundreds of these text games, separated into channels. Pay your monthly small subscription fee and you'll be able to maintain characters on as many of them as you can manage.

Old Man Murray says, "The plot template for all RPGs is the timeless tale of raising a little bar higher by doing something over and over again." Certainly electronic role-playing games trade in on this phenomenon. We'll have to see if can excite that level of lust in people without any eye candy.

Beauty Is in the Eye Candy of the Beholder

If you're willing to trade in flexible character development and freedom to use your imagination, you can enjoy a world of vivid graphics and sounds, with all the trappings of fantasy roleplay. Video game and computer game designers have been using metaphors from role-playing games since Alkabeth. While they offer the opportunity to replay fantasy archetypes, they haven't often offered storytellers and game masters any tools to build their own computer fantasy adventures. Electronic Arts' Adventure Construction Set from 1984 was a notable exception; the program allowed players to build their own games by using tile graphics and writing in-game text. Interplay released the Bard's Tale Construction Set in 1991, and SSI released its own dungeon-making tool Dungeon Hack, but neither game provided for multiplayer adventuring.

Internet gaming has inspired game makers to develop tools for gamers who want to create adventures to share with their friends. Recently, Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption was among the first products to combine contemporary gaming graphics with story-scripting tools. Aspiring game masters can use the game's characters and locations to build adventures for up to four players online. Filling up a London nightclub with werewolves and Goth chicks is easy enough through the click-and-drag menu interface. But if you want to give the non-player characters text speeches, or certain behaviors (by instructing them to "give another player a shot glass of blood"), you have to be able to program in Java. Usually, that’s above and beyond the abilities of most players. Still, John Heinecke from Activision reports that Vampire players with programming savvy have been making tools for a dedicated community of storytellers. As difficult as the programming may be for Vampire, it still offers ambitious players/storytellers an outlet for their storytelling instincts.

SSI's upcoming Pool of Radiance II has multiplayer capacities, but the game-mastering elements have been completely removed. Gathering friends for a game of Pool of Radiance II means six characters hacking their way through a randomly loaded dungeon, facing randomly loaded enemies. Why bother? "Because there are certain items you can only get in the multiplayer dungeons."


At GenCon Activision was also showing off Wizards and Warriors, a game from D.W. Bradley, who worked on the later Wizardry titles and Dungeon Master, one of the first graphically rich first-person dungeon crawls. As I right-clicked to attack a group of skeletons, I asked the Activision representative, "What kind of game is this?" "This is a traditional RPG" was the response I got. By this time I'd been talking to enough traditional roleplayers to get my dander up — I felt my beard unfurling as I began to speak: "Just how am I roleplaying? I'm clicking my way through a dungeon! I can't talk or even type to say anything! I'm just a fighter/rogue/mage/cleric group trying to gain experience and loot! There's no roleplaying in this!"

He was a bit taken aback by my tirade, but he responded, "This is a nostalgia game, a throwback," and I have to admit that he’s right. Trolling through a dungeon gaining levels and loot was something I'd been doing since I was seven when I first started playing Wizardry. And even the dedicated role-playing gamers at GenCon were not above this kind of dungeon adventure. All the people I interviewed for this article had recently been playing Diablo II or Icewind Dale.

The other thing that united all the roleplayers, which I spoke with at GenCon, were their gaming stories, stories that could not have come out of computer roleplaying today. Bill Dugan of Wizards of the Coast mentioned a recent pen and paper D&D3 game in which a party of adventurers opened a door to see a large, enraged Minotaur charging them. One of the players decided that he'd do the smart thing, so he closed the door. The Minotaur kept running and tried to knock down the door. The player was able to hold it up for some time (a few lucky die rolls), but soon the Minotaur had knocked down the door, flattening the player beneath. Rather than simply running over the door, the Minotaur (administered by the dungeon master) stomped on the door until he heard a crunching sound. Dugan was chuckling as he told me this; he contrasted it with Final Fantasy VII, a leading console role-playing game. In that game you can only play Cloud. ("It's like being an actor, being handed a script.")

I thought that I could settle the score if I asked the co-originator of the modern role-playing game, Gary Gygax, about computer role-playing games. He, in turn, responded with a question: "To whom are you playing a role?" With the advent of the Internet, computer games may finally be able to expand roleplaying beyond self-stimulation into storytelling. But ultimately, if you want to experience true roleplaying, it looks like you still have to unplug your mind.

One man fancies storytelling at the Vampire Booth at Gencon


Bruce Runnels of GRIP enjoys role-playing a fashion conscious pirate.


Lisa Disterheft conjures the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young for some online storytelling good times.


Graphically rich with a range of over 8 sound effects, Adventure Construction Set offered storytelling capacities orders of magnitude more complex than shadowpuppetry.


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