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Star Citizen


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What is an RPG?
It all began with pen and paper




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What is an RPG?

2019.0223.2212

The RPG, or "Role Playing Game", is a game which, via any medium, uses role-play to explore the individual's interaction with a variety of hypothetical situations set in persistent environments, from the perspective of the role being played. The best known RPG at the time RPGs made their debut, in the 1970s, was Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons published by TSR. This is, possibly, still the best known RPG, even today. As best known of the earliest RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons is the exemplar or type example for what constitutes an RPG. This sets the standard against which we can compare other games which are claimed to be "RPGs".


What are the mandatory Criteria for a Role-Playing Game?

The primary characteristic of the RPG, exemplified by Dungeons & Dragons, is the availability of an open-world setting where the player need not necessarily go to any given location first but could explore and get the lay of the land before deciding what to do, where to go and in what order. In this sense, the narrative was player-driven, even if vocalized by the Dungeon-Master (i.e. "facilitator or "referee"). While game-play could be guided by a campaign of missions issued by an NPC patron, with or without the provision of maps or route guides, it was very important that players could follow wherever their own preferred game-play took them - within the limits of practicality. Exceedingly powerful creatures became facilitator tools to ward players away from yet to be completed areas and had great potential to become symbols of the whole "dog ate my homework" situation associated with missed deadlines.

In the context of RPGs, one of the reasons for missed deadlines, aside from the unpredictability of player-driven narrative, is that it takes a lot of work to ensure that the new areas are diverse enough, regionally varied in balance, and deep enough to provide compelling game-play whatever the player decides to do. This introduces the opportunity for emergent gameplay which, being unanticipated, highlights gaps in the design process which must be addressed by the Dungeon Master, Facilitator or "Referee" through further deepening of the game-world and introduction of new mechanics and tables to allow the emergent gameplay to flourish in a balanced system. For this reason, tools like the "Companion Series" and various "Monster Manuals" were published to support the natural in-game evolution of the Role-Playing Game.

One of the most important aspects of role-play is the limitation of player perceptions to those perceptions possible for the player character. To this end, the reference maps used by the Dungeon-Master would be concealed from the players through the use of a screen and descriptions would be limited to only those objects in the player's field of view, as limited by line of sight. In fact, it was quite common for players to have to instruct the Dungeon-Master when looking in a different direction in order to have the field of view updated by direction. While this made game-play quite cumbersome, it was more important to convey the sense of being there inasmuch as the player should not be aware of what the player-character cannot see or hear. This is because the player is not playing the role of gods, devils, angels, demons or any such supernatural critters. Instead, the player is playing the role of a very fallible character which is a very important part of the reason why the applicable adjective term is "role-playing" and not "god-playing".

These observations can be summarised into three mandatory role-play criteria which must all be satisfied in order for role-play to take place throughout the course of a game:

  1. The narrative must be player driven; enabling player-decisions which requires an open world design and sufficiently compelling game-world elements and mechanics to obviate all default campaigns and missions.
  2. Independent authorship must be encouraged and fully supported to ensure the playerbase has the means to correct design oversights inevitable in the design of any open world system
  3. Player perception of in-world events and elements must be strictly limited to what would be possible for the player character to perceive


Computerization and Role-Play

The evolution of the Role-Playing Game from the pen and paper medium into computers began with the systematization of interior world-space descriptions delivered according to where navigation instructions would take the player character within that worldspace. This was later enhanced with the addition of a map feature which allowed players to travel from one interior worldspace to another once outdoors - but resuming the text-based descriptions inside. With the development of First Person View, a new game genre hit the market; the First Person Shooter. However, the original First Person Shooters shared many characteristics with the Role Playing Game. The original Doom and Wolfenstein games presented the player character with a first person view of two-dimensional and then very simple three-dimensional architecture. This allowed for some surprisingly open playestyles to emerge in what remained strictly linear and one-dimensional campaigns. As 3D rendering evolved, the first-person shooter "devolved" as mainstream developers sought to cut design costs by faking the open-ness of world-space design in the production of box-canyon worlds which did little more than hint at a second architectural dimension - if only with higher resolution textures. This was about when mainstream developers tried to make "the tail wag the dog" by claiming that "there is no such thing as an open world" and "open world design" is an illusion. This, however, neglects how the player-base used the term "open world" to describe world-space pathing that could only exist in more than one dimension. It also evolved from the fact that the developers, in question, were the ones responsible for trying to use illusory open-world window-dressing to make their counterfeit of open-world design more convincing.

Graphically-rendered RPGs, as defined by the three criteria listed above, did not enter the market until the early 21st century. Of the earliest examples, Bethesda Softworks' Morrowind is probably the best known example. This not only applied a character personalization system on par with the original Dungeons & Dragons but also set gameplay in a precise example of an open world replete with opportunities for compelling player-directed game-play with a first person view which allowed the player to be surprised by what was around the next corner (or sneaking up behind). At around the same time, a lot of mainstream developers were fraudulently applying the term "RPG" or "Role-Playing Game" to just about anything and, most noteably, to games entirely lacking a first-person viewpoint which forced the player's view into a gods-eye perspective that showed, in great detail, all too many things the player-character could not possibly see. This style of gaming is not Role-Playing but a 3D derivative of the sidescrolling arcade games from which it evolved and would be more honestly described as a gods-eye game.

By releasing games which conformed to the criteria of the RPG, Bethesda Softworks shook the world of the mainstream developers and became frequent targets of criticisms deprecating the very things which made their games popular. Contrary to what the critics have ever produced or supported, Bethesda Softworks' first RPG is still played to this day, if continued modding activity is any indication. This game, Morrowind was followed by a series of Bethesda Softworks releases which included Fallout 3, Oblivion, Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim and, most recently, Fallout 4. These games are still criticised for remaining true to the Role-Playing gaming genre instead of degenerating into the fraudulent open-world counterfeits and puppeteer/god's-eye games we see produced today.


The Future of Role-Play

Even back in the 1980s, there was considerable discussion among role-players, with whom I had contact, concerning the future of this type of game and the potential for multi-level gaming mechanics once computer technology became capable of facilitating or serving RPGs. One of the characteristic problems of open world development is the demand for an extremely broad array of game mechanics associated with the sheer scope of how a given player may choose to do something. Even in the very simple example of going from one place to another, a player may wish to travel on foot (either at a run or walking), or drive a ground vehicle, or fly a VTOL aircraft. In each case, the mechanics and rules of interaction are vastly different - as are the responses from NPCs and other actors into whose sphere of influence the player may travel by any particular means. This breadth of possibility dictates that, unlike abstract games such as Chess, Pylos and Go (which are, by their nature, limited to a single set of mechanics or rules), a well designed RPG is anything but elegant and, inevitably, requires a high degree of complexity to enable the multiple sets of game mechanics that support the many varied activities, which the player may choose to engage in within the game world. In this sense, the RPG is different from traditional games in that it is improved by addition of game-play options which, in turn, require additional complexity such that, unlike traditional games, RPGs improve with complexity.

The release of Fallout 4, in late 2015, saw the initial implementation of the foundation for one of the predictions made for RPGs back in the 1980s. The settlement-building system, although far from perfect, introduces very compelling administrative and planning activities which extend the tactical gameplay of the first-person world to the first person view of a strategic level of play. Moreover, these activities are compelling enough to cause significant deviation from the main questline which, in turn, demonstrates how the addition of compelling game mechanics can push the main quest or campaign into the background and make room for the player narrative to emerge. Although far from leading armies according to a strategy designed and detailed by the player in-game, this settlement-building system takes the first very important step in this direction which, ultimately, sees the introduction of in-game play options allowing the player to advance in both rank and authority and, thereby, allowing gameplay to evolve throughout the game, accordingly.

On a much grander scale is the very ambitious objective of capturing the futurist variation of fantasy genre in a space-faring RPG. Although less intensive in the development of new mechanics, the space-faring variety of RPG requires huge worldspaces to be developed to make each of multiple inhabitable planets more immersive through less limitations imposed by "invisible fences from planet-x" and "there be dragons" limits on exploration. One very effective technique is to procedurally generate the galaxy outside the hand-crafted centre of the gaming universe and allow the "sourness of milk" associated with generic, procedurally generated worlds to encourage a preference for the home worlds while allowing a sense of in-gae freedom in the fact that the player really can go anywhere within the range of travel.


Important considerations arising from the 3 Role-Playing Game criteria

  1. Player Narrative over Developer Narrative: the Role-Playing Game is all about the player's decisions and how the consequences of player choice impact in terms of exploration, development of in-game way of life, in-game companionship and in-game home-building.
  2. Open World design allowing the player to go where s/he chooses in a two or three dimensional geography instead of confining the player to a linear, one dimension geography (i.e. a corridor or corral) so as to allow for multiple approaches to any given problem.
  3. Open mission, quest and campaign design allowing a broad array of choices that preclude the possibility of corralling the player down a single developer narrative
  4. The ability to modify the game so that specific settings, venues and narrative options not included by the developer can be added by the player
  5. A wide array of activities and challenges ranging from scouting, smuggling, infiltration, bounty-hunting, dungeon clearing, tactical combat and navigation to hunting, mining, crafting, trade, thieving, assassination and logistics for all of the above.
  6. Real world relevance of in-game physics and "laws of nature" to the player's own real-world experience
  7. Conformity of in-game elements to the corresponding fantasy genre type (i.e. magic in Medievalist fantasy only, spaceships in Futurist fantasy only, etc.)

Saturday, ISO: 2019-February-23, 22:12 hours, UTC.