Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Of Dungeon Masters and Quest Givers

Please don't fall over in shock, Dear Reader. I know it is strange to see two posts in as many days. And I know it'll be late when I post this, but it is still today and not tomorrow. Hopefully, this will become more commonplace. I did promise more thoughts on the subject of StoryBricks, as partially inspired by Spinks' post about NPC realism and interactivity.

In the old days--of the 1970s and 80s--young people would gather around a table with dice and stat sheets and weave a tale of adventure with an element of chance. Each player would assume a role and pretend to be that character. The key to this adventure was the player known as the Dungeon Master. I say player, because I believe the DM was as big a player as anyone else, in addition to being the chief storyteller and referee. Sometimes the scenarios were taken from "canned" adventure books; other times DMs made it up themselves. I never actually got to play D&D or other PnP RPGs when I was younger--or older for that matter--so my knowledge of them is limited to having read several AD&D sourcebooks and novels, as well as conversations with PnP gamers. As I understand it, the DM was responsible for planning the scenario that the other players would participate in, as well as controlling the Non-Player Characters, both friendly and hostile. The friendly NPCs (and occasionally the hostiles) helped round out the story of the players' adventure, providing the motivation to go out on epic quests, or just letting folks know about the treasure to be had in yon dungeon.

Multi-User Dungeons were designed soon after D&D came out, and became popular among college students and others with network access in the 80s and early 90s. Many of these followed the emphasis on Hack and Slash violence that tended to occur in D&D. Because of its similarity in gameplay to D&D the DikuMUD became a popular flavor of MUD and was the main influence of Graphical RPGs such as Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft.

Omigosh, I just totally digressed. My point was that with the advent of computerized RPGs, the Dungeon Master no longer had to be actively engaged in the moment-to-moment play of the game. Through a script, the DM could describe the setting and action for the player or players. At first this was textual, but eventually much of the environment and action could be visualized instead of described. Now the DM was a group of video game developers. So how were they going to convey the impetus for going on adventures? To potentially millions of players across the planet? At once?

Most current MMOs have dialogue boxes where the the player can read the necessary information before heading out to kill the ten rats. As Spinks mentions, NPCs are just "person shaped lumps" that players can interact with to get quests or goods. There are many who decry this method of interactivity as non-immersive. Is this any less immersive than a live DM sitting at the table voicing 10 different characters? I think maybe some people just don't like to read.

My point is that the Dungeon Master duties have been taken over by computer software, not that this is a bad thing. It means that I--who have never had a chance to sit around a table and roleplay with friends--can sit at my computer and roleplay with friends from halfway around the world, all from the comfort of my bedroom or living room. Or hotel room. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you've probably figured out that I don't put much stock in the assertion of some gamers that "themepark" MMOs are inferior to "sandbox" games. They each have their place, I suppose. But, at least one other blog I read a while back pointed out that, oftentimes, if you could do absolutely anything in a game, you end up not doing anything. You have no direction. Questing and other related content give structure and goals to a game, just as the PnP games that are the ancestors of modern MMOs had structure provided by the DM.

OK, so BioWare announces that the quests or missions in Star Wars: The Old Republic will be fully voiced, something that to my knowledge has never been done. So the quest givers will tell you verbally what you need to do. Start Trek Online has a few Featured Episodes that are at least partially voiced, but they still have the readable dialogue boxes. I hope SWTOR still has a quest log where I can read what I need to be doing. Otherwise I will forget everything I am supposed to be doing.

But even full audio interactivity is not good enough for some who want even more "immersion." "SWTOR will be more of the same old "on-rails" questing we see in WoW," they say (which I think is exaggerated). Maybe the new StoryBricks concept will catch on, where NPCs will have "motivations" and "desires" that PCs will able to satisfy. I can see how the system will make it easier to design content, but I am not sure how it will change the actual gameplay. I am looking forward to seeing that in action. But I don't know if the detractors of the current crop of MMOs will be satisfied.


  1. I both suspect and expect SWTOR to be precisely "more of the same" but with voiceovers and Star Wars graphics and sounds. All the same problems will be there. I'll still pick it up, just because I'm curious what BioWare does and hey, it's not Another Fantasy MMO like RIFT, regardless how good RIFT may or may not be.

    I love the ideas behind StoryBricks but I've lost count over the years how many ideas I've fallen in love with only to see the execution of those ideas fall flat. If they truly map out the NPC's lives, when the game goes live the real test of their mettle will be holding to their ideals and not caving to the forum whiners wanting it changed to be just like [insert MMO here].

    I didn't play it, but I think it was Horizons that had AI for animals where they'd migrate to follow their food sources or water? Players rejected it because they wanted the same ol' MMO experience where the same mobs were always in the same spot all the time.

    I'm playing Oblivion now and a fair amount of NPC's have their own little lives, so they don't always just stand in the same place waiting for me. It's cool, and I suppose it goes a way towards making me feel like I'm a part of that world with them (or the other way around?) but I'll also admit that it can get tedious when I lose track of where they might be and have to consult a wiki...

    There has to be an answer in there somewhere, though I suspect it's going to take either more human interaction (GM possessing an NPC for awhile) or advances in AI where the NPC's are more "self-aware" and able to learn. Then "evil video games" would be to blame for Skynet... =D

  2. You see, I'm looking at it from the similarity to real life. As I discussed in my last blog post, IRL, I don't need to know that the shopkeeper has a life. He or she is there to sell me stuff. From his or her perspective, I am only there to buy stuff. The rest doesn't matter. Tasks I am assigned IRL, at work for example, have an easy feedback system. I don't have to go all over creation looking for my boss (the quest giver).

    That's another reason Player quest givers would never work (though there's a funny WoW sequence on the Horde side right at the border between Silverpine and Hill, involving becoming a questgiver to a bunch of NPC player parodies). If a I get quest from a player, I need to have a way to turn it in without the quest giver being online. This was my point about the "DM" game developer not needing to be online for me to play the game. They just set up NOCs to hand out quests.

  3. Unless tracking down the dirty bum so I can get paid is part of the quest. Then that would be cool.

  4. I think it was Scopique who a few days ago submitted that "questing" IRL is about constant forward progress, not constant reporting back like we do now in RPGs. Maybe if the world becomes more alive, and NPCs have the own lives and schedules, then some other mechanism needs to be in place for the impatient gamer? Or, alternatively, make it known that the impatient gamer is not the target audience?

    From a detached perpective, the vendor is there to buy my crap, but from an "immersion" perpective, that doesn't make sense that this person stands in place 24/7. I don't look at him as a person anymore, where tabletop NPCs were, just like stories or movies always have smaller parts or bit-parts without dehumanizing that person just because his role in the story is limited.

  5. I get what you're saying. I'll have to read Scopique's post. Off the cuff, I'd beg to differ, though. We all have bosses that give us assignments and to whom we report back upon completion. They evaluate our progress in order to promote us. It may not be as clear cut all the time the way games are. But IRL, I am not a heroic shaman slaughtering trolls and bears for a living.

    STO, at least, has the possibility of picking new missions reporting back over "subspace," as it fits the genre.

    My point with the vendors is that we barely look at cashiers and such as people anyway, IRL. You can say you do, but I'll bet you don't know the name of the last cashier you interacted with, unless you know him or her in another context. They're outside your Monkeysphere.

    Whether I think of an NPC vendor or not depends on my mood. Much the time they are simply a place to turn in vendor trash. Which is a whoollle 'nother blog post.