The Dungeon Master and the Role-Playing Game: Engagement and Distance
Once, a teacher at Digipen (the gamer’s harvard, a school for game design and programming in Redmond, Washington) said that “Once games are as engaging as a Dungeons and Dragons game with a good Dungeon Master, we’ll have done our jobs”
As a guy currently co-Dungeon Mastering a game with his brother, and an avid gamer, I actually have to question that particular statement–and not for the reasons one might suspect.
The most obvious reason someone might think this statement wrong is that in the vast majority of Dungeon and Dragon games (Or any tabletop RPG) the amount of time seriously gaming and focusing is dwarfed by the amount of times players joke around, poke fun at NPCs or plot threads, or make joke actions or suggestions to throw their fellow players off. And while that’s one of the great virtues of Dungeons and Dragons, it comes the cost of serious engagement–it’s harder to get drawn into a D&D game than it is, say, Final Fantasy. But that’s not because of the medium the RPG is presented in–it’s not unique to tabletop games. Rather, that sort of jovial atmosphere stems entirely from the physically present, social aspects of Dungeons and Dragons. You probably wouldn’t ask all your friends to crowd around a TV and “role-play” Final Fantasy Vll, but if you did, I can bet it’d wind up just as stupid and meta as a round of D&D.
So that’s not the reason it’s so suspect in my mind. Consider what the virtues of a proper DM ARE, compared to a regular RPG game engine like Dragon’s Age. You can negotiate with a DM, for one–make appeals, try to invoke a sense of mercy in his cold unloving soul–but some DM’s have no tolerance for that and are just as unwavering as the Dragon’s Age engine. A DM has a human element to him, able to anticipate things better than a computer can, read your emotions, and alter encounters or dungeons to keep things fresh, interesting, or from getting frustrating. But then, there are pre-made campaigns, dungeons, and adventures that render that advantage moot, particularly if you have another unwavering “by the numbers” accountant-type running your game.
But what all good DM’s do to a greater degree than any game can right now is make the world feel much more alive, malleable, and reactionary to player’s actions. For example, if you kill a NPC in, say, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, you might trigger a pre-scripted event where assassin’s notice your ambiguous morals and make you an offer to join them. Of course, it can’t just be ANY NPC’s–some are too important, and the game won’t let you kill them, just knock them out. In a D&D campaign, though, ANYTHING could happen. If the players killed an innocent man, they could be on the run from a passe of vengeful townsfolk. They could of accidentally killed the brother of their main villain, who, heartbroken, kills himself out of grief. This person could of been unloved by all, and the only people cursing the players for the killing is the sweepers who have to get the body out of the streets. Heck, they could of unknowingly killed the Necromancer who was giving them all life, causing them to slump over dead as after the deed.
Any game nowadays could never live up to that expectation. A game could never make a world so ‘real’ that a spontaneous, unscripted murder would provoke anything except the standard response the game was programmed to react with–which is usually just summoning guards and making other NPC’s run away, if they react at all. A game that COULD do what a DM could do, and make the whole world really react to the death in any number of ways sounds great, doesn’t it?
…actually, I don’t think so. And this is where my dissenting opinion takes shape. I’d argue that it’s the game’s lack of ability to improvise that makes video games so entertaining and engaging, and ‘improving’ a game to be more organic might make it less enjoyable. Consider Skyrim, the most well-known, organic RPG we have.
I bet at least once, anyone who’s owned that game has turned the difficulty all the way down and just started rampaging through town (After making a proper save so as to not screw up their playthrough). Killing random people, guards, all those damn chickens… anything that moved is fair game. It was good, stupid fun, right? If a computer had the ability to improvise as well as a Dungeon Master, but without any of the humor, it’d be much more… horrifying. The fact that people’s faces are basically mute in Skyrim, and when they die they just slump over like rag-dolls on the floor while other people just walk past them as if they were nothing more than litter MAKES these kinds of rampages fun. It’s the merging of a cathartic satisfaction with the very clear, distancing meta-moments that makes you feel guiltless at your crimes. It’s hard to feel bad about decapitating the blacksmith when his assistant can’t be bothered to stop working the forge to run from you or try to avenge his death.
But imagine a RPG without that. Where people are utterly shocked when you just decide to straight up-murder some dude. Imagine they start crying, and running, and vomiting, and panicking while some of that guys relatives started screaming about the madman who could of done this. Now imagine coming back to that town a few days later and people were still in a shock, talking about the murder and how much they missed the guy. Some are still crying. They’re working on erecting a memorial but they don’t have enough money so their have to whore their daughters out and so on and so forth.
It sounds engaging, but it doesn’t really sound fun. Unless you’re a sadist, I suppose. Now, it’s easy to say “Well, just because it’d be less fun to go on a murderous rampage in this kind of RPG, it doesn’t mean the bad outweighs the good. A DM-like computer could do a lot more than just guilt you for being a dick.”
But think of any aspect of a standard RPG, and you realize that pretty much no matter what you do, you’re a dick. You could plunder a tomb, but what about the dead you desecrate and heirlooms you steal? How would the herbalist feel when you walk into his store with his fathers armor strapped onto your body, which you looted from his crypt? What if you just kill ALL the bears? Deer would overpopulate, eat all the plants, the towns would starve come winter, ect…
RPG’s are fantasies. And sometime, to service that fantasy, a good DM knows where his humor would serve better than his logic. And until a computer can also have a sense of humor, a computer DM would just be really, really depressing. Right now, with their inability to improvise and their limitation, the humor a DM has is innate to a game–they accidentally create the perfect zone between “simulation” and “game” and that can be fun to monkey around in. Swing too far in one direction or the other, however…. and things might not be as great as it may on paper.