Please excuse me, 'cos I am about to have a good old rant and ramble.
Disclaimer - it took me a while to write this, and now I see that Llewelyn Mawr has addressed some of it already - that is a good thing, because this is not a rant aimed at anybody
- it is aimed at the current state of CRPG, if it is 'aimed at' anything.
I have recently been browsing The Forge
internet site and reading the essays there about the reasons and motivations for people roleplaying. These are developments of ideas known as the 'Threefold Model' discussed some years ago on the rec.games.frp.advocacy newsgroup and, while they are not (yet?) 'complete', they bear examination by all roleplayers and (especially) GMs. Following on from that I read the 'Hârnic MMORPG thread here. Now, it strikes me that the concepts discussed in those essays, as well as applying to tabletop roleplaying games, apply equally if not more so to MMORPGs.
So what? Well, let's look at the 'default' MMORPG setup - a setup that has already been assumed in the thread here, in fact.
The player designs a character
The character starts out so weak that local small fauna represent a threat
The character kills things and takes their stuff - for this the player is rewarded with a stronger character
The character gets handed some cheesey 'quests' when strong enough to tackle them - success is rewarded with a stronger character
Eventually the character is capable of taking on whole nations in battle and winning, so the game devolves to a PK contest, possibly with some political elements in lieu of 'roleplaying'.
A similar set of conditions apply in the 'typical' tabletop RPG - which is, of course, where the paradigm comes from. One of the beautiful things about Hârn and HârnMaster, to my mind, is that they break this particular mould, at least partially. Received wisdom says that the spiral treadmill of kill stuff -> get stronger at killing stuff -> kill bigger stuff - which can be very addictive! - is neccessary to sell a (C)RPG. The point of the Forge/r.g.f.a GNS/GDS models is that this isn't so.A Whole New Paradigm
So what is needed to make a completely new type of MMORPG that people will flock to enjoy?
Well. let's first try to understand what the 'old' model offers. It offers an escalating series of challenges against which players can 'test' themselves and either 'win' or (temporarily) 'lose'. This represents one way to satisfy what the GNS model calls 'Gameism' - the drive to experience competition - to 'Step On Up'. Except for the fact that it gets locked into an unsustainable power spiral it does this very well - that is why it's quite popular and successful.
Now, Hârn, to me, is much more about exploration - discovery, of a whole range of sorts - and stories. So why not develop a game where the rewards are given for exploration and for engaging with the world, rather than for killing stuff? And where the result of those rewards is not to make you tougher and more able to kill stuff, but give you more knowledge, more ability to exploit and explore the world, and more ability to interact and experience stories.
A few suggestions for doing this:
Hârn has always majored on beautiful maps. Players should get 'memory maps' (as files on their PC?) covering the places their character has explored.What About 'Story'?
Contacts - NPCs could be set to 'contact' status once befriended by PCs, with the result that they will pass on their store of news and rumours when they meet. Stories might be fed in the other direction, too...
It's not what you know, it's who you know - have some mechanism by which PCs can build (positive or negative) relationships with NPCs. Include a mechanism for spreading news about what people do - those who kill friends or family will soon be reviled, those who do their 'duty' will be better thought of.
It is essential, if the game is to be truly Hârn, for there to be a working economy and ecology. Learning what lives on what can be very useful.
Learning the prices of things can be literally valuable.
Robert McKee, in his book 'Story
', describes what is needed to generate a story. First you need a protagonist who has a 'dramatic need' - that is, something he or she wants so badly they are prepared to go to considerable lengths to get it. Then you need reasons why (s)he can't have it.
That's it. The rest will come naturally as the protagonist tries increasingly extreme methods to get what they are after. The trick, of course, is to bring out those 'dramatic needs'. How do you get players to give their characters driving desires - needs strong enough to drive stories? The 'traditional' answer is to give them quests, but that is commonly cheesey and trite - it can
be done right, but when it's just coining a cliché the magic goes. The result is what McKee refers to as 'Sentimentality', when what we want to achieve is true 'Sentiment'.
So how does
one do it? I wish I knew, but a start would be rewarding it in some way - I guess this more or less has to be an administrator function. And tell the players you are rewarding it - 'hidden' rewards are seldom successful - but you don't need to be too specific about what exactly
is rewarded - you'll know it when you see it.
The other thing you need to do is provide adversity - make doing things difficult. Note that I say 'difficult', not 'dangerous' (although some things might
be dangerous, too). Getting killed every time you try to do something does not encourage conceiving those 'dramatic needs' - but if at first you live but don't succeed, you might try, try again...And The Game System?
If the 'standard' de facto program of:
Kill things and take their stuff
Get tougher and more capable of killing things and taking their stuff
is to be avoided, we need both (a) a reward system that does not reward killing things and taking their stuff and (b) a character development system that does not mean getting better at killing things and taking their stuff.
I suggest something based on HârnMaster. Simplified, maybe, so that attributes generate SBs, skills have an OML of n times SB and extra SBs can be added to this through practise. At character generation, X points are allocated to skills (perhaps through occupational 'templates' as per HM) over and above the OMLs. X never changes - as new stuff is learned, old stuff is forgotten, so training one skill increases that skill but the longest idle skill reduces one SB. Focussing on skills the character is naturally good at (high SB) has obvious advantages, but maybe interest or neccessity will drive other skills to be developed for a time. Such development should not be tedious - but it should be neccessary to plan it. Maybe plot changes and then they happen after a real-time delay of a day or so.
The real reward system, as I say above, is elsewhere. It is contacts, relationships, knowledge and understanding of the world. These last are especially key, because they outlast character death and transfer, at least in part, with the player to the next character. This should take away some - though by no means all - of death's sting. And, as someone said, there's always Bukrai...
use hit points. They are fine for representing a struggle to overcome a challenge before your own resources ('life') runs out - they are crap for representing the hazard of doing a dangerous task. Again, use HM as a basis - simplify, sure, but have individual wounds 'gained' and carried around as hindrances until they are removed through care and rest, not HPs lost until sudden and unglamorous death. Have physical damage represent a hazard and a threat, not a store of resource that you don't want to run out of...
If we want a game that breaks the mould of hack and slash, we need to do two things. Don't reward hacking and slashing, and don't give rewards that mean 'getting better at hacking and slashing'.
The received wisdom is that anything not
based on this paradigm will fail. I think the opposite is true, because anything built on this paradigm has lots
of competition. Start small, with a well conceived 'new model' that rewards discovery and drama and I think you might have a real 'winner'. But it has to be done well.
And that, of course, is the trick