As someone who never had enough friends into roleplaying games to be a part of a genuine D&D group, my childhood impressions of tabletop gaming pretty much begins and ends with the above scene in E.T. and whatever I could imagine from gaming manuals.
Wait… what WAS going on in this scene? They’re playing D&D… while drinking Tab and coffee… and smoking… and there is a can of Raid there? I think these kids have a death pact. That totally changes E.T. for me.
Anyway, my impressions of an average pen-and-paper roleplaying experience is that it’s not just wall-to-wall fighting. There is interaction between characters and NPCs, characters and each other, and characters and the world (as well as characters and “god,” AKA the game master). That outlines the four realms of potential conflict, by the way. Players reason through situations, act as their character would act, attempt creative and unorthodox solutions on occasion, and make choices that would result in greater ramifications.
Thinking of this leaves a hole in my average MMORPG experience, because there is almost never any choice, any deviation, any interaction aside from “click the glowies” and “kill the baddies” during a quest. There especially isn’t any actual mid-quest roleplay aside from a precious few MMOs that have gone out of their way, and even then, only on occasion (DDO, STO, and SWTOR come to mind). Maybe the quest systems aren’t flexible enough. Maybe the devs have metrics showing players get bored with such things. I don’t know. But I do miss seeing quests develop in interesting ways according to the choices, words, and actions we take.
Somewhat related to this topic is a recent Extra Credits video, which challenges games to give our characters moments where we take stock of what we’ve done and why we’ve done it — even and especially if we’ve been murder machines up to that point. I often employ this tack while blogging as a humorous way to comment on the kill-happy, excuse-lite nature of MMORPGs, but it really could make our questing experience more interesting.
I remember a long time ago, back in my Warhammer Online days, I was beating on a drum for the notion of a branching quest. This would be a repeatable quest that changed based on “choose my adventure” picks as you went along. There was incentive to repeat it to see how the story played out differently, and perhaps even extra rewards if you got all of the different endings. Still haven’t seen much along those lines. EverQuest Next’s Storybricks hinted at such flexible flowchart adventures, but that’s a “what if” that will never be.
There’s this Transylvania quest in Secret World Legends where the final step is to find another player and share a story with him or her. Even though this is actually just a clickable item that bestows some sort of buff on you both, I like the thought of the quest requiring some interaction with others — to show them something, not to group with them. It was a glimmer of a different social angle than we normally get.
Letting players craft their own stories and take on the roles of dungeon masters would be another way to weave more lore, choices, and interactions in quests. Some games have taken stabs at this, but we still aren’t living in an age where there is a highly popular and refined example of such a system.
If more quests had choices and interactions that were something other than killing-related, then it would open up a lot more opportunities for characters to grow and develop as more rounded individuals. We wouldn’t be merely trying to max out DPS, but could be concerned about our prowess when it came to adventuring obstacles, background characteristics, technological challenges, social interactions, and the like. And it should be integrated with quests, not segregated like WildStar’s path system.
I guess I don’t have a solid solution or even a reasonable conclusion here. I don’t want to abolish the quest system, I want to see it jump forward in what it offers and to take a cue from tabletop gaming to offer more of an actual “roleplay” experience than what we usually see.