Guest Star

What’s the Matter with Runescape?

playershandbook80.jpgI recently had a conversation with my ten year-old son that I had been longing to have since before he was born, since before I was even sure I really wanted to have kids.  We were well into the eleventh hour of a game of Risk that had seen the empires of my wife and seven year-old come and go when my elder boy said the words that not only made me proud, but assured me that he would grow into a fine young man, that my work as a father was practically complete and a resounding success: “You know what I don’t like about RuneScape?” 

I know.  Brilliant.  But further, dig this.  He continued:  “Actually, it’s something I don’t like about all of these games.  EverQuest and World of Warcraft and Knights of the Old Republic…  They don’t give you enough choices.  Like, you only get to choose from a couple of things to say, and there are only a few ways to do anything.  What if there was a game where you could, like, do anything?”

A tear slipped from my eye.  I think I peed a little.  “You know, Mads, there are games where you can do anything.”  He gave me an incredulous look, the kind that says, My father wasn’t a Jedi Knight, he was a navigator on a spice freighter.  “Come with me, my son.”  

I lead my son into the depths of the Aladdin’s cave that is my garage, and there behind the old paint cans, in the dark corner where I keep The Things My Wife Thinks I Threw Away, I revealed to my son the kind of magical boon that wizened mentors are supposed to bestow on these occasions – my AD&D “Players Handbook” and a leather bag (or “leathern” if you work at the RenFaire where I bought the thing in 1986) filled with polyhedron dice.

playershandbook250.jpgFollowing those four paragraphs, my writing that I’m a geek would be tantamount to Hitler ending Mein Kampf by writing “…and by the way, I am a crazy douchebag”.  I know I’m a geek and so do you.  Fine.  But I have lately been very troubled by depictions of “geeks” in the cultural gutter (the lower case, mainstream media kind).  I’m not a geek of the Best Buy “Geek Squad” variety.  You’d never confuse me with the geeks on Chuck, or that new show with the two geeky guys and the allegedly hot girl, or… the other one.  Now that geeks have been “discovered” as a sitcom exploitable stereotype, I’m dismayed to find that I might not be one after all.  According to all of these shows, geeks are also nerds – technophiles and early adopters of wares both hard and soft.  But that ain’t me, babe.  Did I write some kick-ass Basic language text adventures on my TI-99/4A?  You bet your IF/THEN statement, bitch!  But since those halcyon days I have regressed.  I stopped buying videogames (for myself) ten years ago;  I switched to Mac from PC because I frankly stopped giving a shit;  and I work in the film industry but have resisted the ubiquitous Crackberry so vociferously that I am known in some circles as “Johnny Analog.”  The absolute proof positive that I’m failing to meet the current geek specs, however, is my absolute loathing of videogames that have the temerity to call themselves “RPGs.”  Exactly what the fuck kind of “role” are you playing when you take on a character who can only answer questions with one of three wildly divergent statement options?  A fucking retarded role, that’s what. 

Okay, a quick caveat: I admit that my attitude toward “RPG” videogames is not solely informed by their mediocre playability or shallow options.  I suppose I am also feeling defensive (a nerd thing, more than a geek thing) about the fact that I grew up in a day when knowing what a mage or a cross-class skill or a hit point was could get your face punched and your book bag thrown out the bus window.  Now that arcane knowledge has been shared with button-mashing “Madden Football” lovers, and – even worse – gamers who claim to love these fantasy RPGs but refuse to recognize that not one of these games could exist without the pioneering of old skool dice-and-paper games.
I gave my ten year-old my dice and my books and my miniatures.  Hopefully, I gave him what I got when I first took them up: infinite possibilities.  Photo-realistic graphics are cool and all, but what are they compared to unbounded imagination?  How can a computer program compete with that “something from nothing” magic that happens when you put a group of human players around a table, face to face?  The best RPG videogames can show you what a spell looks like, but only a ka tet of gamers – real human gamers – can actually cast a spell.


John Crye is a ten year veteran of the independent film industry with cross class skills in writing, acting, producing and acerbic ranting.  He is also a member of the Fewdio horror collective and a geek with a podcast, You Will Not Make It In Hollywood.

Every month the Cultural Gutter features a guest article.  Send us a pitch.  We pay pulp rates!

9 replies »

  1. Hi John,
    I really enjoyed your piece. You make raising kids sound, well, fun.
    One of the big topics in the academic study of new religious movements how the experience of second-generation practitioners differs from initial converts; how different is your experience of religious community if you have grown up with it, as opposed to seeking it out? I’m interested in your thoughts on how your Geekdom might have turned out if you got your implements from your parents, like your son now has.
    Thanks for an entertaining article.


  2. Hi John.
    Your article is interesting, though I think there is a fundamental problem with your loathing of computer RPGs: RPGs and computer RPGs are not the same kind of games. This is because of the inherent limitations of videogames; a truly freeform game with any kind of depth is just not possible.
    In a way, you are role-playing: for example, you play the role of one of the two paths the designers envisioned for the main character in games like KOTOR. You just don’t get to really choose a role. In combat-heavy RPGs like Icewind Dale, you must approach them like tabletop tactics games: it’s not the purpose of the game to have you playing any role beyond that of a tactician.
    But anyway, you must realize that a mainstream CRPG is nothing more that an adventure game with stats/skills you can improve. “RPG” is just a label for gamers to quickly identify the type of game. Adding to the confusion, sometimes a CRPG will use AD&D’s combat system. But in reality, they are closer to Choose Your Own Adventure books, only with stats and hitpoints. They are not meant to be like pen-and-paper RPGs, and thinking of them that way will only irritate you.
    I say all this as a fan of RPGs, CRPGs, tabletop games, miniature wargaming, and many other geeky hobbies 🙂


  3. Android, I do understand the distinction between the pen-and-paper games and their computerized bastard children, and I don’t inherently fault the CRPGs for their limitations. (Your comparison of the CRPGs to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books is most apt.) What burns my ass is that the legion of new players who will play a CRPG without compunction, but still sneer at the very idea of tossing dice. To me it would be like hearing someone praise Green Day and dismiss the Dead Kennedys in the same breath. Green Day is fine and all, just don’t call ’em punk. Similarly, “World of Warcraft” is fine on its own merits, but calling it an RPG is putting too fine a point on it. As I now am. – John


  4. I enjoyed the article John – I’ve often felt the same about cRPGs.
    It did leave me with more questions than insights however…
    – What fundamental differences are there between the mediums?
    – Do cRPGs offer experiences that are not available in a PnP session?
    – What kind of future is there in PnP gaming? Who will play them in the future, if anyone – or will they become another Dead Kennedy?
    I’m a video game developer, and a PnP RPG player – and it seems to me that these mediums are not as incommensurable as people like to make them. Part of the problem with cRPGs (as I see it) comes from the designers themselves: few of those who played PnP games in the past found ways of transforming the experience into a computer game. Most of the time they simply ported the rules systems to an electronic format and added enemy AI – and it makes me wonder if most of these designers were simply unimaginative, dull, combat-based PnP players. It is rare to come across designers with a true respect for the subtleties of DMing (although Chris Avellone – Planescape: Torment comes to mind as a positive example).


  5. Chris:
    as much as I love Planescape: Torment (and I mean, I REALLY love it), it is a deeply flawed videogame. Tons of gamers, even the ones who liked it, complain about the amount of text one is forced to read. Mainstream gamers don’t like reading — videogames are primarily a visual medium (well, for genres other than Interactive Fiction, anyway). Gamers from a PnP background also complain about the somewhat fixed character of The Nameless One (a true RPG would allow you to create your own character with plenty of races, classes and background stories to choose from).
    In the end, Planescape: Torment is also primarily an adventure game with stats disguised as an RPG. The story itself is pretty much on rails. You can decide whether to be good or evil (which is the trend for many cRPGs nowadays) and whether to fight or talk your way out of a situation. But fighting or talking are themselves very limited.
    So I love the setting and characters from Torment, but from a gameplay point of view, it is very limited compared to a PnP RPG and not truly open. It’s just well written.
    So I disagree with you: I don’t think game designers are lazy or can’t figure out how to design an innovative cRPG. I think that the medium itself is inherently limiting. Without true AI, you just cannot replace a human Dungeon Master.


  6. Hurray for old school Role Playing Games!
    I also still have all my old AD&D books, as well as the characters that I created (and, I suppose, also forged under the mighty hands of my Dungeon Master.) I haven’t played a real role-playing game in ages, but I can’t imagine ever throwing such things away – it would be like discarding photographs, momentos or your journals. I almost wish I had written notes on the pages in pen, rather than the pencil with is now fading away with age.
    I see that new RPG games are still being sold – at book stores or specialized hobby shops. So I suppose there are young people out there still playing these games. But I do wonder if they are playing RPG’s the same way that I did when I was a kid, or if perhaps the computerized versions of these games are influencing how the paper & dice versions of these games are being played.
    A few years back, I saw a note posted on a game shop’s bulletin board from someone who had recently acquired the old AD&D first edition books and manuals. They said that they were an AD&D second/third edition player but that they were looking for someone to teach them how to play the original first edition AD&D game.
    Teach them how to play AD&D? I’m not even sure how I would go about that. Sure, I was introduced to the game by a friend – as in “Here’s the Players Handbook – read through it and then we’ll make a character and play.” To be honest, reading the manual didn’t teach me much – I learned by playing. But this fellow wasn’t asking to find other people to play with – he was looking for someone to teach him something. I felt I should do something to help this lost soul, but it seemed like what he needed was an introduction to a different gaming culture more than a just a tutor.
    Honestly, how many of the rules in those books went out the door once we started playing anyway? (Class level limits for certain races? AC “to hit” modifiers by weapon type? Forget about that!) Or how may rules were added to the game as time went on? (Photocopied Dragon Magazine artiles with alternate classes, weapons, monsters; or your own invented magic items, monsters, races, classes, etc.?) Everything could potentially be modifed or expanded, depending on the interests of players in your group. Alternate combat systems were all the rage for a while – adding layers of detail for weapon speed, initiative modifiers, extra attacks, expanded critical hit tables and so on. I think the only players who stuck to the original formulation of the rules were those who got together to play at conventions – or so I was led to understand by articles gleaned from Dragon magazine.
    So I wonder if RPG’s are still played as imaginatively as they used to be. Do people create their own modules anymore? I’ve seen lots of tools for sale to “help create” magic or monsters or adventures – all within certain frameworks. But it seems to me that the proliferation of published “creation materials” bodes poorly for actual creativity. Prefabricated “modular” formulas aren’t the same as a little inspiration and a blank piece of paper.
    But maybe a new generation is coming along that will want to get away from the computer RPG’s and online play – a kind of backlash against the videogame/internet generation? Back to dice and paper and stories you make up as you go along!


  7. All I can say is, I’m right there with ya man…
    I remember when they were called “adventure games” and they were good, now they are calling themselves RPG’s and putting us to sleep with long winded cinema scenes. boooo!


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