Roleplaying and the New Reality

When I was a kid and got into roleplaying the first game we played used the Palladium system, one of the big names in RPG that came out after Dungeons and Dragons and TSR. We played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the irony is not lost on me that this is where I start an essay on the nature of roleplaying games and our perception of realism.

See, my brother and friends knew about Dungeons and Dragons, but we didn’t play it because, well, that was fantasy. We didn’t want fantasy, we wanted something believable… like, er, mutant animals that learn ninjitsu.

Okay, look, when you’re a kid it doesn’t sound as silly as all that. I mean, we knew mutant ninja animals weren’t realistic, we knew it was a based on a comic that was a parody of mutant comics of the day (but was still wicked awesome). But it took place in the modern day, it used guns as well as swords and there were no Resurrection spells to cheat death with. This to us was a step in the path of realism.

It’s no coincidence that one of our early adventures was based essentially on the plot of Die Hard (as were probably thousands of other home brewed adventures throughout the world the year after that movie came out on video… it was rated R after all). See, to us as kids, Die Hard wasn’t an action movie, it was THE action movie. It was what our imaginations aspired to be the realism of the world, not the superheroics of Commando or gritty realism of Saving Private Ryan (yeah, I know it wasn’t made then, I’m using it as an example). This was the kind of believable heroism kids like me want to grow up and do.

Well, either that or be Batman. That would be cool, too.

So naturally this influenced our perception of what a good roleplaying game should be. RPGs should walk that borderline of realism, so fantasy RPGs were out. I mean, those characters didn’t even have skills! It was all about the hack and slash. Palladium on the other hand had skills coming out of the wazoo. So for a time, Palladium was the shit, until we realized it was just shit. Hey, I admire their campaign settings, and loved such titles as Mechanoids, Robotech, Rifts and Ninjas and Superspies (a long time favorite)… but I think we gave up on it around the time we realized we could shoot our own characters in the head and shrug it off, and the broken way they handled regular damage versus mega-damage.

Another thing that disillusioned us from Palladium were character levels. We grew to hate the concept of levels quickly. It seemed silly after a battle one of us could suddenly learn new abilities. “Hey guys, I just learned how to deal a death blow! Sweet!”

One of our favorite games was Call of Cthulhu, which in terms of game mechanics is one of the simplest, but also reasonably realistic. No levels, lots of skills, and an interesting method of improving them. Every time you use them there is a chance you might get better at it, but the better you are, the smaller the chance. I’ve always liked that.

It wasn’t the only game we played, we played different systems with different levels of realism. Some, like Deadlands, a mixture of Cthulhu Horror and Spaghetti Western, we accepted for the cinematic game it was. But ultimately the game we played most was one of our own – The Right On Adventure Game, which my brother largely put together himself. Again, the aim of the game was that Die Hard level of realism. We played that for the better part of a decade, I think, and he still hopes to get it published someday, but I don’t think he will, and I think I figured out why.

I recently picked up the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons (I long ago managed to accept the heroic fantasy D&D represented and enjoy it on its own merits), have been reading posts about it online, seeing people praise, complain, and summarize the system, and realized just how the mentality behind gaming has changed in the younger generation. Or maybe it hasn’t, just what developed it has.

The simplest way to summarize the newest D&D is to compare how many goblins you could reasonably kill before dying yourself. Someone ran a simulation of this in all the different editions, 1000 first level fighters in each edition. In the first version the average was about 2.5 goblins before death. This goes steadily up, and by 3rd Edition (long criticized to be more like a video game than an RPG) it’s about 10.

In 4th Edition it’s about 28.

My brother summed it up best – that’s not even gaming anymore, that’s stomping on worms after a rainstorm. But then I began to think about the kinds of movies and games we played as kids versus those available to kids now.

The Die Hard movies are a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Compare the first one with the ones that followed, particularly the last. What made the first movie awesome was how at almost no point did you go “that could never happen.” Even the most unbelievable bit when they blow up the roof and John McClane jumps off you buy into as a bit of good luck. John gets shot, his feet are cut by glass, he bleeds all over, he CRIES, he doesn’t believe he’s going to get out of the building alive, but he keeps on trying. By the end he’s a bleeding sack of meat barely able to stand. Awesome? Hell yeah! But as the movies go on the series suffers from a need to make things more “epic.” Bigger. More at stake. By the fourth movie you have John driving a car into a hovering F-22 Raptor, or into an elevator shaft. The violence is still there, the blood is still there, but it’s long since crossed the realm into super heroics.

I think this mentality has permeated into the younger generation’s perception of “realism.” The heavy proliferation of CGI in movies make the most extreme situations seem mundane, and the kids love it. But I just don’t see it. I mean, when I see CGI (and it is a rare day that I can’t spot it, no matter how good it is) it sucks away the verisimilitude of the stunt, rendering it utterly unbelievable and tension-free. Compare the escape scene of Captain Jack Sparrow from the first “Pirates of the Carribean” (no CGI, but lots of stunt work) to the second one (heavy CGI, little stunt work). If you can see what I’m talking about there is hope for you still.

And this extends to video games as well. For well over a decade the only platform worth a damn was the PC. Consoles like the NES were fun but didn’t have the good stuff. The best games were by and large on the PC only (screw you, Mac). The PC’s 101 key keyboard allowed for a hell of a lot of complexity if you wanted it, and some people did indeed want it. The Falcon series of F-16 flight simulators got progressively more and more realistic, until by Falcon 4.0 you had something that was virtually military-grade. You could do all the take offs and landings and flight in between if you wanted to, not just the battle.

But now the consoles have taken over, with control pads that have only a dozen buttons on it, and the games made for it need to be fast and furious, patience is not a virtue. The flight sims there? Well, let’s just say you can wipe out the entire Luftwaffe in a couple of hours. Pretty, though.

So I think it’s not so much that taking on entire armies of goblins is what kids want as it is the new perception of border-line reality. The line of verisimilitude has shifted so that outrunning explosions is quite ordinary, so it shouldn’t surprise us that RPGs have gone the same route.

I bet if you sat a ten year old down to watch Die Hard they’d think they were watching one of dad’s boring documentaries. Heck, they might think John McClane jumping off the roof looks fake, because it’s so obviously not CGI.