Why play CRPG's?

QuarterToThree Message Boards: Free for all: Why play CRPG's?
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Gordon Cameron on Monday, October 1, 2001 - 04:41 pm:

I keep playing these damn things but I can't figure out why.

Where is the "fun" in a CRPG?

1) The "to do" aspect: always another quest to complete. Always another town to visit.

2) The intermittent rewards. Complete a quest, get some money. Kill a monster, get a cool item.

3) Leveling up. I guess watching your characters get powerful is a kind of digital crack -- I mean that's the driving engine of Everquest, right?

4) Exploration: Chance to wander in a well-rendered world in a non-linear way. I think this is part of the reason why people are so fond of Ultimas: it had the most coherent gameworld of any CRPG series, during the 1980s anyway.

5) Combat: most CRPG's contain mini-wargames and they are fun for the same reasons wargames are fun (more on this below).

The weird thing about CRPG's, though, is they never seem as good as they OUGHT to be. I play them, and I am addicted to them frequently (Jeff Vogel's Avernum 2 is one of the most mercilessly addictive games I have played in years), but as I am playing them I am not exactly conscious of having fun. I'm not really DOING anything when I play a CRPG... I'm not really exercising a skill, or solving a complex set of problems. It's more like a kind of glorified calendar/appointment-book program -- CRPG's largely seem to consist of checking things off of lists and then getting rewarded for your thoroughness.

I don't know if I'm expressing this properly. What I mean to say is that I wonder, in the classic CRPG, where the GAME is. It's as if there's no *there* there... I think most CRPG's finally boil down to the combat system. Slaying orcs is the engine of most CRPGs' economies (if you stop slaying orcs, you will starve) and combat is the only time you are really *playing* a game in the sense that one *plays* Quake or *plays* Age of Empires (i.e. exercise a skill-set to solve problems or confront opponents in something approximating real-time, within a given set of rules).

Does this mean, however, that CRPG's are often just wargames with some window dressing to keep us interested? The Baldur's Gate series, for instance: does it basically amount to a series of strategy scenarios, with the "cutscene/background-story" aspect swollen so that it seems more substantial than it really is? (Indeed I almost think Throne of Bhaal was strictly a strategy game, since the plot merely shuffled you from one foozle battle to another.) If you took the combat out of most CRPG's, what would be left except for a lot of bookkeeping and some atmosphere (admittedly atmosphere is not trivial)?

I don't mean this in a hostile sense... CRPG's remain my favorite computer game genre, and have been ever since Ultima III back in 1985. I'm just not sure *why* exactly this is the case!

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Michael Murphy (Murph) on Monday, October 1, 2001 - 11:36 pm:

I think, in the *good* crpgs, that character development is a very important aspect. Not just the "levelling up" part, which you addressed, but actually taking your character through the plot, (in BGII, developing romances), and seeing how he or she acheives different goals and solves different problems.

Also, if you've played pen and paper RPGs, you'll probably admit that a lot of the time (though not as often as in a CRPG) is spent in combat there, as well. Some RPGs are more combat-intensive than others, but it seems like some of them are moving more steadily away from the "constantly fighting" environment. Arcanum -- based on the dmeo -- seems to be less combat-intensive than many CRPGs.

I would disagree with one thing, though: As I'm playing BGII, I feel like I'm almost constantly having fun. There are times that lull a bit, but I think, for the most part, that it's a very fun game. But, I suspect, that's a little different from anyone.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Michael Murphy (Murph) on Monday, October 1, 2001 - 11:36 pm:

Uh -- for everyone, not from everyone.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By TonyM on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 03:13 am:

There are couple reasons why I play CRPGs. They arenít perfect, and I never had as much fun as playing the older CRPGs compared to the ones today. Iím having fun with the BG series, but the last time I REALLY had a blast was with Fallout I & II. To me, Ultima V and Magic Candle (I never played Magic Candle II) were the last truely great CRPGs.

For one reason I play CRPGs, itís watching your character ďgrowĒ. I like seeing them getting more powerful and controlling their path. I also like getting cool magic armor and weapons.

The other reason I play CRPGs is because itís like being ďinĒ an interactive book (though written by someone else). I love fantasy novels, and always imagine myself in the group. Iíd ask myself, ďWell what would I have done in that situation?Ē. Itís about you controlling the main character throughout the novel. Of course the story has to be very important. It has to keep you interested enough for you to turn the page. Itís still linear, but at least you arenít just a fly on the wall just watching the story unfold.

Then thereís that wonderful feeling of solving a well orchestrated puzzle related to the story. Iím happy out-smarting anything. Itís so rare.

I donít play CRPGs so much for combat. If there is combat, I love turn-based combat. I loved the combat in the Fallout series, Ultima V, Magic Candle, Demonís Winter, etc. Sure itís slower than real-time, but I like the strategy aspect. It makes it gratifying personally when you are able to tactically defeat a much stronger opponent by strategy rather than the brute force of real-time. I never got into games where the combat was that like Bardís Tale, Wizardry, and Wastelands. It always took me longer to finish those games as I thought the combat was very tedious.

All CRPGs are geared toward combat to ďmoveĒ through the game. This is why the traditional RPGs attracted me. CRPGs cannot account for every scenario to gain experience or move through the game by thinking ďoutside the boxĒ. When I DM a game, I never reward XP for every monster killed. I reward XP for creativity, problem solving, and surviving by their wits. Battles are important, but I donít want them fighting werewolves locked behind every closet door they open. This slows the game session down as well as the story, making for a dull night.

There are several things I miss about the older CRPGs. People think Iím crazy, but I miss taking notes, pages and pages of notes. I loved Ultima V and Magic Candle where the only way to gain clues is by actually typing in a phrase or question to a NPC. I liked typing in silly things just to get a strange response. Some of those programmers had a great sense of humor! This really drew me into the game world. Sure the NPCs only reacted to certain words, but I always constructed my queries with full sentences. I remember being so enthralled with Ultima V, that I committed to memory how to read and write using Britanniaís version of the runic alphabet. My dad found my notebook with game notes written entirely of runic letters. He thought I was worshipping satan.

To this day, he still freaks when I mention that I still play the traditional pen-and-paper D&D.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Brian Rucker on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 09:56 am:

Gordon: I'm think in some ways you really hit the nail on the head. As a pretty hardcore IC roleplayer in real life and a hopelessly addicted computer gamer - when it comes to CRPGs there isn't much there *there*. I've never finished a single one in my life - with the exception of Wizardry back in the day. In some cases this is because the game was so open ended I had more fun exploring character concepts and regions than in completing any preset storyline (Daggerfall comes to mind) - but mostly I'd end up getting bored by the repetative combats and predictable plots. Even the humor of Fallout 2 couldn't save me from inventory juggler's fatigue eventually.

Levelling and item accumulation, in a linear sense, hasn't been fascinating to me since my best friend, my brother and I stumbled across AD&D in the late 70's and, since nobody wanted to be the DM, we'd just fight battles with wandering monster tables. Then we'd all go home and spend the night rolling up treasure and figuring experience.

We all read fantasy fiction so we knew we couldn't invent stories (modules) as well crafted as those in books and it was pretty obvious from the combat heavy style of the miniatures derived form that few module designers would be inclined to take advantage of clever narrative.

Eventually, though, we did stumble across DMs that used interesting tools that took best advantage of the form. These took two manifestations - world simulations (starting with Chivalry and Sorcery and Swords & Glory (Tekumel)) and character based roleplaying (White Wolf would later call this troupe based storytelling).

World simulations offer detailed systems for economics, warfare, weather and all manner of minutae that, together, offer a setting with unpredictable depth and potential for gaming. The experience feels more real than the 'you are the hero' myopic dungeon crawls of D&D. You're just a little cog in a big world trying to scrape by as best he can. Play your cards right and you may end up with a fief to manage and a militia to field. Tekumel (Swords & Glory, Empire of the Petal Throne) also offered a very rich and original setting on the order of Middle Earth but far more exotic - with original languages and cultures.

The troupe based storytelling angle didn't focus so much on the big picture except insofar as it could serve as a narrative device. The key was understanding root motives of the player characters, as chosen/developed by the player and using those to create stories that were meaningful in that context. NPCs, family, special places, backstories, hanging plot threads woven together in surprising ways are all hallmarks of this style of roleplaying. It's quite personal and colorful. Ultimately, though, the storyteller/DM exists to enrich the story that the players tell through their characters - not as a game master piping them through canned graph paper plumbing circumscribed by freeze-dried narrative.

CRPGs don't seem to get this very much. They tend to be tactical combat simulations with branching plot structures joining them together. The impetus to proceed can come from the desire to explore and unravel a plot or simply to level. Very few have attempted to offer open-ended, character-centric, experiences (troupe storytelling) or rich world simulations that would provide deeper context and meaning to a character's actions (like the strategic game in X-Com) for example.

I'll continue to buy them because an irrepressible part of my roleplaying self wants to fall madly in love with a CRPG. But it seems I have to settle for a long series of short term crushes in the meantime.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Gordon Cameron on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 10:12 am:

TonyM --

Interestingly, Ultima V and Magic Candle were two of my best CRPG experiences as well. And I recall being really impressed with the combat system in Magic Candle (as well as other bells & whistles, i.e. your party members could get jobs, or you would be treated better by the inhabitants of the town after clearing out the monsters, etc. I also still have a notebook full of stuff that I wrote in the Runic alphabet, from back when I played Ultima IV at age 11. :)

Probably my favorite experience in all CRPG's occurred in Ultima V. I was in Blackthorn's castle and was trying to get the crown (IIRC) out of the chamber on the top. It was guarded by gargoyles. Now, I believe the *proper* way to do this is to get the badge of Blackthorn so you can have your run of the place. But when I played it, I didn't know the badge even existed. So I had to come up with a different solution to get past the gargoyles. I hopped on my magic carpet and led them around the castle ramparts. Since, with the carpet, I could move faster than they could, I was able to strand them at the back and quickly head back to the front, entering the room and stealing the crown.

It's quite an accomplishment when a game's world and engine are robust enough to admit of numerous ways to solve the same problem. This is one of the best aspects of CRPGs' "non-linearity" but it's rarely expressed in a really interesting way. I would suppose that Ultima VII (which I have only played a little of so far) is the sort of "apotheosis" of this robust-gameworld approach to CRPG design. Unfortunately, that idea seems to have declined in the last decade. For instance, the BG games are brilliantly written but basically just boil down to NPC dialogues, item-shuffling, and combat. The way the world is split up into "zones" makes it harder to wander aimlessly as you could in the Ultimas (or Daggerfall for that matter), and the painted/rendered backdrops are far less item-intensive than Ultima VII was. I really liked the idea that you could click on any object sitting on any table anywhere in the game world and it would have a name, a weight, an object strength, and could be manipulated...

I have played relatively few pen-and-paper RPG's, so I don't have too much to compare with. My experience of P&P is mostly of people gathering around for social reasons and sort of making up the story as they go along. I guess this is the point, but it never felt structured enough to me. Depends on the group and the GM, I'm sure. It does occur to me that less combat-intensive CRPG's tend to run into problems of linearity. For instance, Planescape: Torment is a CRPG often mentioned where you can complete many quests and get rewards without engaging in combat. This is rather innovative, but what then are you doing in PS:T most of the time? Going through paths on a dialogue tree, and reading. I don't mind a text-heavy game per se -- much of the prose in PS:T was good -- but it still comes back to my "no there there" objection. If I'm *reading* a game, I'm not really *playing* it, am I? (Forgive me, Zork lovers.)

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Bernie Dy on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 11:01 am:

I love 'em because since college I haven't had time to collect my old RPG gang and play live pen and paper games. When CRPGs are done right, they can give you the same adventure and action blend you'd get from a good book or tv show.

But mostly, CRPGs are convenient, any time of the day for any period of time. The PC will always wait for when I'm ready, and is happy to stop when I need a break, remembers where I left off, and takes care of all the nasty die rolling and stat keeping. There's a minimum of papers/books to deal with, and no one at work has to know I still do this geeky stuff :) And, the PC doesn't eat up all the chips in my pantry.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Desslock on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 12:12 pm:

There's a lot of things that come to mind on this topic, but I'll just contribute a couple of thoughts. CRPGS have really mean different things, to different people, because of the way the genre has evolved on the computer, and the advantages/disadvantages of the platform. But, for me, role-playing games will always be exemplified by pen & paper D&D -- ignoring the specifics of the rules, what was great about the game was it put you in a world and gave you the freedom to do whatever you want, developing the character of your choosing. That's role-playing, to me, and any game that doesn't try to afford you as much freedom as possible isn't a good role-playing game, although it may well be a good "game".

For me, character development through gaining experience is an ancillary aspect of role-playing games, not a prerequisite (although it certainly adds to a game). Level advancement in original D&D was very slow, and in some other tabletop RPGs it was almost non-existent. But a role-playing game has to give you the freedom to play the role of your choosing, or at least the ability to solve tasks in the manner (and order) of your choosing.

But the aspect I like best about computer role-playing games -- the one aspect that they can do far better than tabletop RPGs -- is exploring a gaming world with a lot of depth. Which is why I'm probably why I was always more of an Ultima fan than a RPG fan. No games come close to matching the gaming worlds created by Ultimas 5-7 -- I loved just exploring every nook and cranny of those gaming world, watching NPCs carry on their business. I had a blast just exploring Ultima 9's gaming world, even though the game itself was disappointing. The RPG I'm most looking forward to is Morrowind for the same reason. While I love the BG games, I much prefer the more detailed gaming worlds of the Fallout games.


Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Alan Au (Itsatrap) on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 01:58 pm:

For me, the essence of the cRPG is twofold, first being able to tailor the game to my playstyle, and second being able to alter the narrative based upon my actions. While games seem to be getting better about allowing open character design, they still tend to be a bit too linear for my liking. Don't get me wrong; I like having a storyline and a clear sense of direction. However, I also want to feel like my actions have consequences. Otherwise, I feel like I'm just going through the motions.

- Alan

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Sean Tudor on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 06:14 pm:

Damn I want to re-installl Ultima 9 again one day just to explore but it is so prone to crashing.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Michael Murphy (Murph) on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 - 11:52 pm:

I had a lot of fun with Ultima 9. I think I'm the one person who didn't have big problems with the game crashing. Perhaps I had the same system as the developers, or something, but I only had a few problems that I could count on one hand. I thought the game was pretty good, and the world was phenomenal. Man, I wish it hadn't been so unstable for so many people. That game had remarkable potential, and while I loved the game, I openly admit that, on the whole, it failed to reach its potential. Pity.

I'm sure we all agree that a pen and paper RPG is best. But, as someone said, the PC is so much more convenient, easier. And the worlds are usually more fleshed-out, like Desslock said. So there's a lot to be said for the good ones. Before Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, and maybe even now, though it's a tough call, Ultima 6 has to be my favorite game ever -- it was so alive.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By TonyM on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - 12:37 am:

I had a good time with Ultima 9 as well. I feel it got a bad wrap. I didn't think it was great CRPG, but it was a decent action/adventure game. To tell the truth, I think it had more "depth" than Max Payne. I thought it was great that you could somewhat explore your surroundings.

I remember taking a beautiful screen shot of the avatar on top of one of the highest mountain peaks early in the game around dusk. It was extremely beautiful. It had nothing to do with the game, and it took me an hour of hopping in the right places. It was one of the most enjoyable thing to do just because it can be done. I wish I still had that screen shot. I wish I still had the game.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Michael Murphy (Murph) on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - 12:46 am:

Been there, done that. :-)

I know exactly what you mean. It was so stunning, visually, and the world was so open -- you could go anywhere. I loved that.

It's so sad the way that game fared. A couple more months in development, and it could have been GOTY.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Brian Rucker on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - 08:52 am:

Yeah, the PC is much more convenient. I haven't been involved in face-to-face roleplaying in a few years though I still keep up with my favorite titles. Most of my roleplaying is done on text-based multiplayer MUSHes (like MUDs but focusing on characters, stories and player participation in setting creation). This history and my background with music and musicians probably begin to explain where Raph Koster's ideas jibe with mine so often.

But I still believe even any computer gamer with a serious roleplaying background could adopt some of the more interesting ideas and concepts from face-to-face systems to make PC games not only better for RPG fans but potential gamers of a more mainstream background. The essence of both world simulations and the troupe storytelling systems are that they strive to create a richer experience that's guided by a player's character concept and subsequent decisions. I'm not just talking about grinding wheat into flour as a sideshow trick. I'm talking about immersion beyond the cliched habits of the current definition of roleplaying on the computer.

Simple example: In Daggerfall, a background text history was generated for a character based on his decisions. NPCs and places were named. These ceased to be relevant after gameplay starts. Imagine if those places or NPCs are among the variables that could be inserted to define quests (as objects, anatagonists, locales). Suddenly a character's unique past could come back to revisit him. Take it a step further and as the world is generated for the character so should his unique background form a hidden template of quests. It could be ignored just like the main quest in favor of other adventures but it would be there and reveal itself over time.

Another Example: The best example of troupe based storytelling is Daggerfall (even if there really is no troupe nor much of a traditional narrative structure). This is because it pays attention to what the character does and adjusts the reactions of different factions and dieties accordingly. This can play a part in what quests are available and in how more complex quests resolve (depending on the factions at odds). The best examples of world simulation aren't roleplaying games but dynamic campaigns in flight simulators (very limited in scope but they are proactive and seem very alive and complex). Another, closer to home, example of world simulation is Sid Meier's Pirates! or Hothouse's Cutthroats. Here you are a character embarking on quests and adventures in the context of an unpredictable world filled with political as well as physical challenges and complexities. Pirates!, even as minimalistic as it was, found itself to be incredibly immersive on several levels.

The best blend of both forms is a strategy game called King of Dragon Pass - it has a very involved world (based on that the Runequest), complex options, interesing NPCs, random story-encounters (with enduring legacies) mixed up with practical tactical considerations that themselves can spawn more narrative encounters. NPCs, the strategic layer and even the stories themselves have random origins and the game never plays the same way twice - but one's decisions and the rich consequences that flow from them create immersion (for me) like few other games ever have.

And it does all this from set screens with zero animation.

CRPGs could learn quite a bit from other genres of gaming as well as the more interesting RL systems.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Gordon Cameron on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - 10:29 am:

I would also like to see an expansion of NPC AI in single player CRPG's. I think it would be interesting if villains, kings, wizards, etc., all had minds of their own and did things proactively, reacting to the protagonist's actions, rather than waiting for the player to stumble on the cutscene/foozle-battle trigger.

Ultimately it would be cool if you could have a real dynamic world simulation -- economies changing, armies moving about, wars starting and stopping, all going on around you. Some of the liveliness of a MMORPG, but tailored for the single player.

I imagine this would be incredibly difficult to do without collapsing into pure chaos. And I have no idea how you would be able to integrate this into an overarching narrative. Maybe the Sid Meiers' Pirates! solution is indeed the way to go -- focus less on a pre-set plot, and more on achieving certain goals within a world in flux. Elite is, of course, another classic example of an open-ended universe with no pre-set plot. The problem is that a game like Elite would be rather boring by today's standards. The game-world must be complex enough to generate its *own* plot, its *own* interesting scenarios. Difficult to do... it would require some pretty advanced AI routines, world-simulation algorithms, etc., etc.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By TonyM on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - 11:42 am:

Good point Gordon. It would be very nice if NPCs would react to your actions throughout the game.

I wonder how NWN would work as the GM of their own gameworld can control the NPCs' actions & dialog. I haven't followed the development of this game only because I don't want to be extremely dissapointed if the release is less than spectular.

Anyone here have any pre-conceived notions on what NWN is supposed to be like to you? What do you think the major hurddles will be trying to run a gameworld when you know that there are player characters that will try to out think the game's design rather than the game play?

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message  By Alan Au (Itsatrap) on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 - 02:05 pm:


I think it would be interesting if villains, kings, wizards, etc., all had minds of their own and did things proactively, reacting to the protagonist's actions, rather than waiting for the player to stumble on the cutscene/foozle-battle trigger.

I suspect this might result in time-driven quests, which would just be annoying. Event triggered quests allow for a little bit better pacing.

Oh, on the subject of Ultima IX, this is a fun little link.

- Alan

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