Learning from the Enemy

I've heard it said that the MMO is the single greatest threat to pen-and-paper roleplaying. In all frankness, I find this a little hard to believe, having played a fair number of online RPGs, but then I'm no industry analyst and you can't deny the sway that 12+ Million (Capital M!) gamers and their monthly revenue have over even the big leaguers like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo.

So I guess it isn't entirely unreasonable to call MMOs an "enemy" of traditional RPGs, but then it wouldn't be entirely accurate either. After all, MMOs and traditional roleplaying games are clearly two separate beasts. If you don't believe that, try playing both in one day. There's little comparison mechanically, socially, and, for me at least, they each fulfill a different gaming need.

But, is there anything we can take away from MMOs and bring to our own table? I think there are at least two key things that we can incorporate more into pen-and-paper gaming.

Instant Gratification.

This ought to sum it up nicely.

The old MMOs, Everquest, Ultima Online, didn't quite understand this one. They made leveling a slow grind and provided less loot per encounter. Essentially, they played a lot more like traditional RPGs, only without the gamemaster dictating events.

However, as time went on, ways to increase the player base were sought. And the most successful found that immediate rewards would keep players interested. No more spending hours and hours just to make it to level 2, no more trudging along with the same dull set of armor for 20+ levels. Now the early game in most MMOs looks more like the classic Diablo in terms of loot and speed.

There! That should be enough goodies for level 2.

It's easy to see why people can grow so addicted to an MMO. Things go fast; it's a barrage of reward, reward, reward, until you reach the higher levels. Even death means little more than a temporary setback now.

And it's clear that some pen-and-paper publishers have taken note. I'm lookin' at you, 4e! And yet they've completely missed the point. Instead of giving in and having players level up faster and gain new "powers", or a shiny new blade that can do +18 damage to Giants, what pen-and-paper RPGs need to do is find out how they can reward players in ways that only a traditional roleplaying game can!

Have NPCs have meaningful interactions with the players, give them a plot of land that actually means something in the context of the game, change the environment based on their actions, allow them to alter the course of this fictional world's history. Instead of fake material gains, give them fake personal ones!

That actually sounded a lot better in my head....


Accessible as in one FREAKIN' RED BUTTON!

This has been discussed to death, but damn it, we're going there again. Let's just admit it, once and for all. Pen-and-paper roleplaying games are not accessible to new players.

I don't mean to say that a 1e gamer couldn't understand 4e. I mean someone who has never had any experience with roleplaying would flounder if you handed them a rulebook and said "Good luck!" Whereas I could plop my grandmother in front of one of the big name MMOs and, after a little trial and error, she would be ganking mobs left and right.

Simple tutorials, clean interface, and a gradual slide into the game all help to provide an experience that anyone, regardless of their roleplaying background, could get immersed in. When was the last time you could say the same about a pen-and-paper game?

Sure, most roleplaying games aren't too hard, but you try telling that to someone who has just seen one of the massive rulebooks! More than a hundred pages?! To them, it will seem more like a technical manual than a game.

WotC tried to remedy this by including a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style guide in the recent Red Box release, but after testing it with several non-roleplaying fellows (admittedly not the greatest scientific endeavor of all time, but cut me some slack), I've come to the conclusion that it just won't beat having someone to be more hands on in helping new players understand the rules.

But is there any way pen-and-paper RPGs can successfully emulate the ease of entrance that most MMOs provide? I'm not sure about this one. Most attempts to gradually explain the mechanics just don't work, and trying to ease a newcomer in with an experienced group is asking for trouble.

I suppose the best thing would be to restructure rulebooks in a less traditional and more accessible manner. A newbie's first reaction is to try and read through the entire book and most rulebooks aren't designed like that. It's information overload if you try, with +2s and -4s all over the place. And nothing turns off potential gamers like too much math. The fatal flaw here is that by doing so you might make the rulebook harder to use for the experienced gamers.

Most rulebooks have only a handful of play examples and leave the rest up to the reader's imagination. More play examples would take up valuable space, but might help enthuse newcomers to stick around and actually try a game.

In the end, this remains the second biggest hurdle to cross if pen-and-paper gaming wants to even try to attract a larger audience. The largest is, of course, the belief that we are all that guy.

So, what do you say? Is there anything else we should think about taking from the MMOs or have I got this completely ass-backwards?


  1. "I suppose the best thing would be to restructure rulebooks in a less traditional and more accessible manner. A newbie's first reaction is to try and read through the entire book and most rulebooks aren't designed like that. It's information overload if you try, with +2s and -4s all over the place. And nothing turns off potential gamers like too much math. The fatal flaw here is that by doing so you might make the rulebook harder to use for the experienced gamers."

    This is exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote my Weird West game. Love to hear what you think... :)

  2. I think you've hit it right on. Actually, the game Echo Bazaar provides a really interesting example of that first point. It's a browser-based RPG with some social interaction between players (including a PvP element which is currently down for revamping), so I guess it technically might qualify as a sort of MMO.

    But where it really shines is the reward system: as you complete adventures, you level up "qualities", which often mark things such as "Hedonist", "Connected: Revolutionaries", or "Investigating the Secrets of St. Dunstan's". These qualities are the currency of the game, and you try to level them up to unlock higher-level and special adventures, called "storylets".

    In fact, I think the RPG industry and MMO industry as a whole can learn a lot from EB.

  3. CDGallant_KingMay 13, 2011

    That girl is totally going to lacerate herself.

    Table-top and video games are very different things.  Some people enjoy both, but obviously many more people prefer MMO.  I've seen MMO fanatics try table-top and it just doesn't do it for them.  It takes a special type of person to play cops and robbers with rules and funny-looking dice (which for better or for worse is usually the first thing I say when trying to describe RPGs to the uninitiated).  Because of that, no matter how much I wish it would catch on to a greater market, table-top is always going to be a small niche hobby.

    WotC will probably continue to push to make their games more like an MMORPG. I suspect if they succeed in expanding their audience the way they want, the product is not going to look like any RPG we know today. So, while SOME variation of D&D could catch on, the rest of us will still be playing the weird old-fashioned games with the funny dice, and the cycle will continue.

  4. Joe NelsonMay 17, 2011

    I'll admit it. I've marked it for purchase the next time I go on a pdf shopping spree. Can't argue with $1. ;-)

  5. Joe NelsonMay 17, 2011

     I've heard of Echo Bazaar but I've never tried it. I might have to give it a whirl sometime.

  6. Joe NelsonMay 17, 2011

    Clearly, they are two different markets, but there is an undeniable overlap. I know three different people who began with MMOs and moved onto tabletop gaming. Granted, that's hardly some kind of landslide record, but it's what got me to thinking about this. One of them found tabletop gaming to be so utterly archaic and strange that he dropped out soon after his second game. And I was thinking on some of the things that MMOs do to ease in an unfamiliar audience and how some of it might be applied to tabletop gaming.

    Personally, I'm fine with being in my little niche hobby, I just want to try and keep it as accessible as possible, because the things that initially scared me off from getting involved for years all turned out to be false perceptions.


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