I avoided MMO RPGs until 2009 when the Lord of the Rings Online free trial wore me down. I’d been playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion heavily and enjoying it, but I was missing the other-player dynamic from my tabletop gaming years. LOTRO had some of the same visual appeal as Oblivion, with lush landscapes unlike the comic-like caricatures I’d seen in World of Warcraft. Since then I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons Online, Star Trek Online, and Warhammer Online. (WAR is now a Bioware game???) Each game has its good points and bad points, but all MMOs fall flat as RPGs when I think back to my tabletop RPG days. The problem is that MMOs have also ruined tabletop games for me because of something I feel echoed on Critical Hits:
“I strongly believe this is one of the reasons I don’t like D&D 4e very much. I like snappier combat. The longer it takes, the harder it is for me to stay engaged.” — How Economics Ruined My Gaming Joie De Médiocre by Vanir
Tabletop games bog down because human beings need to consider and administer complex combat rules. Computers are just plain better at these kinds of tasks. Doing it in real time is key here; computer-assisted tabletop gaming still feels too slow because people still have to think about the rules to make decisions. It’s part of why I left my last gaming group; one or two combats would take the entire night, even in the faster-playing Warhammer RPG. My frustration grew during these combats as I watched other people start side conversations, go out for a smoke, peruse a book when it wasn’t their turn. The combat couldn’t hold people’s attention; it was a thing to get through rather than enjoy, much like Vanir’s experience with eel skinning in the Critical Hits article.
Of course, MMO combat being so fast and easy creates other problems. First among them is the dependence on kill-ten-rat quests where the numbers are actually in the hundreds; I can’t imagine how many things my LOTRO characters have killed over the years, maybe tens of thousands! Second, death (or defeat in LOTRO terms) is a common occurrence, something acceptable in the video game context but not in a tabletop role-playing one. Third, content like raids must be designed for repeated play, and their challenge is overcome not by clever thinking but by rote memorization of layout, enemies, and combat. The thing that makes computers good at administering combat end up influencing the kind of content games provide because of how quick and easy they make it.
Then there are the other limits of computer-moderated games: static worlds and poorly scripted interaction. MMOs are starting to address the former with phased instances and NPC dialog, but it’s an on-rails experience where the world changes in a predetermined fashion; my actions cannot bring about different results than any other character. That’s part of what undercuts the otherwise excellently-scripted and voice-acted story in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Telling a story well (something we associate with the Bioware brand of video game RPG) is different than role-playing which is collective storytelling. It’s better than the classic wall-of-text approach that games like LOTRO are just starting to move away from, but there’s no we did this together euphoria after a particularly good tabletop session. It’s that most-despised form of tabletop gamestyle, the game on rails; no action you take will change the outcome in the end. Sometimes a good tabletop game can still be on rails because an accomplished game-master can artfully conceal that fact or make it so much fun as not to matter. All MMOs are on rails, and computers don’t have the creativity and the adaptability to artfully conceal the fact.
The closest I’ve come to the best of both worlds was Neverwinter Nights. Besides content from the game developer, it included content creation tools and a dungeon-master client. The DM client really set it apart by letting the machine handle the heavy-lifting of combat mechanics but allowing the game-master to change the world around the players. I played in a few NWN persistent worlds including the LOTR-themed Return of Middle Earth; the original module is still available for download from nwvault.ign.com. The events with DMs were that perfect mix of man and machine. GMs also roamed the world all the time, so you never knew if an NPC was actually a GM or an unexpected encounter was spawned just for you. They also lurked and awarded bonus XP when observing good RP; that kept me in character all the time, never being sure if a DM was watching. Unfortunately, creating content is still a difficult process. If you think game developers have it easy, try building a good mission in STO’s foundry. I admire the drive and passion of people generating excellent content for free but especially of those creators of custom persistent worlds in NWN like RoME. Building and running a such a world requires a special skill set along with the time and commitment that grouchy gamers no longer have.
I’m with Vanir in the grouchy gamer category. Each kind of game has in some sense spoiled the other kind for me. The winner in the end is the MMO. Everybody getting older and the world running faster means that getting a group together regularly for a tabletop game is a serious work/management effort. The MMO is even winning out over the pinnacle of massively-single-player games that is The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I generally solo in MMOs and haven’t been able to stomach being in a guild or kinship for more than a few months at a time, but maybe I get something out of the chance encounter or occasional pick-up group that Skyrim just doesn’t provide. Or maybe it’s something more basic like the MMO formula tapping into my compulsiveness, being a completionist and an altholism. Regardless, I will continue to play MMOs but only wish I were playing tabletop RPGs for the foreseeable future.