Playing by the Rules
Roleplaying is a curious hobby, in that it has different goals depending on who you ask and when you ask them. If you asked, say, someone who picked up tabletop gaming in the past few years - let’s say by about 2005 or so, and possibly after some freeform roleplaying in an MMO or other video game - tabletop RPGs are a collaborative storytelling activity and fun battle system. If you ask someone who started gaming before that, well…the answer becomes a bit more complicated.
See, pen and paper roleplaying games are still games, in that they have defined rulesets and states of play. However, where video games are limited by the programmer and machine, unable to deviate from their rulesets, tabletop games essentially have no limits whatsoever but the players’ and Game Master’s1 patience and creativity. Thus, everyone involved could be playing a different game from the one everyone else thinks they’re supposed to be playing.
As you might expect, this can be problematic.
Ultima IV is one of the classics of the RPG genre. Considered the first great entry in what once was the greatest RPG series in gaming, long before Japan showed up with its Dragon Warriors and Final Fantasies to show us how it’s done, Ultima IV pioneered gaming’s first true morality system, in which completion of the game required one to follow the Virtues, a series of moral axioms, becoming the Avatar thereof and bringing hope to the land of Britannia.
This is what we can all agree on. Unfortunately, there’s a dark secret to this classic game: it’s basically unplayable.
Of course, try to tell that to certain people, and they’ll call you illiterate. They’ll claim that modern gamers are spoiled by their quest compasses, their voice acting, their tutorials. They’ll claim that we cruelly dismiss a true classic for our hollow, hedonistic pleasures, with no difficulty or effort involved in the enjoyment.
This is, of course, completely false. Yet at the same time, it’s also true. But the fact that there’s truth to it isn’t, in fact, a harbinger for the end of intelligence in gamers or anything like that. It’s perfectly natural.
This week, I’m going to explain why a game can both be a classic and unplayable. More importantly, though, I’m going to explain why it’s okay for things to be that way.