ROLE-PLAYING TEDIUM TRANSCENDS THE COMPUTER AGE
ORSON SCOTT CARD
The first time I heard of fantasy role-playing games, I thought they sounded like a terrific idea. A group of players pretend to be characters and have imaginary adventures together. Better yet, characters continue from game to game. On new outings, you still have the things you captured, the spells you learned, even the wounds you sustained in the last game.
To me, it sounded ideal, like a game that bordered on improvisational theater, a game that allowed you to live an extraordinarily romantic but believable life.
Ah, but the reality of playing these games is often quite different. The first time I sat down with a group to play, it took hours before we actually started adventuring. It occurred to me that if I wanted to sit around making decisions with a group of inarticulates, forgetfuls, fanatics, and devil-may-cares, I could go to the office.
Yet the idea of the role-playing game is so powerful that I kept wanting to play. I just wanted to eliminate the housekeeping.
So all you have to do is computerize these role-playing games, right?
Well, sort of. TSR has licensed SSI to produce a series of role-playing games that have the all-important Advanced Dungeons and Dragons name. SSI also produces non-D & D fantasy games, like Demon's Winter, a straight role-playing game, and Sword of Aragon, more of a strategy game.
All of them strongly resemble the D & D model. You assemble a party of characters with varying qualities, then explore a world and fight battles. Your party wins treasures and tries to stay alive, all the while pursuing some larger objective that might take months of playing to achieve.
The computer games have some real advantages. For one thing, you can play alone (though you don't have to). For another thing, you can't argue with the game master, since it's the computer. Best of all, you never hear the hideous sound of billion-sided dice rolling across a table.
But one thing the computer doesn't do is save you tedious time and work. Indeed, the maddening thing about these games is how often they are more tedious than the live game. You wade through each character's labors one at a time. The computer has no fudge factor. A human game master can keep things moving by saying, "You defeat the thugs easily and find 50 gold pieces and a magic-seeming amulet when you go through their pockets," so you don't have to roll your dice through endless combat. The computer, however, is relentless. You can't skip over the dull, repetitive parts.
Also, some of the stupidest elements of the original game are faithfully preserved. Why, oh why, must you "ready your weapons" before entering combat? Why aren't your characters smart enough to keep their best weapons at hand?
As Tom Hanks said in Big, "What's fun about that?"
And yet, if you're a dedicated role-player, perhaps these very "features" are an essential part of the game. You aren't really looking for a simulation of a fantasy adventure—you're looking for a simulation of a fantasy role-playing game. If that's your attitude, then the last thing you want is a streamlined process. The computer version must faithfully replicate every moment of mind-numbing tedium from the real game.
I'm giving the wrong impression. Every one of these games has graphics ranging from barely adequate to quite attractive. Some have creative story elements, like the religion in Demon's Winter, where your characters can become acolytes of a particular god and pray for useful favors at strategic moments. (Let us not even begin to discuss whether having your characters "pray" in a game encourages prayer in real life or trivializes it.)
Every one of these games is playable, obsessively playable, in fact. And every one has passed the Geoffrey test: My 11-year-old not only plays them when he should be doing his homework, he plays them when he should be eating or watching TV.
Of course, Geoffrey also enjoys reading AD & D manuals from cover to cover just for fun, so you'll have to decide for yourself if he represents a "normal" player.
As for me, I'll stick with the Ultima series for fantasy role-playing. It's not because Lord British does it right—heck, he still hasn't learned to conjugate verbs in the second person singular—but because the Ultima games cut out about half the busy work and use the computer interface in a downright humane way.
And maybe someday a truly magical fantasy game will waft my way, one that does all the housekeeping chores itself and allows me to make only the fun choices.
Perhaps SSI and Lord British and all the others already know how to create such a fantasy. But if they ever did publish a game in which we weren't always concentrating on the details of housekeeping, maybe we'd notice the fact that nobody in this whole genre has thought of a new idea since 1951.
J. R. R. Tolkien is dead, folks. Wake up and invent something.