How D&D is like an MMO and why I don't care

June 13, 2008 at 8:10 pm
filed under Roleplaying
Tagged , ,

I found an interesting article today on Gamasutra, titled The Adventurer’s Guide to Thievery. Independent of this post, it’s a good read, talking to some extent about the ways in which D&D borrows from MMOs and to a greater extent the ways in which MMOs could learn a thing or two from D&D.

This got me thinking about a post I’ve half-written a couple of times since I started this blog: the frequent comparison of D&D 4th Edition to a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. I’m mainly going to talk about World of Warcraft, here: World of Warcraft is one of the most— if not the most— popular MMOs out there, so it’s sort of pointless to discuss most other MMOs in any detail.

What? No

At the risk of incriminating myself, I’ll admit that for a while I couldn’t figure the comparison between D&D 4th Edition and the likes of WoW. Having played WoW for a year or two myself and having played D&D and tabletop roleplaying games for nearly a decade (god damn), I honestly didn’t see it. Seriously. Since then, I’ve realized what people were talking about. First, though, let me walk you through my reasoning.

The biggest point in my mind was this: look at pretty much any conceit from WoW and you can trace it back to D&D. Levels, hit points, classes with roles, and dungeon crawling for loot all date before Ultima Online was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Sure, MMOs took this stuff and ran with it. But any accusation that, of all games, Dungeons and Dragons is ripping off games like World of Warcraft is ludicrous in this context.

I had mixed thoughts about the point that a less complicated game would make a game more accessible to the MMO crowd. Setting aside that that’s something of a tautology, MMOs aren’t particularly simple games. Look at World of Warcraft, and how stats interplay with criticals, mana, parrying, dodging, and so on. Look at the sheer number of abilities your average character in WoW acquires over time, and look at the level of expertise many instances required, at least at one time in WoW’s history. World of Warcraft thrives on the concept of rules mastery, and the level of complexity a computer affords you means that there are some very complex systems at work.

There were some more specific comparisons that I thought were closer to the mark. You can disenchant magic items in D&D 4th Edition, and I’ll buy that that came from MMOs like World of Warcraft. Naming each of the class roles and making them more explicit is another thing that also came from MMOs— D&D never had a big focus on explicitly calling out a class’ role in the party until fairly recently, and there were definitely some character builds that could easily get you killed.

I still found the comparison unconvincing. How many traits must D&D and MMOs not share before it’s inaccurate to say they’re similar? And given how inseparably linked they are in terms of history and gameplay concepts, what does that comparison mean, really? It’s not unlike comparing, say, Warhammer and World of Warcraft. It don’t make no goddamn sense!

Yeah all right fine

Recently, though, I came around to a very strong point, through my own thoughts and then from reading the article above: MMOs developed the concept of every class’ mechanics being roughly the same and that each class should have a set of abilities. The underlying mechanics of mana versus rage are different, to be sure, but a mage and a warrior operate on roughly the same terms: some abilities are interrupts, some have cooldowns, they cost varying amounts mana or rage, and so on.

In AD&D 2nd Edition, fighters hit things. 3rd Edition improved this somewhat by introducing feats. But if you make (an admittedly crude) comparison between the number of feats that grant a fighter new abilities and the number of spells in D&D, you’ll see that spellcasters clearly have a wider variety of Interesting Things to do.

4th Edition is much more inline with MMOs. You get a new ability every even level. Everyone gets a minimum number of abilities they can use, and the rules governing the acquisition and use of those abilities are largely the same.

I think that this is a great idea, personally. In my opinion, previous editions were deeply flawed because they didn’t offer players of each class a guarantee that they would have something fun to do. I’d never play a fighter in 2nd Edition, and it sucked to have to ration my fun as a spellcaster.

Pathfinder seems to take some steps in the direction of giving everyone something interesting to do, and I don’t think it worked out very well. Ironically, I think they became like MMOs in another way: they gave too many abilities such that each class had a whole lot more attendant baggage and rules mastery.

Who cares, though?

This brings me to a meta-point here, which is the implication that being similar to MMOs is inherently a bad thing. Here I can see where people are coming from. MMOs are generally very repetitive: you kill a lot of things in succession, hope what you need drops, and maybe there’s a quest reward in it for you, too. Since the world doesn’t change much because that’s expensive and involves potentially obsoleting a bunch of old work, MMOs are also fairly static. They feel really fake in a very obvious way.

The thing is, I’m a pragmatist. A mechanic or gameplay concept is what it is: if it works well for MMORPGs and tabletop RPGs, then it works well! Everyone wins! I don’t think the provenance matters. OK, sure, we’re dealing with the Internet, so the rules of debate are different: you’re entitled to your own facts as well as your own opinion, guilt by association, anonymity, et cetera. But if the game is fun, it’s fun. Can’t we just leave it at that?

Now, in the context of 4th Edition, it’s too soon to render a verdict on it. My opinion so far is very positive, but that’s subject to change— I was really excited about 3.5e for a while, too, until I learned more about it. But it’s that last point above is what I keep coming back to: ultimately, if you’re still a party of adventurers going on quests, crawling through dungeons, killing monsters, getting loot, leveling up, and it’s fun, it’s D&D.

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