MMOs and RPGs owe a large debt to pen and paper roleplaying games. However that debt has become a curse, and is holding the genre back. The reasons are complex, and have a lot to do with what we mistakenly define as a role-playing game. When people think of pen and paper games, they think of Dungeons and Dragons, which needs no introduction. Over time, the idea of a role-playing game has been linked to it’s terminology. Experience points, levels, to hit, statistics, defensive ratings, and more. People have forgotten what the point of those statistics were for, and that they are not organic to what makes a roleplaying game.
Pen and paper roleplaying games use statistics as a means of simulation. The rulesets are there to simulate actions impossible to realistically emulate in life. Whether it is vehicular combat in a post apocalyptic world, how to be a cartoon character and resolve conflicts when getting squashed by anvils never kills you, or flying a transforming mecha based on a popular cartoon: pen and paper games were made to simulate a wide variety of complex situations.
For Dungeons and Dragons, what I believe they were trying to simulate the Hero’s Journey common to fantasy literature, or an idiosyncratic form of it. Levels give a framework of advancement. As the character goes through stage after stage of their journey, they must deal with challenges and become stronger: levels show increases of power. Stats like hitpoints and attributes are used and increased to show power as well, and to allow change over time and persistence. Those specific stats enhance a prolonged journey, and it’s telling in other games not many of them exist. Battletech originally was pure simulation, with no persistance beyond the slight bonus of a pilot that didn’t exist in any unique way outside of the cockpit.
What happened to Battletech and many other games is that it soon became possible to simulate the worlds by automating the rulesets in a computer programming, and then to depict them as images on a screen. This is why we really don’t see that many pen and paper simulation games outside of those that deal with the Hero’s Journey style of interaction, and not just pen and paper. Remember those electric football tables that would vibrate the men on its surface, or even slot cars?
The thing is though, when they were simulated, none of the pen and paper aspects really were viewed as necessary parts of the experience. To shoot a gun required a dice roll, but we know in real life shooting a gun needs just a trigger, so when computer games simulated car combat, they tried to simulate pulling a trigger and hid the dice rolls when they needed them. But for fantasy RPGS, the dice rolls have become understood as part of the experience. We think of soaking up damage by our statistics, when in real life there would be no such thing. In a fantasy life power is a very nebulous concept, so we reach for what we thought showed it: the mechanics of roleplaying.
The problem is that. MMOs are stuck in many ways because we have internalized the mechanics as the experience. The goal of a fantasy pen and paper game is ultimately the journey and the stats are ways to add chance and rules to simulating it. MMOs are not trying to simulate a journey anymore but are just replicating the stats and mechanics of older games in the same way current fighting games are still replicating Street Fighter II. Or in the way puzzle games replicate Tetris.
I think people need to look at virtual worlds and work on simulating the world experience. Endgame is grinding for gear in an MMO-why can’t it be reaching a point where you are king, or you age, go home, and live a quiet life. You can’t win the game in MMOs, but we need to reach the end of a journey with others. Not just rolling dice, but starting a journey. Maybe some day we can do this.