A debate has been raging across the pages of CRASH recently. Derek Brewster and Sean Masterson have been receiving a lot of letters about the relationships between computers and Role-Playing games. Some correspondents are adamant that Swords & Sorcery is role-playing on a computer, while others are insulted by the comparison. Should games like S&S belong in Derek’s column or Sean’s? Is there really such a thing as a computerised role-playing game? And what is role-playing anyway?

Pete Tamlyn, freelance game designer and regular contributor to White Dwarf, the leading role-playing magazine, steps back and takes a different perspective... This month he examines some of the similarities and differences between computer games, adventure gamebooks and true role-playing games.

While role-playing games have probably only been enjoyed by a small proportion of CRASH readers, most of you should have seen the Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone as well as other works of interactive fiction produced by FF imitators. Just in case you’ve been lost in the Amazon jungle for the past few years, the general idea is as follows: you, the reader/player, read through a succession of numbered paragraphs. At the end of each one you are presented with a choice of options — normally three. The number of the paragraph that you read next is determined by the choice that you make.

There are two objectives to such books. Solving the game by making the correct choices to get to the end of the adventure and complete the quest is the primary objective, but you should also be entertained by the story that unfolds as you read through the book. The storytelling, however, tends to fall by the wayside — most of these books are written by game designers rather than by novelists and, I’m sorry to say, it shows. The game aspect is more interesting, but it suffers from its simplicity.

Looking at a gamebook in pure game terms, as a contest between you and the writer, the book is simply a succession of game turns in which you have to choose one of three options. This is not a very complex game: even in noughts and crosses you get an average of 4½ choices per turn. The sad fact is that if a gamebook writer plays fair and gives you the chance to make an intelligent decision each time, then the game will be much too easy to solve. Instead they rely on dirty tricks: withholding information from you, giving seemingly sensible choices that lead you into inescapable danger, and killing you off as often as possible. That way the game takes longer, and the player gets more value out of it.

It is generally accepted that gamebooks and roleplaying are not the same thing, although they do have some features in common. A gamebook is very similar to a computer adventure — instead of location descriptions, which may involve graphics displayed on the computer screen, you have paragraphs. In a computerised adventure, however, you have a lot more options — usually at least six per location — and, more importantly, you don’t always know what they are. Instead of a list of choices you have a list of words which you can use, only some of which are of any use.

Of course, even though the format of the computer game makes life much more difficult for the player, some game designers still don’t play fair. A good puzzle takes a lot of thought to solve, but is blindingly obvious once you’ve cracked it. Many adventure games still rely on problems which require seemingly ridiculous solutions or a very obscure choice of words in order to keep the player guessing. Computerised adventures are getting steadily better, and in general are much more interesting than gamebooks. On the story-telling front things can be much worse on the computer screen. At least most gamebook writers accept that they are supposed to be telling a story, but many adventures are written by programmers, and programmers tend to be obsessed with logic puzzles. It doesn’t enter their minds to try to entertain as well. It is a great shame that Infocom have coined the term “interactive fiction” because it is a very good description of what adventure games could be like, but a very poor description of what they actually produce! Valkyrie 17 is perhaps unique amongst adventures in that it was scripted by a top class professional writer — the popularity of Valkyrie shows that the approach works. Games based on books (Fourth Protocol for instance) also tend to be better than those for which the programmer writes the plot as well as the code that makes things happen.

Talking of games based on books, we do have a direct comparison between adventures and gamebooks. Adventuresoft are doing a series of direct conversions of Fighting Fantasy books into computer adventures. The first of these, Seas of Blood, followed the book so closely that it suffered from it: some of the rather unfair tricks that Jackson and Livingstone pulled in their book were simply not necessary in the more complex computerised adventure format. Still, it does go to show that gamebooks and adventures are very similar animals indeed. Adventuresoft’s output belongs very firmly in Derek’s column.

Now, what about role-playing? Gamebooks and role-playing are not the same thing. And if gamebooks and computer adventures are very similar, then adventures can’t be role-playing either. So what is this mystical ingredient found in role-playing games that gets Derek’s Signpost correspondents so upset?

The most obvious thing to say about role-playing is that it involves playing a role. You, as the player, are supposed to identify with the character whose part you take in the game. Of course this happens in gamebooks and computer adventures as well, but these games are often so obviously artificial that it is difficult to maintain such an attitude when playing them. You are far too busy puzzling over the logic puzzles to identify with your character.

Role-playing then, is often a matter of degree rather than an obvious characteristic of a game. In order to determine whether the role-playing element of a game works, role-players often use a term invented by Tolkein, “suspension of disbelief”: if the player — despite the fact that he is playing a game — can believe both in the fantasy world into which he has been plunged and in his place in that world, then he is role-playing. Accordingly, a lot of the features of role-playing games are designed to promote this “suspension of disbelief”.

One way of creating this air of reality is to set the game in a well defined world rather than have isolated adventures which have no meaning in any wider context. Setting games in the real world is an easy means of achieving this, but role-playing games tend to be set in fantasy worlds. Thus we have Middle Earth Role-Playing (MERP, based on Tolkein’s books), Star Trek, Judge Dredd, Marvel SuperHeroes, Dr Who, and any number of other games set in worlds that the players will know well. In addition, role-playing game publishers put a lot of effort into producing ‘background material’ for their games.

The most obvious feature of a role-playing game, as opposed to a gamebook or computer adventure, is that you can in theory do anything you want. Rather than having a restricted number of options as in a gamebook, the player can give any order and expect a reasonable result. Of course, you can issue any order in an adventure, but the chances are that if you type in “scratch nose” the program will reply with “I don’t understand” or “You can’t do that”. More importantly, the computer often comes back with the same idiot response to many of the things you thought were reasonable solutions to the current problem.

Role-playing games are run by human referees (called Games Masters, or GM’s for short) rather than computers; humans (Commodore owners excepted) are rather more intelligent than Spectrums. But role-playing games also approach things somewhat differently. As anyone who has used The Quill or a similar product will know, adventure games work on a very simple system governed by a table of ‘events’. Events tend to have the form, ‘if the player enters word X when in location Y then Z happens’. Role-playing rules are much more flexible. They tend to assign numerical values to various aspects of the world in which the game takes place, and use these to determine the result of actions. In a computer adventure, the command “break down door” will either work or not, depending on whether there is an event allowing it: in role-playing the GM will compare the strength of the player to the resistance provided by the door to determine the result.

This sort of rule can be, and is being incorporated into adventure games (indeed, even Fighting Fantasy books manage to accommodate the example given above). The problem is that each rule needs different code to interpret it, where as in the event-based system you only need to check that the event that occurs is in the table provided. Doubtless, as artificial intelligence programming techniques improve, so will the games. (It is interesting to note, incidentally, that the original computer adventure, Adventure, was written as a PhD thesis on artificial intelligence. We’ve come a long way since then!)

Something else that the human referee has on his side is his command of language. His vocabulary is much greater that that of any computer, and a GM can understand the same instruction put in many different ways. The parsers — chunks of code that interpret player commands — of computer games are improving but the simplest way to handle command input is to have a list of legal commands from which the player can make a selection. That may seem artificial, but knowing you can only do a limited range of things is often much less irritating than doing what you think is sensible and getting an idiotic reply.

Storyline is a very important factor in role-playing. A lot of the identification that you get with your character and the game world comes as a result of the skill with which the GM presents the material to you. Computer games don’t have that personal touch, but could make up for it by having a good novelist providing the script. The main problem is lack of space for the large number of words that writers require to generate atmosphere.

Several of the people who have written to CRASH about role-playing have stressed the interactive, social element of such games. As well as the GM you have maybe four or five fellow players to talk to. This tends to be very good for atmosphere, especially if you all sit round saying things like “what shall we do next” rather than “what do you think the GM expects us to do now”. A multi-player game where everyone can participate at once (rather than one at a time as in Doomdark’s Revenge) might be fairly difficult on a Spectrum, but two player games should be quite simple, especially if the game is joystick controlled. The arcade game, Gauntlet, caters for up to four players and works very well — I have to admit a personal interest here: having designed a Spectrum implementation of the arcade original, I’m waiting to see if it comes to fruition.

One thing you can’t do on a computer is have the non-player characters talk back sensibly. In role-playing the GM can act the part of everyone you meet, but we are a long way from getting programs that can hold sensible conversations with the human player(s).

Another point I would like to consider is the death rate. In gamebooks and computer adventures, getting killed is a very common result of making a mistake. It has the advantage of forcing the player to start again from the beginning, which is a very good way of increasing the time it takes to play through the game. A lot of computer adventures allow you to save positions and go back to them if you die, but you are still expected to get killed regularly. In role-playing this tends not to happen. Instead you get a little way into the game, find it getting tough, and retreat. Having got home safely you are deemed to have learned from your experiences and your character may get more powerful as a result. The number of ‘experience points’ gained during a foray into the adventure world generally governs the alteration to your status. When you go back to fight another day, things are likely to be more easy.

Allowing the player to build up experience contributes a better atmosphere to the game. The player should feel for his character, ideally, should feel he IS the character. If he keeps getting killed off the character is more likely to be viewed as expendable rather than as an extension of the player. Role-playing tends to be very open-ended on account of the the effects of experience points — players tend to have lots of little adventures rather than one big one. And to begin with, you are often not powerful enough to do anything spectacular. To run such open-ended games well, a vast arena in which to play is needed: GM’s sometimes map out entire continents, worlds or even universes. You can’t run anything like that on a computer without quite a lot of memory, and disc drives...

Next month, I’ll take a look at the way role-playing games have been transferred to computer — and not just the Spectrum. On the Spectrum front, Mike Singleton’s new game Dark Sceptre should be nearly finished, and Mandragore from a French software house is due along any day now. There’s Swords & Sorcery, of course, plus a few other favourites....