The RPG genre first sprouted when Gary Gygax (and lesser known Dave Arneson) created Dungeons and Dragons. It’s evolved and splintered quite a bit since that day in 1974. This advancement has been unequivocally positive for gaming as a whole. We now have more options than we even know what to do with, as evidenced by places like Humble Bundle selling AAA for as cheap as one dollar. But maybe it’s time for one genre, MMORPGs in particular, to go back to its deep roots.
Top MMOs have spent so much time wondering what they could do, they never stopped to ask what they should do. For as much fantastic content, features, and innovation as MMORPGs have brought to the world, they’ve taken a lot of things too far. In the midst of all of this progress, they’ve forgotten a lot of what it even means to be an RPG in the first place.
As a handy dandy guide to developers, I offer these six ways D&D can improve your next MMORPG:
1. Reduce Number Bloat
Easy enough to start here since I wrote about lowered health pools not too long ago. To sum it up, it’s easier for humans to mentally calculate lower numbers, they’re easier to read, and it makes for more intense combat.
2. Actual Role-Playing
Not everyone likes full on role-playing. I get that. But I’d say that most people playing RPGs enjoy it on some level. They may not enjoy the creative aspect of pretending to be someone else on the spot. Give them a few guidelines to follow though and everything else naturally falls into place. D&D is great for role-playing because character creation itself makes role-playing more accessible. Attributes such as alignment, backgrounds, deities, and motivations offer up a reason to choose certain actions. Now just give us some actual choices besides which spot to grind in and BOOM – role-playing!
3. Fewer, More Meaningful Levels
In D&D level 20 is basically demigod status. In most MMOs, level 20 is a scrub newbie that toxic veterans laugh at. I’m on board with more frequent small advancements (something Dungeons and Dragons Online does well), but I want a level to really mean something. I want new abilities and new ways to play my character. What I end up with is +100 damage to magic missile. Levels are too much about buffing an arbitrary number and too little about impacting game play.
4. Game Masters
Not too long ago MMORPGs used to hire GMs to organize impromptu quests. In D&D, a good GM is the difference between a campaign that spans several years and one that lasts a few sessions. So too can a similar impact be felt in MMORPGs. To facilitate a quest-driven approach to leveling, a lot of quests are needed. This need for quantity doesn’t leave a lot of room for quality. While some games manage some pretty impressive storytelling in their AI-led quests, they lack the ability to incorporate other players into the story. This is where GMs can completely alter an MMORPG experience and constantly deliver value to the game’s customers.
5. Drop the Trinity in Favor of the Quadrinity
Most MMORPGs balance abilities around tank/DPS/healer roles. D&D balances abilities around the roles of controller/defender/leader/striker. Defenders tank and shut down melee movement. Controllers kill large groups and crowd control. Leaders buff, debuff, and heal. Strikers deal massive damage to one target. This isn’t a massive difference, but in D&D terms facilitates a broader potential group of encounters that can be fought and overcome.
6. Add Challenge Ratings
D&D assigns a challenge rating to every enemy and monster in the game. This in turns allows for a programmatic approach to create balanced encounters. A balanced adventure results from a certain number of easy and hard encounters. Instead of MMORPG developers hand crafting encounters in raids and forcing us to beat the same things over and over to advance, a challenge rating based system could create near-infinite content to challenge us at every level. I’m not saying we need to abolish hand-crafted content, but saving time in one area frees it up for use in another.
While You Wait
If you’re looking for something like this to play now, there is an obvious choice. Dungeons & Dragons Online implements more of these features than other MMORPG. Of course, because of the focus on dungeons and instances, it does lack the massive feel other MMORPGs provide. Still, it does D&D better than any other MMORPG on the market. Maybe that’s a good enough reason for you to give it a spin until digital gaming seizes the opportunity to learn from classic tabletop gaming.
It’s that time of the year where we all happily (or not) spend more time with our families and close friends. For us gamers, that time isn’t very conducisve to sitting in front of a monitor or TV screen. Those of you who happen to play World of Warcraft with mum or dad though, I’d love to hear about it. The rest are you out there are probably looking for alternative activities aside from listening to Uncle Frank’s conspiracy theories. Though 2016 may be a particular entertaining year for that…but I digress.
Board games have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance and many online gamers are finding joy in them. For almost every massively multiplayer game, there is a good offline replacement. If these popular MMOs were board games, what would they be?
This one was easy. Let’s list the number of features these two games share in common. Occult magic, mysteries to solve, modern(ish) weaponry, great cooperative play, immersive storytelling, Lovecraftian enemies, and intriguing missions. The same things that keep people hooked on The Secret World will make Mansions of Madness a hit.
In MoM, players explore a mansion, solve puzzles, and fend off supernatural threats en route to fulfilling the victory conditions of one of a variety of scenarios. There’s a nice RPG character building aspect with a wide array of skills, weapons, and spells. In addition to unique scenarios, random events will occur with a ton of flavor text to set the mood. The immersion level is similar to that of a tabletop RPG experience. Players are also tasked with not just physically surviving the mansion but guarding their mental state too. Going insane is a real threat in Mansions of Madness. And as much as players will want to avoid it, some of the best stories result from insanity. Honorable mention goes to Eldritch Horror which moves the scope from a singular location to worldwide (and is half the price). However, the missions and storytelling aren’t quite as tight so I gave the official nod to MoM.
The biggest change from the first edition is the inclusion of an app that facilitates the role of the bad guy. The app makes playing Mansions of Madness less fiddly than most other board games while maintaining all of the randomness that keeps them so replayable. The app also provides an easier transition to those going cardboard for the first time. Most importantly, it turns Mansions of Madness into the fully cooperative experience to which it’s better suited.
Yes, I’m aware of the World of Warcraft board game. It’s fiddly, clunky, slow moving, and overly long with a poor decisions to play time ratio. Seriously, raids can take less time than a full session of World of Warcraft: The Boardgame. I’m also aware of the Warhammer games like Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game. It’s good, but it’s also too limited to dungeon crawling for me to recommend to WoW players. Enter the latest version of Runebound.
OK, I might be doing overdoing it on reprints, but I guess board games often behave like long standing MMORPGs. They adapt to the times and continually refine their formula. That’s what’s led to the best version of this board game first released in 2004. Where Runebound will most appeal to World of Warcraft players is in it’s preeminent solo play, overworld, leveling through quests, relatively simple rules, and fast play time. Players will gain experience through these quests (which may not even include combat) in order to vanquish the end game boss. The pacing is strong, and there’s enough variety that most players will not encounter replayability issues. The one downside is that there is no official cooperative mode. Amateur game designers might be able to find a way to fix that though as they did with the 2nd edition. There’s a lot to love about the fantasy world that is Runebound.
FarmVille would be…
Cottage Garden (backordered)
Board game veterans might point to Agricola as the obvious complement to Farmville. I’d say let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jumping from FarmVille to Agricola is like following up the Magic School Bus with War and Peace. Agricola gives players the opportunity to build up their family’s farm/ranch, but it’s about as complex as actually farming. It’s a fantastic game, but Cottage Garden is a better suited for FarmVille fans. It’s also by the same designer.
In Cottage Garden, players take turns adding a Tetris-like piece to one of their two farm boards. Points are scored based on how many pots and shells are showing once all empty spaces are filled. Then the player grabs a new board and does it again. A limited number of kittens are also given to players to fill spaces and finish boards. Each turn, 2-4 pieces will be available for the active player to select from. Players can plan about one turn in advance and can sometimes make moves to shift which pieces will be available to them. The gameplay is about using the biggest pieces possible to finish as many boards as possible without covering the point scoring spaces. It’s light, fun, fast, farming(ish), interactive, and social. FarmVille fans best option for cardboard fun is none other than Cottage Garden.
On the other end of the complexity scale is Twilight Imperium. The game has a nice quick rulebook and is bound to lead to a few wrong rules in game one. But if there’s one group of MMORPG fans best equipped to play it, it’s Eve Online players. More importantly, it’s a game I most of them will really appreciate.
Twilight Imperium places players in the ruler seat of a burgeoning intergalactic empire. In order to win, players will need to manage warfare, tech development, and diplomacy. Sound familiar? There are a ton of strategic choices to make, each with far reaching consequences. There’s no safesec for players to hide in Twilight Imperium. This game is extremely interactive and negotiation will almost certainly be at the center of any victory. Eve Online succeeds because of it’s freedom, large scale, and memorable events. All of that is to be found in Twilight Imperium. And the game gets as epic as the recent World War Bee. With the Shattered Empire expansion, up to eight players can play. No matter the size, the game doesn’t feel too bogged down thanks to a role selection mechanic similar to that in Puerto Rico. It still takes about 1.5 hours per player to finish a game though. Plan to set aside a full day to finish Twilight Imperium. It’s certainly worth it.
Finally, I can recommend a board game set in the same universe as the MMORPG. Granted, The Old Republic and Imperial Assault take place many, many lifetimes apart but at least we’re getting somewhere. And let’s be honest. For all but the most hardcore Star Wars, they’re close enough.
Imperial Assault is a cooperative dungeon crawl set after the destruction of the Death Star. One person will control the Empire and another 1-4 players will control the rebels. For those who want a fully cooperative experience, a highly recommend variant exists on Board Game Geek. Players will control or fight alongside iconic heroes in a story driven campaign with branching scenarios. Yes, much like Bioware’s MMORPG, Imperial Assault provides players with choices that will alter how the story plays out. It’s not a game that will be finished in one sitting either. After each scenario is completed, players will be able to advance their skills and make use of new rewards. The character advancement has a very MMORPG feel to it, without any of the messy grinding. Star Wars: Imperial Assault provides a top tier campaign experience for anyone, Star Wars fan or not.
Aion and Arcadia Quest both do something that very few other games in their space do well: PvPvE. For those who haven’t played Aion, the endgame is all about grinding mobs in a two faction PvP area. For those who haven’t played Arcadia Quest, gameplay is all about fighting other players (directly or indirectly) for monsters’ valuable loot.
Arcadia Quest doesn’t do a lot aside from that premise to really differentiate itself from other dungeon crawls. However, that simple design decision makes for a very refreshing experience. Players each control a guild of three heroes and will alternate moving, fighting, using special abilities, and resting. At the end of a mission, things carry over, and another mission is played. Eventually the campaign resolves with whoever has run the best guild. Players can fight monsters to complete quests or fight each other to prevent said completions. There’s tons of dice rolling and the rules aren’t so bad compared to some meatier dungeon crawls. That does make for some random feeling combat at times, but the sheer fun of PvPvE in board game form cannot be understated. The standalone expansion, Arcadia Quest: Inferno, may be preferred based on price and availability.
Alas, there is one more board game recommendation that directly ties in to it’s MMO counterpart. Possibly even more so than Star: Wars Imperial Assault does with SWTOR, Mechs vs. Minions incorporates the general feel of playing League of Legends. But unlike League’s PvP gameplay, Mechs vs. Minions is fully cooperative.
Players will take control of one of the video game’s four Yordles: Corki, Tristana, Heimerdinger, or Ziggs. They’ll then work together to overcome each of the game’s unique ten missions. The core gameplay involves players “programming” multiple moves and resolving them all simultaneously. Unlike the frantic nature of a MOBA, Mechs vs. Minions is more like a puzzle. Each mission is extremely unique, and it would be no surprise to see groups fail a few times before their “Aha!” moment. However, the same intensity and excitement from seeing how the programmed moves play out matches like a LoL game. The geek in me also loves seeing miniatures number in the triple digits. The picture above doesn’t do justice to MvM’s sheer beauty on the table. Mechs vs Minions looks great, feels enough like League, and offers some really tough decisions.
I’ll also give an honorable mention to Rum & Bones. It’s actually structured more like a MOBA than Mechs vs. Minions. Players control an individual hero allied with a group of automated minions. Between player attacks, cannon shots, and minion pushes, each side tries to sink the other team’s ship. Unfortunately, it suffers from a number of issues that result in a game with too few decisions for it’s length. I would rather play a game that takes half of the MOBA formula and successfully ports it to board game form than one that takes the full formula with only middling success.
Playing an MMO or video game might not be entirely acceptable when going home for the holidays. Your family probably wants to spend time with you, and you may only see some of these friends once a year. Board games are an awesome way to bridge your hobby with your social circles. If you’d like any further board game recommendations, feel free to ask in the comments. MMOs and board games are two of my favorite hobbies so I’ll happily do my part to grow the population in either category.