There was an AD&D campaign that we started way back in the neolithic age. This was the version 1.0 AD&D era. Our Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals still looked good, the dungeon master’s screen was a new and exciting item, and strange philosophies, like the cult of THAC0, were still years in the future.
The older brother of a friend of mine was going to run it. He was one of those very smart and very creative types… and a college boy at a time when we were all in the pre-driving stage of high school… who could generate a campaign out of thin air that would get you excited to play.
So we sat around the living room of his parent’s place, rolling up characters and arguing as to whether characters from other campaigns could be brought in. Arguments broke out over some powerful weapon that had no back story and how in the hell Spit the Spellbinder gained so many levels and whether or not that guy who always had to play a female role would be allowed to bring his character “Bodacious Ta-tas” along or would have to roll up something new that actually fit in a goddam fantasy setting outside of his wet dreams.
The usual stuff. Many a campaign has died a quick death after a session like this.
In the midst of all of this I quietly rolled up, named, and equipped a ranger. It wasn’t a bad class back then. And, of course, I was under the influence of Tolkien at the time, and we know what his rangers are like.
Surprisingly, once a rule lawyering argument wrapped up about the relationship between experience and gold (The rules, as I recall, assumed that gold came with experience and getting experience should always be accompanied by a specific gold payout. Our DM didn’t hold with that, declaring that each was its own reward, but then insisted on holding to the rather steep fees required by guilds to level up a character. It was a more complicated time.), the party actually started to come together. Spit was in, Bodacious was out, and we actually looked like we might get past this first hurdle.
When the call came for my character sheet, I handed it over. The DM glanced at it, tossed it back at me, and said, “No rangers.” Being the only person in the room at this point who had not engaged in a heated discussion with the DM, I began to wonder if an argument was a requirement to join in. I asked why not and the DM said he did not like rangers.
Had I been a more experience player at this time… or at least not a surly teen… I might have accepted that for the flashing red light warning that it was, crossed out ranger, wrote in fighter, and just got on with things.
But, dammit, I wanted to play a ranger. A brief argument started in which it was declared, among other things, that rangers do not go under ground so he couldn’t come along in any dungeon or some such. But the weight of the room was on my side. Everybody else was ready to go and a lot of people were annoyed by the demands of the DM to that point, so I had support for my cause. We just wanted to get on with it.
So with a huff, my ranger was allowed on the list with all the grace of Darth Vader accepting the failure of a subordinate. My ranger would be made to suffer.
Not that it really mattered. It was a diverse group that had not played together as a whole before and, as fate would have it, would never sit down together in the same room ever again. It was the simply the amazing optimism of youth that set us down that path to another failed campaign. And even if we had managed to get the whole group back together, things were not going well.
The DM made one of the classic blunders of campaign starts. He put us all in a small town with an inn and expected us to go where he wanted without being totally strong armed into it. One of the issues with this sort of free form campaign is that many holes come up in the environment, which is the sort of thing that attracts players like moths to a flame. It is like handing the players a map with a town, a castle, a dungeon, and a blank area on it. We will go to the blank area, thinking that the DM is hiding something cool there, never considering it is blank because the DM didn’t finish that bit.
We managed, as a group, to make it to the inn. But we never left. Things fell apart in all the expected ways. For example, our DM was worked up about having a ranger in the party, but didn’t care that an elf and a dwarf were on the list and failed to take into account that Mr. Bodacious, who was now playing the elf (of course), would role play dwarf/elf enmity for all it was worth just because he was in a pissy mood at that point.
And part of the reason that things fell apart was that the DM decided to take over my character. Not literally. But every time my ranger did anything he would roll some dice behind his screen… rolling unseen dice is a DM method of validating whatever the hell he wants to do… and would call out what actually happened, as opposed to what I was trying to do.
Essentially, my ranger became Stomper from Bored of the Rings. If he grabbed his mug of mead, he would knock it into somebody’s lap. If he managed to pick it up, he would spill it on himself. If he stood up, he would knock over his chair… or the table… or both. Other patrons would ignore him or laugh at him.
The DM decided to make a very amusing tale for himself by overriding stats and skills and turning my character into a bumbling oaf.
Most of the details from that day are pretty blurry some 30+ years later. I do not recall how the game broke up, just that we never resumed. I got in a fight with my friend a couple months later that lead to a parting of the ways. I never saw the older brother DM again. Spit never played again that I know of, joined the Army after high school, and ended up on a farm in Montana. (Thanks Facebook.) Bodacious fled the valley for San Francisco after graduation, while another player’s family moved to Minnesota shortly thereafter.
It was a minor moment in my life, a few hours were spent together in a room with this group, after which we were scattered to the winds. Literally. I think of the group, I am the only one who still lives in Silicon Valley.
Yet to this day, I remember this session. It was one of dozens of games played during high school, most of which have been lost to the mists of time.
I remember this session because it represents something I really do not like in games, which is the game putting words in my character’s mouth or otherwise dictating what they do or say.
It was a defining moment in gaming for me, and forever has it dominated my destiny.
Which leads me back to MMOs. And quests. And that sort of thing.
I hate it when games start to dictate how my character behaves, when they try to impose a personality apart from my own upon the game. I will go along with the flow of your story or quest chain, but I will do it on my own terms. That for me is the essence, the “role playing” part of a “role playing game.” If I cannot have at least that, my connection with my character becomes weak. And it is often that connection that keeps my playing.
Beyond my moaning about bad blaster based combat in the game, this was the other big failing for me in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I found their fourth pillar, their dialog wheel, quite alienating. About half the time I wanted a “none of the above” choice for my response.
I much prefer being left to my own devices. And I think this gets reflected in the MMOs I choose. Rift, which presents quests very much in the WoW model, offers up a take it or leave it choice. Accept the mission for whatever reason or don’t, it is up to you.
And in EVE Online… well… nobody even pretends to understand your motivation. You do what you will in the universe for what ever reasons you find. In fact, finding reasons to do things is part of the trick of playing EVE.
Even Lord of the Rings Online, which ostensibly is a very story driven game, doesn’t spend much time ascribing motivations to your character.
Meanwhile, it used to annoy me that once in a while EverQuest II would attempt to put more than bare minimum dialog in the mouth of my character. SOE seemed to start off with dialog based question interactions as a goal, but then quickly reverted to basic “I’ll take your quest” or “Screw off, I’m busy” options most of the time.
But, as always, that may be just me.
How about you? How much do you want a game to dictate your characters motivations and actions?