Earlier today Green Ronin Publishing, the company behind the Pen & Paper Role-Playing Games Mutants & Masterminds and A Song Of Ice And Fire (based on the award-winning series by George R. R. Martin), announced plans to release a Pen & Paper adaption of the upcoming Bioware title Dragon Age : Origins. The game, according to the press release, “extends the Dragon Age universe, making it more accessible to passionate RPG fans looking for another way to experience the epic fantasy world of Thedas.”
Having never played any of the Baldur’s Gate games (the inspiration for Dragon Age : Origins) or, for that matter, any of the games that Green Ronin Publishing has put out, I can’t say this news made me particularly giddy. What it did do, however, was get me to thinking about how the line between video games and Pen & Paper games is getting thinner with every passing year.
There’s no doubt that many of the Role-Playing video games on the market today owe much of their success to the Pen & Paper games that their developers grew up playing. Richard Bartle and his companions were heavily influenced by the original Dungeons and Dragons when they developed the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) back in 1978, and that game alone is said to have been largely influencial in the design of most Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games. In fact, these MMORPG’s have been so successful that many believe they signal the inevitable doom of the traditional Pen & Paper RPG.
I have noticed over the years that more and more that Pen & Paper publishers are tying to woo the video game playing crowd away from their consoles and back to the table by partnering with video game publishers. Wizards of the Coast partnered with Turbine to release an MMORPG version of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG called Dungeons and Dragons Online : Stormreach back in 2006, and the current version of the Pen and Paper game itself was heavily influenced by games such as World of Warcraft. There have been four video games set in the Shadowrun universe, and there have been Pen & Paper versions of the MMORPG’s Everquest and World of Warcraft. In at least two cases I’m aware of video game companies have purchased Pen & Paper versions of the game outright (the upcoming Champions Online from Cryptic Studios and the “still in the lots of rumors stage” World of Darkness from CCP).
I had the occasion to sit down over dinner with someone who was pretty close to deal that went down when Champions was purchased by Cryptic and I thought the whole thing was very interesting. From what I understand there has never been a terribly large profit margin in the Pen & Paper industy to begin with, but it’s been particularly rough over the last few years. Some companies are turning to on-demand printing in order to save costs, but the allure of the type of money that video games are capable of bringing in is incredibly hard to pass up. Once the deal was complete and Cryptic held the rights to the Champions property the money came pouring in. The developers who were still on staff were literally stunned and apparently felt like “rock stars.”
When you’re used to living paycheck-to-paycheck and never being sure if your’e even going to be able to keep producing that kind of money is hard to pass up.
It makes sense, too. Why should a video game developer go through all of the trouble to pay writers to develop tons and tons of lore and backstory when so many worlds are out there in the Pen & Paper world just waiting to be explored? Even with the number of Pen & Paper games out there that have already been licensed there are still tons of them that could potentially be turned into fantastic video games (can you say Paranoia kids? I knew ya could).
My only fear in all of this is that as the lines become less and less clear between the virtual and tabletop world the Pen & Paper versions of the game risk becoming neat collector’s items for the people who really are just interested in playing the video game. As much as I enjoy the changes they’ve made to Dungeons & Dragons in the Fourth Edition I have to admit that in many ways it feels so much like an MMORPG I wonder what the appeal would be for someone who has never played a Pen & Paper game before (the argument being “If I wanted to play World of Warcraft I’d play World of Warcraft, not sit around my living room playing with toys”).
Perhaps, though, things aren’t quite as doom and gloom as they seem. While I cannot say for sure that there will always be a place for Pen & Paper games in the universe I have seen signs recently that the video game industry is looking for more ways to bring that collaborative, interactive feel to their games. Player created missions in the super hero game City of Heroes from NCSoft outnumbered the number of missions that the developers included in the game in just one day. Hasbro was originally supposed to include a “Virtual Tabletop” with the release of the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons but for now those plans have been pushed back and potentially canceled (much to the ire of many Dungeons & Dragons fans, who claimed that Virtual Tabletop was an essential piece of the Fourth Edition package and that Hasbro was guilty of a “bait and switch” by failing to produce it). So while the days of sitting around with your friends on the back porch with your Cheetos and Mountain Dew may be coming to an end, perhaps the spirit of those days will find a way to live on. Change is inevitable, but if nothing else the Mission Architect in City of Heroes has proven that the desire to create your own stories and share them with your peers is alive and well.
In the end isn’t that really what Pen & Paper games are all about?