Fruit of the Poison Tree

In my recent unemployment, I’ve been playing a bit of World of Warcraft’s latest installment, Wrath of the Lich King. As ever, Blizzard has provided a highly polished and often entertaining experience, although it seems to me that like most such games it carves out the rich middle of the market, leaving nothing but scraps for designers with more interesting and challenging ideas. In other words, it’s an inevitable result of free market capitalism and none the less depressing.

It’s interesting to trace the extremely annoying qualities of World of Warcraft to their roots — Dungeons and Dragons — but here’s the rough version:

In D&D you don’t create the character you want to play, you create (a) a member of a character class who is (b) horribly underpowered. So, from the outset, forget any ideas of playing a storybook character of your own devising. You’re playing a rigidly constrained character of — if you’re lucky — a game designer’s devising. More likely, you’ll end up playing something that is an accidental outcome of bad rules.

In D&D there are (rather bad) rules for combat, and almost no rules for anything else. It therefore falls to combat to resolve all major plot points.

In D&D, you progress in the game by gaining levels and (more importantly) equipment. If you’re lucky (and probably not very imaginative) at some point you’ll end up playing the character you originally wanted to play, but soon you’ll progress beyond that and get an overpowered parody of that character who scoffs at normal challenges and instead has to slay five dragons before breakfast to work up an honest sweat.

In D&D story is — at best — driven by location. (Often story is merely an accident created by location.) If you want a story involving A, then B, then C, then you place A in room one, and a corridor to a room containing B, and so forth. Ideally, the room containing A has a locked door which can only be opened after A has occurred satisfactorily. It is therefore crucial that geographic constraints be absolute. No magic can open the door to B before A has transpired. Indeed, A might be thought of “quest to get the door to B” and B might be thought of as “quest to get the door to C”.

In D&D armor is a Good Thing. The heavier the better. In fact, the only reason you wouldn’t wear Gothic Plate, say, everywhere and all the time is that you’re simply not allowed to by virtue of your character class. (Admittedly in very late model D&D there are some very minor disadvantages to the heaviest armor.) This rule provision is so ingrained that no-one has even sought to discuss (a) how the Universe enforces it or (b) how it might be transgressed. E.g. suppose you needed to keep a wizard safe from assassination… might you dress said wizard in Gothic Plate and suffer some disadvantage (no spell casting allowed, for example?)

All of these poisonous (and just plain stupid) concepts have made their way from Dungeons & Dragons, originally released in 1975, to World of Warcraft, originally released in 2004.

So, in World of Warcraft you are restricted to a character class. You start (slightly) underpowered but soon find yourself so powerful that you will casually undertake a half hour quest to — with no assistance — kill 12 dragons or perhaps a minor god. Every story point (with miniscule exceptions) is handled through combat (indeed conversations afford no player choices at all). “Instances” are literally a series of rooms where you must kill the denizens of each room in order. And the only reason not to wear heavy armor (which is always better in every respect to light) is that you aren’t allowed to.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a little progress? To begin with, we’ll need to pick a different tree. The RuneQuest tree, or the Champions tree, or even The Fantasy Trip┬átree.