Sometimes you have a deep and current reason for writing a column, something that is actively happening in the world of MMOs that requires a response, or a deep and personal point to make about stuff that is best formatted in a list because that helps make the point in the first place. Other times you just want to write about something that tickles your particular fancy. And based on the headline, you can guess which one this is.
Tabletop RPGs can be seen as something of the antecedent of MMOs and computer RPGs in general; despite that fact, we’ve had a paucity of games based on tabletop properties, and arguably both of the most notable examples (Dungeons & Dragons Online and Neverwinter) are based off of Dungeons & Dragons. (Before you pipe up, MechWarrior Online is based on BattleTech, which is a strategy game and not an RPG. Ditto Warhammer Online.) Fortunately, the years of time for tabletop games to develop weird permutations have meant that there are lots of different tabletop RPGs that could get an adaptation, so let’s go ahead and list ’em.
1. The World of Darkness
We got close on this one, folks, although I still wonder if CCP was ever the right choice to get this particular one off the ground even without the end of the story. Yes, this is a setting that is perfect for PvP, but the low-key supernatural battleground of a modern world with a variety of passing-human creatures makes for a dense potential spread of game types. You don’t just have players in opposition to one another, you have both internal and external threats to your supernatural society, and none of them play nice.
Of course, the very nature of this one could lead to overload: If you decide to pull in all of the various options from the original version, there are vampires, werewolves, other changing breeds, mages, wraiths, changelings (no, they’re not connected to the changing breeds), supernatural hunters, demons, prometheans, kuei-jin, risen, mummies, shih (a different kind of supernatural hunter), fomori, the potentially limited Strike Force Zero (a third kind of supernatural hunter), hedge mages (who are different from proper mages but also see themselves as the same thing), ghouls, kinfolk, and probably a few other beings I’m forgetting. And that’s ignoring the books that White Wolf itself wished it hadn’t published (like the one that’s literally titled as an ethnic slur). You probably could not put all of that in a game at launch.
But it’d be fun because… well, you’d have a world wherein every supernatural race is its own faction, usually opposed to every other faction, all of them in some way connected to humans, all of them simultaneously jockeying for power or personal advancement in sometimes bizarre ways, and none of them having the full picture. It’d be a sort of controlled chaos, you know?
On some level, Paranoia feels like a satire of books like 1984, but it’s really more a satire of how tabletop games tend to work. Humanity lives in a complex overseen by the computer, the other complexes are all evil (despite being functionally identical), and the players are Troubleshooters meant to rather literally shoot trouble. Of course, since they’re actually part of a small array of clones, they’re more likely to be shot… but that’s fine. The next clone can take care of it.
It might not sound like it, but Paranoia is actually a darkly comedic game in which players are generally meant to be laughing rather than seriously accomplishing anything, a gag about how tabletop groups generally turn into incestuous circles of backstabbing and stupid death anyhow so you might as well enjoy it. It’d make for a weird sort of game, but I love the idea of a game wherein open PvP is both pretty much right for the game and also wildly free of real consequence. Heck, it’d pretty much need to turn on friendly fire, so your first misaimed grenade kills your party and you.
3. Call of Cthulhu
I freely acknowledge that it would be a challenge to adapt this game into an MMO, but the cosmic horror of this particular RPG is so well-known and widely celebrated as good that it almost doesn’t matter. Call of Cthulhu is a landmark game that stresses the idea of meeting mind-blasting horrors and coming out changed even if you aren’t harmed; it’s a darkly beautiful game of horror, ominous and grinding, stripping out any unpleasant associations with its source inspiration and focusing instead on the erosion of sanity as you struggle to avoid doom for the human race for another week.
Of course, the fact that the game is both grinding and fully intends for player characters to be worn down into either death or insanity would create certain issues for long-term play. But hey, it’d also support A Tale in the Desert-style play; players have work to prevent various cultist plots, and the game has a fixed runtime, ending early if a plot isn’t stopped correctly.
Many of the games listed here are very good. RIFTS – unrelated to RIFT – is not good. It is, instead, a completely absurd mishmash of systems and settings pulled from other places in which players can wind up being absurdly overpowered demigods blowing up other absurdly overpowered demigods in what is at least theoretically a post-apocalyptic setting drawing inspiration from about seven dozen other places.
It is a gigantic mess, and you kind of have to love that. Like, it’s never good, but there’s a certain absurd over-the-top nature to it that would make this just fun if you made an MMO in which everyone’s striding around in power armor inside of a giant mech and also with an array of weird magical powers. Yes, it’d be an exercise in powergaming and optimization, which was always the nature of the tabletop game… but isn’t that already kind of the nature of MMOs, on some level? Wouldn’t it be fun to have one that starts from that point?
I’ve generally tried to be light on fantasy here, but Exalted is a game I still love and have loved ever since I cracked open the first edition because it’s a very different sort of fantasy game. Instead of being a game about faintly European middle ages fantasy, it’s more like slamming wuxia, anime, bronze age myths, and astrology into a blender and seeing what sort of slurry comes out the other side. And much like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, it’s marked by extreme heterogeneity in player types, with seven different flavors of Exalted in memory.
It also puts an interesting twist on the idea of player characters being “chosen ones” because by their nature the Exalted are “chosen ones.” The question is what they’re actually chosen to do, and the answer isn’t at all clear; they’re just chosen, and their numbers are high enough that they’re both wildly more powerful than normal humans and not universally Ultimate Killing Machines. I kind of love the setting.
6. World of Synnibar
Not only is this one another in the “not good” camp, this one is actively bad. But it’s the kind of bad that just defies any explanation. Yes, it’s another mishmash of mechanical powermongering, but with options like Bio-Syntha Cyborgs, Tree Demons, chameleon hydras, and general bizarre choices that make the average progressive rock cover of a Yes album look like inspirational material.
It is terrible and bonkers in a way that defies explanation and I love it. How would you make it work? No idea, but I want to play a Tree Demon.
The big marketing bit around Amber was right in the full name, Amber Diceless Roleplaying because it was a game played without dice or any randomizing agent; instead, players would actually start backstabbing one another during character creation, since you bid on who was the best at a stat and that was it. In many ways, it should have been a mess because the game literally had players as nigh-on immortal magical beings for whom most acts were as simple as breathing, right down to being able to pop off into a pocket dimension to learn any necessary skill in a matter of seconds.
It worked, though, because it was well-written and experimental and focused much more upon the question of how these characters resolve standing conflicts when they are all more or less forced into coexistence. You can’t really replicate the “diceless” part in an online game (few of those are played with proper dice), but you could use this as a great jumping-off point for something novel.
8. Delta Green
All right, technically Delta Green is a series of supplements for the already mentioned Call of Cthulhu. However, you can easily think of it as a wholly different skin for the game. Instead of a loose collection of academics and adventurers in the 1920s, Delta Green moves things up to the modern day and has players involved in what amounts to an intelligence organization fighting back against the cosmic horror.
In other words, it’s Men in Black but deathly serious and opposed by horrors from beyond space. If that doesn’t already get your mind racing, I don’t know what to tell you.
There seem to be two schools of thought around Deadlands. One is that the game is a weird mishmash of system ideas and trying to side-build D&D-style classes into a Wild West game, so you have things like mages using cards to play magic, Native American warriors, mad scientists, and undead gunslingers. The other is that it is that weird mishmash, but that weird mishmash is fun, so… no harm, no foul?
It was a mess as a tabletop game, really, but as an MMO? Yeah, that works. The weird nature of tone is easily managed by the nature of an MMO, where you expect a mishmash of stuff that’s silly, horrifying, or just straightforward action. And it’d make for a fun Wild West title, too.
10. Legend of the Five Rings
This one is interesting. It’s fantasy, yes, and it’s very eastern in that fantasy… but it feels like a western version of fantasy in an eastern setting, if that makes any sense. But it also has a whole lot to offer explorers in terms of wealth of materials, ranging from the different dynamics of the great clans, the sloughing despair of the Shadowlands, the feel of magic and duels, and so forth.
Plus, you know, if there’s one thing this property does not lack, it’s setting for days, along with tons of material for people to read more. And hey, if you’re tired of two-faction PvP settings, this one has like a dozen.