Interview: Warren Spector on “roles vs. rolls”

One of the joys of working in this project is getting to speak with people everywhere about RPGs, from those who just recently had their first experience with Skyrim or Mass Effect, to those who have been creating them for decades. Today I present you an interview with a man that requires little introduction. Warren Spector worked on some of the most innovative games ever, from the Ultima series to Wing Commander, Deus Ex and Thief, and if you’re an older RPG fan, chances are you probably even traveled alongside him before, either to the Savage Lands or to Mars.

A few weeks ago I reached out to him for an interview, and in a very “meta” and fitting manner he proposed me a trial beforehand. After succeeding in such perilous journey, Dr. Spector kindly shared with me some insights on the natures of RPGs:

Mr. Warren, in 1998 you wrote an article for Game Developer magazine, where you argued that RPGs were betraying their role-playing roots by focusing only on “statistics or exploring randomly generated worlds of crate-filled buildings”. That was sixteen years ago, do you think things have changed since? Has any recent game impressed you in that regard?

WS: I think things have changed some, but not enough. We’re still stuck in a world of character classes and traditional RPG statistics. I like to think that games like Deus Ex made a bit of a difference, changing the way people think about RPG’s but maybe I’m fooling myself.

To my mind, the Thief games from Looking Glass did a great job of putting players in the role of an intriguing character without any of the classic RPG tropes. More recently, I thought Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a pretty good job.

One of the biggest challenges in editing this book has been deciding what games to include. Over the years the “RPG” term seems to be more and more used as synonym precisely to those “statistics”, with even games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield claiming to have “RPG-elements” in the form level-ups. As a side-effect, this led to games with no stats, such as Thief and the first System Shock, to not be considered RPGs. What are your thoughts on that?

WS: I don’t think I’d include Call of Duty or Battlefield as RPGs. However, that isn’t because they lack stats. I think games that have no stats can be the ultimate roleplaying games. They force players to adopt a role instead of depending upon rolls (if you see what I mean).

RPG’s should be defined by character and interactions, not by levels and stats.

Age of Decadence is an indie RPG heavily focused on branching story-telling, in many ways similar to a CYOA book. To focus on the core experience, the developers made some controversial choices, such as not having lootable containers lying around and teleporting the player between objectives, instead of making him constantly walk around as an errand boy. There was a lot of backlash, as those are parts of the experience that players came to expect when playing an RPG. Do you think that pioneers such as yourself, Richard Garriott and others also had expectations and unspoken rules – perhaps inherited from tabletop RPGs to follow when designing your games, or it was more of a blank slate?

WS: There’s no question that folks always have expectations and rules – not all of them unspoken! Most RPG creators have been and remain mired in their experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I find kind of sad.

The one thing I’ll say about the “good old days” is that gaming was more of a frontier, without as many rules, so we could make more choices without worrying about what players would think. There were fewer conventions, so fewer conventions to run afoul of!

Ultima IV is without a doubt one of the most influential and important titles in gaming history. However, Professor Michael Abbott wrote in 2010 an article about the challenge in making a new generation of players enjoy, and even understand this classic. I quote: “These eager players are willing to try something new, but in the case of a game like Ultima IV, the required skill-set and the basic assumptions the game makes are so foreign to them that the game has indeed become virtually unplayable.” As someone who is also involved with teaching games, does that scares you?

WS: What scares me is that its all but impossible even to get most older games running, let alone being playable once you do! I can’t get System Shock or Wings of Glory running anymore – couldn’t if my life depended on it.

Having said that, I think the problems with games like U4 boil down to graphics and sounds (as in there mostly weren’t any of either) and UI (as in we thought it was a good idea to use every key on the keyboard). I think a game based on the same ideas and built on the same assumptions as U4 would work just fine nowadays with modern graphics, sound and interface.

Finally, the purpose of this book is to provide a guide, a helping hand for RPG fans of all kind to enjoy their games. Do you have any advice to give to CRPG players, any game to recommend, any comment to make?

WS: I guess I’d say to be open in your definition of roleplaying – focus on whether a game allows you to play a role (i.e., determine what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it) rather than focusing on games that give you a bunch of stats and roll secret dice to determine the outcomes of your choices. Characters in RPGs should be defined by behaviors, not by attributes. There are no levels or dice in the real world – those were simply the best simulation tools available to tabletop RPG creators in the stone age of game design.

Today, in the world of electronic games, we have better, more expressive tools for determining whether a door gets smashed or an NPC responds well to a conversation with a charismatic PC. Always remember that RPG’s should be defined by “role” not “roll.”

Thank you very much for the interview, Mr. Warren.


2 thoughts on “Interview: Warren Spector on “roles vs. rolls”

  1. There is absolutely no problem to start and play System Shock via DOSBox 0.74 with full sound and 640×480 graphics in max-details.


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