RPGs, Adventure, and the Fantasy of Perpetual Growth

What roles are we really playing?

Just as Playboy was once read for the articles, we claim we come to RPGs for the narrative, or the characters, or the world-building. But looking at where our time is actually spent during play (and more to the point, where the design leads us) tells a different story. The typical RPG, as it is played, is about killing, looting, gaining more killing power, and repeating that process for the next 60 hours.

Throughout history heroic myths have been heavy on the righteous slaughter, but they weren’t always about this constant expansion of wealth and power. The adventurer as hero draws partly on the myths of early European empires, who mythologised their conquests across the world as a civilising mission; it also draws on our modern fantasies of rise without a fall. Our defining myth, and the basis of our economic system, is perpetual growth: the idea that we can get richer forever, even as the planet suffers. We elevate tycoons and industrialists as men of extraordinary genius who bend the world to their will and acquire without limits. So if our RPGs are power fantasies, the power they promise isn’t just shooting lightning or summoning monsters. It’s the fantasy of no restraint.

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The First Adventurers

The Early Modern world was full of adventurers. The term was coined as a noun in the late 1500s, just as Europe was starting to get colonialist projects going, and it soon came to mean a reckless intent on getting rich quick. Spanish conquistadors, English planters, the merchants of the Dutch and English East India companies — in their lust for gold and power and their total lack of restraint, these early disruptors moved fast and broke things like nations, people, laws, ethics, and, frequently, themselves. Yet like our modern disruptors, despite a net negative impact on the world, Europe’s adventurers successfully yoked their naked self-interest to the fortunes of their respective countries. As European states achieved greater control of their own territory, they came to imagine the world beyond as a lawless frontier, and the many nations who inconveniently peopled it as barbarians with no moral standing. In this confected wilderness, adventurers could be as acquisitive and violent as they pleased, and where they carved their bloody passage, imperial rule could follow.

That description may be familiar to the average Dungeons & Dragons player. Despite a well-known two-axis alignment system, D&D ethics tends to break down into such time-honoured precepts as “finders keepers” and “he started it’.” Adventure is conceived as something you go out and do to other people, just as it was in the pulp literature that D&D drew from — stories like Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars. And since D&D formed the template for most modern video game RPGs, the genre is overwhelmingly dominated by tales of violent acquisition.

Gold and Experience in RPGs

I spent most of Dragon Age: Origins knocking off bandits and zombies in the back of beyond, when the game is ostensibly about building alliances. And there isn’t any obvious reason why Fallout 3, a game supposedly about restoring clean water to the Wasteland, has me rebuild said Wasteland through crosshairs. I could use mods to devote my life in Cyrodiil to cheese-making, as the late Terry Pratchett did, but the unadorned game assumes killing and stealing will be high on my list of priorities.

Even when these games allow for a pacifist run, it often seems to go against the very grain of the game’s structure; I will likely miss large chunks of the game easily accessible to more violent players. In Bioware RPGs, combat and dialogue are even neatly compartmentalised into their own separate worlds, so that the player is expected to be a ruthless killer one moment and agonise over sparing a single life the next. Just as it was for the Early Modern adventurers, a line is drawn between a civilised world where peace is desirable, and a wilderness zone where might makes right. In fact, most RPGs have some version of this system — implicitly if not outright.

The video game adventurer is expected to have a bigger cause than personal greed, but they remain uncomfortably close to the frontier myth. Sometimes, like in World of Warcraft, this is completely undisguised: the adventurer is a literal agent of the Horde or Alliance empires, expanding their faction’s rule through conquest. In other games, the connection between adventurer and the imperial mindset is more abstract. It exists not in the specifics of the lore, but in the absolute divide between the sanctuary of the civilised world and the lawless place beyond where violence is the only option and every item is yours for the taking. What these wildernesses represent is a consequence-free space for perpetual growth, just as they did for colonial adventurers.

I mean, why level up at all? Not every game with RPG elements features levels, or even meaningful stats, but almost all of them go to great lengths to ensure the player never diminishes in power, even when it hurts the story. Many narrative games impose a defeat around the same point: the Virmire decision in Mass Effect, the big reveal in Bioshock, your father’s death in Fallout 3, the betrayal of Corvo in Dishonored. They occur at roughly the moment where, in a movie, the hero suffers a huge setback that exposes their flaws and forces a change in perspective. But while a movie hero might suffer the loss of power, money, status, or the love of their life, the most a game will ever take from you is your gear — and even then only briefly. The perpetual growth fantasy can’t be interrupted.

tolkien movie

Be the Hobbit

Even in games, this isn’t the only way to do things. Though never directly challenging the underlying mechanics of violent acquisition, Dragon Age II and Fallout: New Vegas at least raise questions through their stories. Dragon Age II tells the heroic fantasy as tragedy. No matter how rich or powerful Hawke becomes, the city of Kirkwall is always doomed by past oppression, and even against the greatest hero, that history will not be denied. Fallout: New Vegas, appropriately for a game that owes so much to the Western, questions the distinction between frontier and civilisation. The frontier zone is populated by people with voices who have their own opinions about their future. The Courier may follow the same path of expansion as any other RPG hero, but they have the option to guarantee the Mojave’s independence against predatory imperial powers.

Sunless Sea, like World of Warcraft, positions the player as a scion of empire. But its subterranean world is a frontier that can’t ever be settled. Every time the player dies, the map rearranges; the very geography resists any attempt by man to assert permanent dominion, and it always takes more than it gives. Indie RPG Blades in the Dark imposes trauma on player characters, forcing them to retire if they take on too much. Warhammer tells a story of universal corruption and unstoppable decline (though it can never decide whether it wants to satirise or glorify the Imperium’s fascist forever war). Just as the Warhammer world is always on the verge of collapse, the player starts with a full army and watches it dwindle away as the game goes on.

These are all games that subvert the traditional RPG model of constant increase. That model is hard to dislodge, and not just because it’s a deep-rooted genre convention. As publishers pivot to “games as a service,” as the number of hours you can keep a player hooked gains ever more importance as a metric of success, there is a huge commercial imperative to indulge rather than resist.

Yet stories based on alternative models have had huge commercial success in other media. We could imagine playing as Frodo, slowly losing parts of ourselves until we’re nearly spent on the slopes of Mt Doom. Oedipus and King Lear begin in positions of power, only to see it slip through their fingers. Macbeth and Michael Corleone trade power for humanity. And if you want a more upbeat ending, think of writers like Terry Pratchett or Ursula Le Guin, whose heroes often go from ignorance to knowledge without a corresponding increase in power (try making The Left Hand of Darkness in a mainstream studio, and Genly Ai would probably be blasting ice-wolves all the way to Karhide).

Despite so many options, the standard model RPG is still obsessed with gold and experience, and still so committed this cycle of perpetual growth where anything interesting the game has to say or do is utterly subordinated to the violent acquisition of power. It is deeply bizarre that this method of looking at the world — as a frontier to be tamed, as an endless glut of guilt-free plunder — should dominate. There are a hell of a lot more possible worlds than those our RPGs have given us, and they don’t all have to be conquered.