Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 8, 2013
Back in the old days, when we stone computers and stuff, computer RPGs were really not much more than an attempt to provide a pale imitation of the tabletop gaming experience for existing Dungeons & Dragons fans to get their “fix” when a real game session wasn’t convenient. With game names like “DnD” and so forth, they were really just a substitute for a different experience.
That’s changed now. A lot. To the point where the last couple of editions of Dungeons & Dragons seemed to have been designed as substitutes for the MMORPG experience. How’s that for a switch?
There’s an obvious problem with tha. Unless you live in a place with no broadband, it’s hard to imagine a situation where getting a bunch of local friends to coordinate schedules enough to have a tabletop “dice & paper” gaming session would be more convenient than logging into one of many MMOs out there. These days you don’t even have to go to the next room to do that – you can just log in via your iPhone.
The late Gary Gygax, responsible at least for popularizing RPGs and co-inventing D&D, likened tabletop role-playing to attending a play, while MMORPGs and single-player computer RPGs were more like TV shows and movies – respectively, if I remember correctly. I can’t recall the details of the analogy well enough to decide if I agree with it or not. Personally, I think dice & paper gaming, MMORPGs, and single-player / small-group computer & console RPGs have all grown in different directions over the years (decades, now). A computer RPG is no longer a substitute for a tabletop session with friends – it is it’s own thing, a cousin with some strong family resemblances.
But you are really going to get a different experience out of each one. I’m still an active dice-and-paper gamer (I prefer that term to ‘pen and paper’ for some reason… although the use of paper, pens, or dice are all a little optional these days). I play almost every week. And, as Frayed Knights demonstrated, I’m still mining that experience for ideas to borrow and reshape for the CRPG experience.
So what are the somewhat unique joys of dice-and-paper gaming?
1. Social Interaction
Playing “live,” face-to-face, is fundamentally different from playing with a headset on. Yes, the latter is fun, too, and provides a form of social interaction. But for me, playing an RPG together in the living room, at a pace determined by the group, encourages social interaction. Computer-generated worlds and challenges tends to demand attention from the players, distracting from interacting with other players beyond the game mechanics. Now, I know that some tables have rules against “out-of-character” chatter, and the dynamics are different with every group. But this is an aspect of tabletop gaming I’ve always valued.
It’s still fun to play “let’s pretend” and take on a new role, playing somebody different from yourself, and try on some different personality traits in a safe environment. In this respect, playing in a live group is much, much more conducive to this than computer games. We’ve had the bulk of some play-sessions involve purely in-character discussions. I wouldn’t want that to happen every time, but it’s certainly an enjoyable way to mix things up.
I used to believe that role-playing was impossible in single-player games, feeling it was something that was only of value when there were other people to share it with. I’ve since been converted somewhat to allowing for some variant of single-player roleplaying, where you are free to experiment with the world using a certain image or role for your character. Some games allow it, some don’t. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is perhaps my favorite for allowing and even encouraging different character-driven approaches, flaws notwithstanding. But it’s not the same as role-playing with real people. And I’ve tried role-playing with like-minded individuals in MMORPGs, and experienced only limited success. I feel it’s possible, but the computer-moderated environment has to be conducive to that. I haven’t played a commercial MMORPG that did that, though I admit my experience is limited.
3. Player-driven stories
A human game-master… and human-controlled characters… can mean that stories can grow – or at least change shading – based upon the characters you role-play and the desires of the group. As a group, you can customize the experience in a way that no computer ever will (although I applaud game designers who try). Villains, rivals, allies, and goals can emerge from character back-stories. Rewards and challenges can be made personal. While in a CRPG, you may be able to go through an adventure with a custom character, and maybe even have the world respond to you in a canned or algorithmic way to certain character-driven choices, it’s nothing like the organic and dynamic possibilities of a good table-top game.
4. More Complete World Interaction
In a computer RPG, you get what you get. If it’s not been built into the game, it doesn’t exist. While some games take pains to try and hide this fact (as a game designer, that’s one of my goals!), it’s still a truth that works on a subconscious level. As a player, you quickly learn that certain houses and doors are purely background pieces, facades with nothing of interest to be concerned about. Deep down inside, you realize that there’s literally nothing over the horizon, and no sense in deviating far from the obvious path.
In a human-moderated game, though the game master might wave off some details, or obviously struggle to make up a name for an NPC who wasn’t expected to actually have a long conversation with the party, there are no such limits. Players can press the game master for details on the appearance of a lock, the location and state of hinges on the door, and the favorite color of a formerly-nameless character. And your human-controlled fellow party members aren’t limited to having generic conversations with you except at particular plot points. And you always have the opportunity to do something really weird, creative, or entirely bizarre, like attempting to kiss the bugbear leader instead of bribing him.
Now, the quality of these interactions may be subject to the skill of your fellow players, and it’s very rare that something come up with on the fly will match the quality of carefully pre-designed elements (at least until the next game session…). That’s an understood trade-off. But while 90% of your actions may mirror what you’d do in a computer-moderated experience, it’s the 10% that makes the other 90% feel special and interesting.
So there you have it. If you’ve never tried dice-and-paper gaming, I do recommend it, though it can be a real challenge finding a good group. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to be in a regular group since college (consisting partly of the same players, even). Getting together to game is often the highlight of my week.
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