Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Capturing More of the Tabletop Experience

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 18, 2012

Computer RPGs began, in part, as a way for D&D players to enjoy a taste of their game without the difficulty of getting a bunch of people together at the same place and time to game. Been there, done that. If it weren’t for our regular Saturday-night games, It’d be only the occasional Thanksgiving or something where I’d actually have a chance to sling a real D20.

For a (very short) while, there, I wondered if it was worth continuing in light of MUDS and MMORPGs. I was getting online with some of the same friends I was gaming with, and we were having grand adventures – well, at first – just like our dice-and-paper nights. But now we were doing it with cool graphics and sound, and everything! It was a lot closer to what we were imagining when we were slinging the dice next to our rulebooks and character sheets.

I wondered the same thing when we started playing Neverwinter Nights or Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption online. Same deal, only now we had an actual GM / Storyteller designing the adventures and stuff.  Could this replace the Saturday Night gaming sessions for us? I mean, it was the same thing, only our miniatures looked a lot cooler, right?

They definitely scratched some of the same itches. I have some pretty fond memories from all of these games – even going through a Gary Gygax-narrated dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons Online. I mean, beat that! Seriously, that was cool stuff for an RPG geek like me.

But some stuff still doesn’t translate all that well.  And in some ways, I’m glad, because I don’t really want the tabletop experience to ever be completely emulated or surpassed by the console or computer. I mean, in my younger days, I ran around in armor with a padded sword doing battle against fantasy enemies in an experience that was far more ‘realistic’ than anything that will ever get from a monitor, and it still wasn’t a replacement for sitting around a table with friends and playing D&D.  So I’m not really worried about that.

But as an RPG designer, I’m constantly trying to mine my past experiences for ideas for making games better. With the Frayed Knights series, in particular, that’s been a focus.  But Frayed Knights is still a single-player game. In that or in a multiplayer game, what are some of the advantages of the tabletop experience that may still apply? What are some things that we do (or can do) in the tabletop setting that are still pretty uncommon in CRPGs?

The turn-based nature of tabletop gaming leads to an interestingly flexible concept of time. Waiting for another player to complete their turn in a multiplayer game can be frustrating and annoying. It can be in dice-and-paper games, too, but usually there’s a gamemaster putting pressure to keep things moving, and you can usually socialize, kibbitz, comment, and plan with your fellow players while waiting for your turn. It’s slower-paced, but more social. I’m pleased that there are some indie online RPGs taking that approach (like Conclave, which I’ve only played a little of), but it’s still a rare thing.

The open-endedness of the tabletop game is something that CRPGs will forever have a difficult time emulating. I’m not talking about big, open worlds or about branching plotlines – I’m talking a freedom of choice of actions. In a human-controlled world, everything is interactive. Some of our coolest adventuring sessions involved a discussion with the DM and an unusual choice of action based upon the setting and situation that really twist things around. This is where players do things to trick the bad guys, or decide to use DISINTEGRATE on the wall to bypass a trap rather than using it to destroy enemies, or create illusions of something that forces an enemy’s hand.

Then of course, there’s the role-playing. No, we’re not going for a Tony award or trying to emulate Shakespeare with our efforts. And some players (and games) are less likely to do anything more than ‘play themselves.’ But some games and groups do encourage it. Often, it’s nothing more elaborate than arguing with the party paladin or cleric over whether or not to undertake a questionable course of action.  Or just adding a little bit of personality to your actions by your description. In a computer or console RPG, there may be nothing more to an action than pressing a button or clicking the mouse. But in the tabletop RPG, you can say something like, “My barbarian is infuriated by the goblin’s attack on Lady Tyra. He bellows a war-cry and puts all his might into a two-handed blow to squash the goblin like a bug.” It’s functionally the same as clicking the attack button, but it’s a lot more colorful.

The permanency of decisions is something else that adds to the drama of tabletop games, but is almost non-existent in single-player games (except those with permadeath, I guess), and is still pretty weakly employed in MMOs. In dice-and-paper games, there’s no restoring from a saved game.  Not without powerful magics or GM intervention, that is.  In MMOs, there is likewise no saved game, but consequences tend to be pretty flexible. “Grinding faction” and “respecs” (re-building your character) are common.  This is no doubt necessary in a computer-moderated game that doesn’t have the ability to change its story or path to allow players to redeem themselves from unfortunate decisions, but it can rob a game of some of its drama.

Truly interactive storytelling – personalizing the story around the player characters – is another biggie that may never be solved. In tabletop gaming, a good game master will customize the story around the players’ characters. They’ll respond to whatever reasonable crap the players make up, whether it’s a deep background item in their character history, or simply the way they acted goofy in the presence of the king.  Sure, games can (and frequently do) allow for certain ‘meaningful choices’ from time to time, but those are canned options.

Finally, there are some more social elements of these games that aren’t necessarily big  features, but interesting. Things like having friends play your character on an evening when you are going to have to miss or be late to the game. The silly weirdness that players get about their dice, especially when they find themselves on a lucky or unlucky streak. Having characters move back and forth between campaigns by different GMs (a rare thing these days, much more common way back when).  And then dealing with the eventual demise of a character – including the question of divvying up their gear among the survivors…

These are just some of the things that stand out about dice-and-paper gaming that translate poorly (if at all) to their computer-moderated counterparts – even when one player is able to act as a game-master.  But I think there are things that can be done to borrow at least some of that flavor for CRPGs. I wouldn’t recommend any indies out there trying to tackle all of them at once. And some people have spent their entire careers trying to achieve true ‘interactive storytelling.’ But I do believe there’s plenty of room in there for small victories for indies willing to innovate.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Jay K said,

    Whatever happened to that game that was part intactive fiction, part RPG? Something like that I thought was innovative. i even tried to make a roguelike similar in concept when i was younger.

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    I really miss the weekend D&D sessions of my youth. I think the social element of the whole thing was my favorite part.

    Makes me wish I could partake in them now.

  • Michael D said,

    Closest I’ve ever gotten to this holy grail is in a long-running MUD called Gemstone IV. Really, they do a fantastic job.
    I have a system capable of running the most demanding games at maxed settings (almost always have…geek, you know), and this has been my game of choice for 15 years.

  • Daniel King said,

    We still play our weekly game of D&D, were all 30 or 40 somethings, and you know what it’s still awesome! 😀

  • Xenovore said,

    Totally agree — we should be pulling more pen-and-paper RPG features into our CRPGs. But you kind of make it sound like it’s crazy-hard or impossible to do, e.g.:

    Quote: “But some stuff still doesn’t translate all that well…”

    Very few things don’t translate well, IMO. We’ve had the technology for a while now to do 95% of table-top features in a CRPG. Neverwinter Nights was a good prototype for it; yes, it did fall short in a number of areas, but it did so many things right, and there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed or improved with current tech.

    MMOs should be doing more of it (we used to have dynamic GM-run player events back in the day) but it’s pretty much ignored these days. As pointed out above, there are MUDs that are doing a decent job of it.

    The problem isn’t the lack of tech; it’s the lack of vision on the part of developers and players. Nobody is willing to implement that sort of stuff now, and players are used to consoley stuff like Mass Effect (or theme-parky MMOs), so there’s no demand. I mean, NeverWinter Nights, which was a good step in the right direction; that’s a decade old now and we haven’t seen anything like it since. And nobody seems to care.