Sunday, October 23, 2011

What are the strength of a table top rpg anyway?

I was pondering the ways people approach their rpg sessions lately. One brain child of that was my previous post about Rifts. Now I have been thinking about that roleplaying aspect again, and more specifically the immersion some of us crave.

For some they see the game session as an opportunity to wind down, kill some orks and hang out with their friends. Yet others play it as they would chess or a game of bridge, they sit down with some strangers, maybe in a game store, and try to manipulate they rules and procedures in order to grow and develop their in game persona. There are more than one way to approach a rpg session.

Like you might know by now, I love the old school games with their relaxed attitude and how they are first and foremost games. But, I also like the new school games, the story games which focus on enforcing themes and crunchy parts for things like relationships.

It's not unheard of the latter to focus on more emotionally engaging subjects and themes. A game of that school might actually be intended to emotionally engage and challenge not only the character, but also the player. I find that interesting, in more than one sense.

When you sit down to play a game with strangers in a game store, you might prefer a game which lets you sit in your comfort zone. You do stuff which anyone can understand and follow along, without getting their panties in a twist.

Compare that to a game of Rifts, playing Coalition soldiers. For some that is just as abstract as playing chess. You gain XP by wasting the opposition, fair deal. For some others it might make them sit up straight and wonder what it means to play racist bigots with guns.

A few years ago I could see and hear how gamers I used to play D&D with now talked about how they had a "raid" or a "run" to attend with their guild in World of Warcraft. They had been hooked and online gaming took time out from planning a face to face session with friends. Personally I thought it was nuts!

Now, consider that WoW probably does that part of "playing an abstract logical game of chess with strangers" part quite well, what is left for the table top?

Maybe, just maybe, those games which plays best with friends, or at least with people who might like to get somewhat emotionally engaged, is what is uniquely well done by a table top rpg?

Could it be, that when immersion is key, is where these peculiar games really shine? I have a very varied view of the would be thespians at the table, but I do think going that extra step while engaging the game is what WoW will not let you do. For good, or bad...


  1. WoW won't let you solve any problems you encounter in any way the programmers didn't consider in advance, and you certainly can't talk yourself out of a bad situation--at most you pick one option from a short dialogue tree; you can't even look inside anything the coders didn't code as having an inside or pick anything up they didn't want you to put in your inventory. So even if tabletop didn't have it all over computer games as far as friends and emotional involvement go, it would still beat CRPGs for thinking your way through situations and interacting with the game environment.

  2. Let's hope that the immersion and engagement still has drawn in today's time-investment market, as I've not yet found another medium that allows for the sort of meeting of the minds and emergent consensual reality building that has marked the vast majority of my time in the hobby.

  3. The greatest strength of tabletop RPGs is that they can be adjusted on the fly.

    They don't offer the best acting.

    They don't offer the best detail.

    They don't usually offer a lot of immersion.

    What they do offer - usually in excess - is flexibility.

    Tabletop RPGs are more flexible than MUDs, more flexible than board games, more flexible than LARPs.

    The problem is that most of the time, that flexibility sucks a little bit, or a lot. When you're lucky you find that you need flexibility, and then the tabletop RPG delivers - unless the DM hates you.

  4. It's not immersion. Immersion is a full, persistent, 3d world with a soundtrack, weather, etc.

    It's agency. In WoW you can win or lose any given battle, but the bigger picture is always the same. NPCs have only been able to remember that you saved their village for a few years, an even shorter time since the village started staying saved. But no matter what, the village is either under constant attack or it's saved.

    You can never save the town and then build a stronghold and set yourself up as ruler of that area, nor take over leadership of the invading force and raze the town yourself, nor any other of a million other options. You either do the quest or you don't. The player has no real power over the world or the story. You either ride the railroad or you get off the train.

    WoW kills bad tabletop games because it offers a convenient, immersive, railroad/power trip fantasy combined with a social network that can span the globe. People who used to put up with a lot of bad games because better options didn't exist now play WoW instead. Good tabletop games survive.

  5. CRPGs excel at spectacle, impartial rules application, and development effort required per player-hour.

    Tabletop RPGs excel at on the fly changes and player agency.

    Spectacle is the sensations of playing the game: tabletop has terrain and little miniatures, while CRPGs have 3D polygons with textures and particles etc.

    Rules application in a CRPG is always identical. The server never forgets to add in your +1 to hit.

    A CRPG takes many more hours to create, but it can serve millions of players thousands of hours each while a module for tabletop can reach thousands of players for a couple hours each. For some styles of refereeing, a tabletop game can surpass a CRPG at this ratio, but the individual referee is limited in how many players he can personally reach.

    On the fly changes include a player saying "I want to start a horse ranching business" and the DM figuring something out. It would take a programmer days at least to code in that specific business opportunity into an existing CRPG and it would take weeks of testing to make sure it worked right.

    Player agency means, to me, the following:

    "I want to be able to go into town and buy bowyer tools and a hatchet, and go out into the forest and make myself a bow and arrows. Then I want to crouch on a roof and shoot at an unintelligent creature that has no ability to fight back because he can't reach me. Then I want to skin it, salt the meat, tan the hide, and sell what I don't need to a shopkeeper. I want to be able to haggle with him. Then I want to go on an adventure in a dungeon, in town, in the woods. I want to hire on with a merchant ship and capture a pirate ship and become a pirate. I want to steal other ships and make a pirate fort and defend it from the lawmen. I want to retire for a time as a farmer, civilizing the land, then travel to a dozen different planes of existence and other planets. I want to be able to dig up and throw any arbitrary stone, signpost, plant, or patch of dirt."

    That's possible with a novice DM who has a few books. There is no single player video game in the world that will do the above - except ones where the players act with full agency (such as Second Life maybe?) which means it's really a tabletop game with a computer interface.

  6. Oh, and that list of desired agency actions is just mine off the top of my head. For real player agency you'd need the game to fulfill the agency actions desired by any arbitrary 1,000 players. Only then would the CRPG offer as much player agency as any average tabletop game.

  7. Hey! Lots of cool ideas and suggestions there. Thanks all!

    I think we can all agree that much are different between computer games a table top ones. Maybe we all have different ideas on what are the strengths of each.

  8. I think postgygaxian nailed it...flexibility.

    It goes beyond players' ability to solve problems in any way they can think of... the game can go in literally any direction your group wants it to. WoW will always be Wow... Alliance, Horde, Azeroth, Lich King, etc. A tabletop campaign world has infinite mutability, and a campaign can change focus. My Sunday group's Deadlands campaign has gone in directions the GM never expected, and I think he's loving the changes even more than we are.

    Even if you're playing the jack-booted Coalition Thugs, even if your priority is a badass character and the perfect selection of feats/skills/guns/whatever, your mind is way more involved with the game, because your brain has to conjure up the environment and all the ways you interact with it. You can't see the Fortress of Skulls on your monitory. You don't know that the D-Bees coming out of the woods are automatically foes because there isn't some mechanism like a targeting reticule that turns red to signify "enemy," etc.


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