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Gaming for Grown-Ups

Alternatives to Traditional Groups

by Tim Kirk
Apr 21,2003


Alternatives to Traditional Groups

So you like me are in the middle of nowhere, or simply haven't found a suitable group in your immediate area?

Fortunately there are some good strong alternatives to the traditional game-group these days, although not all of them are equal many of them if approached correctly can be ever bit as rewarding and fulfilling a game experience as the normal pizza eating round table style game.

One of the first, and least traditional that I'm going to suggest is the PBEM, or the Play By E-Mail game. In this sort of gaming a group is gathered often by the GM planning to host the game and descriptions, actual play, and a host of other game elements are handled entirely by the text sent via e-mail, either directly to each player, or served through a central hosting mailing list service.

The first and primary advantage of a PBEM is that distance and time are not a factor of when a player can play, since a player may be anywhere from sharing the same computer with you to on the other side of the world it greatly increases the ease of actually getting playtime. This method of play allows for a slightly different structure as well, that lets the player act from either first person "I do" to third person "The Sorcerer-King Gathenot does." style play, and depending on the game may switch back and forth from perspective to allow both personality to be expressed, as well as clean crisp descriptions of actions on a larger scale.

The second advantage of PBEM, and one shared by most forms of electronic interactions is the one of false facethat is no one suffers a break in their suspension of disbelief because the slightly bearded, deep voiced Thomas is playing the Elfin War-Maid Lilliathra.

As an alternative to tabletop gaming my experiences have as a player been mostly negative with this style of play, primarily because of the disadvantages that plague PBEMS.

They are slow, the time taken to resolve one scene or situation in the game is magnified from an hour at most of tabletop play to often weeks of turns this can make some more impatient players lose interest and drop out, as well as even interested players forget their responsibility to respond.

The drop-out rate for tabletop games tends in my experience to be low, but with PBEMs this is not the case, change of e-mail, loss of internet service, life in general can come up, and unlike tabletop games where a person who is absent is visually not there, one doesn't always know if the person behind the PBEM character is not there, or simply unavailable for the week. This can be resolved simply by responsible people simply e-mailing the host of the game and letting them know about issuesavailability, lack of interest, lack of time, and so on. But traditionally the failure of a PBEM is that they aren't as immediately responsive to players needs.

As a GM for a PBEM however, my experience was generally betterI've run a single online superhero PBEM and for the most part (I hope) it was enjoyable to the players, considering we did have initial dropouts, loss of e-mail access, computers and the like for some members we still managed to forge ahead for nearly four years of play, with hiccups occasionally.

Another alternative I'd suggest is utilizing the numerous chat rooms that are available, from site based ones to IRC (internet relay chat), which uses specific programs and servers to allow connection to rooms where one can role-play.

Primarily, this kind of playing should be handled much like a tabletop game, recruit or find a small group of players and invite them to play. IRC is particularly useful because of its ability to create new rooms, register them, and have the GM "opped" or given status as the room creator that allows him access to a host of controls that may be needed, he can control who has access to the room with passwords, or who can speak to the room with specific controls. This method of play works best if it's used as a direct alternative to normal tabletop play, with all the standard divisions of player and GM.

With IRC, or other chatroom style playing I've had significantly more successful gaming, it unlike PBEMs has more of the instant return of tabletop although it too has some low points.

Although some rooms are designed for what is often termed "Free" role-playing the reward from this method, just showing up and pretending to be a character is in general diminished, it lacks the defined goals of tabletop gaming, and so has none of the beginning, middle, and ending nature. Goals are rarely achieved, plots furthered and so onand without the GM moderation it regresses most typically to simply thinly veiled OOC chatting or at best the traditional role- playing found in children even with the "I shot you" and "no you didn't" arguments, although with a slight subtle one-upmanship added this is from my experience the best case scenario, the worst case is that these free chat games can become places rife with cybersex, and cyber stalking.

So in general the traditional group and GM style seems to be the most efficient form of gaming using these chat programs.

Virtual table-tops is a newer much more recent innovation, although several different programs have existed that perform these functions of replacing the table with an electronic simulation, that may be similar at worst to a narrow focus chat room, and at best even provide electronic simulations of the table, miniatures, faux terrain and so on. The primary problem is of course most of these programs took significant effort to produce, and are not available for free, or even significant trial periods. This means you have to pay to make use of them, and like many pay services means you'll tend to expect more reliability from them. My experience with them is limited to one that even has its own supporting RPG website, and it was slow, crashed often, and in general lacked the reliability of the IRC networks. Hopefully, significant improvements have occurred to make it better, but I've not since tried to make use of it.

The other drawbacks of this method, although it tends to re-enforce the standard playgroup is that some require not one person, but your entire group to hand over cash to play, and not just one time only fees. With the myriad of free alternatives I just don't envision any of them as offering something superior for traditional style play.

Now so far I've focused mostly on alternatives that still try and maintain the general feel of tabletop, but there are numerous others that remain. These of course include Massive- Multiplayer, Online, Role-playing games.

If your going to play you might as well get the most of the service and not even need a GM from your group, a number of MMORPGs exist and have huge popularity. These have many advantages that chat-room style games, and services lack; graphics is the primary one, visual representation of character actions can be quite rewarding. Unfortunately these are limited by the power of the program, your Internet bandwidth, and the program itself.

Like the virtual tabletops, you tend to have to pay for most of these as well, and they are not conducive to group play. You can of course search the MMORPG for like-minded individuals, but that is time-consuming, frustrating, and often limited to the time of day you play, and what server you've found yourself on.

The real advantage of MMORPGs is that they don't require you to have a group, or GM, you simply connect to the service and the vast majority of that is handled for you either acting GMs supplied by the service, or computer encoded actions and reactions of the program itself.

Other options do exist as well MUDS and MUSHES share a number of similarities to chat games and MMORPG's but they also share many of those methods downfalls. In addition to those there are posting boards where in character posts can be added into threads, and continued for some time, this however suffers the same problems as PBEM's in that they are slow, require other people to respond and in general have a hit or miss nature of response. They also tend to be un-moderated, or at least poorly regulated which means they suffer from the same problems as free role-play chats.

Now this hasn't been entirely exhaustive and I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the licensed D&D variant known as "Neverwinter Nights" which is essentially a CRPG, but was specifically designed so that not only does it possess online play, but also allows for a person if desired to act as a GM, controlling the flow, and nature of the game. I've not used this program in an attempt to simulate tabletop play, but I suspect for those who are fans of D&D it may offer a significant and useful alternative. However it is likely to still suffer from the same downfalls of tabletop, finding an appropriate group who wish to play the same way as you.

No alternative will ever, I suspect be comparable to being able to sit around a table with friends and play. It hasn't for poker, or chess, it isn't likely to for RPG's either, but for most of these alternative can provide some of the fun, but they often require the same level of commitment, respect for others, and out and out understanding that playing games as a grown up means more than just being of a certain age.

Next: Location and Comfort

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