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Thinking Virtually

#2: Coca-Cola or Pepsi?

by Shannon Appelcline
March 5, 2001

Computer or Tabletop RPG? The question could easily become a religious conflict. Like McDonald's or Burger King. And the Giants or the Dodgers. And Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

I understand why some RPGers react so strongly against computer role-playing games. It's because computer games threaten our hobby. From my time working in the RPG industry, I have to concede that computer games have had a big, largely negative, impact on the role-playing industry (at least a big of an impact as the CCG craze of the last five years or so). They've sucked away players who might have joined our industry and have made second-tier gaming companies struggle to survive.

Despite that, I hope to be able to take an unbiased view toward computer games in this column, and hope that I can get a number of rpg.net readers to join me in that neutral assessment. Because, computer RPGs open up possibilities that cannot occur in tabletop RPGs, and that's a pretty exciting thing.

This week I want to continue my introduction to this column by looking at both tabletop and computer RPGs in turn. Because of the unique advantages of each medium, they're very good at doing somewhat different things; I want to explore that. In addition, I'd like to talk a little bit about the similarities of the two mediums, primarily as a clever segue to next week's article, and to the rest of this column.

So, let's get started.

Tabletop RPGs: The Virtue of Physicality

I don't think there's much question that the main advantage of tabletop RPGing is pure physicality. You get to hang out with your friends and play a game together. Afterward you might have a group dinner, go out for a movie, or stage a barbecue. When you're gaming, you can see hope, despair, or confusion writ large across your friends' faces. You can feel the surge of joy when your dice come up "01" revealing a critical success ... and you can feel your heart drop straight down through your rib cage when that "1" wobbles over, revealing instead a fumble of "00".

This level of socialization and emotion cannot be matched when you have a computer sitting in between yourself and your friends, acting as a mediator.

With physicality, however, comes physical constraint. Most tabletop RPG groups have a fairly small group of players to draw from. My own groups have sunk as low as 3 or 4 players on occasion. Life is good for gamers in the Bay Area, but I suspect physical constraints make it much harder to gather together a group in less urbanized areas.

Time can also be a pretty big constraint. Groups can only gather together when ever one actually has time, and from what I've seen that's caused the demise of many a gaming group, as high school and college turn into the real world and with it jobs and family.

The combined advantages and disadvantages of physicality have produced a specific gameplay for tabletop RPGing that works very well. I'm sure we're all quite familiar with it. Play is group-oriented. Though players do have their individual stories, these stories tend to be subservient to or intertwined with the overall group story. Detours into individual stories are exactly that--detours--and very soon the group story returns to center stage.

With the exception of the occasional (and rare) troupe-style roleplaying game, tabletop RPGs tend to have a single, core storyteller. The need to have something new to run every week (or however often you manage to meet) requires there to be a single responsible person, and once a single person is telling the story it becomes very difficult for another player with cool ideas to pop in for a few hours just to offer up a neat tale he's been considering.

So we end up with the singularly-visioned group-oriented story being the heart of tabletop RPGing. I think Dungeons & Dragons is really the prime example of this type of gaming, particularly in its original incarnation as an homage to The Lord of the Rings. Consider Gandalf leading that group of hobbits, dwarves, and hanger-ons eastward toward Mordor and the Cracks of Doom, all as envisioned by Professor Tolkien. That is tabletop role-playing.

And before I move on I should note that the particular style of play created in tabletop RPGing has brought with it additional advantages, including solid plot-driven stories and a consistency of worldview.

Computer RPGs: The Virtue of Virtuality

I'm sure the above conclusions really didn't surprise anyone. Though we might never have really thought it out, we all know what makes for good tabletop roleplaying. The question is: what makes for good computer roleplaying?

I should note in passing, I'm not really talking about those old games that I mentioned last week, like Adventure and the first computer Dungeons & Dragons game. They shared some of the characteristics of tabletop RPGing--including a fantasy setting and the ability to solve puzzles, kill monsters, and find loot--but they weren't actual roleplaying games. They were just a necessary step around the road. I'm not even talking about games like Baldur's Gate or Might & Magic XXVII, which I think each miss out on at least one of the core ingredients of a roleplaying game.

(I'll get to them a bit later, but I think the central things that have to be part of roleplaying games--no matter what the medium--are roleplaying, storytelling, and socialization.)

When I talk about computer roleplaying I'm really talking about a genre of games that is just coming to exist. MUDs and MUSHes have dabbled in the genre for a couple of decades but it's only really recently that games that meet my definition of true computer roleplaying have really come into the public eye. Neverwinter Nights and the recent Vampire game are both great attempts to really carry roleplaying over to the medium of computers.

But, any computer game that solely tries to mirror the gameplay elements of tabletop RPGs in the computer medium will ultimately fail. That's a pretty strong statement, and I should probably back off of it just a little bit. You can use the computer medium to run tabletop RPGs and it might work out OK. It'll only be a pale reflection of a tabletop RPG, but that's better than not getting to play a tabletop RPG at all if that's the type of gameplay you want. But, you absolutely will not get a computer game that's as emotionally powerful as its tabletop counterpart, and you'll also be wasting the unique opportunities offered to you by the computer medium.

The thing is, computer RPGs have different strengths (and weaknesses) than tabletop RPGs, and we're only going to start seeing truly great computer RPGs when people take advantage of those strengths. Just as the primary strength of a tabletop RPG is physicality, the primary strength of a computer RPG is virtuality, and all that comes with it.

With a computer RPG you don't have to manage to gather together a small group of players. The Internet is so mind-bogglingly big that there will be people interested in roleplaying whenever you want to play. Even better, with a mass of people all interested in playing, there's no longer pressure for one person to have an "adventure" planned for the next get-together. In this much more freeform environment there are always people ready to run adventures and that also makes it much easier for a person to run that single two-hour plot that's hard to fit into a tabletop game.

And there's a final advantage that comes up from this mass of intermingling players and gamemasters: stories no longer have to be centered on groups. Gamemasters can interact with players on a 1-on-1 basis without having to worry about the rest of their players sitting around bored .... and because computers can facilitate a lot of the action, a player can then set off on his own to accomplish his goals, interacting with the computer and other players before coming back to a gamemaster to report on his success or failure.

The benefits of virtuality result in a totally different of ideal gameplay than what you see in tabletop games. You can have multiple storytellers offering up multiple stories. Players take part in stories that are much more dynamic because they can constantly interact with different people. And, because games no longer have to be oriented around groups, you can end up with singular heroes, which is much more fulfilling for players. Even better, you can end up with multiple heroes; everyone can star in their own story.

(Just to be fair, I should note that virtual gaming does have its own disadvantages: you no longer get the guarantee that an overall storyline will cohere as a whole, and you do lose something by not having the physical presence of other players.)

Surprisingly, I can go back to a tabletop RPG for a prime example of how I think computer RPGs should run, with their multiply-visioned individual-oriented storylines. Paranoia. Its backstabbing machinations really pushed up the individual ... "heroism". Its structure, where the Computer gathers together a group of troubleshooters for each episodic adventure, is really a good match for how computer RPGs can be run by individual gamemasters in a dynamic way. Which all might go a little ways to describing why Paranoia didn't work as well as a tabletop RPG as D&D did.

Different strengths, different weaknesses.

And Often the Twain Shall Meet

Though computer & tabletop RPGs can be very different beasts, they also share certain characteristics which define the genre. I've already listed them in brief: roleplaying, socialization, and storytelling.

Roleplaying is pretty much a no-brainer given the name of the genre. You have to actually put yourself in the frame of mind of a character other than yourself. Sure, they may act a lot like you, but they differ in some way, if for no other reason then because they're in a fantasy (or science-fiction or horrific modern) world. My early computer games, Adventure and Dungeons & Dragons failed to meet even this criteria. To be honest, most computer "RPGs" have. How much roleplaying could you do in Bard's Tale or the gold-boxed SSI computer games when you were actually playing an entire party of adventurers?

Except in a few remarkable single-player games you never have roleplaying. It doesn't appear until you pick up the second of my criteria: socialization. In my opinion it's only with the advent of the Internet (or, in a more limited fashion, with the advent of older BBS games) that true computer roleplaying game came about, and that was because you could socialize with other people. I actually think that some multiplayer games manage to fail at this criteria as well. How much socialization do you really do in Diablo when you're just looking for other people to help hack & slash?

And finally, there's storytelling: the act of actually playing out a plot that causes change and has real consequences. I've played in tabletop and computer RPGs alike that didn't meet this criteria. How much story really managed to make it ways into The Keep on the Borderlands? Even though Warcraft and its many graphical brethren do have stories behind them, are they really critical or are they just excuses to go to the next fight? In their infancy I think both the tabletop and computer RPG industries managed to consider storytelling a simple add-on--an excuse for the fighting or looting or whatever that was at the core of those first games. We've seen tabletop gaming mature beyond that and I'm sure that computer games are on this path too.

Over at Skotos Tech, the game company I work for, storytelling is our most important byword. So in this column you'll see it come up quite a bit. And that's where I'm going to continue next week. As I've said, this column is going to feature reprints of some of the best Skotos articles, intermingled with new columns written by myself. That's going to kick off next week when I begin the reprint of a five-part series on "The Elements of Good Storytelling". It talks about how how to tell a good story, in the view of a creative writing student, and it'll have broad applicability to roleplaying games of any type.

Finally, in response to my initial dichotomy, let me say: Coca-Cola. But if I really wanted a caffeinated beverage that was sugary, slightly acidic, and cold, Pepsi would do in a pinch.

Shannon Appelcline writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech. Hopefully Skotos Tech's first game, Castle Marrach, manages to epitomize many of the ideals for computer roleplaying laid out here. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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