This is an article I wrote for the AEGIS ezine project a few months back. I'm posting it here since it looks like the ezine is on hold.
Nearly everyone credits tabletop role-playing gaming as the predecessor to today’s modern computer RPG genre and MMORPG genre. The terms “Game Master”, “NPC”, “Level” ,“Class” first had its origins in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby.
Sadly, the tabletop roleplaying industry is in decline, with the same size market of players competing for a glut of tabletop RPG materials, and growth in the market has been very slow. This is directly opposite of the computer RPG industry, which has seen record growth, especially in the MMORPG category. In light of this, some people are saying that Online Computer RPGs are the way to go for the next generation, and tabletop is doomed to be practiced by the same ever-graying market segment that was introduced to it in the mid to late 80s.
This writer believes that this may not necessarily true, hence this article. Here, we’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of a computer RPG, more specifically an MMORPG, and how a tabletop is inferior or superior to a computer MMORPG.
TWO VIRTUAL WORLDS
Table Top roleplaying games are virtual worlds: They exist in the shared imagination of players and the GMs. They have their own internal rules and systems, and they can be explored and experienced in a communal manner.
But they are not the only virtual worlds out there. Computer games can be said to be a kind of virtual world, where one or more players explore and experience the game. This can be seen in “RPG” console games and MMOGs. They too have their own internal rules and systems and are experienced in a communal manner.
SHOW VS TELL
Though both Computer and Tabletop RPGs are virtual worlds, they are vastly different in implementation, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses.
Computer RPGs and MMOGs are far more immersive then table top RPGs because they don’t tell you what’s going on, they show you, and like the cliché goes, “a picture paints a thousand words.”. This is the core strength of the computer RPG, and in this day and age of instant gratification, most people will want to be shown action then told action.
SCRIPTED VS. INTERACTIVE
Though Computer RPGs strength lies in the visceral, visual presentation of the adventuring material, they do have a weakness, and that is INTERACTIVITY. Computer RPGs are after all computer programs. They are limited in what they can perform. This can be seen in the classic “Interior town map” in many console games, in which players “see” many objects on a dining room table in a house, but find themselves being unable to inspect or cart off the contents of the table unless it was part of the script. Indeed, many console RPGs are little more then interactive novels: Linear, scripted and rigid. However they are executed so well you hardly feel that you are being railroaded or you are confined by the constraints of the computer program. But still they are unable to fully capture the freedom of a virtual world, and thus you have a lot of people writing fanfiction of their favorite console game characters (or MMOG characters).
Tabletop RPGs however, are powered by the ultimate creative processor: the human mind. A good GM is far more flexible and can customize the plot to detail any move the characters in his virtual world make. If a player wanted to cart off a plate from the dinner table, the human GM would allow him to do so. He would also allow the player to insult the host, flirt with the daughter or awe the inhabitants of the house with tales of his adventures… and the world will react appropriately. Tabletop RPGs allow for true interactivity and this is the core strength of the hobby.
ACTION VS DRAMA
With clever programming and split second computing, computer RPGs allow for highly detailed fast paced combats that are very thrilling. Nothing simulates action better then a computer program. This can be seen in the wide variety of action and sports games available for PC and Consoles. However, like any computer program, any action is constrained by the code. The computer program has to be designed to accommodate the action being simulated.
In a tabletop RPG, drama can be taken to its logical conclusions. With true interactivty, and some theatrical skills, the good GM can play out compelling scenes that give players the ultimate freedom in choosing how to respond. In fact many drama scenes are what are remembered by many gamers long after the game has ended. This is the advantage it has over any computer program.
However, because of the limitations of the human GM, action on a tabletop RPG tends to be slower paced then the twitch-speed rapid-fire decisions that a computer RPG is capable of making, since the GM must narrate every bit of the action to form the image in the player’s minds.
A QUESTION OF COST
It is generally speaking more expensive to play a tabletop RPG then it is to play a computer game or MMOG.
How is this so?
To play a tabletop RPG you need a relatively quiet place with tables and chairs, preferably a residence. You have to come together, from wherever you are in the city, spending time to travel there. You sit there at the table for 5-7 hours to play out a scenario, not counting breaks for dinner and snacks. Essentially when you decide to play a tabletop game, you’ve got to devote half or all your day to it. More if you’re the GM as you need to spend maybe 3-4 hours crafting the scenario.
For a computer RPG, all you need is a PC (which you can rent for as low as 30 pesos/hour). You need only your workstation’s space, and noise isn’t usually a factor. You sit there for 5-7 hours, doing quests or hunting with your friends. But you get to do more. Perhaps your character will level up. Perhaps you want to play after just 2 hours. With a tabletop RPG you can’t always bug your GM since he or she has a life and probably at this point a job. But with a computer RPG or MMOG, you can log back into the game at any time at your convenience and continue the adventure.
So in terms of time cost, table top RPGs are far more expensive then computer RPGs. Also in terms of convenience and “hassle” factor, Computer RPGs are far cheaper then tabletop RPGs, even though the peso value of computer RPGs is much more then table top RPGs. In today’s world, you want things to be convenient and available since we all have busy lifestyles.
COMPETING WITH CRPGS
One of the hobby’s biggest potential source for new players are computer RPG players, but in order to tap into this source, we have to compete with computer RPGs. We have to play up the strengths of the hobby while downplaying its weaknesses.:
1. Focus on Interactivity and Drama – Face it, if players wanted action and twinking, they’d just pick up the nearest MMOG. They can twink and powergame all they want. We can’t compete there. Rather we should appeal to players who want total immersion and drama in their games. This they can never get from any computer RPG.
2. Good GM and Player Showmanship – In this day and age where “tell” is boring, we must do our best to put up as much of a “show” as we can during our games. Game Masters should practice good showmanship especially when running demo games, such as changing voice patterns, preparing interesting props or coming up with new and exciting things that take players by surprise. Players can help by being theatric themselves, using mannerisms when they speak or acting in a dramatic fashion.
3. Cut Production Costs – This is more for GMs rather then players, after all you do have a life, a job, school, or whatever. Go for more rules light systems that focus on drama. Cut down on the math. Cut down on your prep time. After all, a human can’t compete with the game system of a computer RPG. Instead of coming up with complex rules, come up with complex NPCs.
Labels: Tabletop RPG