August 23, 2011

Playing to Our Hobby’s Strengths

James Maliszewski’s post at Grognardia had me thinking.  Maliszewski posits, very correctly I think, that one reason D&D rose so high in popularity in the early 80’s was because:
….  D&D appeared during that brief period when interest in both fantasy and interactive entertainments was on the rise but before home computers were both cheap and powerful enough to satisfy these interests. Consequently, the hobby swelled with many people who were became involved in it only because there was no viable alternative yet available. Tabletop roleplaying was the best thing on offer at the time. The advent of games like Wizardry peeled a lot of people away from the hobby and, I suspect, provided a better form of entertainment for many others who might have picked up gaming as a second best choice in a world that had not yet invented something they would have actually preferred.
I think he struck on a real truth there.  Our hobby has an intrinsic weakness: All the action happens in our heads.  Rules have to be learned to put everyone’s brain on roughly the same frequency, so to speak.  Every character, every action, must be created inside our heads and then – laboriously, for some – communicated to another person.  When we take actions that must be resolved using the game system, calculations and references are often needed. Playing a tabletop RPG is brain-work

Contrast this to the immediacy of a modern CRPG, with its flashy and sometimes downright stunning visuals (like the one above!), a world that’s been pre-imagined for you, all the character stats and math pre-done, and all you have to do to enjoy it is push some buttons. How are we tabletop gamers to compete?

By not competing on the same grounds, if you ask me. But first let me say what I think the real strength of the hobby is: All the action happens in our heads. ‘Hey, didn’t you just say that was tabletop gaming’s big weakness?!’  I did.  So how does it become a strength?  When you follow the strong suits created by this manner of play.  We’ll never compete with CRPGs in terms of immediate entertainment value, specially in terms of visuals and sound, or the way they sweep the rules under the rug so you can just go ahead and play.  But we can compete in terms of:
  • Flexibility: there’s nothing like a human game master and human players for richness of detail and freedom of action.  In a CRPG, there are only so many ways you can interact with other characters and the game’s environment.  With live players, imagination’s the only limit.

  • Unpredictability: as an outgrowth of our flexibility in tabletop games, a tabletop adventure can have a stronger unpredictability element, which can make for more engaging gameplay.

  • Immersion: with an inventive GM and players, a tabletop game can allow for deeper immersion in the game.  There’s no limit to the number of characters you could interact with, some even created on the fly, and the world can react to any action you take, even those that surprise the GM – the computer equivalent of which would hang the program!
  • Longer, More Elaborate Stories: a computer RPG will either have a finite story that will take you say 30-100 hours to play through after which it’s done, or as an MMORPG, it will have a simple framework story that leads you through the grinding routines.  A tabletop RPG offers potentially infinite stories – as long as the players and GM are interested the game can keep going in new directions.
My 2 cents.


  1. I find myself in wholehearted agreement with you. The fact this is all in our heads is a weakness. But it's also why I love this hobby.

  2. Yup! Personally, I just never got into MMORPGs for that reason -- they paled so much in comparison to the tabletop game.


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