I was a child in the mid-to-late 1980s, and a teenager in the mid-to-late 90s, so I grew up in that unique time when computer and console versions of wargames and RPGs were starting to emerge and really challenge traditional games.
Back then, if you mentioned the words “wargame” or “role-playing game” the picture people got in their head was of a traditional table-top, board, or pen and paper game. Now I think most people outside the gaming community, and even many in it, would first picture a screen, and the player either lounging around with a console controller or huddled in front of a keyboard and mouse.
I’m planning on writing a few articles on how the experience of playing each of these kinds of game differs, their strengths and weaknesses as I see them, and maybe mention a bit about these games changing place in the world while I’m at it. So in this Gaming Thoughts, I’m going to start with what I started with: RPGs.
Pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, or the World of Darkness games are strange beasts. I think of them as an evolution of social parlour games (which date back to ancient times) mixed with randomizing mechanics to resolve imaginary situations that the players may not be able to resolve themselves by acting or cunning. Some of them even involve tactical maneuvering of models like a table-top wargame. D&D for example has always involved this to some extent. These games require a group of players, and really provide a unique experience. Or at least they did, until the virtual version appeared . . .
As a kid I always wished that there was a version of D&D I could play on the computer, so when Pool of Radiance and Baldur’s Gate came out it was really exciting. I’m going to call these “CRPGs” from now on, as shorthand for “computer” or “console” RPGs. What me and my D&D group found was that while these games were amazingly fun (it was just so cool to see a Beholder on the screen, and to make up the whole party the way you wanted them), they didn’t seem as real as playing D&D in the flesh. They were too easy. By “easy,” I don’t mean easy to beat – I mean that they required little-to-no imaginative effort to play. Everything was right there for you, but you no longer saw the Beholder as a shadowy monster in your mind, it was a tiny bitmap jerkily firing pixels at your hapless stick-men. The action did not take place in your mind’s eye but in front of your real eyes. The difference I think is comparable to the difference between reading a book and watching a movie.
Another difference is the lack of other players. In these old CRPG’s the whole party was controlled by the player, but in a traditional RPG you have no more control over your companions actions than you do over your friends in real life. So while the visuals are much more powerful in a CRPG, the group action is less realistic. It’s more of a solo adventure than a team game. Even when Japanese (J)RPGs like Final Fantasy emerged with new and better graphics, this basic configuration was still the same – you played alone, and the game did all of the imaginative work for you. It wasn’t until the era of MMORPGs that my childhood dream was finally realized of being able to see the world unfolding in front of my eyes, but still be playing with others.
There is one aspect of traditional RPGs though that cannot be replicated by CRPGs. This is the freedom to act however you can imagine. In a pen and paper game you can do anything, providing your character is physically capable of it and you can convince the referee to allow you to try. Later CRPGS try to replicate this, for example the Elder Scrolls games, which are so-called sandbox games. They do OK – I played Oblivion for something like 80 hours without ever attempting the main story-line. But every time I ran up against an invisible wall I was reminded I was playing a game. In Dragon Age II the same thing happened plot-wise: the game gave an illusion of freedom, but I was frequently forced to fight when I would have rather negotiated. I don’t think it’s possible to get through that game without multiple combats, but if I wanted to I could play D&D for hours (or even forever) without drawing my sword.
This I think is what is at the heart of the difference between CRPGs and traditional ones: the way they create suspension of disbelief. CRPGs rely on overwhelming our senses, particularly our sight (the one we rely on the most) so that we forget we are playing a game. Traditional pen and paper RPGs rely on us conjuring up the events in our imagination. Playing a traditional RPG really is like being under a spell – if the game works, all the players on some level ignore the dice and the mechanics even while using them, and trick themselves into imagining that the events really are taking place.
So both types of RPG have limitations. Playing a CRPG can be soured when we hit that invisible wall, or we start to feel that Knight was going to attack us no matter what we chose to say, or how many ranks in Persuade we gave our character. And a pen and paper RPG can’t even begin to be played until we put in that mental effort to pretend that we’re not sitting around a table rolling dice, we’re toppling kingdoms and fighting dragons and I’m a surly dwarf with a cross-bow, not a skinny guy in a chair with chip-crumbs on his shirt. Both sorts of games may seem superficially similar but there are things each can do that the other never can, by it’s very nature.
Since most people play games for fun, it’s hardly surprising that CRPGs are by far the most popular type today. They require less mental effort and are less of a mind-fuck, for want of a better word. Pen and paper RPGs on the other hand are undeniably an odd, intense experience and not for everyone. There’s a reason that back in the 80s only the wierd kids played D&D.
Next Gaming Thoughts: Computer wargames versus tabletop miniature games.