Gaming Thoughts: computer vs. pen and paper RPGs

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.

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7 responses to “Gaming Thoughts: computer vs. pen and paper RPGs

  • Von

    I left a comment on PAGE which I’d like to reproduce part of here, feeling that it has Relevance:

    Computer games in general and computer role-playing games in particular owe much more to the choose-your-own-adventure book than to the tabletop experience. Even something like Baldur’s Gate, sandbox that it appears to be, is entirely pre-generated; you’re simply choosing the order in which the events will occur and either selecting pre-planned dialogue options or engaging with random resolution of a pre-designed combat.

    Exploring that world can be enjoyable, particularly with the likelihood that some of your party members will die; you can construct a personal narrative that sits alongside what’s provided to you by the game, which is what the PAGE post is suggesting to be the attraction of strategy games. I have to admit that I find myself awfully invested in, say, Civilisation IV (must pick up that second-hand copy today, I’ve been missing it so) and creating a grand narrative of nation against nation and dynasty against dynasty around a game where none of that’s implicit; the stuff I think while I’m playing Neverwinter Nights or World of Warcraft is much more rationale for the development in my character’s abilities and responses to the quests and things I go on, a more passive and reactive kind of creativity.

  • James S

    That editorial is pretty interesting, and I don’t think I agree with the guy.

    Your point is good though – all CRPGs are essentially choose-your-own adventures. Pen and paper RPGs are something altogether different and weirder, although they can of course be on the choose-your-own-adventure level of “if . . . then.” So can real life, at that.

    Constructing an internal narrative while you play WoW or Civ I think is closer to composing a work of fiction than it is to participating in a p&p RPG. I tend to indulge in that sort of fantasizing while I’m playing CRPGs too, generally in inverse proportion to how developed the protagonist is.

    In a p&p game though those thoughts are the raw material of the game, I think.

  • Porky

    I love this kind of post, so thanks very much.

    If computer approaches are choose-your-owns like Fighting Fantasy, I look forward to the day they become Advanced Fighting Fantasy! As you suggest, there’s still plenty could be done. I’m expecting for better or worse the tech will one day be there to make it possible.

    I do wonder though whether the experience can ever be truly satisfying. We’re snatching at something just out of reach with all our rules and sequels and new game engines, and maybe there needs to be that tension of never-quite-perfect, especially for the players who’ve known a range of game types, and who developed their interest in something earlier.

    It’s funny to think back too. We’ve seen some major changes in our lifetimes, and there’s time to run yet.

  • Shaun

    A very good article. I’m really clinging to the point you’ve made about how the representation of things actually takes some of the appeal away. I think it’s something that the horror industry tries to implement (or at least some of it does). Some of the best horror films are the ones where you don’t get the big reveal – you don’t ever see the monster. I’ve always heard the reasoning behind this was because nothing the director/writer/actors/etc. could conjure would be even half as scary as the vague sort of imagery we give things in our minds. Applying this to other media seems to hold up. Allowing people to do more of the work on their own and use their imaginations for visualization seems to be a lot more entertaining.

    Very insightful stuff. I hope to read more soon.

  • James S

    @Porky, no worries! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    Yeah, who knows what will happen? Maybe we’ll end up with MMOs where we can actually speak to computer controlled NPCs as if they were other people, and influence their actions with actual spoken words.

    I tend to think you’re right though, the CRPG approach can never satisfy what it is people like about p&p RPGs. CRPGs trick us into thinking that what we’re seeing is what we’re experiencing, and p&p RPGs require us to model an internal world, which is what we do in real life when we think and plan.

    So the first is a reaction to a sensory experience, and the second is a thought or daydream. Try to look at a real-life apple and imagine an orange in your mind’s-eye at the same time and you’ll discover that you can’t do both at once.

    I can’t, anyway – I’m looking at a tree outside my window right now and trying to picture an orange over the top of it in my imagination, and all I’m getting is a head-ache!

  • James S

    @Shaun, thanks for commenting!

    I’d say you’re right, the horror movie thing is a good analogy. Seeing something with your eyes is easier than constructing it in your mind, but can never be as deep an experience.

    We know when we see something that it’s outside us – that’s what seeing the world is in a way, knowing it’s not part of us. But when we imagine something, that comes from within us. No wonder it’s more emotionally affecting.

    Like I said in the article though, most of us are willing to trade off some depth so that we don’t have to put as much effort in, so I’m willing to bet that the “see the monster” style of games are going to be more popular than the “imagine the monster” kind for a long time to come.

    It’s funny, people often rave about how scary games like Dead Space and Silent Hill are, but they’ve obviously never played in a horror pen and paper game!

  • Fergazar

    The main advantage of p&p RPGs in my opinion (and mentioned by the article) is the sheer amount of ways to approach any one problem. In CRPGs, even the “sandbox” ones, you’re limited to what the developer has foreseen and implemented as the viable solutions. (Not counting exploits here) On the other hand in p&p RPGs you can resort to any number of ways, even utterly unorthodox ones, limited only by the patience of the DM and basic rules.

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