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Games: Pixels V. Dice – Why the Imagination is the Ultimate Graphics Card

Posted November 21, 2012 by Ciarán O'Brien in Games

In these days of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, computer RPGs are often hailed as being full of choice and depth. That’s true, and yay for them, but get some friends around a table of an evening with character sheets, dice and enough coke and pizza to ensure a lifetime Domino’s discount, and I bet you’ll have a way more enriching experience.

Tabletop RPGs can do things computer RPGs can’t. A large part of it is because with a cRPG, your GM (game master) is a computer, unable to account for every possible action you might perform, and unable to improvise when you do. Take the current surroundings of your game, for example. Say you’re in a town. There are lots of houses about. You can enter some but most are bricks with doors painted on. The doors are made of plywood, and you have enough C-4 to sculpt a life-sized rhino, and yet you can’t scratch them. What’s behind the doors? What secrets do they hide!? That non-door might stop Soap McTavish in CoD 4, but it won’t stop Bob’s highly skilled thief when you plonk it in front of him at the D&D session on a Wednesday night. The computer can’t react to that and make up something to fill in a gap that the player found. There are rules, and they can’t be bent even a little.

With a human GM, it’s different. The golden rule of most tabletop RPGs is ‘If it’s not fun, change it’. If a player has a great idea, you let them try, even if it’s technically against the rules: suddenly the room has a chandelier for Grognak the Barbarian to swing off heroically, because it’s cooler than the alternative. Hell, Exalted by White Wolf is a game where the players start off as demigods. Every ability they have breaks the rules, and the stunt mechanic (the more awesome a player’s action sounds/looks, the better their odds of success) actively encourages players to push the boundaries of what’s possible. You need someone able to make snap judgements on how your player can effectively wield the chunk of masonry she just ripped out of a castle wall, or how the ebb and flow of a battalion of troops affects the two duellists dancing across their spear tips. All the crazy stuff Dante did in the Devil May Cry cutscenes? That’s standard fare in Exalted, and with half a dozen characters doing it at the same time, a computer will just pack up and go home to sulk. Imagine trying to do this at a LAN:

YouTube Preview ImageDead Fantasy: Fights like these will only ever be cutscenes in video games.

Another score for tabletop is in dialogue. With a cRPG, chatting to someone is usually limited to a good/bad/neutral response or a couple of questions to fill in the game world. I fondly remember a game of Corporation I ran which makes a good comparison. My players were tasked with taking over a crime family in Munich. I’d assumed (like a computer game would, actually) they’d try to reason with them, or threaten them (both leading to the same cripple-their-resources side quests), or kill the bosses and take their place. But that wasn’t good enough for these guys. No, they dug up details on the head honcho, found out where his son went to college, and while the diplomat set up a meeting, the sniper was jetting off to a university in London to stream live footage of the son through his scope to the diplomat’s laptop during negotiations. The result was a seamless takeover with no bloodshed. In a cRPG, you almost always have to fight and kill to get your way. A cRPG tells you what the options are. A tabletop RPG tells you the situation, and leaves options to the player. Massive difference. Oh, honourable mention for Deus Ex: Human Revolution for its wonderful side-quest where Jensen investigates a murder and confronts the perp in a nightclub without firing a shot, just using evidence and clever intimidation to get a confession. We need more of that in computer games, please.

More ergonomic than a gamepad, too.

I’m not at all saying combat shouldn’t happen. It’s tense, dynamic and fun. But RPGs need more than that by definition, and computers simply can’t provide it all. Some of the best RPGs I’ve played were non-violent for several sessions in a row, focusing on intrigue, stealth, diplomacy and courtroom debate. Very little of which you’ll see in a cRPG, despite the thrill they provide. It’s all about giving the player the power to decide how to proceed, to roleplay on their terms, so that anything really can happen. Tabletop RPGs will always do that better than cRPGs. Unless someone invents an AI dedicated to it. But that would soon go mad from dealing with players and begin the Machine Rebellion, so best we stick with tabletop, aye?

About the Author

Ciarán O'Brien

Ciarán has been gaming since the days of the Amiga 500, all the way up to the latest tabletop RPGs and wargames. A friendly, gentle soul who wouldn't harm a fly right up until the point where you touch his whiskey.

  • http://www.ramp.ie/ Lisa McInerney


    Ahem. Yes. You’re right, of course. The element of choice in a cRPG can not and will not ever match what a breathing, thinking GM can provide for a player. You have to play a cRPG with an element of disbelief, which is bloody counterproductive considering the whole thing is about escapism.

    Seriously, cRPGs are ruined the second the player asks themselves, “But why can’t I just…?”

    I bought a vintage D&D game a couple of years ago. Still haven’t played it, because I’m a terrible misanthrope. And THAT’S where Bethesda and Square Enix shine through for me – I can play their games alone, belching, in my pyjamas without anyone getting upset except my family.

    (Remember the tabletop RPGers in Fable 3? Whoa. That was like so postmodern.)

    • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

      I probably come across as fairly harsh on cRPGs here. Honestly, I do love a good cRPG. Legend of Grimrock frequently makes me squeal in delight at its oldskool dungeon crawl style. At heart though I’m a tabletop geek, and the adventures I’ve had through that particular gaming medium are more amazing than almost anything I’ve done with a computer game.

      That said, I most certainly don’t want to see cRPGs stop trying to reach such ideals. I will attack with rusty fish hooks anyone who denies Planescape: Torment is one of the best games ever made, and I spent an embarrassing amount of money on Obsidian’s Kickstarter for Project Eternity.

      • http://www.claudicar.me/ Klaus

        Ah… The days i used to play D&D and Vampire: Masquerade.
        Would like to have them back :)
        In all fairness, although the experience can’t be compared (yet), i think it’s better to approach to most cRPGs as novels, as if you were living another person’s story, not yours.

        • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

          D&D and Vampire seem to be most peoples’ introduction to tabletop. Not sure how to feel about that these days, I think there are far better systems out there. But yeah, you can get the same someone-else’s-story effect with a pre-written scenario in tabletop, where something hasn’t been accounted for and the GM has no idea how to deal with it. It’s an accepted part of gaming conventions, where you’ll have maybe 20 different scenarios running over a weekend, they have to have defined beginnings, middles and ends and railroading often occurs. Of course then you’ll have the occasional GM who throws away the last half of the scenario in favour of what the players want to do. I love comparing stories from different tables of the same RPG at cons, just to see how different peoples’ reactions are to the same situations…

          • http://www.claudicar.me/ Klaus

            As i did. I used to master M&M campaigns (started with D&D), and many times i will use campaign as basis, but player choices would still lead the game to unexpected and undefined places.
            It’s an environment that just can’t be as controlled. That of course, as you pointed out, has many benefits. I just think that cRPGs can often have a bigger dramatic impact (if well done obviously) than many campaigns with your friends.
            Sometimes. Just sometimes.

          • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

            I suppose it’s easier to do romantic subplots in a cRPG, as you don’t have to witness a bearded gentleman play the part of a smitten female character, falling hard for another bearded gentleman…

          • http://www.ramp.ie/ Lisa McInerney

            I don’t know. I think that sounds kind of tender.

  • http://twitter.com/ToeMcD Tony McDermot

    When I was about 6 or 7, I was visiitng my dad’s cousin’s house. As the parents went downstairs and talked about parent-y things, I was brought up a rickety ladder into the dimly-lit converted attic and introduced to Dungeons & Dragons.

    It’s the only time, ever that I’ve played an RPG. Ever. And I can’t even remember if I enjoyed it. I enjoy drunken board games, so the logical next step is…

  • http://twitter.com/nuckpang Stephen R.

    Until we can create an AI computer that actively twists and turns and reacts to what you throw at it, we’ll never have the same experience you’d have in a D&D session on a computer. That being said, a game of D&D tends to go on for an evening (at least in my experience), whereas cRPGs can be picked up and put down whenever you feel like it, so I think they both definitely have their place.

    • http://twitter.com/Sarklor Ciaran O’Brien

      Aye, a tabletop RPG usually takes at least 2 hours in my experience. cRPGs are admittedly more instantly accessible. And now and again one comes along that’s truly amazing. And a mediocre cRPG is way preferable to a tabletop with a bad GM. Tabletop takes more effort, I suppose, but I’ve found the return far greater for it.

  • http://www.emesq.com/ Colm

    The acid test will be when a cRPG lets us pull off something like The Tale of Sir Bearington.

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