Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In Defense of the Table

A response to this, plus my own musings.

In the above link, James admits that he does not entirely buy what he is saying, but is throwing it out there as food for thought.  Well, my thoughts are hungry, so lets dig in.  For those of you who have not read the article, James posits that Tabletop RPGs might be what he calls a "transitional technology."  He compares them specifically to the Walkman, placing computer games in the place of MP3 players.  I find much about this analogy suspect, and as I've already mentioned James does too.  Leaving aside the fact that this sort of argument is a bit teleological for my tastes, the primary flaw is that Roleplaying Games still have two tremendous advantages over their computer cousins.

The first advantage I will discuss is the position of the Dungeon Master.  In computer games the role of Dungeon Master is placed in the hands of the program.  The chief issue with this is that if one prefers that particular role then they had better find something else to do.  Granted, many games include level editors, and someone with a great knowledge of computers could make their own game, but the time it takes to master these is far more than it does to pick up the Red Box and start making a setting.

One is also far less bound by  constraints when making a world or location or dare I say "plot" for a Tabletop RPG because one can easily invent new material for their system of choice.  Granted this is true of computer games as well -- at least those with level editors -- however, the time taken is much higher.  Take the Triffid I posted this morning.  The time from the moment I decided I wanted to do a White Box version of the Triffid to posting it was only about 20 minutes, and most of that was looking up information on Triffids.  Compare this to making a monster in a video game engine.  Assuming you did not want to use an existing skin or model, it could take hours to make the same creature.  One could make whole worlds in the time it would take someone to plan and execute a single adventure in a CRPG.  It is this urge to create material and worlds to explore that keeps me coming back to the table, and Tabletop RPGs allow me to do this more quickly and easily.

One might think that the only advantage then belongs to egotistical madmen who want to draw funny maps and populate them with knockoffs of whatever stilted tripe they happen to be reading this week.  This is not the case.  Being a player in a Tabletop RPG has advantages over being one in a Computer RPG as well.  The most obvious and most powerful is freedom of action.  Due to the fact that one is issuing commands to a program, in a CRPG one's choices are limited to what that program is constructed to handle.  When one changes this from a program to the human mind, anything is possible.  A character in a Tabletop RPG can do or say anything that the player wishes.

This freedom is the chief advantage of the Tabletop RPG.  The range of possible outcomes of play are essentially infinite.  For those of us who like Old School play, this is an absolute necessity.  Without the ability to negotiate one's way out of fights, come up with clever and bizarre uses of spells, and to explain how one bypasses terrible traps, the game loses the very things that make it fun.  Computer RPGs by and large lack the ability to handle these kinds of situations, and even when they are allowed it is only within a very specific framework.

Tabletop RPGs are not Walkmans. Walkmans are big clunky things that have nothing to recommend them over MP3 players, unless one is purely a Luddite.  Tabletop RPGs do have advantages over their counterparts, and I hope that people will continue to discover these advantages for years to come.

EDIT: This article is meant as no slight to computer games or CRPGs in particular.  I play computer games fairly regularly -- though admittedly not with the voraciousness that I take to the table -- and dearly love many.  It only serves, I think, to explain why Tabletop RPGs matter.


  1. I think you are right that tabletop play has major advantages over computer play. My opinion of video games is actually much less kind than yours - I would rather scratch my eyes out than spend 30 hours completing a console "RPG".

    But I also think that James' hypothesis that tabletop RPGs are a transitional form leading to MMOs and console games is largely correct. I grew up during the big D&D fad in the early 80s and I watched computer games grow in sophistication and popularity. I can't even tell you how many friends of mine moved completely over to computer games and have totally abandoned tabletop RPGs. The transition has been very obvious to me in real time. Heck, even many of the luminary old school game designers and illustrators now work in the computer game industry - Erol Otus and Paul Jaquays are two names that instantly come to mind.

    I hope, however, as we all do, that there will always be a community of freakazoids who prefer the creativity and camaraderie of tabletop RPGs!

  2. I'm also speaking as a person who started playing after RPGs were a fad. I wasn't even born when Tabletop RPGs were a fad.

  3. I could problematize the entire idea behind a "transitional technology," but that would be more philosophical than I'm seeking to be in this blog.

  4. I agree with cyclopeatron -- I think you've mischaracterized James' argument. From James' post (emphasis added):

    Granted, both types of video games (generally) lack the interactivity of tabletop RPGs, but, judging by the success and mainstream acceptance of video games, one has to wonder whether that level of involvement is something that most people actually want of something calling itself a "roleplaying game." ... Sure, I find them largely unsatisfying compared to a face-to-face tabletop campaign, as I suspect most of the readers of this blog do too, but we're outliers. For most people, playing a tabletop RPG rather than a video game would be like still using a walkman when they can use a MP3 player: it's a superseded technology.

    I think the numbers on tabletop vs. computer RPG sales/players bear this statement out. Different people are looking for different things out of playing an RPG, and CRPGs scratch that itch for a lot of people better than tabletop games do. Setting up a tabletop game takes a huge amount of work, planning, and coordination among multiple people -- CRPGs can be enjoyed whenever the mood strikes.

    Lots of things that could arguably be classified as "transitional technologies" -- vinyl records, hand-rolled cigarettes, garter belts -- have a long afterlife as items of nostalgia, affectation, and even genuine connoisseurship, as many users continue to credibly extoll the superiority of the transitional form for its specific qualities that they value. But the numbers are unambiguous about these things being largely a niche market, superceded by innovations that cater much more effectively to what most people wanted from the older product.

  5. @ Picador

    I think I was most influenced by his use of a Walkman for his analogy. I don't see it as that black and white, but I will note that I have nothing but respect for James.