Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Upside of Tabletop

So, yesterday, I was thinking about the things that video games do well. Today I'm going to turn that around and talk about the things that tabletop games do well (relative to video games). This is not going to be touchy-feely stuff like engaging the imagination. While this is certainly true, it's not terribly quantifiable, so I'm going to stick to somewhat more concrete benefits: Flexibility, responsiveness and emergence.

Flexibility is the first and most obvious benefit of tabletop, as it allows the players to "go off the rails" at will. Computer games require a lot of suspension of disbelief. Even in the most realistic of games, there is rarely an opportunity to climb a wall you shouldn't climb or open a door that's not supposed to be open. If a tabletop game has these limits it is usually a result of the GM being a tool rather than any failure of the medium. This seems like a very small thing, but it's impact is huge in a great many ways. It allows players to move towards their interests freely, and it allows problem solving to become much more sophisticated.

Responsiveness is the very simple idea that player's actions have a noticeable impact on the game world. That is, if they clean out a dungeon, then the land around it might get reclaimed or somethign else might move in or something else might occur that is a direct result of that action. Video Games have gotten better at this - "phasing" technology in World of Warcraft allows certain quests to change the game world, and games like Fable and Dragon Age allow the game to unfold differently depending on choices - but they still drastically pale by comparison to tabletop. In a computer game there are merely more options that get explored, but the ultimate range is still pretty fixed.

It's worth a nod to the idea of game artificial intelligence as shaking this up. A sufficiently well designed game AI can definitely make for a much more flexible range of reactions, but for the moment it's still pretty toy-like. Even if done well, it's very hard to code in the decisions (often non-optimal decisions) that make things feel real.

Emergence is possibly the most powerful of these three, but it is very much a function of the intersection of flexibility and responsiveness. To put it simply, emergence is the unexpected that emerges naturally from play (as contrasted wit merely arbitrary or random surprises). The result of several creative people working together on a game is that it will almost always produce unanticipated results, usually in an awesome way. These surprises, from funny scenes to crazy plans to truly unintended consequences, create the real difference between play and the kinds of fiction it represents.

Now, emergence is possible in video games. Any toolset that allows humans to interact has the possibility of spawning the unexpected. Consider that a game of tag could break out on a counterstrike map - it's not what the game is designed for, but the players have made it so. Emergence in video games tends to be very interesting, since it's all about the manipulations of a limited tool set, but the limitations on the range of play are also limits on the range of emergence. Even with very creative players, the tools will eventually become a hindrance, when you attempt to play a courtly romance in Halo. Of course, one of the fun things about video games is that someone might write a mod to make it possible, but that's a slow solution.

In contrast, emergence is almost impossible to avoid on the tabletop. Get people together and give them some freedom, and crazy stuff will come of it. Yet despite this, many GMs view this as an undesirable outcome, and attempt to lock down play as much as possible, to either quelch emergence entirely, to keep it channeled to very specific avenues (such as encouraging it in tactics, but not in the rest of gameplay). And, obviously, some games are better or worse at helping this along, though ultimately the real limiter is the people involved. A GM or player unwilling to deviate from rules as written has, effectively, accepted the same limitations video games operate under. This is not always a bad thing (constraints can breed creativity, after all) but it's still going to depend on the hearts and minds of the people involved to figure out how to make that work.

As with video games, these are not intended to be things that ONLY RPGs can do, just a thought about what they do well. All straightforward enough so far, but tomorrow I'm going to look at some slightly different territory - ARGs.


  1. I think I know where are you going and I like that very much. Been thinking about that unholy marriage for quite some time :)

  2. The problem I find is not so much in going off the rails in a well-designed sandbox game (and they are getting quite well developed these days), but rather that the game designer often has in mind a specific way to solve a problem, whereas tabletop games usually have sufficient flexibility to allow the players to create solutions to problems (and for that matter, creating the problems themselves) that the designer never even considered and which an AI, no matter how advanced, cannot accomodate.

    After all, most actions have consequences and these must be explicitly modelled in a computer game. And too many branching possibilities get unwieldy when you have to script the entire adventure before anyone plays.

    [Still, I think there is a role for the use of a lot of game technology on the tabletop, such as intelligent virtual battleboards which handle all the minutia of tabletop mechanics. Especially once the virtual holographic projectors leave the laboratory.]

  3. "No story plan survives contact with the players", to paraphrase Moltke the Elder. Yay for emergence!

  4. Rob, did you happen to see this article in this morning's Times? It's about Hasbro's new "Monopoly Live", which puts technology dead-center in the middle of the Monopoly board. It's interesting to read their view of the tabletop game market, and why they think this is a good idea. Interesting implications as it applies to TT RPGs as well.

  5. @robert I hadn't. Taking a look now - sounds fascinating!


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