Sunday, July 20

Tabletop RPGs VERSUS Video game RPGs. FIGHT!

Wizards of the Coast, who currently own the rights to the DnD franchise of tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs), have recently released a fourth edition of that game. Others tell me that this edition emulates the class of video games known as massive multiplayer online games (MMOs).

Typically table top games are the genesis of ideas that are either directly or indirectly used as the material for building a video game framework. At least as far as the sub-genre of RPGs (western RPGs). DnD 4e reverses this trend, and it is with good reason. Table top games are in decline while video games, in all their forms, are experiencing what some punters and industry somebodies describe as a new golden age. My friends tell me that 4th ed is fun to play, even as they agree that the rules, as written, are not. A table top game that's a boring read isn't a great sign considering how many people buy and don't play those games. Not sure how many of those books actually get read though.

Outside of DnD, tabletop RPGs have evolved and are still trying to find their feet in a competitive world. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the indy game scene. There are heaps of these sorts of games out there, and although I am loathe to promote this site, it's a great example of the independent scene for RPGs. The Forge is the brainchild of one person, and although many have contributed to it over the years, it remains constrained by a single man's vision. This vision is flawed, but there are many nuggets of gold to be found there nonetheless, and it's a great jumping point when seeking alternatives to the mainstream.

I haven't had much experience with any independent video game RPGs, and this has most likely skewed my perspective. As a game format they haven't evolved at all since at least the days of the Apple II and the Ultima series (for example). Graphically they're more advanced, sure. But the mechanical experience is still much as it was. The base model is almost exactly the same, a set of powerz represented by names and numbers that are used in a turn based format. The newer model is an action adventure game that has ignores the turn based format, but retains the cool powerz. This trend has bleed into first person shooters such as Call of Duty 4 and Bioshock, as well as third person shooters such as Metal Gear Solid 4 - the last place one expects to do number crunching.

I still play tabletop games because they offer me something that video games cannot (or have not, they may be able to). They allow me to play a character of my choosing, in a story that is variable. The game master may well have a specific vision in mind, but I may choose to ignore it and create an alternative that I share with my fellows. The freedom of personal expression offered by tabletop games isn't even really touched upon by their video game counterparts. Either as a single player experience OR as an MMO (although MMOs provide a better vehicle for infinite story creation). MMOs are interesting in that the potential for this kind of play almost exists, but the very nature of the format serves to undermine this potential. Grind, PvP, status, exclusives and lack of support for characterisation and story mean that while the game experience is more open ended than the single player experience, the stories are a function of the game's mechanics.

When video game RPGs (single or multi-player) offer truly open ended characterisation and story experiences table top RPGs will cease to be relevant. Sure there will be a few anachronistic die-hards, but even they will indulge in the electronic version from time to time. It's a pity that RPG designers are still focussed on mechanics where the real innovation is going to come from storytelling and characterisation.

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