Why Should Digital Game Designers Care About Tabletop Roleplaying?

I’ve made a few posts lately about tabletop roleplaying games. Many digital-games-focused folks may not be very interested in such things, since they seem so different from digital games. As I’ve said before, tabletop roleplaying games are a synchronous form of digital games. Why does that matter?

Simple. Imagine the perfect video game engine.

Imagine a video game that could react to the player’s every action. No more invisible walls; if a player wants to walk out of town and over to the next city, she can. No more railroading; any creative solution can be used. And if the player gets bored with an aspect of the game, the game could change itself, on the fly, to be how the player wants. Episodic gaming promises that player comments can be incorporated into the next episode; imagine a game where comments were incorporated into the next level… or the next room.

That is the promise of a well-run tabletop game. RPGs are moderated by a human in real time, which means that the game can react almost instantly to player actions, adjusting difficulty and style on the fly and offering limitless player agency. Does that mean that tabletop games solve all of the problems of the digital gaming world? No. And that’s why tabletop RPGs matter to digital gamers.

Too often, critical discussion of video games is tied up in issues that are unique to the asynchronous digital experience. Player agency, good characterization, engaging story; these are the typical topics of games-as-art folks. But there are issues that are common to all interactive entertainment that are often overlooked.

By examining tabletop RPGs, we can see what issues arise even in the “perfect situation” of a gaming environment that is synchronous with the game designer. These are issues relating to the division between actions governed by game rules and those governed by narrative. Issues that come up with what the player can effect: just her character, or the very game world itself? Issues that raise questions about the very relationship between player and designer.

To examine tabletop RPGs is to allow yourself to look past the idiosyncrasies of the digital medium and see the essence of interactivity. Just as digital games help eliminate the stumbling blocks of dice and math and slow-thinking fellow players, tabletop RPGs break down the barrier of months and miles between the person making the game and the person playing it. To ignore tabletop games would be a mistake. Let’s remember that there are other ways to play.

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