RPG Motivations – Table-top vs. Video Games

I haven’t found a game to either play in or run yet (although that should change soon as people come back for the school year), so I don’t have any in-progress game issues to discuss.  I also have been lax with my reading, so I haven’t caught up on some of the games that RG has posted about.  However, I have been kicking around an idea for a post for a while now, and thought maybe actually putting it down on paper (well, HTML) would be a good idea.

If it hasn’t been obvious from previous posts, I am a newbie to table-top gaming.  I have only been playing in games for about 4 years (and pretty sporadically at that) and have only run a couple of one-shots and only one longer adventure.  However, like many people who grew up in 90’s/00’s, I have had considerable exposure to video games.  In fact, much like RG or others can reminisce about older systems and well-known, ‘everyone played them’ pre-gen campaigns, I could go on for hours about the video games I have played, the benefits about the different consoles/PCs (new and old), and I keep up with current video gaming news.  And I’d like to think that my previous experiences with video games helped prepare me for table-top gaming (especially since I’m mainly into the action/adventure/RPG/JRPG genres).

I think the comparison between video games and table-top gaming is interesting.  Table-top gaming came first, of course, but there has been a lot of borrowing and adapting of themes and mechanics between the two.  And with the advent of MMORPGs like WoW, a person could question the need for traditional table-top games in a high-tech world.  I personally believe that both fulfill very different ‘needs’ and one will never totally eliminate the need for the other (well, unless a Star Trek holodeck is ever invented – Picard was totally role-playing when he was using the Dixon Hill holonovel).

Anyways, I have too many thoughts on the subject to fit into a single post – I think a discussion of the similarities and differences of the mechanics would be interesting, as would a conversation of GMing/House Ruling vs. Modding.  However, I want to start with basic motivations; more specifically, what role-playing ‘needs’ can be satisfied with table-top games over video games.

I’m specifying role-playing ‘needs’ because I think many other ‘needs’ can be satisfied sufficiently by either medium (well, and the fact that this is a role-playing blog).  The basic need for play can be satisfied with either, as well as other ‘needs’: need for competition, need for cathartic release, the need for socialization, etc.  And I’m quoting ‘needs’ mainly because I don’t know if it’s the most correct word for it (it’s definitely not the technical term for it) – maybe strong wants would be a better phrase.  If anybody has a better word for it, I’d love to hear it.

When I first started playing table-top games, I was skeptical that there would be much I could get out of them that I wasn’t already getting out of video games.  I was majorly obsessed with Oblivion at the time and with the strong  modding community that was built around that, it kept me very entertained and satisfied many of my role-playing wants.  The only thing I thought I was going to get out of a table-top game was the socialization aspect – I have had little luck or desire to participating in multiplayer or massively multiplayer games.

However, I’ve found that there are a few things that RPGs in video games are missing.  One of these things is the background aspect of the character you’re playing.  Because of the limitations of video games (which, now that I think about it, will come up more often in this post), a player cannot create a meaningful background that will have an impact on the game in a video game.  There have been video games that have tried – Bioware is the major developer that I can think of – but these backgrounds will either have very little meaning on the overall game, or they will be very cookie cutter and limited (like a choice of 6 or so).  In a table-top RPG, there is unlimited possibilities for a character’s background.  Even if the GM puts limits upon the character’s creation, the background possibilities are immense.  Taken with the fact that the group can have shared background, or a couple of characters can have shared backgrounds, there are many more possibilities for rich, living characters.  And the fact the GMs can use elements of characters’ backgrounds for meaningful plots and adventures, really helps createa more immersive feeling that the characters matter than a video game can provide.

I’ve also found that table-top RPGs fulfill my need to playact my character much more than video games could.  While playing a video game, I’ve found myself occasionally thinking “Huh, my character would probably not trust this guy, even though he should be trusted.  I’m not going to help him out.”  However, these thoughts are fleeting and don’t usually dictate how I play the game.  However, in a table-top RPG, your fellow players are speaking in character, to your character and it’s much easier to stay ‘in-character’.  I’ll never claim to be a good actor, or even to have a desire to act, but during sessions, I want to play that character well – not only mechanically, but also his/her personality.  And making decisions based upon my character’s thoughts and feelings is much easier at the table than watching it on the screen.

On a more practical note, it’s much easier to have a varied experience for table top games than video games.  As an example, Oblivion has great mechanics.  However, the quests are the same every time you play.  Yes, there are mods and DLC that can expand the game, but once the developer moves on, there is no more content that can really be added.  Further more, the beginning is always the same, the main quest is the same, and all of the quests only have a handful of ways that they can be solved (and these ways are only the ways that the programmers could think of).  However, like RG likes to say, a table-top RPG, though it can be discontinued, it never becomes obsolete.  To extend upon that, there are almost infinite possibilities for story opportunities – the limit, as cheesy as it sounds, is the GM’s and players’ imaginations.  There are no technological limits on adventures – and players don’t have to wait for the next installment to do something new in the game.

Finally, GMing is infinitely easier in table-top games.  A GM who has a desire to tell a specific story can pick up an RPG book and a group of friends and go.  However, the modding community, though having awesome tools, has a much steeper learning curve.  A GM who wishes to tell a story using a mod must have programming knowledge and must pre-plan every eventuality.  A GM has much more flexibility in a table-top games – he can change his plans on the fly or take into account twists that players through at him.  Video games, by their very nature, are much more rigid.

What do you think?  I find the comparisons fascinating and it could help me as a GM to focus on the differences to make my games more interesting.  I’d love to hear what you guys think.  Thanks for reading!

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5 responses

  1. I agree with what you said above, though not in the same words exactly – video games have much more railroading. They may give you sudo-choices, but even those are limited and the results are not usually game changing. You are also bound by in-game laws that don’t necessarily correspond to reality i.e. casting a fireball at a building in Oblivion doesn’t set it aflame, in a lot of games you cannot jump, some games have paths that you can’t stray from because of invisible walls or a barrier that is easily bypassed irl, you can’t ask anybody any question you want in most games (I played one where you could but they usually didn’t know what I was talking about even when it did pertain to the game). I was thinking about one problem I’ve noticed in games when I started a new game on my uncle’s PS3. When I walked into this bar and talked to the bartender I was given three choices of topics. One of them was “Quests.” I literally thought just then “Why would I ask about quests, I don’t even know what’s going on right now. How would I know I would have quests?” There is more meta-gaming in video games, some of it isn’t even done by the players, but by the game itself. In video games there is no reason not to meta-game. You know where the best sword in the game is and you know how to get it right from the start so you go get it. Why wouldn’t you? That’s just a few things that came to mind when I read your post.

  2. I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking for, but I can give you some personal experience and see where that goes.

    I used to play a lot more video games. I eventually got tired of getting plot-hammered and being forced to play stupid characters that I couldn’t empathize with. So, I switched to tabletop.

    In general, tabletop games have given me what I want from RPGs. If I want to murder things, Borderlands is good, and hilarious, but I’m not going to even pretend that I’m roleplaying. However, for really deep RP, I think computer games with a GM are the best venue.

    Unless the PCs are incredibly comfortable, RPing serious emotions is too awkward across the table. Behind a computer screen, the players are free to RP without being self-conscious.

  3. @Paul

    See, I’ve had exactly the opposite experience. I’ve seen that if you have even halfway decent, interested players you can usually get some decent RP going at a table where everyone is together and talking and able to see one another.

    At the computer screen, people have to be much, much more dedicated. I mean, players wander away from the screen, get distracted by their cats, their girlfriends and their TVs. The internet is already open so hey — why not hit that forum while I’m playing…

    I’ve run games through the internet on a few occasions and while successful, it is a venue that leaves so much out of actual communication. It’s like cyber-dating. Sure, there’s no real risk because you never have to see the real person — but there’s not the same payoff either — because you never have to see the real person.

    If it ever gets to the point where I can’t find anyone to play with who’s willing to just ham it up and play emotionally at the table with other physically present people — that’s the day I’ll quit gaming, because that’s the payoff for me.

  4. @TheWizard – I think railroading can be used successfully, without the player even really realizing that they are being railroaded (Bioshock comes to mind), but you’re right, for the most part, video games can only offer, at best, pseudo-choices. It’s not entirely the developers’ fault – technology cannot keep up with the flexibility and improvisation of a good GM. Now it’s possible that if true AI is ever developed, the limitations may go away.

    Your bartender example does point out another important issue with video games. Because the developers cannot change the game for each player (unlike a GM who can tailor a game to fit his gaming group), they are forced to play to the lost common denominator. More people would get upset and quit the game if forced to converse with the bartender about random topics before being able to activate the quests he has than would be upset and quit for having the ‘Quests’ topic.

    @Paul – I was just looking for others’ perspectives on the issue. I agree, there are very few video games where I can emphasize with the main character. Thinking back, there are many games where I really appreciate the story told in the game, but there are few games that I can say that I cared about the characters. I think Elena & Millenia from Grandia II, Zelos from Tales of Symphonia, the main character from Bioshock, and maybe a handful more are all that I can think of that I truly cared about their story throughout the game. But “Link” in any of the Zelda games or even the main character in Oblivion – don’t care so much for the character as the story that they are immersed in.

    I have never tried to RP over the computer. I think I could only do it with people I actually knew in person (I’ve joined a multiplayer community once, and vowed never again. Too many jerks). I think my comfort level in both instances (across the table and over the computer) would have to be pretty high before I could RP something really deep, but I prefer being able to communicate in person more than over the Internet. But, that’s probably more of a personal preference.

    @morrisonmp – To be fair, allowing cats to be in the gaming room during the game session has always been a distraction for our group – and we game in person 🙂

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