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Weekly Musings #22 - Pencil and Paper Gaming
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: November 15th 2004

Before computer games hit the market, before Nintendo and Atari and the rest, gaming existed. Back in the annals of gaming, board games, card games, and dice games were popular. They still are - one merely needs to go to a casino, or see the popularity of Solitaire with workplace user on break, to see it. There were also vast miniatures gamers who enacted elaborate battlefield strategies on giant tables with painstakingly-pained miniatures; the inspiration for these games, as well as classics like Risk and Axis & Allies, came from battlefield generals who would plot the conquest of Europe in the same fashion.

Then came the advent of fantasy roleplaying and miniaturized dungeon crawls. In many ways, video games largely slipped under the radar of "concerned" parents thanks to the simultaneous release of games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. For "concerned" parents, keeping the imagery of dragons and demons out of the minds of impressionable children was far more important than dealing with similar items on a television screen.

Amazingly, I've found that tabletop roleplaying, the good old pencil-and-paper kind, carries in it rewards that no computer game can yet emulate. Simply put, as much as one would like to make it so, console and computer roleplaying games are not 100% interactive endeavors yet. True pencil-and-paper games don't stop just at one weekend; regular gaming groups, or organizations like the RPGA, keep their campaigns going for years, with ongoing storylines and changes to the world structure and heroes doing things that actually affect the world around them. This, for anyone who missed it, was the original experience that Fable was trying to emulate with its "for every action, a consequence" gaming. A game doesn't consist of players taking prearranged choices of discussion, or just mashing buttons; the players consider what their character would do, his motivations, and the GM tailors the reactions of the NPC's to be appropriate. Instead of one-sided arrangements, it's two-side, interactive roleplaying.

First-person gamers form "Clans" in order to add to their experience. Bungie, in designing Halo2, went to incredible lengths to encourage and enable this, and with good reason. Once you have Clans, it's not all about just one fight on Live or online; it's an ongoing rivalry and ranking between clans. It's the blustering and buildup on message boards, the idea of going to competitions or LAN parties and playing against the people they've played against online. I've done it, briefly, and can say very little bad about those who enjoy it. At the end of the day, however, there's still something missing. They have plenty of combat, and the "ongoing storyline", fine, but nothing about the game world changes. Everything is as it was, every time they enter a level they're the same guy looking for the nearest weapon.

MMORPG's like Everquest, Final Fantasy XI, and Asheron's Call all exist... but again, the leveling mills and lack of serious world-changing events begin to tell. Players fight each other over the right to do the same repeatable quests. Heck, they have repeatable quests - you'd never see that in a pencil-and-paper RPG, because killing the same named high-level monster over and over again is ridiculous. The problem is that most MMORPG's aren't really RPG's at all, they're little sandboxes for hack-and-slashers to operate in. Roleplaying - REAL roleplaying - is laughed at by the majority of the players on them. Most of them have thrown out the ideas of alignment, of character goals, even of interacting in any way besides "here, I need you to do this quest" or "shopkeeper here, want to buy something" with NPC's. The goal of an MMORPG is to make the leveling treadmill just slow enough that gamers think they're making progress, and keep them in it as long as possible.

Computer RPG's are more like reading a book. Even when they're slightly multi-linear, they still have a story to tell, and the gamers still have to do certain things, in a certain order, "Or Else." And the players can't change that. They can't refuse to play this or that level, or play them out of sequence and take the consequences. Haggling with a merchant or engaging in diplomacy is a function, not of actually roleplaying it with another person, but of selecting the "right" responses from a list of options. In most computer/console RPG's, half or more of the options the player characters may consider might not even be available. Likewise, circumventing enemies becomes nigh impossible; if it's there, the designers assume you want to kill it. Look at Neverwinter Nights, or Knights of the Old Republic, or Final Fantasy. They're the epitome of console and PC "roleplaying" games, but they're nowhere near the interactivity level of pencil-and-paper play. Even with online GM tools, they're not REALLY set up for the major types of play required.

And so I go back, time and again, to pencil-and-paper gaming. If you haven't tried it, you should seriously consider it. Check your local gaming shop, or the RPGA, for a group in your area.

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Weekly Musings #22: Pencil and Paper Gaming

Added:  Monday, November 15, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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