Ironically, this view seems to be most common among people who actually play tabletop RPGs. Specifically, the folks who emphasize the thespian aspect of role playing, to the exclusion of all else. They seem to think anyone who didn’t get rejected from Shakespeare in the park is a pleb, who would be much happier playing video games, rather than sullying the good name of their noble and artistic hobby.
My frustration with this pervasive idea led me to start collecting these reasons that it’s wrong. So if you’ve got any to add to my eight, I’d love to have a few more.
1. Tactical Infinity
In any given situation, there are only so many actions you can attempt in a video game. If it’s a game about punching, you’ll have a punch button, and most problems will be solvable by punching. There may be other options (kicks, jumps, headbutts), but the list is necessarily finite. This is not a bad thing. Video games work best when they focus on doing a small number of things really well.
Adventure games, like Zork, probably have the greatest number of possible actions you’ll ever find in a video game. But even still, the player is limited to whatever actions the game designer was able to predict they might attempt. If the player is clever enough to come up with something the designer never expected, rather than being rewarded for their cleverness, they’ll be slapped down with some variation of “You can’t do that.”
When you play D&D, the game designer is sitting right there with you, creating the game moment to moment as you play. So when you decide that the best way to defeat the Cult of Filth is to buy a pig and convince them it is the avatar of filth on earth, the game can accommodate that. Maybe you will fail spectacularly, but at least you were able to try.
The other side of tactical infinity. You could call it infinite reaction.
In a really good video game, the player will see the world change in big and small ways as a result of their successes and failures. If you save the farmer’s son, then when you go to the farm she won’t be crying anymore. Instead, she’ll be happily going about her farming, with the help of her son. This is good. When the player sees the impact of their actions, it will make those actions (and by extension, the game world they happened in) feel true.
But the game’s reactions are limited. It’s not even proper to call them reactions in the first place, since they’re scripted in advance. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. Complex enough that it’s fun to follow along from point A to B to C, but the end result is already there, waiting for you to reach it. Even if the player does make a choice, it’s always between two, or three, or ten different pre-scripted results. And, once you see them, the message is usually pretty clear: you’ve reached the end of this road. Go do something else.
3. Infinite Play
By now, a pattern is emerging that a lot of what is good about tabletop RPGs is the various ways in which they are infinite. This one, infinite play, is what prompted me to go from being casually interested in D&D, to being in love with the medium.
One of the worst things about falling in love with any fictional world is that someday, you’ll need to leave it. I can go back and play my favorite video games over and over again, but there will never be any new areas to explore, or enemies to defeat.
With tabletop games, all you need is one set of rules, and one set of dice, and you’re set to play for the rest of your life. You may choose to stop playing a specific campaign, move on to a different game system or a different group, but the possibility that you could go back for more will always exist.
4. Complex Lateral Thinking Puzzles
Some video games do a great job of creating good complex lateral thinking puzzles. But, because they lack tactical infinity, the solutions to those puzzles must always be intentional. The designer must go to great effort to carefully inform the players of the tools they have for solving the puzzle, and must ensure themselves that those tools are sufficient for solving it.
In a tabletop game, the referee is often not even aware that they’ve created a complex lateral thinking puzzle. But they put the locked treasure vault next to the anti-gravity room, which is itself only two stories down from where the troll is sleeping. And the players have a paperclip, a spool of dental floss, and an iguana in their inventory. And somehow, putting all those things together, they figure out how to get into the treasure vault without trekking across the world to find the key.
That’s beautiful to me.
D&D is an inherently social activity. Sometimes this is is a boon, sometimes a bane, but one way or another it’s always going to be true.
“But wait” I write, anticipating a likely objection so I can preemptively respond to it. “Many video games are multiplayer, and ergo social activities. This is hardly unique to D&D.” And of course, that is true. I myself have spent an immense amount of time bonding with friends in World of Warcraft. D&D is just better at it.
Even in the most social of social video games, everyone is looking at the game. The focus of their discussion will usually be on overcoming the challenges created for them by a person they will never meet. In D&D, everyone is looking at each other, talking about their own ideas.
Maybe that seems like a trite, or shallow difference. But, to me, it is important.
6. Investing Your Character with True Personality
When you disagree with 95% of what a person says, it’s easy for that 5% of overlap between your views to get lost in the rhetoric. I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink explaining why I find a thespian approach to games boring. But my distaste for prewritten backstories, and anyone who uses the word “spotlight” doesn’t mean I hate role playing. I just view it as a nice sauce, rather than the whole meal.
Vidya attempts to approximate this in different ways. Sometimes the protagonist is silent, so players can project their own thoughts and emotions on to them. Other games create dialogue trees, and multiple paths which give the player some character-driven choice about how they approach a problem. But in the end, unless the player wants to skip out on game content, they’ve always gotta do what the game wants them to do.
In a tabletop game, I can make a firm decision about who my character is, and stick to it. If I decide to be a good guy, then the game can never force me into a situation where my only choice is to go against my character, or skip part of the game.
When you lose at a video game, the only thing to do is go back and try again. You play through the same bits over and over until you succeed. Maybe the game is randomized so the bit you replay is never quite the same. Maybe there are failures states which allow the game to continue, such as losing a party member. But, one way or another, the ultimate failure state always requires you to play through some part of the game over again.
In tabletop RPGs, there’s no such thing as starting the same game over again. When you die, a new character comes into the world, and must deal with the consequences of the previous character’s actions. All their successes and failures.
8. Zero Barriers to Entry for Designing Games
Obviously, there will always be a difference between a good game designer and a bad one. (I’ll make no claims about which group I fall into). But all it takes to get started is to come up with an adventure, and run it at your table. Boom: you’re a game designer.
If you’ve got a cool idea for a video game, even if it’s something small, you need to develop skills with coding, and art, and music. If you don’t know how to do any of those things, you’ll need money to pay someone to do them for you, or you’ll need to find someone you’re comfortable sharing creative control with. You need all of those things before you can even begin to develop good game design skills.
The barrier for getting your stuff published is only slightly higher than the barrier for making it in the first place. So, of course, there’s a lot of childish garbage out there, but there’s also a lot of phenomenal stuff that may never have made it to production otherwise. Stuff like Stay Frosty, Crypts of Indormancy, Hex Kit, The Sleeping Place of Feathered Swine, or The Tower of the Weretoads. Just stay away from anything published by the Mongrel Banquet Club. They’re a disgusting little band of degenerate filthmongers.
None of this is to say that video games are bad for their limitations. A book is not bad because it lacks a soundtrack. A painting is not bad because it lacks motion. Different mediums have different strengths, and that’s really what this is about.
Video games are not an improvement on RPGs. They are different beasts that share some DNA. It’s possible to compare and contrast them with each other, just like you can compare and contrast books and movies. But both are capable of doing things the other will never be able to achieve.