Friday, August 15, 2014

Computer vs. Tabletop Play

In my comments section, I have been having a great conversation with a former student and now friend about gaming.  He grew up with computer games and (this isn't a knock against you, Charles) often will compare such with tabletop gaming.  It's a good conversation because it covers a lot of the things that have been rumbling around in my head for the past several years.  After reading Playing at the World by Jon Peterson, I had an even clearer idea of what I liked and what I disliked in today's different versions of tabletop games.  Mr. Peterson also clarified some of the fuzzier points of gaming history in terms of the development of computer games and the shift toward storytelling.  Since finishing that book, I have become more aware of the shift of terminology when discussing games with just about anyone younger than 35.  For example, I was often confused when I would ask my students if anyone would be interested in setting up an RPG club.  There was usually enthusiastic support...until they realized I wasn't talking about video or computer games.  And they couldn't understand the concept of not having a computer to put together a character or running a story for them.  So, after a while, I stopped trying to get a gaming club put together.

Today, when you say you play RPG's, anyone under 35 thinks of console games like Zelda or computer games like Fallout.  (If I paid attention to such things, I probably could give more examples.  But I don't and I am not interested in learning more.)  If you can keep that person's attention after you explain you are not talking about computerized gaming, then they will typically assume a version of a computer game but played with paper and pencil and dice.  The next hurdle, if they're interested in learning more, is to overcome the misconception (at least it is to me) they have that there is no difference between a "character" and an "avatar".  The computerized games have the player build an avatar.  Typically a couple of hours go into the development of the character's look as well as picking skills and feats and powers and options and such.  Thus, with a significant commitment of time invested in this avatar (it's not a character, I'll explain more in a minute), the player appears to expect a game in which the avatar is always the hero and will always find a way to survive.

To me, a character is developed from the die rolls.  It's random and should never take more than 10 minutes to create.  The attachment to the character grows as the character gains experience.  In fact, I had a running joke for a while with my old group back in the 80's that none of my mages ever lived past 4th level so they didn't get named until they hit 5th.  Since none of them ever did hit 5th, we all laughed at it.  However, I've got a thief that survived to run his own Thieves Guild and a fighter who (when we stopped playing) was 10th level and was carving out a barony with about 2 dozen men-at-arms.

But I digress.  As mentioned in Playing at the World, the development of computer games was a result of the popularity of D&D and the increase in computer availability.  Try as they might to hide this connection, the basic ideas of hit points (or health points or stamina or call it what you will), armor class or protection, and such things are present in all such games.  So, this co-mingling of terminology makes finding tabletop gamers difficult, especially those that prefer tabletop to computers.  And then trying to find those who can rise above the railroad-like storytelling of many computer games to explore the "sandbox" style of play is even harder.

So, what was the point of this diatribe?  Just an exploration of a question that popped in my head from two comments in two different social media:  How would D&D look today if it never expanded into computer play?  Think on this for a minute.  I remember when the only class that had "skills" was the thief.  I remember the idea of Non Weapon Proficiencies was first introduced in an old Dragon article, which then started showing up in the last few 1e AD&D books.  They were still "optional" in the first 2e books, but became a fixture in the later ones.  These came from computer games.  And to my mind (as an old gray headed grognard), they were the start of the downfall of a great game.  I wish I could properly attribute this quote from someone on Facebook: "Explaining OD&D or 1st ed AD&D to someone now is like trying to explain Shakespearean comedy to someone who grew up watching explosions for fun."
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