There’s something that I’ve wanted to talk about for a very long time now.
My friend Manny and I used to have this discussion a lot, before he quit playing World of Warcraft.
What I’m going to talk about is mostly for folks that love playing World of Warcraft or other computer-based Role Playing Games and MMORPGs, but who have never played live tabletop or ‘pen and paper’ RPGs (like Dungeons and Dragons) with friends and a living, breathing game master running a story and the NPCs.
The convenience of MMORPGs over tabletop role playing
World of Warcraft and other pre-programmed role playing games are a lot of fun, no question.
One of the biggest advantages of these pre-programmed games is their convenience; we can play on our own schedule, for as long as or as short as we’d like.
The single greatest drawback of table top RPGs has always been that you have to get your friends together in one place before you can play.
Think of it like this; with a tabletop RPG, the only thing you can EVER do is raid with other people. There is NO grinding, leveling, crafting, playing the Auction House, farming mats on your own to prepare for the raid, nada. Nothing exists in the game except for raid time, when everyone is all gathered together.
If you want to prepare things before the next session, like research new spells or create a sword, or if you even want a solo adventure, typically you tell your game master what you’re doing, and it’s assumed it happened during the time before the next live game session. Very rarely do you sit down and game it out one on one… although it happens. Why not? Because time you spend on a solo adventure is personal time you’re getting that the rest of your group is not. Hard feelings can occur, unless everyone is eqaully getting their own personal time for a solo adventure.
The group is what is at the heart of the session.
All of the things that cause problems for people organizing MMORPG raids also applies to table top gaming; you have to get everyone to show up on time, you have to set start times when it’s convenient for everyone to get together, and you can only play for as long as the entire group can hang in there. Plus, everyone has to live close enough together to show up in person. Yes, modern advances in communication can help get through that, but it becomes ever harder to play if someone isn’t at the table.
In addition to all that, a table top RPG story is rarely if ever started, played through and finished in just one session. Just like the very long raids with multiple bosses you see in raid instances with stages or wings, a table top RPG story generally lasts for many sessions. It can even take real world years of weekends for a group to complete an involved story from start to finish, presumably having lots of fun along the way.
If you’ve ever tried to get an MMORPG raid together across multiple nights to finish a clear, you know what that means; having to deal with players that started the story with everyone, that eventually don’t show up for a game. In an MMORPG you can try and find someone else, because the story isn’t personal; a DPS is a DPS, a tank is a tank, the story moves forward regardless, and can be experienced again next week. Nobody missing a session, except for a group first encounter, truly misses out on the story experience forever.
In a table top RPG, this is far more of a problem, because the story is written specifically for the characters, everything revolves aruond them and only them, and usually every character has a critical role they could play. If someone can’t make it, it takes a lot more than joining ‘looking for gamer’ to fill the critical role. Worst yet, the player misses out on part of the story that can never be repeated again. There are no resets. You can have the horrible situation where the GM has to play that person’s character as an NPC so that the rest of the players can continue, or having to cancel the session entirely. If the game goes on, then the missing player has to find out what “they” did, feeling left out and having their character used by someone else, a terrible situation all around.
With all of these advantages to playing in virtual groups through the internet over in-person table top RPGs, is it any wonder that MMORPGs are so popular? Most of us that play have a love for imaginative adventure, romance, swords and sorcery and dragon slaying, and by playing an MMORPG we are able to do this with friends from all over the world, whenever it’s convenient for us.
We can pick up the story, play for a while, and then ‘pause’ it to go have dinner, read to our children, watch the Superbowl or anything else we want to do, knowing it will be right there waiting for us where we left off, like a good novel.
We can even get our ‘group’ gaming on with small groups or big raids, feeling just like our old tabletop gaming sessions, but this time we don’t have to limit ourselves to friends that live close enough to drive over to our house, and we don’t need a special gaming room with a table and chairs big enough for the group. And we don’t need to worry about everyone remembering to bring dice, or their character sheets, or what have you.
We even get to enjoy our gaming without having to smell that one dude that somehow never learnt what this mystical thing called a ‘shower’ is. I’m talking more about gaming with high school friends there, but if you’re an old school gamer, you know what I mean.
So, it’s all great, right? Playing online RPGs like World of Warcraft and Champions Online and Everquest and Rift and all that is about as awesome as it could be.
With all that, why would anyone ever want to play a table top RPG again?
The difference in goals between MMORPGs and table top RPGs
The core of the table top role playing game is NOT the same as in any pre-programmed MMORPG.
When playing an MMORPG, the structure of the game design in modern times is to create your character, and then advance in level, increasing your character’s power, improving your gear and overcoming ever greater and more difficult obstacles both solo and as a group. The challenges are pre-programmed, and thus have set difficulty levels, and preset strategies determined by the mechanics of each encounter in relation to the potential capabilities of the characters.
With the content and the mechanics of the encounters pre-determined, the player who wishes to exert influence and control over his or her chances of success are left with only one area to improve; character buffing. To increase in level, obtain equipment with more optimized stats for the role being played, to refine and perfect a set style of attack and defense to be as near the programmed perfect potential as possible.
This all results from the lack of personal choices the player has to exert over the set mechanics in order to succeed. A player will seek out any way to use their own imagination, initiative and skill in order to overcome the challenges in a game. If there are limited choices to be made, then those remaining gain importance. You do what you can.
With that kind of mindset, of working within strict limitations for exerting your own influence on the game, it can seem as though that is normal for role playing games. After all, from what people know about table top RPGs, most of them also had character levels, magic items, and even pre-made scenarios for game masters to run with players. Old gamers even talk lovingly of the loot they acquired and of the power they exerted over game worlds.
It’s not strictly true, though. The difference is, a table-top RPG is not pre-programmed and rigid. An encounter or challenge may be pre-determined in terms of hit points, attack potentials, special moves, all that kind of thing.
What makes the difference? The fact that the options a character has, the choices and actions a character can make, cannot be pre-programmed or limited except by imagination.
Leaving aside the issue of class balancing, even if you are playing a game built with classes that have balanced combat capabilities, you can always choose to improvise, to come up with alternative solutions using the world around you, and the people you can meet within it. You can try and win over allies from amongst the enemy or the townspeople. You can try and anticipate the challenges, and build contraptions, or go in completely unexpected directions. You can even decide that your goals are to get to the king, and instead of fighting all the guards grinding your way from boss to boss, you’re going to bribe your way in disguised as merchants, get invites to the crown ball, and then launch your own unexpected attack from within. Or fight your way in through the hordes, or do something else not originally intended… but it’s not what was intended, it was what you decided to actually do.
The point is, a table top RPG is not a fixed series of encounter with rigid options for dealing with them. You have the power to exert your imagination… and never have to wonder if “climb a tree to hide” is a programmed option for your character to make. Or “bluff the sheriff with a dazzling line of bullshit”, for that matter.
How does the difference in goals affect the different playstyles?
Because the choices you make in table top RPGs are limited only by your imagination, the focus switches from leveling/gearing/grinding towards a goal, and becomes more about exploring the possibilities of your character. It becomes critical to create a unique character and play a role you enjoy, improvising along the way. You never know what’s going to happen next, and it’s up to you to decide what kind of approach you will take to solving problems or overcoming those challenges. There is no strategy guide to rely on to tell you what to do; you have to come up with the ides on your own.
Everything is original, even if it’s a packaged campaign, because of the special ingredient; you.
With such a wide open world of possibilities, the point of table top role playing was to get together with friends and use your imagination to play the role of someone else, to get outside your own head for a little while and play pretend.
It’s very liberating, and also extremely challenging. By definition, you’re not trying to be yourself or do what comes naturally, you’re trying to get yourself into somebody else’s head.
Typical table top games do involve combat, and teamwork, and challenges to be overcome, mysteries to be investigated and solved, what have you. All very common frameworks for modern MMORPGs. The reason for that is the table top RPG follows the framework of a story with protagonists, and YOU are the protagonists. Any story where there are main characters can be duplicated as a GM-run tabletop RPG… and the types of stories that lend themselves well to drama, adventure and excitement find lots of traction in those kinds of games.
There is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t have almost any setting or story take place as a table top RPG, though. May I direct you, ever so briefly, to the game Bunnies and Burrows to prove my point.
The critical difference here is that the table top RPG evolved from the Chainmail rules for fighting with miniatures, and grew into a type of game where imagination and the individual character are the center of it all.
The point was never specifically the character leveling and stats, those were the vehicles we used for playing our created personalities.
What I’m trying to say here is, if your only experience with role playing games is the computerized versions, you should understand that table top role playing gamers had a label for people who play the way most MMORPGs are designed to be played; Munchkins.
Thanks be to Darths and Droids today for providing me with a beautifully worded short description of a gaming munchkin;
“Munchkin” is a term used to describe certain types of gamers, namely those who make use of every avenue and loophole in the game rules to maximise the stats, abilities, and power level of their character, making the character into an awesome overpowered killing machine capable of gathering more loot and experience and becoming ever more powerful, even if it means occasionally pulling a fast one or ignoring certain other rules that might provide limitations. Oh, and roleplaying an actual character concept is secondary to making the character ever buffer and the acquisition of more loot and more powerful weapons, if it’s considered at all.
This is a stereotype mindset that table top RPG players know very well, and the whole reason we joke about it is because these are the players that missed the point of the game; to use your imagination and have fun. To improvise. To focus more on the role playing, and less on the mechanics. People who mistake a table top RPG as a game that can be ‘won’.
Table top RPGs aren’t about winning or losing… they’re about playing the game and enjoying the journey.
There are game systems like Call of Cthulhu, where there is simply no possible way to ‘win’; the rules that are built in specify that every time you encounter eldritch horrors, you have a chance to lose some of your sanity. Once your sanity is completely lost, your character is insane and is done, probably now an NPC under the control of the game master.
The objective of Call of Cthulhu? Why, to investigate eldritch horrors, of course. It’s not the destination, it’s the fun had in the journey. You go in knowing that your character is probably not long for this world and will die an excruciating death.
I remember an old CoC game, where I asked how many hit points the shoggoth had, and how much damage my breech loading shotgun could do. I was told it didn’t really matter; if my character was stupid enough to stand and fight, then I’d probably be eaten anyway. I was told to assume the shoggoth was from Krypton, and my shotgun was most definitely NOT loaded with kryptonite bullets. Much like the first crook facing Superman, when I saw the utterly unknown and unknowable coming at me from the dark doing impossible things, warping reality by it’s very presence, I could stand and fight, or I could run, or do whatever I felt was most appropriate in playing the role of my character, but not to worry about the hit points.
MMORPGs by their very structure encourage the use of careful research to min and max advantages and disadvantages to become as powerful as possible within the framework of the game mechanics. To ‘game the system’, going so far as to use simulations and websites devoted to theorycrafting in how to be as ultimately kick ass godlike powerful as we can be, and then competing with other players to see who can provide the most damage per second in our fights or what have you.
It’s a munchkin training system, encouraging and promoting munchkin values. This is not a bad thing, my point is that it’s the result of having player choices being limited not by the imagination, but by a rigid adherence to what a player can affect and change within the game.
Class balance is not a fundamental RPG trait
In an MMORPG, game mechanics are all mathematically calculated, and in most systems coming out there is a built-in player versus player aspect as well, meaning that each type of character has to be able to be built in such a way that no one player is inherently more powerful than another. The goal has to be to balance the classes with equivalent power levels so that skill in play is the deciding factor when you classes square off, not class design.
That is a completely foreign concept to the original table top role playing games. In fact, in the original Dungeons and Dragons, it was a fact of life that low level groups would have to protect the mostly ineffectual and useless Wizards, because they had a single low level spell, and that was probably Feather Fall in case their rope broke while being pulled up a cliff. And by having one spell, I don’t mean per fight, I mean per DAY. Once cast, it’s staves and daggers and run like hell.
If a thief decided to challenge the wizard to a dual to the death, and mocked the wizard when he refused… well, that could be a real bad long term career. Maybe right now, the thief could kill the wizard with a pointy stick. But someday, further down the road? The wizard is going to be able to change the world with a single wish, and drop flaming meteors on a city from orbit. The thief is still going to be a guy with a pointy stick. It may be a +5 vorpal short sword coated with poison, but that’s small comfort when the flaming rocks are raining down from the sky.
Not exactly a balanced fight for PvP.
The idea of class balance isn’t a table top RPG one as much as it is a staple of video games. That’s a pretty important distinction to make.
But wait! That’s not fair, is it? That characters can be weaker or stronger than others? Shouldn’t they be balanced?
In a table top RPG, you don’t need to feel pressured to play your character the way a website like Elitist Jerks tells you to; there IS no ‘wrong’ way to play your character, so long as you are playing a personality and role with imagination, and having fun with your friends. The point ain’t to be better than the other player. You’re not competing against them to ‘win’ the table tops. Unless your goal is to out think them, in which case, you should want to start with the weakest class to properly show your mental superiority.
You can try to min and max your character stats, lots of newer players do. Typically, it’s better in table top gaming to assume that if you try too hard to ‘win’ by taking intentional advantage of the rules looking for an edge in fights, the GM, acting as God, may decide to inflict your character with a dread debilitating disease. Why? To weaken your little butt so as to try and get you to focus on the role playing, palying with friends in imaginative ways, and stop obsessing about getting that last little bit of ‘oomph’ with your flail and the attack of opportunity rules.
Differences in possible story between MMORPGs and table top RPGs
When you play a pre-programmed game like World of Warcraft, the only options you have for completing a quest or accomplishing a mission are those methods that have been programmed into the game by someone else. We’ve addressed that already.
Some computer RPGs try and give you multiple conversation options, and then have stories that branch from there to result in multiple endings. That is awesome, but it’s also an attempt to simulate what tabletop games excel at; customizing the story to the player’s actions in game.
That’s what is going on, all the time, in every tabletop RPG. Your characters, and the actions YOU take, the imagination YOU employ, directly affect the story in ways that not even the game master can foresee in advance. If you read any tips for game masters, you’ll find that one of the most prevalent threads is in how to improvise and leave room for the story to flow when the players do things that the game master never expected.
This is central to the difference between MMORPGs and table top RPGs. In an MMORPG, you are taking part in the same story every single other person in the game is. At the same time.
The game itself may allow, and even encourage, you to create a character with a defined back story, personality, fun goals, great name, and provide a server for dedicated role playing where everyone talks in character.
That is great, and it IS role playing. With proper tools, you can gain the feel and fun of role playing a character personality, and with friends willing to join you, have a great time role playing to your hearts’ content.
You might even have an MMORPG that tries to incorporate personalised role playing elements, like having an archenemy that hunts you by name, or having side quests for your class, or giving special chat channels or emotes or locations to gather.
What you can’t escape, however, is the fact that the story within the game cannot be changed from it’s predetermined path by any actions that you take. You can play your character as much as you’d like, but your actions will never truly affect the story. Everything is predetermined by someone else, you are following along in that set path.
Truly brilliant writing can make it feel that YOU are the star of the story… but the story is set in stone. You are Frodo, and you are climbing the lonely path up Mount Doom, and when you reach the top, you WILL throw that ring in the volcano and umake it. You have no choice. You WILL do it, because others have decided that is what happens. Even if you choose to never take that quest, someone else did it, and the game assumes it happened, whether you wanted to or not.
In a true table top RPG, you can be in the position Frodo was, at the top of Mount Doom, and at the very end… it truly is your decision whether or not to throw that ring into the volcano… or to decide that, having proven you and oly you had the strength to get this far, that you are strong enough to handle the ring, and take it’s power on yourself. Think of all the good you could do with that kind of power! The decision really is in your hands. You could throw the ring… or put it on your hand and take the game in a completely different direction.
And Gollum might lunge for the ring with his +5 bite attack, and miss.
That is finally the key point I wanted to make; that a table top role playing game isn’t about a set story the players interact with; the characters, and what THEY do, are truly what everything revolves around. The characters drive the story, and what they do matters.
In an RPG, freedom is just another word for “Will the game let me climb a tree?”
When you put it all together, computerized MMORPGs are very, very fun and convenient, but they cannot truly replace the freedom of imagination and the personalization of table top RPGs.
A table top RPG brings together different people who are free to use their imagination to create unique and original characters. Characters who can do anything that they might reasonably dream up, and the game master provides the setting and improvises the results.
In a table top RPG, every playstyle is valid AND possible; you really can have a character that is a devout pacifist and a diplomat that tries to talk his or her way through life and trouble, and who refuses to ever take a life, no matter what the cause. And what’s more, yes you can level that way, and have a ton of fun doing so, and not be a drag on your party or friends.
You can truly play a role, and let your imagination run free. The worst that will happen is that whatever you try won’t work the way you thought it would. But you’ll never be faced with a situation where you’ll be told “I’m sorry, you can’t pick up the rock and try to bash him over the head with it. There are no rules in the game to let you pick up objects.”
No, if there is a tree, you can try to climb it. If there are sticks lying around, and you’ve got string, you can try to make a stretcher to carry a wounded comrade, or fashion a rabbit trap to catch lunch.
If you are playing with friends, and your character thinks one of them has betrayed you… you can actively work against that other character, even going so far as to make your groups’ enemies your personal allies, working against that character for the purpose of revenge.
You can do anything that you can imagine… within the limits of what is possible for the character and the personality you created and are playing.
You can use your actual imagination, with all of the crazy ideas people like us can come up with, and it’s going to be a long, long time before a pre-programmed game can provide the flexibility to take that into account.
So, if you love MMORPGs, that’s great. I do too. I really do. They are incredibly convenient, and the new ones that are coming out are trying to keep our interest by providing thousands of hours of imaginative content and quests and adventure and story.
But if you’ve never had the chance to try playing a real table top role playing game in person with your friends, please keep in mind that there are big differences… and also a very big change in your goals within the game.
If you ever get invited to join such a game, just remember;
There is no ‘right’ way to play, so long as you create a character that you’re excited to play… and you do your best to have fun playing it. There is plenty of studying and learning you could do, but don’t let munchkin goals you are familiar with overshadow the fun of creating and role playing a unique character or personality.
Don’t let yourself try and solve puzzles with just your equipped inventory… the whole world is interactive! That rock is in play! You can try to climb that cliff face to get behind the bad guys! You don’t HAVE to kill everything to win… some bad guys could possibly be taken hostage, questioned, and even turned against their masters!
Let your imagination run riot!
You could even decide to come up with a plan involving catapults, fresh chicken eggs and powdered red peppers to assault the enemy guarding the walls… it might not work, but it will certainly taunt them most viciously!
In the end, the lack of options were the reason Manny gave me for why he quit playing World of Warcraft. He has been a lifelong gamer of table top RPGs… and no matter how cool and convenient World of Warcraft was for him, it didn’t fulfill the one thing he loved most; being able to use your own imagination to solve problems and play a unique character in a world that changed based on his actions. Playing a game where the only choices you could make were the ones that were decided for you in advance by the programmer didn’t cut it for him.
If you find yourself playing an MMORPG, and feel like there should be something more, some level of interaction where what you do, the choices you make actually matter to the story in the long run, don’t get caught up looking for another computer game to be your perfect fit.
You may find that what you really seek will only be discovered in the interaction of friends around a table, getting crazy and role playing the night away.