Sunday, 5 February 2012

Computer and Table Top Games

Do you have players who are coming to the hobby from computer games?  Have they acquired bad habits or strange expectations about how the game world will work?  Do they imagine that foes will run endlessly upon their spears, or that they will respawn, or that the game is all about combat? 

When role-playing games first appeared, they were something new, and required serious explanation as to what they were, and how they were played.  Now, nearly everyone has either played – or at least heard of – a computer “role-playing game”, and the term needs a little less explanation.  If you come to tabletop (or pen-and-paper) role-playing from a computer game background, however, there are some differences you should be aware of:

1.    In a computer game, you can see the characters, the setting, and the opponents on the screen.  In a pen-and-paper game, you must see them in your imagination.  In some cases, the Game Master may provide visual representations – drawings, photographs, and even miniature figures – to help you imagine the scene.

2.    In a computer game, the game designers often determine the characteristics of the character who acts as your point-of-view throughout the game.  In a tabletop game, the system may place limitations on the type of character you can create, and there may be random elements (most commonly die rolls) during the process, but it is largely incumbent upon each player to determine who and what his or her character will be.

3.    Likewise, in a computer game, there is often a predetermined limitation to the number of players who can play a given game at a time.  This is not true for a tabletop game, although a massive-multiplayer online computer rpg (mmorg) will handle far more characters than even an above-average Game Master is capable of dealing with!

4.    A computer game often has a predetermined storyline, with cut scenes that allow no player input.  Even a computer game that allows for multiple side quests is limited to handling adventures that have been fully thought out by the designer prior to play.  A pen-and-paper game generally doesn’t have a predetermined storyline, so that players have the ability to follow whatever interests them within the setting.

5.    Likewise, a computer game only allows players to interact with the setting in ways that have been thought of by the designer prior to play.  Thus, characters cannot simply break into and steal a car to drive away from zombie-infested Quiet Knoll unless that was an action the game writer predetermined was possible.  This is not true in a tabletop game, where the Game Master is capable of interacting directly with the players in real time.  In a tabletop game, when you try to do something unexpected, the Game Master simply determines how to express your attempt in game terms – and you roll the dice.

6.    Computer games can train players to have bad habits in tabletop games.  For example, in a computer game, enemies might be defeated through using the same tactics repeatedly, whereas in a tabletop game, the same enemies will learn from past defeats and change their tactics.  They will begin to learn what to expect, and devise ways to take advantage of it.  Similarly, computer games tend to encourage “button mashing” (following specific formulaic strategies) over creativity in combat…this is part of “learning the game”, and defeating important enemies requires it.  Computer games encourage looking for “what we’re supposed to do” and passivity toward shaping the game.  Good tabletop games encourage exactly the opposite of this approach.

7.    Finally, in a pen-and-paper game, events with multiple potential outcomes are determined by some method of selection – most frequently by generating a random number using dice.  Computer games use randomness as well, although in this case the randomness is hidden within the computer program.  A computer game can also determine among multiple outcomes by how well the player handles the controls – if you have ever had the screen point of view change so that your attempt to run away from a dinosaur suddenly changes to running towards the beast, you know what I mean.  In a tabletop game, knowing the ruleset helps you avoid running into a monster you are trying to avoid, too.  In both computer and tabletop role-playing games, the goals are often the same, but the means of achieving those goals – and the limitations toward achieving them – are different.


  1. I'll say that I've never run into anyone who was that confused between computer games and tabletop games. It's a stereotype I hear from the "older" gamers.

  2. Funnily enough, I decided to post this here because of a thread on Dragonsfoot where a player assumed that the creatures in Keep on the Borderland would be as mindless as those in computer games.

    And I wrote it initially in response to another site's thread where some people were claiming that computer role-playing games were rpgs in the same sense that tabletop games are.

    So, there you go.