Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Tabletop is Not a Video Game

To me I've never likes the idea of "required" magic items in tabletop games (I'm looking at your D&D 4th Edition).  It has just always felt like a video game mentality that since this is also a game we have to have.  Don't get me wrong I love video games and play tons of them, but expecting the same experience from a video game as a tabletop campaign is like expecting a Michel Bay movie when reading a book.  They aren't the same medium and if you want to make the most of how you're telling a story then you should play to your strengths.

Keeping up with the movie analogy I'll break it down a bit.  Michel Bay can't tell a story or develop character if his life depended on it (Seriously, even his best movies he's just using standard character cut outs that you learn in your first year of film school), but film is a visual medium and he knows how to make things look interesting (mostly through explosions).  Are these great meaningful masterpieces? No, the answer is always no, but they do bring people in and keep them entertained by playing to the strength of what film has to offer.  On the flip side if you were too read a novel adaption of a Michel Bay movie one of two things would happen.  Either they would somehow hire a writer that takes the script adds character and depth that wasn't there in the film or have lots of pages that say "boom" and not only make a boring book, but one people would hate.

If you think this is a one way street think again.  One of the hardest parts of adapting a book for the screen is knowing what to cut and what you can translate into visual story telling.  Movies that and word for word recreations of a book tend to come off long, dry, boring, and most importantly unless it's based of a short or simple story they will HAVE to cut portions to the sake of time.  Knowing what to cut to tell the basic story really is an art form and something people study for just as long as doctors.  And yes to DO happen to have a degree in film if you haven't noticed, though I didn't go the full masters route because well who has that time.

Anyways, all of this can be said about comparing video games to a full campaign in a table top RPG.  We'll start with where we ended, cutting for length.  Some of you might scoff at this with the 100+ hour RPGs out there like any Elder Scrolls game, but remember that would be like comparing it to those 10+ YEAR campaigns people have run.  Video games can't and won't ever have games that run as long as a person writing a story just for you. One reason is that they can only program so much and fit some much on a game disc (Yes I know Skyrim "technically" has unlimited quests, but let's be honest those endless quests are just go fetch this or have you check out this dungeon that you might have already come across?)  The second reason is because video games don't actually want you playing them forever. IF that happened you wouldn't need to buy another game ever again and that's bad for business.

Next while hitting the list in reverse lets look at depth.  In a video game there could be hundreds of NPCs you can talk to... about a very limited number of things.  You come to a shopkeeper and they will ask if you want to buy or sell, if you're lucky you stumbled onto a hidden side quest where you can ask about their missing daughter.  In a tabletop game you can talk to them about ANYTHING.  If the GM has a side quest in mind they can lean the conversation that way if the NPC would want their help.  Sure on the surface this just means "Oh I can ask about the weather big deal", but what if you're looking for an item they don't have.  You can ask who might have it or why they don't carry it or about the weather, I don't judge.  On top of that unlike a video game the GM might not have planned a side quest, but what if they player wanted there to be one then BAM through the magic of a real brain there can be.  This extends to all interactions as well as what a player is able to do with the environment, but I think the shop keeper example made my point.

Finally lets talk about playing to your medium.  Video games have lots of items as rewards to actually make up for the short comings of their medium.  They need to keep you interested, but in the end all they have is a bunch of numbers hidden by graphics.  Great thing is those numbers mean you can just give the player higher numbers as a reward and that is why you get magic items.  The other aspect is the strengths of video games as a medium, they are visual and can be played at a moments notice. The visual aspect can be played into with items that look new and interesting while the ability to play whenever you want basically translates to instant gratification.  You hit a couple buttons and you're adventuring so you should be able to kill a couple things and "adventure better".  There's a lot of actual psychology going on here but I'll break it down into the simplest form.  Because you can play instantly you expect to be rewarded instantly and repeatedly.  This is also a bit of an Achilles Heel as that instant availability also means if they don't keep the player feeling rewarded they can just turn that game off and turn on a different more rewarding game.

Tabletop games require work both to run and play.  You need to have people around, you need to set time aside that hopefully won't be interrupted, and you need to come up with the interactions and actions of your character rather than just picking off a list.  In return though you get the greatest strength THIS medium has to offer, other people and brain power.  Ideas get to be fluid, if something unexpected happens the game can adapt.  Most importantly the entire thing is being run by a human brain that ,hopefully, is filled with imagination and creative story telling ability. This means things within the game can tailor to the players and rewards can be personal.  Not every reward is an item, sometimes it's story or character driven.  Now this kind of personal reward takes time to actually have meaning, but the beautiful thing about that actually falls in on of the off putting aspects of the medium.  When you have already put work into getting people together that hopefully are also your friends and have a block of time set aside to play then psychologically you only need one reward each time you play to want to keep coming back.  This allows for the time for those more meaningful rewards to sink in and since so much time and effort was put into getting that reward it actually means more to your brain even if mathematically it isn't as large.

A side not on this is that if you are playing with friends and you aren't a selfish bastard then YOU don't even have to be rewarded every time.  As far as your brain is concerned helping your friend get their reward is a mini reward for yourself too.  The only down side is your brain at times needs to be retrained into actually acknowledging these rewards and being willing to work for them.  Coming off of expectations of constantly item rewards is similar to being a junky looking for a fix and some brains create associations that are basically Pavlovian.

Finally now that my mini rant is coming to an end I do want to point out that YES you can have tabletop games that play like a video game and have fun.  Just like I said you can have a novelization of a Michel Bay movie and enjoy the book, but you will be missing out on what you could be doing with what you have.  As far as high magic settings such as the Ashen Grey setting that we've been fleshing out of the months and polls here on the site I've already given a couple ways to add magic that is common without needing to make ALL magic items drop like rain with Enchantments and Buy-able Items.  Check them out even if you love throwing items around like candy because well they're more items to throw around like candy.

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