Choice and Storytelling, an alternative
Last week I wrote an opinion piece decrying what I saw as the primacy of choice (and the ability to change the game world) over storytelling in modern video game RPGs. I see this as a sort of decay of strong narratives and well developed characters (and relationships between characters) so that the player can be given the illusion of truly having a significant impact on the game world. Part of my problem with this trend is that I see it demolishing what computer and console RPGs can do so well, which is tell a well scripted, well written, highly conceptual narrative with good visuals and interesting mechanics. What they can’t do so well is take into account everything that a player would like to do in a game world, despite the recent trend of attempting to do so. However, there is another medium out there that can do this very well: the tabletop RPG.
A well run tabletop game (also referred to as a pen and paper game) gives players the freedom to affect the game world in nearly any way they want to attempt (and that their Game Master allows). Do you need to break into that corporate office and steal some classified documents? You could try killing or disabling the guards and fighting your way in. You could try bypassing or rerouting the security systems. You could try hacking the computers remotely and transferring the data out through a wireless connection. You could try disguising yourself and fast talking your way in. You could try setting another building nearby on fire to draw away security. You could even try seducing a worker and having them bring the data to you without a fight. If you can think it up, you can usually try it. This kind of freedom is impossible with a console or computer RPG.
As an avid player and GM for nearly two decades, I am well aware of the reputation that pen and paper games have. Many people consider them to be a niche activity at best, relegated to teenage boys who want to rescue princesses or emo young adults who want to pretend to be a vampire. Tabletop games are those things, but they have also become so much more, especially in the last decade or so. Newer games are edgier, more intellectual, and deal with themes that would be at home in any literature class. Games like Shadowrun and Eclipse Phase (which will be featured in a review next week) are set in cyberpunk and near future settings, and ask players to think about topics as diverse as the role of government (or lack thereof) in life, what is the nature of identity in a world where you can alter (or even abandon) your body at a whim, and where exactly the line is between real and artificial? The systems have come a long way, with many of the newer games forgoing the endless charts and memorization of days past in favor of intuitive DC (difficulty class) based systems. This has made them more accessible than ever. Some, such as Eclipse Phase, even offer electronic versions of books for free. There has never been a better time to put down the controller and pick up the dice. I urge everyone, especially those who have never tried, or even thought about trying, a pen and paper RPG to look up your local game and hobby store (chances are your town has at least one) and try to sign up to play a few game sessions. You might be surprised at how much choice you have.