Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Transitional Technologies and RPGs

As I was walking my children to school this morning, my daughter, as she so sometimes does, said, "Dad, can I ask you a weird question?" In her parlance, "weird" refers to something about which she's heard, typically from her friends, whose existence she doubts. Several of my daughter's friends are well known confabulators who regale their schoolmates with tales of this or that they heard from their "cousin's friend's uncle, who lives in Europe." Over the years, my daughter has developed a healthy skepticism of such tales, but, every so often, she hears a story that sounds plausible enough that she thinks it might be true but wants to confirm it. For good or for ill, I'm usually the person to whom she turns for such confirmation. 

This morning, the weird question concerned a mysterious device known as a "walkman." Apparently, it was her teacher, not her friends, who mentioned this arcane piece of technology and my daughter had never heard of such a thing. After chuckling for a moment, I explained to her that a walkman was "the iPod of the 90s," explaining further that, in the decade before she was born, it was the stupid gadget to which people spent an inordinate amount of time attached. Back then, you couldn't walk down the street or ride the subway without looking around and noticing that everyone seemed to be wearing a headset attached to a walkman. After explaining a little more, my daughter correctly surmised that the walkman disappeared once MP3 players of various sorts arrived on the scene, since they were smaller, didn't need a cassette tape, and can store even more music on them. 

There are a lot of once-popular technologies about which my daughter will only ever know through history books or the memories of older people, much in the same way she knows about, say, the Cold War. What's interesting to me is that, for all the differences between my parents' generation and my own, in most respects, the technological environments in which we both grew up is remarkably similar. True, television became widespread while my parents were still children but they were very young -- young enough that they remember radio dramas as "something only old people listened to." Conversely, personal computing, which became mainstream during my youth, only really took off in a big way near the end of my high school years, late enough that I can still clearly remember -- and occasionally pine for -- the days before it was expected that every home contained at least one, if not several, PCs. 

My daughter, on the other hand, can't even imagine a world before the widespread use of the Internet, let alone one without multiple computers in every home. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that, in thinking about my daughter's question, I began to wonder if perhaps the tabletop RPG is a lot like the walkman -- a transitional technology. A lot of the guys I grew up playing D&D with in the late 70s and early 80s are still interested in fantasy, but they get their fix nowadays through computer games. For people interested primarily in exciting combats in a fantasy environment, computer games can be quite compelling. Likewise, if what you're after is a well-crafted "choose your own adventure" story with your character as the star, there are plenty of electronic RPGs that fit the bill. Heck, Bioware has made themselves very successful by providing such things. Granted, both types of video games (generally) lack the interactivity of tabletop RPGs, but, judging by the success and mainstream acceptance of video games, one has to wonder whether that level of involvement is something that most people actually want of something calling itself a "roleplaying game." 

I'm not sure how seriously I mean this, but the fact remains that video games today are both far more mainstream and exhibit far more staying power than RPGs ever did, even in their heyday. Video games aren't a fad; they're a permanent part of the entertainment landscape and they're getting better and better at providing the kinds of experiences most people seem to want from them. Sure, I find them largely unsatisfying compared to a face-to-face tabletop campaign, as I suspect most of the readers of this blog do too, but we're outliers. For most people, playing a tabletop RPG rather than a video game would be like still using a walkman when they can use a MP3 player: it's a superseded technology. 

None of this is to suggest that tabletop RPGs are doomed. I've never believed that and nothing in recent years has changed my feelings on the matter. I do think, though, that anyone who dreams of a return to the glory days of the 80s is doing just that -- dreaming. It's always possible that we might catch another fad wave in the future, but all fads have expiry dates and a year or three as the object of popular culture's fickle affections likely won't change the fact that tabletop roleplaying is an esoteric and peculiar hobby, one that will hold even less appeal to the mass market as the years wear on. I'm fine with that myself, but then I'm old enough to know what I like, mainstream popularity be damned. So long as I continue to derive pleasure from tabletop roleplaying, what difference does it makes if most people would rather do something else?


  1. I always wonder what people your daughter's age will think when they watch Seinfeld and see them regularly visiting the VIDEO RENTAL STORE.

    I can barely wrap my mind around such places ever existing and I've been to them! I can only imagine how arcane it would be to someone else.

  2. Your comments here go a long way toward explaining why 4E D&D is the way it is: if people turn to video games because they want "exciting combats in a fantasy environment" or "a well-crafted 'choose your own adventure' story with your character as the star," then a tabletop RPG that wants to compete with video games might well focus on just such features. Not the game I'm interested in, but then, I'm here reading this blog...

  3. The one that gets me most is old photographs showing a street scene -- you often see a sign saying "Television Repair".

    In those days, TV wasn't a ubiquitous device, it was a major appliance. It cost hundreds of dollars, and when it broke you took it out and repaired it. (Whereas now we just buy a new one. At Target.)

    While I was reading this, I got to thinking about the difference in experience between computer and tabletop gaming. Each one can be likened to a meal. The computer gives you a really good 'meal' (in some cases, very very good), but you usually eat it by yourself. Tabletop gaming gives you pretty good 'food' (depending on the 'cook', of course), but you eat it with your friends and you all have a good time together.

  4. Likewise, books were a transitional state leading to TV.

    Most of my friends have moved on to video games and TV at this point. I don't know why I'm such a hold out.

  5. I do think you are correct that most people would rather play computer games than RPGs. I myself disliked playing Tabletop in a face to face environment, but loved the compelling computer games like the ones made by Looking Glass Studios and Bioware. Gygax had said he saw Tabletop being eclipsed by computer games, seeing the latter as TV and Movies while the former was like Broadway.

    The only major thing keeping it alive today is the older entrenched gamers, those few powerful companies like WoTC keeping it alive, and the lack of a powerful DM tool for the more virtual realities. Outside of MUDs, you'd need something that sophisticated to allow free-form play. Maybe in 10-20 years we can get something like that.

  6. I would liken tabletop RPGs more to vinyl records, in that while there are more convenient ways to get a similar experience, hardcore fans still see a certain value and appeal in them.

    But mostly, there are more awesome ways to create and experience music than ever before.

  7. Great post, I think you are spot on about their staying power (sadly).

    After I stopped playing tabletops around 1986 or so,Baldur's Gate and all it's spin-offs were pretty much the only version of D&D (or any other rpg) that I played until I returned to tabletops two years back.

    But on the otherhand that return was a conscious rejection of being in front of a computer screen so much. As long as we have people burned out by hours and hours of computer-screen deadness at work I think we will always a niche for the social joy of sitting around a table playing.

  8. I'm not sure there's any way a video game can provide the same social experience that a tabletop game can. Any tabletop game, really, not just an RPG. There's a reason people still get around to play card and board games, and it isn't just because the games are fun - it's because the people are fun. Sitting with your eyes glued to a screen can be fun, but even if you're watching a movie or playing rockband with a group of friends, it still isn't the same thing as sitting down and having actual conversation with friends.

  9. I don’t think D&D:computer games::Walkman:iPod. The reasons for choosing a Walkman over an iPod are few if any because they really are serving the same purpose. While there has been cross-pollination, D&D and computer games are really different things.

    Did some people play D&D because they didn’t have computer games yet and it was “close enough” to what they wanted? Perhaps, but I don’t think that makes D&D a transitional technology. It just means the hobby may never have the same numbers it used to. And that’s good for everybody. If someone wants something other than D&D, I’d rather they find what they really want somewhere else than try to “get by” with D&D.

    On the other hand, I think tabletop wargame:computer game::Walkman:iPod is a much closer analogy. While there are still more reasons to choose a tabletop wargame over an equivalent computer game than for the Walkman:iPod comparison, I think it is essentially the same sort of difference.

    I’ve talked to a few “lapsed gamers” who expressed the opinion that computer games had made D&D obsolete. After some discussion, though, they always seem to remember and recognize that D&D really was different. (Then the convo turns to the “...but you have to have a really good DM” subject.)

    My experience also is that avid computer gamers with no tabletop RPG experience catch on pretty fast that it is a different thing when introduced to classic D&D.

  10. It's not that tabletop games have become obsolete, it's that people aren't interested in speaking to their friends face to face.

    One of my co-workers is from Honduras, and he said that here (America) is his sad home- everybody stays at home, watches TV, and sits around inside. In Honduras, people go out and just hang out and play soccer and sit outside under sun and stuff.

    For people who are seemingly becoming more and more isolated, a game where you sit around and actually talk to people is absolutely foreign.

  11. I came back after years of computer games because of one thing-the literary side. Not just the roots, I like to read gaming material. I like to have my imagination fire off a shot when something inspires it. I can count maybe 2 video games that have done that and it was ages ago.

    This latest generation of games is about sameness and with the talk (again) of banning used game sales it would kill it dead permanently for me. There is no single game worth $50+ to me today and, as has been pointed out with Live Arcade games and the like, the prices never come down.

    Best parts of tabletop-

    No operating system

    No hard drive crash

    No battery or power source.

    You can open a book from 30 years ago and it still works :)

  12. OK, so to start I need to quote Lawrence Lessig quoting Sousa:


    About twenty years before Huxley, John Philip Sousa, speaking at the U.S. Congress about the phonograph, said: "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy . . . in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day."


    Videogames are the phonograph and the radio. We're the glee club.

    I'm fine with that. Even glee comes back once in a while, and spending time being creative with our friends is good for the soul.

  13. Hey, didn't you talk to her about the Discman? ;-) She'll no doubt look back on our current time as the declining years of the music CD and generally the use of the CD/DVD disc as a storage medium in computing.

    My friends make fun of me because I insist on searching out combo DVD/VHS players whenever I need to replace my VHS player at home. YES, you can still find combo players out there, at the moment (got mine at Walmart).

  14. And to just add another comment: I cling to the hope that humanity will hold on to the need for old-fashioned face-to-face, in-the-flesh interaction. I've always seen table-top roleplaying as a variation on the ancient activity of humans gathering together to tell stories. Call me an old guy, but when I try to do gaming via chat or what have you, I feel there's something just not totally right about it. Something not totally "human." But maybe I am just that, an old guy that didn't have the Internet in his childhood. Ah, anyway, I'm trying to not get to nostalgic these days, so I'll just stop blathering...

  15. (I haven't read the other comments, so sorry if this was addressed by others)

    "...Sure, I find them largely unsatisfying compared to a face-to-face tabletop campaign..."

    Why? Not that I disagree with you, quite the opposite in fact. But there is something missing from online gaming. Personally, I think it's the lack of a GM as real person. I could be wrong, it might be something else. But it comes down to the fact that, for all it's accessibility, something is lacking from online games that tabletop gamers miss.

    I like the idea of Internet-App-As-Gaming-Tool, rather than Internet-App-As-Game, to extend the tabletop experience, but a lot more work is going to have to be done in that area, and it will still be just a niche product, IMO. Current online games satisfy the wish to interact without requiring excess creativity (for creating a backstory, etc. and social role-playing dynamics).

  16. Gygax himself referred to the future of RPGs as analogous to 'live plays' in the contemporary entertainment environment (perhaps we're at that place now), in which television and film are overwhelmingly predominant. People still go to plays, live performances definitely offer something that other forms of entertainment do not, and it's unlikely that plays will ever disappear entirely. But they clearly do not dominate mainstream entertainment anymore (at most, they have a marginal influence). Likewise for RPGs vis-a-vis computer and video games.

  17. Computer games have zero appeal to me. Ugh. I'd rather stare at a blank wall and think about D&D than play a computer game.

  18. Video games lack the social component. More than half the time I spent at RPGs was spent slinging bull with my buddies.

    I think of RPGs more as the Thursday night poker game. Sure, you can bet on the PC, but poker/RPGs are the excuse to get together and socialize.

  19. Honestly, I'm a lover of all games. Board, RPG, video--they're all their own brand of social fun.

    Some of my greatest gaming memories are playing on Doom on a LAN in the same room with headsets (which seems silly now). These days you game online with headsets. It's still social, not face-to-face, but saying it's not a social game is not accurate. Is talking on the phone "not-social"? Of course not.

    In any case, the mode of game matters less, then the activity being enjoyed. This past Halloween weekend we played Ghostbusters on the Wii and Castle Ravenloft!

    You don't even need to really be playing a game to have fun during a game. Beaking out a game on the dining room table when there's 12 family and/or friends and only 4 playing pieces, or crowding into a living room with players and onlookers is all equal amounts of awesome.

    Calling one type of game "social" and another one lacking that aspect is a weakness of those playing--not the game.

  20. As others have said, I don't think the analogy is perfect between video games = rpgs and sony walkman = MP3 player simply because even though I prefer my MP3 player to the walkman I used to use because it is smaller, rechargeable, more convenient, does not need tapes, etc., it really doesn't do things THAT differently --- I'm still listening to pre-recorded music on a 'portable' device.

    I confess that I tend to get bored with computer games simply because there is no human interaction... nor is there really the chance to improvise on the spot. For example, in an RPG, player characters might be attacked by zombies while in a tavern. A player might decide to do something unanticipated --- like setting fire to the zombies using liquor or protecting his arm from zombie bites by wrapping the barkeeper's towel around it. Unless the person who created the game anticipated such actions, they just won't happen. My experience of fun with tabletop RPGs, however, is rooted in such unanticipated events. The player will ask questions (i.e.: are there bottles of liquor behind the bar?) and the DM will offer clarifications (Yes, there are X number), in many cases inventing info on the spot. Then the player will say, "OK, I jump over the bar, grab a bottle of whiskey, smash it over the zombie's head and then set him on fire with my Zippo..." Thus, setting details are being created in response to player and DM trading information ("Tell me if there are whiskey bottles behind the bar and I'll tell you what I do.")

  21. I've thought for a while now that Hasbro's big mistake in promoting/developing 4e is missing the social aspect of the game as being the core point of difference, the big thing that distinguishes it from it's flashier, digital competition.

    Selling D&D as a fun way to gather with friends strikes me as more fertile than "Hey, we made it like the video games all you kids play now."

  22. The ubiquitous technologies of our youth are alien to today's youth. What would the inverse corollary be to: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    Any sufficiently dated technology is indistinguishable from ___?

    On a related subject, last year there was a great story in BBC's news magazine about a 13-year-old kid being asked to trade in his iPod for a Walkman for a week:


    Here's a great quote from the article: "It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape."

  23. RPGs aren't transitional they are a mostly unique invention. The mighty video game was once a fad that was even declared a dead market by professionals. popularity of entertainments ebb and flow.

    The walkman and the ipod do the same darned thing and really are the same thing an electronic gadget to play entertainments to the user on the go. Whiel the specifics may have changed and ipod (or other feature rich) mp3player is just a fancy walkman.
    Fancying up real roleplaying games will be trickier then fancying up the walkman.

    Remote game play over computers doesn't improve face to face game play or the sales of roleplaying games.

  24. What a society holds as popular in entertainment is generally a reflection of the society as a whole.

    -Instant gratification.
    -Little to no REAL human interaction.
    -Little or no mental effort upon the entertained.

    there is much in today's culture that's fits this criteria well.

  25. No need to worry. As soon as the Great Internet Ban of 2015 kicks in, due to such communication devices being a threat to National Security, we'll be back in business!

    The wi-fi suppression fields will only be averted only if you are extremely affluent, as they will be a luxury. Internet isn'y for common folk.

    RPG's will be back as our main Bread & Circus!


  26. I think that there will be an increasing convergence between the tabletop and the computer RPG. By this I mean that the ability to design and build your own computer RPG will require less and less specialized knowledge and dedicated resources. Also, the increased utility of such programs will also feed back into the tabletop environment, especially with the increasing prevalence of tablets at the table.

    [An idea of the later is the new edition of Warhammer FRPG, which makes extensive use of specialized material components, both to provide a continuing revenue stream and to defeat piracy. Fine for FFG, with it's ready access to boardgame component manufacturers, but what if you wanted to customize or modify the game, or don't have access to these resources. Now what if that was a dedicated app for a tablet? The entry bar is a lot lower. And you get an increased revenue stream (one for each player) without the shipping and warehousing issues. Let alone the electronic release of new expansions and additions. Eventually I see rule books disappearing, and tabletop games being run from the "character sheet" on the tablet (possibly talking to the other tablets in the vicinity by wireless). Or at least I find the idea that is starting to become possible intriguing.]

  27. It isn't the console or standard PC games that have taken the newer generations away from the pen and paper hobby. It is MMORPGs like WoW. There is a lot of online social interaction around the regular groups of players in guilds. That is totally the modern equivalent of what I grew up doing in a real face to face group. I'm not saying they are the same thing, because they aren't...but it is the modern day substitute.

  28. On RPGs, as I've said many times: "Tabletop RPGs are to video games as theater is to movies."

    In each case, the former is more immediate, intimate, has deeper personal connections, has once-in-a-lifetime happy accidents, and is generally preferred by those professionals working in the industry. The latter is easier to package and reproduce on a mass scale and therefore market to the public at large (making it both a better business and far more familiar to most consumers). Both will continue side-by-side, but the ratio (very small to very large) will not change appreciably.

    Great observation on technological continuity between us and our parents' generation.

  29. I've been thinking thoughts like this myself. When I watch my daughter I realize she already lives in a world apart from mine. Heck, probably a bunch of you people reading this comment does. I grew up during the cold war, and becoming older I have many times reflected upon how strongly this have affected me. All my ideas on freedom, society and how to meet the End stem from that. Mind boggling.

    On another matter, Blackstone's comment feels a bit cynical, but oh so spot on...

  30. I think the key thing to remember is that changes to the culture are harder to see or emphasize with when a major change occurs. There are people growing up now who don't have the same perspective as we do.

    If you're a kid today in many (but not all) modern cultures, you have seen computers from the outset, which means they are used to things from the get go that we are only now getting used to. When people say "computer won't replace the feel of paper, the smell of fresh newsprint", to defend the old ways, etc., they don't realize that the kids who grow up with a tablet/e-reader will likely not care about that stuff.

    Do I think there will be social drawbacks and things to criticize? Yes, I do. But I also believe that there are a lot of positives from these changes as well.

  31. Of course, there are network effects. More people playing one game makes it easier to find other players/ producers/ audience.

  32. The preceding in reply to, "So long as I continue to derive pleasure from tabletop roleplaying, what difference does it makes if most people would rather do something else?"

  33. Me: What did you do at grandpa's today?
    Son: It was fun! We listened to a bunch of Granpa's giant black CDs.

    The RPG experience is different then listening to music, watching movies, or playing a video game. The best way I can describe it is like "Cabella's Big Hunter". Yeah, you shoot a deer, but man, you ain't hunting!

    There will always be a segment of the population who enjoys the real, and those who would rather do vicariously. Theatre, Concerts, Board Games, and RPGs will always exist. Here is where the next generation of writers will get their experience.

  34. I'd go further back-- tabletop RPGs are more like pianos. You don't need to plug them in, but you need to do *something* to make the music and get everyone sing along: "Those were the days!"

  35. Despite there being video games that are called "roleplaying games" you can not currently get a true role playing experience from them. In a good game of DnD with a competent DM anything you think of can happen whether its swinging from a chandelier or having your characters make some wooden dice and paper then play some DnD themselves. A video game no matter how good can only do what it is programmed to do and no programmer thinks of everything. Saying that because we have computer roleplaying games so we do not need DnD is like saying we have computer sports games so we do not need to play the real thing.

  36. @Akhier- I agree wholeheartedly. Maybe my video games suck, but my experience of tabletop gaming is WAY different from a video game. The world of a video game is preprogrammed, while our D&D worlds are constantly changing at the blink of an eye. I bought Labyrinth Lord for $30 bucks and I can play for the rest of my life, create any world I can imagine. I spent $60 on Oblivion and I can only play in that one world and all I can really do is fight, cast, talk, and pick up/drop items.

    On that note, with video games it is impossible to get the experience of a dungeon master. World creation, rules modification, sculpting of the experience...this is lacking even in the best video games.

    My contention is, and I mean this with no grognard crankiness at all, that people are lazy. The laziness we all have inclines us to choose the inferior at times just because its easy. We readers of your blog, however, grew up at a time when we didn't have the easy way available, so we discovered the joy of the "hard way." I liken it to listening to music on an iPod vs. live music. Live music is immensely more entertaining, but we go to live performances less than our ancestors because we have the ease of recordings. But when we can rise above our sloth, we get to enjoy the satisfaction of the true art. Likewise, far into the future I believe kids will overcome their sloth, pick up an rpg and have an experience unlike any they've had before.

  37. The basic ground's been covered in comments here, I think. I'd just add that, although RPGs are fundamentally different from anything (and I mean anything) offered on computers, they were indispensible to the evolution of long-interaction-period (ie non-"casual") video games. To the extent we have video games deeper than space invaders and plants vs. zombies, RPGs and wargames are to blame. And I'd be fascinated if anyone knows how big a market long-interaction games actually have now, as a share of the overall video game market - I've an unscientific feeling that wii games etc tend to devolve to easily-digested little bites (game levels, simple sets of interactions), and that multi-hour campaign-type play is diminishing again, after the spike of WoW.

    And on that topic I see that the spectre of market share is not so easily dismissed: this is an avowedly non-commercial (or soft-commercial), non-mainstream forum, and yet most of us still equate the "real world" with "what most people are doing right now." Despite James' last paragraph, the prompt for a post like this is consciousness of difference from the norm. And I think it's a mistake, despite the history of video games and the common fantasy language, to imagine that the payload/reward of video games has anything to do with that of RPGs.

    As for the fear of extinction (which here is alleged no longer to apply to video games), my question is why do we engage in this cultural practice, of playing games, and why would video games be more appealing to more people than RPGs? I don't have a complete answer, but I think part of it is merely a scale issue: video games and RPGs both started out as almost-exclusively male pastimes, but video games became more entrenched because (pauses to put on hard hat) a large enough number of males played them long enough and steadily enough that large numbers of females could no longer ignore them (and I'd stake long enough at about 25 years, and a large enough number as, say, 40+% of the breeding pool). So now females also play video games in large numbers, and it's stopped being something you "grow out of." We can ask what snagged those males for 25 years, and why they played in sufficient numbers, but I don't think we have to assume that there was any more critical difference than that - any idea of video games being somehow intrinsically more lasting or higher evolutionary achievements in entertainment than RPGs.

  38. By this I mean that the ability to design and build your own computer RPG will require less and less specialized knowledge and dedicated resources.

    This has been available for a long time. There have been many “make your own CRPG” products.

  39. The way I look at it, there are several distinct elements at work here. (coming at this more generally than focused on the transitionary element)

    -First is videogames as entertainment. While a videogame can't give the creativity and freedom of a tabletop RPG, it CAN give spectacle and a sense of more...Direct control, in a way. Speaking as a young man of only 18 years of age, I can tell you that my RPG experience has a distinct feeling of...Disconnect, in that I'm only poking at the mechanics to have my success or failure at an individual task determined largely by a (often weighted) random decision. A realtime action videogame has far more direct interaction with its mechanical end, giving it more grip as a /game/.

    -Second is the social element. I think what happened there isn't that people got less social, but that they got less interested in socializing /randomly/. People still hang out with their friends, they just don't particularly want to meet their neighbor just because they live on the same street. This is good and bad, but its main problem is limiting how we meet new people and potential players. The whole concept of the Network and its decay.

    -Third is freedom to play when and how one wants. If I want to play D&D with my buddies, well, okay, let's all get together and play. If I take a random vacation day off of work for the hell of it and want to play...Well, crap. All my friends are off at their jobs. Meanwhile, I can play Halo at 2 AM in my underpants if I'm so inclined, and can likely find people to play with/against if I want to do multiplayer. To compare to non-interactive media, everything short of live theater is available on-demand, or close to it. TV, movies, books, music, graphic novels, all can be enjoyed at 2 AM in one's underpants.

    -Fourth is the...Alternative means of roleplaying as a general concept that people have. And I don't mean pretending to be a naughty schoolgirl and the perverted teacher. I mean stuff like RP guilds in WoW, or freeform online roleplaying, which is how I got into the concept to begin with. People have an urge to /tell stories/, not necessarily to do so with polyhedral dice and grid paper. I won't say the RP guilds or the freeform forums are /better/, but they're certainly where most of those potential teenage D&D fans are, in large part because that's all people know.

    Finally, I'd just like to say: Someone above mentioned they could only think of two videogames that'd sparked their imagination. Really, dude/dudette? I don't know what you're playing, but most every modern game on my shelf sparks my imagination when I play it. Whether it's Fallout, or Devil May Cry, or even Halo, the elements grab my brain and start to extrapolate new elements and concepts. Now, maybe I'm crazy for going that far, but it's media, and quite frankly, I don't see any reason why one form isn't as capable of grabbing one's thoughts and sending them spiraling off into new waters. ...My metaphor kind of got lost there.

    EDIT: Oh, and my not-a-robot word verification was "nonante". I have decided this is a creature not unlike a deer on steroids. If you sharpened the deer's antlers to /razor sharp points/ and put them on independently controlled muscle nodes, letting the creature twist and tilt them around like a cat does with its ears.

  40. I hope I don't repeat anyone's thoughts here, but reading the topic made me think this:

    Computer games are not creative activities. You are basically following a predefined scripted world where your ability to improvise is limited to whatever was programmed into the game system. From the GMs point of view there is no comparison to the creativity required for running an RPG and what you do when playing a computer game. Even in when you can create levels in a computer game it is very limiting compared with the wide open vistas that you have for creating a world in an RPG (especially if you homebrew your rules). So for GMs, from a creativity perspective, Computer Games do not hold a candle to RPGs. On the other hand from the Player's point of view it is much less the case, though still very true in most cases. All that said, I think that the creativity aspect of GMing can be brought into computer games, and will be eventually. Then the two worlds will merge, and then we will all live in little pods like that nice man Neo.

  41. Quick story - how I got into RPGs.

    It was summer, 1989. I was six years old. My Dad and I had just finished reading 'The Hobbit', and now, we were on vacation in Florida, visiting my Mom's side of the family. A lot of the time, I spend with my Grandpa, as the two of us played 'Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link'. We both loved it as much as the first one, and enjoyed exploring the huge world together.

    Anyway, one night, all the adults are out, and the teenaged next-door neighbor is babysitting me, my sister, and my cousins. I'm going on and on about random fantasy stuff, and suddenly, she says, 'have you ever heard of Dungeons and Dragons?'

    The very first thing I think of as she describes the game is '...I could be LINK!!!' I loved the idea that I could take this character that I thought of as really cool, and take him on adventures that I and other people thought of. I got the Mentzer red box for my birthday, and the blue box (complete with Isle of Dread) for Christmas, and though I never played them with other kids, they were my first taste of rpg books. So, I guess you could, theoretically, say that I came to roleplaying because of the limitations of computer games. :)

    Because of that, both types of gaming have very much been linked in my mind - for instance, the first time I ever saw AD&D rules was through playing the old 'Pool of Radiance' crpg. When I finally did start tabletop gaming in Middle School, my gaming inspiration was pretty evenly split between whatever fantasy books I was reading, and whatever computer games I'd been playing.

    So, basically, I see computer games and tabletop as two worlds that aren't mutually exclusive, and I see CRPGs as something I can 'mine' for gaming just as much as books.

    (I should also probably add that, while I've played several MMOs, I've found that the roleplay on them always ends up being tremendously disappointing, due to their domination by snotty, cliquish, passive-aggressive sophists - but then again, I'd say the same thing about the LARP I tried going to, so maybe it's just me.)

    Interestingly, though, I just realized that, I don't think that I ever actually got to 'play' as Link. Maybe I'll have to keep it in mind...

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  44. Sigh... Yes, sadly paper-and-pencil RPGs are a transitional technology. As the human race get's stupider and stupider, we'll needs microprocessors and CGI to replace our atrophied and vestigial imaginations.

  45. One aspect not explored in this analogy (which bears on the OSR) is the loss of fidelity between analog tape and digital mp3 (or the digital transfer to CD). What is being lost in the music is the range and texture of sound, which vinyl folks go on about all the time. Largely that is the decimation involved in compressing the audio files, but also the norm is to listen to music now on earbuds ... i.e. speakers that are 1cm in diameter. No serious person would settle for that as a norm of listening even 20 years ago. The walkman filled a niche (personal sound while mobile), but at the same time, the boom box was the serious mobile party sound system, and in homes people had component stereos of greater or lesser elaboration.

    The thing I wonder about is really the loss of signal that the shift to one technology or another drives. mp3 as a default format has stripped away entire ranges and landscapes of sound (and arguably, all recorded music has vis a vis live music, so I don't mean to be blindly nostalgic). It's not that we can't have a full and rich spectrum of sound , but if the full spectrum is never presented to 10-, 12-, 15-year olds, then will people continue to make use of it, and carry it forward as a distinct MEDIUM?

    So in a roundabout way, we may think about the old table top RPGs in this way. There is a texture and richness, a fidelity of signal, and also a mode of production that is unique to them, which can be lost if it is not reproduced through practice. And if no one knows of the lost richness, it simply disappears, WILL NOT BE EXPECTED, can not be retrieved. As an archaeologist I face this constantly: I look at a potsherd, an arrow point, a sculpture, and can try to envision what artistic tradition and personal acumen went into it's production, but no matter how long I stare at it and reverse engineer it, I can at best reproduce a decimated, and relatively sterile, approximation of the "system" that produced it. As much as I study it now, I can't reconstitute its production as a viable self-sustaining craft/art production mode, because the links in the chain of production (which are social institutions, usually) have been been severed.

    Unless the taste and the style and the experience of table-top rpg is transmitted directly to others not familiar with it, and it is found to be superior to other forms (i.e., computer games), or at least stand on its own merits, the MEDIUM that is table-top rpg can not be carried forward. There will be no taste for it, no feeling for it, no palpable sense of its style, no desire to consume and reproduce it.

    It is, I suppose, a question of whether anyone cares about the loss of texture, depth, quality, warmth, or whatever that I think the old school provides, that newer systems don't (balanced against all of the things the new systems do provide). But really, this old school 'feel' is precisely the basis of most marketing and propaganda for new old school products. A common rhetorical theme appeals to the gamer that isn't quite getting what they needed from some newer-fangled system they've migrated to, and OSR is the proposed solution. The unanswered question is how many outside the old school base will be compelled by this argument.

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