Saturday, November 30, 2013

Table Top Versus the Console

I've had some time off this week and spent a lot of it playing Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed IV game.  It's a gigantic pirate sandbox where you sail around the Caribbean, listening to sea shanties, and plundering like a terror of the seas.  I usually don't make any time for video games, but c'mon - pirates.  PIRATES!  I could rave on about the merits of Black Flag, but I'll save "The Ode to AC 4" for another post.  Just keep this image in mind - a gigantic pirate sandbox, where you can explore Mayan ruins, walk the streets of 18th century Havana, or Kingston, or Nassau, and then sail around shooting other ships, boarding them, and taking their stuff.  Yo ho.  It's enough to make we want to go mix a batch of grog and hoist the colors.  But I'll save that for later.

This whole AC4 experience got me thinking about our gaming mediums and the strengths of the table top environment versus the console.  As a referee and world builder, it's humbling to think your RPG experience is competing with the work product of dozens of developers and artists.  The vistas available in modern video games - whether it's tossing back rum in the squalid streets of Nassau, or standing atop the Mayan ruins of Tulum, the imagery and views are spectacular.  The wife and eldest kiddo spent a lot of time exploring the wilds of Skyrim last year, so I saw plenty of that snowy, northern land, too, during their excursions.  So why do players return to the table?

As a quick aside - I have to imagine the topic of comparing console gaming to the tabletop is one that's been prosecuted to death, either on the blogs or boards.  I'd be eternally grateful if any readers can point me to some well regarded thoughts already out on there on the interwebs.  There's no need to recreate the wheel, and I'm perfectly comfortable standing on the shoulders of giants.  I'm sure this is a topic smart people have already addressed.

I'm not one of those folks who believes console gaming is going to eliminate table top gaming (at least anytime soon).  The experiences are quite different.  So how do you maximize the things that are amazing about table top gaming and eliminate the question of competing genres?  Furthermore, what are the aspects of the experience from the player's perspective that makes them want to come play tabletop, when they could be sitting at home on the Xbox, making their electronic avatar dodge sharks during a wreck dive for sunken loot off the coast of Florida?

The three broad areas of differentiation that spring to mind are freedom, shared world building, and the social dimension.

The interactive nature of a live referee allows the players tremendous freedom to choose where they want to go and what they want to do, constrained only by the referee's imagination and world experiences.  You may not think of yourself as a "shared world builder", but the very nature of the back-and-forth question-and-answer between the players and referee develops the world through play.  I'm not so arrogant as to view the referee's role as paramount..There are two components to a game element entering the shared mind space of the players and referee - the players need to focus on the element through game play, and then the referee needs to create it at the table - either through improvisation or reprise.  The players are the midwives that aid the referee in giving birth to the game world.  (Those are the kinds of metaphors you spout when you try to write while drinking too much leftover holiday wine).

So what's this bit about the social dimension?  I'm a big believer in the idea that gaming creates shared experiences and shared memories.  We go on vacation to exciting places… the trip might only last a few days, but we carry the memories forward long after the vacation.  Is it any different with why a group would choose to tackle The Tomb of Horrors or travel to the White Plume Mountain?  The problem with sitting in your dark basement basking in the glow of the flat screen, is that you’re sitting alone… in the dark.  No one else really cares if you pulled off some amazing multi-kill combo.  I guarantee thousands of similar gamers have done the same thing - some are even better than you.

But that particular table top gaming moment is a unique creation, experienced by the small group, and never to be seen or experienced in that way again.  When your character "pulls off an awesome move" that saves the rest of the party, there's the immediate gratification of the other players and a story to remember for some time to come.  As a referee, there's the chance to show of your clever creations, challenging puzzles, and interesting setting, every time the players come over to roll the dice.

I've spent some time on the blog musing about "Why Dungeons Matter"… various posts defending the dungeon as the primary locale for adventures.  (I'd go dig up links, but you know - too much wine.  Maybe tomorrow).  I could see the "dungeons matter" philosophy becoming a corollary of this philosophy - "Why the Table Top Matters".  It's an important subject - it transcends editions and game systems.  How do we maximize those things that at the table that set the tabletop RPG experience apart from other games?

I'm comfortable that the default rules we use, my approach to developing a setting and campaign and adjudicating situations, does a fairly good job at highlighting the strengths of the medium.  The challenge is to do it even better.

My daughter is waiting for her bed time reading - looks like I'll tackle the rest in a part two.


  1. "The problem with sitting in your dark basement basking in the glow of the flat screen, is that you’re sitting alone… in the dark. No one else really cares if you pulled off some amazing multi-kill combo."

    Except for multiplayer and let's play videos. Those two activities scratch some social itches for videogamers. Really, I have spent more hours watching people playing Minecraft than playing it myself.

    That said, I still like better table top over videogames for social play.

  2. One difference between the console play and table top is play mechanics. In console or any computer version, you have the mechanics like gathering stuff, managing your inventory, going to the store to sell it and buy better stuff. Yes we do that kind of thing at the table too, but you can skip over the boring parts. I played Lord of the Rings Online for a couple years. There were lots of repetitive activities that you could not skip. At the table top the GM has the freedom to say, "Three weeks pass uneventfully..." In the console environment, you are locked in to what the programmer allows you to do.

    Nice article!