Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Maximizing the Table Top Experience

I mentioned the other day, I've been spending some time with an Xbox controller in my hand, immersed in the wondrous vistas of various 18th century Caribbean cities.  I've been reflecting on the strengths of the video game medium.  As a consumer of information, you get to bask in the work product of a gigantic team of artists and creative folks - the visuals of modern video games are spectacular.  Computers are obviously good at math - complicated simulations run smoothly in computer based games.  The biggest limitation with the computer based approach to RPG and adventure games are the fixed, plotted story lines, and limitations on the amount of environmental interaction built into the game world.

When I flip the situation around to identify the strengths of the tabletop, don't the limitations of computer gaming point out the types of things you want to maximize on the tabletop?  As a sole creator building your setting as a hobby, you're never going to compete with the macro scale and visual scope of a modern video game built by an extended team of designers.  (I suppose those dedicated few that run the same campaign setting for decades accrete a similar amount of work product over the long haul).  But there are lots of things you can flat out do better on the table top, so let's build around those elements.

If video games present fixed story lines, then our approach needs to be sandbox based and variable.  Extreme sandbox gaming.  The table top setting is elaborated through progressive sessions and offers the players an extreme degree of agency to pick and choose how they want to engage in adventures.  The tabletop game uses a Socratic question-and-answer approach - the players ask questions, the referee's answers reveal the details about the world, but the direction of the questioning (as controlled by the players) determines the focus - and that focus can change from week to week.  Once a video game is shrink wrapped and shipped, the form is fairly set.  In the table top setting, If the tabletop players decide that they'd like to buy a ship and sail off to an island in the game world, it doesn't matter if nautical adventures weren't part of the plan; the table top referee can shift the game's focus to the island in upcoming games.

It should also be pointed out how diverse is each home game .  Just look around the blogs and you see how many different unique settings have been created.

Computers are good at executing complicated algorithms, but not at discussion and negotiation.  Rules lite game systems foster the type of "try anything" approach that requires creating rulings on the fly, whereas a computer game is only going to execute standing rules.  I realize this particular premise is a bit self serving, as it's no secret I favor rules lite game systems.  The approach is collaborative and player-facing despite requiring some arbitration by the referee.  (Player-facing rulings is a topic I've discussed before in a bit more depth:  skill checks in a rules lite system.)

Another advantage to rules-lite table top gaming is avoidance of a system mastery requirement.  Video games have simple controls and a tendency towards effective built-in tutorials to get a player up to speed quickly - the more complicated the RPG becomes either in character creation or mechanics, the more you have to ask - couldn't a computer do this better?

I'm also seeing that it's important to present the players with challenges that emphasize troupe play - group problem solving, planning, and challenges.   The ability to debate different approaches to a difficult problem, to plan and evaluate alternatives, those things are the core of the table top experience.  All of my favorite table top moments and memories are bound in situations where the game has presented a unique challenge to the players and they've had to go 'into the tank' to figure out a solution or approach.  Going forward, I'll try to be more conscious about ensuring threats operate along multiple axes and require planning and circumspection.

If I had to reduce these ideas down to operating principles, they'd go something like this:

  • Develop extreme sandboxes that maximize player freedom of action
  • Maintain a rules-lite approach that prioritizes discussion over rules
  • Create multidimensional problems that challenge the player's skill and planning as a team
  • The game evolves out of the intersection of player and referee interest


  1. I think I am going to have to disagree with you here. Just because the computer excels at a solo experience in a story-driven scenario, does not mean you cannot have an enjoyable group experience in a story-driven scenario. Let me make a simple parallel. The computer is very good at supplying AI players for a round of Hearts. It is still fun and a different experience to play Hearts face-to-face with real people. So I would not say that you need to push for extreme sandboxes all the time, unless that is what you and your players want.

    I also prefer the rules-heavier systems based on d20 3.5. Some of my players and I enjoy the tactical simulation part of the evening's combat. Yes a computer can handle that very well. Look at Neverwinter Nights and its ilk. However, these kinds of combats develop a different flavor when they are not driven by the computer clock. You can drive the tempo of the action and dictate the focus with your descriptions.

  2. There's plenty of room to disagree. The "Beedo Manifesto" isn't meant to be universal. 4E is the perfect example of a game that seemed to consciously duplicate the MMO experience as one of it's design goals, and plenty of folks stuck with it in the paper world vs online for other reasons (and probably did well emphasizing the last two bullets, average on the second bullet, and not so well on the first).

    The principles point towards one goal - there are things a living referee can do on the tabletop that no computer can do, so let's make sure we take advantage of the strengths of the tabletop medium. How far an individual referee chooses to go (or a game system lets them) is ever a matter of judgment and choice.

  3. The 'extreme sandbox' approach allows for something else that C'RPG's cannot handle - dramatic, player-driven shifts in focus, while the game itself remains the same game (even if you are bolting on extra rules-systems and the like). I can play a three computer games that allows me to fight monsters, build a trading empire, and rule a kingdom. Hell, I might be able to get a game that allows me to do all three in some kind of structured order. But a tabletop RPG can handle these shifts of focus, back and forth and in directions not listed here - directions that need not have been imagined by the players and GM at the beginning of play, in a way that a C'RPG' could never do.