Final Fantasy. World of Warcraft. Guild Wars. EverQuest. Ultima. Do any of these sound familiar to you? How about these: Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, GURPS, Call of Cthulu? If any of you are familiar with some of these games or all of them, then you’ll probably know the one major thing they share in common-role-playing. Yes, each and every one of these games are role-playing games (or RPGs), but with one major difference, which, in some cases, puts them at odds with each other. That difference is medium. For all those gamers out there who live off of their PCs or game consuls, the first set of names may appeal to you more because they’re all electronic RPGs or eRPGs, as I like to call them. For those of you who may be more familiar with the games in the second set, you probably know these games as tabletop RPGs or pen and paper RPGs. And for those of you who might not have any idea of what tabletop RPGs are, think multi-sided dice and character sheets. Though eRPGs have made quite a boom over the years, especially with the advancement of online gaming and the introduction of such consuls like X-box and Playstation, the tabletop industry continues to hold a staunch following, while publishing brand new games and expansions every year. But, between these two types, which medium of RPG is ultimately better? Is it true that nothing beats the classic pen and paper? Or is technology eventually going to do away with the old twenty-sided? As one who had significant experience in both worlds, it’s time to break it down, weigh the scales, and, if needed, make a few intelligence checks along the way. And just a quick note to all gaming readers out there, yes, some of the games I’ve mentioned in the beginning have crossed-over to the opposite medium every now and then. But, for the sake of this article, I’ve just focused these games on their primary medium simply for the sake of example. So, with that being said, onward we go!
Athough tabletop can get pricey, if one wants to purchase all the corebooks and expansions for a specific game line, one can easily have the basics to begin a campaign for only a couple dollars, which can later be tweaked and modified for replay value. However, if one wants to go electronic with a recently released RPG, an average of $50 is needed just for one game. This, of course, does not include monthly fees for certain online games out there and the fact that you require a decent computer off the boot. And, in a addition to this, with the ever growing advancement of technology, recent eRPGs may demand more up to date hardware from time to time, which could easily force an avid electronic gamer to spend a ton of money for a few upgrades. So between the two mediums, tabletop takes the cake by not taking the cake out of your wallet.
I remember several years ago, when I was in high school, I bought my first Dungeons and Dragons Gold Box game (“Secret of the Silver Blades”) for my old IBM-clone computer. With unstoppable enthusiasm, I delved into playing the game, leveling my characters to the cap, while beating every quest that the storyline threw at me. After a little over a month, I finally defeated the lich that threatened the kingdom and, with that, the game ended. And, well, that was it. Replayability not only extends game play, but it’s also a crucial defining point of overall quality, especially for games that desire to be epic. For the longest time, replayability was the one element that many eRPGs lacked back in the day and have only recently managed to overcome with the further advancement of online RPGs, such as Guild Wars and World of Warcraft. However, replayability has always been the boon of tabletop, given that the natural limit of scenarios and adventures are only subject to whatever the GM or game master (i.e. the person who runs the tabletop game) imagines. For instance, if you’re playing a White Wolf game and wanted to include an Immortal in it (from the ‘Highlander’ movie and TV series franchise), just make up a set of rules and play. If you want to create a world where everyone’s a pink smurf running around and killing Hello Kitties, just choose or create a rule system and go for it. For tabletop RPG, the sky’s the limit. For electronic RPG, programming is the limit and programming can only go so far.
In order to run a typical tabletop RPG, a game master must go to the trouble of a.) finding players to play with, b.) finding a system to play with and comprehending it, and c.) finding a storyline or a module to work with. In addition to all of this, the GM must also be prepared to constantly narrate the game, calculate damage/saving throws, coordinate turn-based battles, while keeping all of the players together in the storyline (or at least together in a party). For people who simply want to be players, rather than GMs, they would not only have to first find a group of people to play with, but, once they do, they would then have to create a character, create a character sheet for that character, calculate their character’s skills, attributes, and mods (modifications), and keep track of what they know in-game versus out-of-game. And throughout it all, human error, miscalculation, and lack of gaming experience (for either the GM or the players) can potentially spoil the experience for everyone. In order to play a typical electronic RPG, a person only needs to go to the store and buy it. After briefly reading the instructions, the player then just plays the game and the preprogrammed system does the rest. In some cases, reading the instructions might not even be necessary, especially for those electronic games with tutorials.
4.) Immersive Environment (Eye-Candy)
One of the first “online” RPGs that I played was a game called “Dungeon Siege”. After loading it up and beginning the storyline, I was blown away by the sensuality of its atmosphere-an orchestral soundtrack and fluid 3D environments that, though pixilated, actually gave the sense of running through a fantasy landscape. By today’s standards, “Dungeon Siege” would probably come off as quite primitive and, sometimes, even laughable. One of the major treasures of electronic gaming is its ability to absorb a player into its environment and literally turn him into zombie during the entire extent of gaming. Given the nature of tabletop, pen and paper RPGs inherently lack this feature and, because of that, has drawn many gamers to weigh their preference towards the eye-candy of electronic gaming rather than the dice rolling of tabletop.
5.) Engaging the Imagination
Yes, this is an awkward category to bring up, but given that the last category of “immersive environment” focused mostly on eye-candy (which is almost a one sided victory for eRPG), it failed to cover the one thing tabletop offers in exchange for the mass-produced visual sweetness-engaging the imagination of the players on a personal level. Given the usual lack of audio-visual effects for tabletop, players are forced to rely on their imagination to visualize events, combat situations, and their own surroundings based solely, if not entirely, on vocal description. In addition to this, the tabletop RPG has the one major aspect that electronics lack-flesh and blood role-playing in which the players not only become their characters, but also immerse themselves into acting and dialoging like their characters as well. This is even made more so by the subdivision of pen and paper known as LARP or Live Action Role Playing. For those of you who don’t know, live action role playing involves the players actually dressing up as their characters and interacting with the physical environment (sometimes preset with props, sometimes mimed), other dressed up players or player characters (PCs), and cast members (non-player characters who are directed by the game master). Yes, eRPGs do engage the imagination to a similar degree as certain movies do, especially with the advancement of graphics technology. But for tabletop, instead of being spoon-fed imagination through a one-way street, players and GMs are given the freedom and initiative to rely on their own.
With the advancement of consul gaming and the increase of competitive gaming, eRPGs have made humungous strides into the mainstream. Over the years, sales of games and production values invested into electronic games have increased several fold and the sheer demand for more continues to grow. X-box, Playstation 3, and the Nintendo Wii are but a few examples of this craze seriously hitting the mainstream. And all the while, eRPGs have been and will continue to ride this entertainment wave all the way to the bank and to the masses. But as for tabletop games, the stigma branded upon them since the 80s has held strong and continues to stereotype most table-toppers as Tolkien-quoting, devil-worshipping, elf-dressing social misfits with no other world beyond their mother’s basement. Yes, to be fair, that stereotype has been applied to online gamers (especially World of Warcrafters and, in the past, EverQuesters) from time to time, but from my experience, where onliners have it hard, table-toppers seem to get it harder. Are these stereotypes true? In some cases, maybe, but hardly ever in most. Do people still have these stereotypes? Yes, because if you say twenty-sided die almost anywhere, the “Nerd” alert usually goes off forcing everyone in the party to make charisma checks. Yes, it’s unfair. Yes, it’s a distortion (hell, the last time I checked, Vin Diesel, the actor, isn’t even close to the stereotype and he’s an avid table-topper!), but the stigma still remains.
7.) Player-to-Player Interaction
For electronic RPG, player interaction has the tendency to be non-existent at worst (especially among most consul based RPGs) and impersonal at best with communication being limited to text messages or faceless TeamSpeak. To some, who desire the comfort of being anonymous, eRPG would be your thing. But if you’re looking for more communication and face-to-face interaction, then eRPGs would fall woefully short for your taste. Tabletop RPGs give players face-to-face interaction off the bat, which can be made as personal as you want it. But this, in and of itself, is the major drawback of tabletop-because the players are face-to-face and because the game is manually dictated by a flesh and blood person who you see face-to-face, group chemistry with all its complicated variables can literally make and break the entire game. If you piss off the GM or if you have a nasty one, the game itself can be as fun as pulling teeth from an Elder Red Dragon. If you piss someone off or if someone pisses you off online, you can just leave the party and find another one with a simple click of the mouse. If you get into someone’s face around the dinner table during a game session, it can easily get personal and affect the relationship outside of the game. If you get into someone’s face online, settling it can be as easy as turning off the power (though, in some cases, it can carry over to personal relationships). So, as you can see, on one end, tabletop dominates in terms of player interaction simply because of its powerful personal element. But at the same time, the strength of its personal element becomes its greatest burden because of the complicated nature of the human element. For electronic gaming, the personal element is much weaker and sometimes even nonexistent, which isn’t exactly a boon for it either. However, it is this lack of personal element that makes eRPG preferable for those who just don’t want the hassle.
When pitting the electronic and the die-rolling medium against each other, there seems to be nothing less than a draw between them when all the categories are added up. In the end, what it comes down to is basically personal preference, which, though may sound like a cop out, is just the plain truth. If you’re that type of person who’s looking to spend a few extra bucks for an easy and convenient thrill, without the hassle of organizing and planning-electronic RPG is probably your best bet. But if you’re that type of person who wants a challenge and want to have more freedom and interaction rather than the veging, tabletop (or even LARP) would fit you quite nicely. Or if you want the best of both worlds, which I have known many people in my life to prefer, feel free to do both. Yes, running a tabletop or a LARP requires much more planning, but nothing beats the priceless value of a good gaming session with flesh and blood people. Yes, eRPG may seem a little too commercialized and pricey in some cases, but nothing beats casting a meteor shower and literally having it tear up the screen in an orgy of light and sound. Ultimately, whatever rocks your air-ship, go for it. As for deciding on what I’ll do, once this article’s done, I’ll just take out my twenty-sided die and roll that baby on the ground!