Friday, May 19, 2006

Tabletop To Laptop

I've been reading The Escapist for a few months (thanks to Eric Chadwick for turning me on to it), and I'm continually impressed by the quality of its authors and articles. The article I read today caught my eye immediately as it deals with the difficulties of translating pen and paper RPG adventures to the electronic realm.

I own "Neverwinter Nights" and have dabbled with building and scripting modules in its toolset. I never moved beyond the dabble stage because writing a PnP adventure usually takes about twelve hours, and you'll need to add another twenty or more to get that online. But the author raises other issues, and they're worth looking at.

Steele begins by blaming MMORPGs for the lack of roleplaying, and this I buy. Roleplaying via text isn't easy. How many professional actors do you know who work in the medium of text messaging?

Steele's group of PnP buddies logged into his online adventure and began slaughtering every woodland creature they could find, causing the druid to attack them. This could easily have happened in the realm of Mountain Dew and polyhedral dice, like relying on the players not hunting for venison and making the druid the only source of critical information, but the pressing question is, "Would they have been so inclined to kill those deer if they were rolling dice?" I agree with Steele that they wouldn't, even though his explanation for this behavior appears to be "Blame the players."

At that moment, I felt that the problem with computer roleplaying games wasn't the games. It was the players. They just didn't get it. Here I was with friends who were perfectly good tools for executing my storylines in the living room, but put them behind a keyboard and they simply couldn't be bothered to try and do what they were supposed to.

So it's their fault? You wrote the adventure and you were running it, so sorry, Mr. Steele, but you're a "perfectly good tool" for thinking that way and that blame hat fits you nicely. The greatest strength and weakness of Interactive Fiction remains just that. You don't control the players because they share authorship with you, and if you didn't anticipate them doing something and you fail to work around it after the fact, then pull the hat down over your eyes.

The most likely reason the players went aggro, I reckon, comes down to two factors: convenience and flash. Rolling dice and calculating to-hit scores takes time, so much time that a battle that might take an hour in PnP Land takes a couple of minutes (or less) on the PC. Since the computer handles the computation, players feel more free to unsheath the sword and let loose. It's like having a designated driver who never complains about staying dry ... he doesn't mind so bottoms up!

We're primarily visual creatures. When we greet each other we start by making eye contact, not sniffing, so we like flashy eye candy, and today's PCs and powerful consoles deliver more of it, and those eye-popping spell effects aren't going to cast themselves. You want to see the pretty fireball? You're going to need to try and kill something with it. It's as simple as that. Wired games provide a visceral incentive for combat.

So, what should people like Steele do about this? For starters, know your players. I personally don't get jollies from blowing shit up, but if they do, then either give that to them or don't play online with them. If you're going for less hack-n-slash, conference them into a Skype call to encourage roleplaying. As the GM, the voice call will also allow you to give a real voice to the NPCs, saving you from having to type dialog trees for hours.

But better yet, if you're lucky enough to have your friends live near enough, get around a table and see each others faces. It's old fashioned, but it's some of the best exercise your imagination can get.


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