Roll for inspiration: Learning from the tabletop world

By 18 January 2013 Commentary No Comments

Your party arrives in a tavern. Pushing aside a blue curtain, you see a long marble bar sweeping across the rear of the room, strewn with bottles and glasses containing colourful liquids. The tavern is quiet, with only a few patrons on swivelling stools and a canoodling couple half hidden in shadow at a table in the corner. Outside you can see the soft glow of evening sun bouncing off the Martian hills and filtering through the biodome. Vaughn the mole-man breaks from the group and orders a strawberry daiquiri. A tall, wiry fellow wearing a red Stetson approaches you and whispers one word: “Reactor”.

You punch him in the face and steal his dog.

Role-playing originated in the 16th century, as it turns out. Travelling entertainers would perform improvised dialogue using stock scenarios and characters. Who’s Line Doth it Be Regardless. At about the same time, give or take a century, Helwig, Master of Pages to the Duke of Brunswick, created a battle emulation game, which quickly evolved into the pushing of tiny metal tanks around a map that we’ve all seen in movies. Curiously, these two ideas – role-playing entertainment and simulated battle – didn’t come together until the 1970s, when Dungeons & Dragons happened to wander in and become the most popular nerd-based thing since time-travelling Mary-Sues. In contrast to the storied history of creative narrative and toy soldiers, video games only really date back to 1947, with the patenting of a game that used a cathode ray tube to simulate firing missiles at drawings.

Tabletop concepts did inevitably (and almost immediately) creep into the video game arena, particularly when we started using those vectors and pixels to tell stories rather than just make squares move. The spirit of pretending has always been there in any game that casts you as a character in a world, and an endless parade of titles wholesale rip role-playing game elements for their systems and settings. Games are indebted to role-playing systems for much of their modern complexity; most gamers have an inherent knowledge of very mechanical concepts like dexterity and health points as a result of this connection.

We’ve taken the messy guts from tabletop RPGs and implanted them into our technological marvels, rightly realising that there’s the potential to make the imaginary real. Finally those sweeping fantasy landscapes rippling with elves and dark caverns filled with hidden treasure aren’t just something Dave is describing from a book; they’re real places you can walk through. And the systems – endlessly complex balls of numerical yarn rolled and re-rolled by dedicated geeks in basements and backrooms over months and years – generally do an excellent job of hiding the Wizards of Oz from players, so you can truly feel like you’re in a world, and not a simulation.

But it’s still a mechanical connection. A system to test and retest values. Paring role-playing down to nothing but numbers and statistics manages to miss the point of the entire enterprise, as tabletop games are far from mere simulation. They’re storytelling.

Pen and paper role-play is frequently seen as a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder when it comes to gaming, but I’d wager five nerds trapped in a room that smells of cheese and book leather could come up with a story that matches or beats what the average video game writer manages. And that’s not just because most games are written with the care and thoughtfulness of a bear with a pen tied to his nose. Role-players, much like those 16th century jackanapes, can weave endless combinations of action and speech from the simplest moment. A visit to a small shop becomes an argument about the prices of fish, which snowballs into a full-blown swordfight when the shopkeep insults the player’s mother.

Obviously there are limitations when it comes to video games, these are stories that have to be decided on and programmed in advance, then controlled with no outside interaction. FFXIII‘s Vanille can’t suddenly decide to slap Hope in the face unless it was a predetermined outcome. But the key is in the role-playing tools that video games often ignore. Creating a character in Skyrim is straightforward and detailed enough, one might think: choose a race, a face and a gender identity, then go forth and forge your destiny based on what sword you like and how often you crouch. But the same pen and paper character might also decide their parentage, where they went to school, what they’re afraid of, which traumatic battle experiences gave them those scars and who their friends and enemies have been in the past. It’s these details beyond the perfunctory physical characteristics that can bring a character to life. Some games already do this, and usually to great effect. The Sims 3 lets each new Sim have a few personality quirks that lead them in certain directions, such as ‘kleptomaniac’ or ‘glutton’. Mass Effect and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines both let you set the history of your character to change either certain mechanics or aspects of the narrative – although Bloodlines removed this option before launch.

My favourite example of this kind of involved character creation comes from Dragon Age 2. While the creation of your version of Hawke was fairly standard, with eye sliders and class selections aplenty, the entire game acted as a form of character creation in and of itself. With a focused story that never moved far from your home city, much of the development in the game was around characters and their relationships. Of particular note was the game’s ability to react dynamically to your dialogue choices. As you had conversations and picked various responses ranging from sassy, to sexual, to unapologetically rude, the personality of Hawke would shift to accommodate. Suddenly you would find him or her developing a quick tongue in scripted back-and-forths, or snapping at people for no particular reason. The result was a main character I felt uncommonly fond of, given I had been building her for 40 odd hours.

There’s a general lack of this sort of proper involvement in video games. We play them, go through all the robotic gameplay motions, complete them and move to the next. We prize skill over experience, evident in discussions where games like Journey have their quality doubted because they aren’t difficult, and in the venomous voices that spit the term “accessible” the way modern American Republicans say “elitist”. Technical merit is the first thing people look for in a game, sometimes as if it’s the only thing that matters. We get better graphics, better sound and better systems, but the experiences don’t seem to evolve nearly as much.

It’s odd to see games moving to be more cinematic and linear considering games like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu are a rebellion against that very thing. Role-play is taking a world and breaking the rules. Exploring every nook and cranny and trying everything you can just to see what happens. Video games are too, theoretically. Older titles like Outcast and more recent gems like Faster Than Light have taken players to fantastic worlds and challenged expectations that we seem too willing to have met with everything else. BioShock took us under the sea to a magnificent new city run on invention and freedom of expression, where finding out Rapture’s secrets was just as important as getting the bad guy. In fact, the reveal of BioShock‘s brilliant narrative conceit pushed the game right back into standard video game territory, with a rather uninspired sequence of objectives leading to a final confrontation. The thrill of exploration and wonder was gone, with just the gameplay left to bring up the rear.

I was once involved with a tabletop game that cast me as a small girl, daughter to a family of unlikable hillbillies. All the players were given the freedom to do whatever they liked in the story, and I chose – due to my character’s predilections – to hide in the ceiling and dissect the strange, Lovecraftian objects that had emerged from the family cow. I did my best to inform the family that something was wrong, but nobody listens to a 10 year old girl (even if she does have night vision). By the end of the game it was discovered that we were all possessed by unspeakable things from beyond hell itself, and we’d been eating townspeople at night. The entire family was killed, but I managed to hide in my secret lab and convince the murderous mob I was an innocent girl corrupted by my evil parents.

My point, aside from not trusting small girls covered in blood, is that there’s a vast range of experience we’re ignoring when it comes to games. That story was constructed from very simple, mechanical rules, but the result was a complex roller coaster of emotions, exploring and unreliable narrators. If gamers and developers only learn one thing from tabletop gaming, it should be that mechanics are a means to an end, not the end itself. And maybe that nerds often know what they’re doing, so you should listen to them.

Andy Astruc

Andy Astruc

The flicker of form that lives in the corner of your vision. The smoke seeping under the door. The terror that flaps in the night. Not the messiah. Likes to write about crazy narrative concepts and time travel.

Video games are f&#king cool. Take a chance: Okay