The Table Top

The Table Top: Videogames Vs. Table Top Games

Warning, this post has links to TVTropes.  You have been warned.

When Microsoft released their Xbox, and afterwards the Xbox 360, they had a very wise look at marketing.  They weren't looking to compete with Nintendo and Sony, the other major consoles, they were looking to compete with entertainment.  Movies, books, television, anything you could spend free time and money on, Microsoft saw as competition.  This strategy obviously worked brilliantly for them, as they've defeated both Nintendo and Sony, and in many ways removed the idea of exclusive titles from the minds of video game players.  This article isn't about that though, rather, it's about the basic differences between the fun of Table Top RPGs and videogames, as I see them anyway.

As I said in my last article, Table Top games and my interest in them spilled out of my interest in videogames, in a rather indirect way but if I'd never had that NES, I don't think I'd ever make the jump to being a Dungeon Master.  And when we were younger, table top games were just seen as another thing we could be doing.  When we got a new videogame, whatever table top game we were playing, be it Star Wars or Dungeons and Dragons or even Dragon Ball Z took a back seat while we devoured the new thing.  We always came back to Table Top RPGs though, even when new videogames would eventually become old news.  Often we felt a need to restart with new characters, but we always went back.  There was something in those games you just couldn't find in videogames.

Back in the days of the N64 and prior, I might have said one of these elements was imagination.  Graphics were quite limited, while the Nintendo 64 looked amazing at the time, going back to it, it can be hard to remember how that was ever acceptable, let along considered cutting edge.  A Table Top game however, is mostly pictured through imagination.  This is supplemented by various bits of art, and novel like descriptions from the game master and players, but as the old cliche goes, the power of the imagination is unlimited.  However, we didn't really start playing Dungeons and Dragons until the Game Cube and Play Station 2 had cozy spots in our homes, so it was something more then that.

One of the hardest things about teaching people coming into the RPG hobby is one of the first questions they ask.  "What can I do?"  It seems simple and easy, but the answer is "Anything".  "Anything... like can I flap my arms and fly away?"  Usually the answer to that is no, it depends on the world you're in.  The more qualified answer is that you can "try" anything, and it's up to a third party, either the Game Master or the dice, to determine if you succeed.  Timid personalities will let other people in the game dictate what they do.  They might here "you're the fighter, you just hit things."  While the person saying it means well, they're trying to express that hitting things is what they're good at, many players will hear this, and think like a videogame.  Their creativity will shut off, and they'll treat it like a game with only an attack button.

But that ability to do literally anything is one of Table Top gaming's greatest strengths over videogames.  New GMs are often flustered by the way that their players will prod at their worlds.  Trying to find places where things will break, killing the big bad when he's supposed to just be taunting them or giving them exposition or trying to convince one of the big powerful NPCs to deal with a problem so the players don't have to are just the most common examples.  And while these are irritating, especially when they're done just for the sake of breaking the game, they can end up making it much better. 

In fact, I've of the opinion that the pervasiveness of video games into pop culture have probably harmed the Table Top gaming scene, especially for new players.  There's a lot of overlap in the hobbies, they both cater to power fantasy enthusiasts, and both put you in direct control of the "hero".  However, videogames require very strict rules, after all, the entire world is defined by them.  Table Top games can be a little more loose, it might make a better story if you're able to talk down or team up with the villain instead of having to kill him for example.  Most videogames won't allow this option, even more open RPGs like Mass Effect can only bend the story so far.  Saren has to die at the end, you can influence how that goes down and what his final moments are like, but you can't save him and join his crew, nor can you decide to help the Reapers for the next part.  That's fine for a videogame there are only so many branching choices a game can offer, but it can put Table Top players in a mindset that they have to go to the villains base, kill his minions, then kill him and it makes any other outcome seem like a failure state.

Speaking of Mass Effect, as videogames have gotten more and more complex, with better and better graphics, one of the main advantages that Table Top games are thought to have now is the ability to tailor a story to a group.  Part of this is that the Game Master, who has the most control over the direction of the story, has instant feed back from the rest of the group.  He can see the eyes rolling, or hear the players making fun of his tropes, and if he's savvy, turn them around.  Imagine if mid way through Mass Effect 3, the game suddenly realized that you were tired of all the fetch quests, or that you thought the Star Child plot was dumb, or what you really wanted was another villain like Saren, and it was able to turn around and give that to you.  The new ending Bioware released was seen as pandering, but in a Table Top RPG you can change things around before the players even realized anything changed at all.

Episodic gaming, which seems to have more downsides then upsides these days, may be a way to start to fix this.  Unfortunately, Mass Effect, while not episodic, was presented in three segments, and my opinion, as well as most of the opinions I've heard believe that each installment was a little bit worse than the last.  The first introduced a new, unique science fiction world that included bits of Star Trek, Star Wars and Buck Roger without feeling too much like any of them.  It introduced an interesting political system, a great Bioware villain and while the twist wasn't the best the company has ever given us, it set up and dangerous new threat to deal with in future installments.  It was both a perfect contained story and it got you excited for the next episode.

The second episodes tried something new.  The focus was on the characters, and while two of the old crew returned, they mostly focused on a new cast.  This was rather hit and miss, most people found Miranda caustic, and Jacob boring, but all of the characters were "strong" in their way, and it all built up to a very novel, and in my mind very exciting ending.  A suicide mission, where depending on how loyal your crew was and what duties they were assigned, some would likely not come back.  Unfortunately, the main "plot" is absolutely terrible, and it will often interrupt your bonding experiences with the crew due to its "urgency".  It's a rant for another time though.  I'll admit, I never actually played Mass Effect 3, but everything I heard was that they threw the best parts of 2 out like they almost never happened, kept the terrible "villain" and had a poor ending.  Rather then listen to their audience (or the portion that agreed with me that the characters were strong but the story weak) they went ahead with their story and... well they lost at least one customer in me.

As a Game Master, I'd like to say that I'd never let a group of players experience Mass Effect 3 if their reactions to 2 were cold, and that I'd for sure change the ending if it got the reaction most people gave it.  That said... sometimes you just want to try and make a story work, you think it'll be good in the end, and over-commit, and no one likes the game.  That's what happened with Mass Effect.  Hopefully, more episode based games like the Walking Dead coming out in the future will take story feed back as seriously as game play feed back, and videogames can start to become a great interactive story telling medium just like table top games.

The Table Top: My Intro to Table Top Gaming

Warning This Post contains links to TVtropes.  You have been warned. 

Tyler and I have both mentioned before that we’re avid “Table Top Gamers” multiple times on the show, and some of you may be wondering, what does that really mean?  Board Games are played on a Table Top, but so are poker, games like Magic the Gathering, Warhammer 40,000 and one could even think we were referring to Pool in certain contexts.  While I believe we both have at least some interest in all of the above, what we’re really referring to is Table Top RPGs.

Some of you may still be asking; what’s a Table Top RPG?
Well, the prime example, and the short hand for most people in the hobby is Dungeons and Dragons but it goes far beyond that, and to many people, Dungeons and Dragons is an old game with a stigma they don’t want to be associated with.  For others, it’s the entirety of the hobby, and while they’re aware of other games and may have played one once or twice, they really just want to play D&D for the rest of their lives.

But I still haven’t gotten to what a Table Top RPG is or why anyone would want to play one or how they relate to videogames.  One thing me and my partner in crime share is a predilection towards rambling.  Perhaps I should start with how I got into the hobby.  I believe it started with a certain episode of Dexter’s Lab.  That said, I feel like I knew that the episode was a parody D&D even when I saw it, so it may just be one of those things I always knew about and assumed everyone did, like how if you blow into NES carts they work again, or that there are three different Robins  (Well 5 now.  6 if you count Carrie Kelly 4 if you don’t count Stephanie Brown.  Technically three again now because…. Comics are weird, let's leave it at that.)

But I didn’t seek the game out right away… for one, I didn’t have a lot of friends, and while the ones I did have were nerdy, they weren’t that nerdy, and while D&D isn’t that complex, we were probably too young to play it right at the time.  Instead, like every kid in the 90s, I got into Pokemon.  And the Pokemon Card Game.  Which lead me to the Dragon Ball Z Card Game.  Our Friendly Local Gaming Store had Dragon Ball Z card game tournaments every week.  And after each tournament, one of the older kids would run a quick session of the Dragon Ball Z RPG.  If it sounds terrible, it’s because it was.  We’d all chose a DBZ character, I was usually stuck with Chiaotzu because even Krillin was taken, but despite his special attack being to blow himself up, he was still better than Yamcha.  Every week we’d run the same battle, the “Z Fighters” Vs. Nappa, Vageta and some Saibamen.  Unlike a traditional RPG, with a game master controlling the opponents and an ongoing story, this was just that same fight, and when we had a lot of people, players would play the bad guys as well (though I still rarely got to play a character like Gohan or Piccolo and was stuck with Chiaotzu.)

This might sound like it sucks if you’re familiar with Table Top RPGs already.  And to be honest, it kind of did, the rule system for the old game is absolutely terrible.  But I loved Dragon Ball Z, so playing out the game’s classic adventures.  What fascinated me far more though, was when the person running the games told me about how there were rules to make your own characters and adventures, and I begged my mom to get me the rule book for Christmas.  When she finally did, I studied the thing, and luckily all of my friends were huge Dragon Ball Z fans, so it wasn’t hard to convince them to make characters, and I told my own stories.  Now they all followed the typical Dragon Ball Z plot, an Alien with a terrible Pun for a name and his followers attacked Earth and defeated the heroes, the heroes trained and became stronger, fought the alien again and won, then went and found the Dragon Balls so they could bring back anyone who died.  Rinse and repeat until we got bored and made new characters, and eventually until we’d broken the subpar system to the point where the game was boring enough that we just quit completely.

And the DBZ card game didn’t hold up much longer, the old tournament players went to other games, mostly Lord of the Rings which was the flavor of the month at the time, but I ended up playing a game called Yu-gi-oh.  It had Dragons, warriors, wizards and monsters, and Trap Cards, everything a kid my age could want.  And I met new friends, one of which was always carrying around a notebook.  When I asked him what was in it, he said he was statting out Yu-gi-oh cards to be used as monsters and enemies in his Dungeons and Dragons game.  My mind was blown.  My birthday was coming up, and as soon as I got my birthday money I bought a Players Hand Book.  I didn’t even want to use Yu-gi-oh monsters in my own games, just the fact that you could, that the game had so much available, had me hooked.

I didn’t even wait to own a Dungeon Masters Guide or Monster Manual, the other two “core” rule books of D&D to get started.  I knew the basics of how DMing worked and how to make monsters, and I had a few friends willing to play.  While Video Games and anime were huge influences on my early DMing, the memories from the Dragon Ball Z game filtered in as well, and my games always had a story… even if they were 10% story and 90% dungeon as things went on.  Eventually, I found a Star Wars RPG book, and we tried that and found it just as fun.

What does this have to do with Videogames though?  Well not a lot, but it’s very important to the creation of this podcast.  When I left for college, I could never get a group together willing to try D&D or the like.  My room mate was interested, but my other friends, even the super nerdy ones, one who even read Forgotten Realms novels all thought that D&D was too nerdy. 

But Dungeon Mastering was a major creative outlet for me for years, and I still had the urge to play, but I couldn’t fill that.  Until I found Fear the Boot a podcast about Table Top RPGs.  It was the first Podcast I listened to, and easily the biggest, though not only influence on Last Time on Videogames.  If you’ve any interest in Table Top RPGs go listen to it.  On second thought don’t, it’s a way better Podcast than ours with a huge back log and you might not come back.

So in honor of one of my favorite hobbies, the third Friday of every month, I’m going to write a column on Table Top RPGs and how they’ve influenced videogames.  What Videogames can learn from them, and conversely, what Table Top games should take from them.  Also, lately I’ve been tooling around with porting a very popular videogame series, one mentioned in the article, to the Table Top.  No promises, but if I decide to continue with the project, this may become a design diary of sorts for the project. Stay tuned.