Home > RPGs as a Medium > Computer RPGs Cause Bad Habits

Computer RPGs Cause Bad Habits

First of all, computer RPGs are good.  Let’s just get that clear from the start.  In fact, some of my best friends are computer RPGs.    But we all know that they are a pale imitation of the tabletop hobby.  They’re a cheap high to get you by until your next hit of the real thing.  The biggest virtue of computer RPGs is their availability.  You don’t need a group of friends or a GM to play.  You don’t have to set aside time and coordinate schedules.  You just need a console or a computer and a game.

Because of this ready availability, there are a lot of people who have played computer RPGs that have never (or seldom) played tabletop games.  While most of the differences between them are apparent, and people can adapt accordingly, there are a few subtle behaviors that video games instill and reinforce that can be disruptive at the game table.*

Breaking the Game is Bad

The single defining characteristic of computer RPGs is that your character gains experience and gets better over time.  In most games, they also gain new and better equipment and/or new abilities and powers.  If it’s a good game, the choices that you make about which equipment to use and which abilities to develop are meaningful choices, which means that some combinations are more effective than others.

This is a really great system, because it rewards the player in two ways.  One, their character is more effective and more powerful, and as we’ve mentioned a few times here at Maximizing Rockmost, being good at things is fun.  Two, the player gets a sense of accomplishment because they “solved the puzzle” of which choices were good ones.  Essentially, most computer RPGs have a puzzle element built in to them.

When they carry this tendency into the tabletop game, things can get a bit hairy.  The rules systems that govern tabletop games are, on the surface, very similar to a video game.  The player makes choices about which abilities and/or equipment to use, and some of those choices are more effective than others.  If, however, one of your players seeks to “break” the system by exploiting holes in the rules or combinations that are particularly powerful (often called min-maxing) it can break the play experience.

One way that it breaks the experience is that it breaks the verisimilitude of the experience.  Abusive skill choices don’t tend to be “I’ll play a traditional knight with a sword and a shield.”  They tend to be more like “I’ll play a multi-classed fighter/conjurer with a specialization in force magic and dual-handed scimitars.”  Since the player is optimizing for effectiveness instead of flavor, they create a character that doesn’t mesh with the setting.  It’s jarring, and it makes it harder for all of the players (especially the person playing the maximized character) to achieve that optimal state where you lose yourself in the story and forget that you’re a bunch of people sitting around a table rolling dice.

The other way that it’s jarring is that when a player manages to break the game, they are usually significantly overpowered compared to the other players.  This makes for really miserable gameplay.  Either the GM keeps sending bad guys at the players that the fairly-built characters can deal with and the broken character dispatches effortlessly, or he sends suped-up bad guys that challenge the broken guy and makes the other players pretty much useless.

The World Does Not Revolve Around You

Do you know who the single most important person in a computer RPG is?  Your character.  In the video game, the goal is to make sure that you, the single player, have the best experience possible.  This is, without a doubt, a good thing. When you sit down to play the tabletop game, however, you are no longer the most important person.  There are some number of other players there with you, and their experience matters as well.

This seems obvious at first glance, but it’s an easy thing for people to lose sight of.  What’s fun for one player might not be fun for anyone else, and they may be so wrapped up in their fun that they don’t notice that everyone else is miserable.   This is obviously bad for the other players, but I also think that it’s bad for the problem player as well.  The best moments of the tabletop hobby are the times when everyone is contributing and having fun.  I strongly believe that player is having less than the optimal experience – by doing what they find fun.

A Totally Different Animal

The reason that computer RPGs teach bad habits is that tabletop role-playing games have a dirty secret – they’re not actually games.   In a game, someone wins and someone loses.  In a tabletop RPG, the players aren’t competing with one another, and they (hopefully) aren’t competing with the GM.  Tabletop RPGs are their own unique thing, a strange combination of improvisational storytelling and puzzle-solving and probability.  It’s an odd combination, but a highly successful one.   That combination requires other people to work, and so when you port it to a video game some things are lost in the translation.


*I’m explicitly not talking about MMOs here.  I’m sure that they have their own set of interesting foibles and habits, but I don’t know enough to espouse on them.

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Categories: RPGs as a Medium
  1. Ben
    December 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Your last point is really salient, I think. Made me realize that the system we both love so much, GURPS, does not have “game” in the title. It’s a Role Playing System. I wonder if that was actually a conscious choice or, anyway, has become a part of the philosophy at SJGames which comes through in the writing and rules and examples in the GURPS books and contributes to why we like the system so much.

  1. December 14, 2010 at 7:10 pm

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