Saturday, August 11, 2012

What makes a tabletop RPG "videogamey"?

One vague criticism that's often leveled against D&D in the past decade is that it's "videogamey", whether it was third edition being like Diablo or 4th edition being like World of Warcraft. But what does this criticism mean?
On the surface, it seems to be an emotional way of saying "I don't like it." But I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think it all comes down to creativity at a personal level.
First, of course D&D (or any tabletop RPG) is going to be like a videogame, because many aspects of RPG videogames were derived from D&D in the first place. In fact, if you go back to the 80s and 90s you'll find D&D video games. Surely those were videogamey? Let's move beyond that though.
  • A tabletop RPG relies on gamemaster creativity, a video game does not.
This gets at one of the core grognard complaints, that third and fourth edition reduce the role of the DM to a glorified calculator, with concepts like wealth-by-level, XP budgets, and the like. I don't mean to imply that earlier editions of the game didn't have crazy subsystems or nit-picky rules for things like falling damage, but the trend towards balanced encounters and treasure parceling is one way in which D&D might feel videogamey.
  • A tabletop RPG relies on player creativity, a video games does not.
I distinctly remember playing a intro 4e game with some friends, and crushing one of their souls as the DM when he wanted to charge an enemy and push him through the window of a cottage. Sure, it can be done in 4e, but if you want to follow the rules its hard to see how that desired action should be implemented. Conversely, when all your options are laying out in front of you in the form of power cards, you tend to think in terms of those categories, rather than going outside the box. So the proliferation of fixed powers is one way that makes recent editions of D&D feel videogamey.
  • A videogame is repetitive, D&D is not.
This criticism goes along with the criticism of the powers system from 4e and some of the class features of third edition. Video games tend to have either unlimited magic attacks or a spell point system, so that you blast away repeatedly with your best attacks. You kill the same set of enemies over and over again in the hopes that they drop better items. You wander around the same maze, searching for fruit and using your power-ups to defeat your ghostly enemies each level. Tabletop RPGs do repetitive things, but in more creative ways. Crucially, in a tabletop RPG, player creativity lessens repetitiveness, or at least it has the potential to do so.

The criticism of videogameyness, then, is really a criticism for having too many spelled out rules. Or at least that's one reasonable and logical component of the criticism. Going back to those old D&D video games, you see it there too. Focusing on the mechanical level, attacks--both magical and mundane--have only one fixed effect. Unless the programmers code it, you can't hide up on that crumbling wall and rain down death on the kobolds from above. Any computer adaptation of D&D loses a lot of spontaneous creativity on the part of the player and DM. It gains some vital benefits: video games do not require a troop of friends and a parent's basement (or other suitable playspace).

Now, as a DM, I loved the encounter building in 4e. It was, by and large, easy. Especially with the online tools, you could easily sort through things and find a slew of appropriate monsters, traps, and hazards with ease. The d20srd has some searchability, so third edition and pathfinder have some of the same options, though I don't find the searching or encounter building to be quite as nice as 4e.
Is there a solution to this problem? I think so. Consider the hypothetical fighter. People complain that he has a lack of options, but I think their complaint is that its not clear what a fighter should be able to do besides swing his sword. Learning distinct maneuvers to disarm, bullrush, knock someone down, etc. is tedious, and distinct mechanisms for that will lead to accusations of videogaminess. It also shouldn't be required that people constantly push their enemies with their basic attacks, which is one fault of 4e. But listing options and plausible effects of those options (e.g. pushing someone in combat might knock them back five feet under normal conditions) will spark some creativity. And adding one more option, along the lines of "Preform some other awesome feat" in addition to "Disarm", "Trip", "Bullrush", and the like might just help remind people to think outside the box, while at the same time giving them some notion of the size and shape of the box.

If this approach is adopted, the problems people see with the magic of 4e (and to a lesser extend 3.5) might rectify themselves as well. In 4e, a wizard might use scorching burst all day long and never start his opponent's hair on fire or damage their priceless tome implement. Some of that good immersive verisimilitude gets lost in those mechanical descriptions. But some general advice for keywords (spells with the fire keyword might start fires), and creative uses for these spells may return en masse. This is the sort of spontaneous creativity that people play RPGs for, and why a computer game--at least in the foreseeable future--just can't compete. When rules systems are seen as emulating computer games in this way (e.g. fixed and exhaustively defined options which may be divorced from any secondary effects), the criticism of videogaminess is probably valid.

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