Rolling a 20 with a joypad
What defines a good tabletop role-playing session is its ability to put you right at the centre of exhilarating fantastical adventures through shared storytelling. It’s a social pastime where the only requirement is to have fun. The rules are interpreted as the game master sees fit and in a way that suits the play style of the entire group.
Sometimes, a session will be cancelled or maybe your fellow gamers will not all be able to meet for a planned evening of dice rolling. When life gets in the way of certain hobbies, we often resort to substitutes to get our fix. When this happens, many of us turn to another form of role-playing games: the video game kind.
RPGs of a different flavour
For many people, video games are just quick, futile distractions that require bashing buttons on a game pad or doing much more complicated things with a keyboard than a spreadsheet requires. Hopefully, they have also been recognized for their ability to help kids and grown-ups learn and to offer deep & immersive experiences. They have also proven that they can be powerful storytelling devices that engage players in different ways than movies or books.
For players of video games, ranging from casual to hardcore, the variety of game types defines the experience to be had: puzzle, platform, adventure, worker placement, strategy, FPS, point and click, simulation, etc. There are many, many ways you can play. Today, we shall only focus on one: the action RPG or the open world action adventure game, as it is being referred to nowadays. If we were to consider a setting akin to fantasy tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder or Dungeon World, the following games would come to mind: The Elder’s Scroll - Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There are plenty of other games that one could list. The Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted series as well as The Last of Us also come to mind but as my ramblings are always grounded in my first-hand experience, I decided to focus on a few games that I have actually been playing of late. While some of the later games I have mentioned have pushed the limits of storytelling in video games even further, the core concepts are identical. Ultimately, they are always constricted by the limitations of their medium, much in the same way cinema is. This isn’t a bad thing from a storytelling point of view, it’s just a fact. Once we accept that games, books, movies and video games are all very different media, we can start enjoying them for what they are; rather than wanting them to be more or something they are not.
Action RPGs are a type of adventure game that borrows a lot of its mechanics from their pen & paper counterpart. Typically, they will require you to manage an exhaustive inventory of items, from equipment such as armour and weapons to items that can be combined or used, and food to replenish your character’s vitality. Instead of having a number of lives as is common practice in platform games, your ability to take damage is measured in Hit Points (HP), just like in tabletop games. If it is reduced to 0, your character dies, only to be brought back to life and resume the adventure from your last save. Abilities such as Endurance, Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity and more are maybe only implied or simplified but they almost always play a role in determining the outcome of an action or effect of an item. Instead of having to roll dice and do math to determine whether your blows inflict damage and to what extent, the calculations are hidden and happen in real time, as the action takes place.
Video game inventories can prove to be much more exhaustive than their TTRPG counterparts but they often provide a fun mechanic that consists in combining items or even cooking with them, such as in Breath of the Wild (above)
Managing your equipment and inventory is also a big part of the experience but it is experienced in a gamey manner. Because the focus is on action and adventure, this never over-burdens the game with statistics and micro management in the way much more complex point and click RPGS can (these are a different kind of game altogether, one that we will not address here today).
Another similarity between these open world action adventure video games and their tabletop counterparts is in the context: you take on the role of one person, the main protagonist and are faced with challenges, decisions and events that will drive the narrative forward, bringing it ultimately to its conclusion. As you progress, your skills will improve and you will gain better equipment. The plot will develop and as you follow it, you unravel secrets and twists that make for a memorable adventure.
Unlike games of pen & paper, however, you are never really completely in control. Many modern games offer a variety of outcomes and endings but everything is more or less pre-determined and scripted in advance. From a storytelling perspective, video game RPGs have a lot more in common with film or literature. Their primary component is interactivity but your impact on the story is alway determined by what the story requires. It’s a little bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark: you are Indiana Jones, the main protagonist and at the centre of the story but you have little impact or choice on its eventual outcome. Nothing you do that isn’t scripted will truly make a difference. That is why creating compelling stories is so important for games like that. If it is engrossing, the player will not mind going along with it!
Confrontations are often epic in both video games and pen & paper adventures. They are best enjoyed when the investigating and adventuring aspects provide as much of a way of driving the plot forward as the action. Dragon's Dogma Dark Arisen (above) handles all these storytelling elements with flair!
That aspect of storytelling is still what makes tabletop role-playing games so unique and fascinating: you can literally do anything that the physics of the game world allow. Every choice is up to you and the members of your party. A typical example is when a game master carefully plants adventure seeds and hooks for the players to catch on to, only for them to decide to investigate a small and irrelevant detail that leads them in the opposite direction. This gives the GM no other option than to improvise for the rest of the evening, either trying to get the players back on the tracks of the planned adventure or, as hopefully is more often the case, let the story develop organically until they can write a new adventure based on the latest developments. You all create the story together, not the game.
Many video games offer wide open ended worlds for players to venture in and find the threads that will guide them through the story. Skyrim, Dark Arisen or Breath of the Wild, to take a few examples I have recently played, do this very, very well. They do so, by giving the player as much freedom as possible. You could spend the majority of your time running errands and fulfilling side quests. Even though there is nothing forcing you to do so, you will, however, always get to a point where you have to complete a story milestone.
This is where great stories define these experiences and make them truly compelling. You are going along with the story because you want to find out what happens next. Just like a great page turner or a binge worthy TV series, you tag along because of your enjoyment of the narrative and all of its components, despite the fact that the choice isn’t really yours.
As adults, we can be a tad too logical and rational when we evaluate or analyze forms of entertainment. It is my opinion that not everything we see and hear needs to be taken apart and judged. Often, I just enjoy things for what they are and refrain from the temptations of looking for additional layers of meaning and justifications that simply aren’t there. Kids have this ability of taking things at face value and being able to just tell you how they see the world in front of them. This doesn’t mean they cannot be critical, on the contrary. I find that they have an honesty that is easy to ignore or forget with the passing of the years.
I asked my kids, who are respectively 11 and 13 and who both play D&D with me as their Dungeon Master to tell me 5 things they enjoy about tabletop role-playing games and 5 about video game action RPGs. I didn’t want to know if they liked one more than the other or what they didn’t like about them. I purely wanted them to focus on the positives of each. Here’s what I got back from them.
Kid 1 (11 years old)
What I like about D&D:
What I like about video game RPGs:
Kid 2 (13 years old)
What I like about D&D:
What I like about video game RPGs:
Obviously, it’s easier for me to understand some of the answers as they are my own children. Some answers might seem weird or inaccurate but I can see where they’re coming from and how they fit in their specific context.
Some answers refer directly to the games’ mechanics and how enjoyable they can make the experience. My son enjoys combat in D&D and seeing how their actions and dice rolls determine the outcome alongside tactics. His sister enjoys the fact that you can plan things out and discuss options before taking action. Other aspects they enjoy have purely to do with the exhilarating nature of video games and more typically, games with open worlds where you can run on rooftops and do parkour! In both cases we fall into the gaming aspects that are typical of tabletop and video games respectively.
It’s definitely nice that they are conscious of my efforts as a DM, and that I strive to use the TTRPG platform as a learning tool and a playground, for them as much as myself. A video game can do a lot of things, but ultimately it is all determined by the limitations of what has been programmed. When you play a pen & paper role-playing game, the sky is literally the limit! And including more puzzles is something I apparently will need to do for our future sessions!
I don’t think one should feel they have to choose allegiance to one form of role-playing or another. There are also more takes on the genre, such as Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) or Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMORPG), which I have no real first hand experience with. Personally, and maybe a lot of it had to do with the era this took place in, I turned to video games when I couldn’t find a group to play with. I don’t see them as a better hobby and, especially nowadays, I really don’t think I have to choose one over the other. They both offer a very different experience and are rewarding in completely different ways. Yet, they somehow scratch that itch of escaping to imaginary realms and taking part in crazy adventures that stimulate my creativity!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.