Pen and Paper versus Computer / Console RPGs

One common complaint about RPGs on computers or consoles is that it doesn’t replicate the pen and paper experience.  I think this is  a curious complaint.  After all, obviously you can’t replicate the way a game master modifies a game and runs a game against players in real time.  The first problem is the multiplicity of options.  A game master, for example, may say that you can negotiate with the boatman if you try a logical set of actions.  The game can only have so many options, and may have a complex scenario that depends on your inability to do so.  The second problem is edge case scenarios.  Most people don’t punch a king in the nose.  However, due to the multiplicity of options, your character may be a character who punches kings in the nose and has a very good reason.  A game master would be prepared for this.  The game, however, cannot.

Other than his goals, your hero in Suikoden is mostly a blank slate. The NPC characters each have their personality quirks. The game begins talking about changing fate, and your fate in the game is mostly predetermined.

So, you say, RPGs on a computer and console are not RPGs?  Well, I think that’s an unfair assumption.  After all, there are games where a game master would simply say, “No, this isn’t the story for your King Punching Captain.”  There are games where all roads lead to Rome, so to speak, and your choices purely end up with you going to the same set pieces.  There’s games where no matter how clever you are, there’s one way to solve something.  Now, you can argue that a limited game like this isn’t showing the full possibilities of a pen and paper RPG, and that’s absolutely true.  Does this mean the game is terrible?  No.

Wild ARMs IV, like most of the series, has an anime feel to the game design. Your characters, their issues, and how they feel about each other are predetermined by the game.

Another complaint is that preset characters prevent you from “role playing” a character.  Quite often, there’s an optimal route (have the hero be nice to the heroine, and you get benefits, say.)  Let’s say you’re playing a game, and you’re told to make a heroic detective.  The game is quite likely to give you interesting results from playing a heroic detective, and uninteresting or negative results from playing another type of person.  Now, you may find that a heroic detective is incredibly dull, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not roleplaying the detective.  You’re simply not enjoying the character, or the scenario.  A preset character works much the same way.  You are in a role, and given choices, and the plot revolves around these choices.  The plot branches may amount to “sub-optimal” and “optimal” results, but the plot does revolve around that character.  Since most games do not have the word count to tell you what a character thinks, you can still make up your narrative about the reluctant hero, say, as you go through the actions.

Your planned character type is pretty irrelevant in Oblivion, since you have to pick weak skills to control your leveling. The "best" plot line in the game involves a group of assassins, so playing a paladin type will mean you miss out on some of the best quests in the game.

In other games, none of the playable characters are preset, but you have limited reactions to help show what their personality is like.  This tends to amount to “KillDeath BabyEater” and “Angelic Hugstime” in older games, and often the more complex characters are NPCs which interact with the playable characters.  This does provide a more “individual” character, but you still are limited by the number of options the game can present.  Basically, instead of playing heroic detective, you’re playing Jane Doe, with rewards and plot threads for Heroic Detective, Detective, and Evil Detective.  If “Heroic Detective” is better than all the other options, then the game is simply offering an illusion of other options for a different, but less fun experience.

The Tales series tends to have skits between characters, and a realtime battle system involving strategic use of the party's attacks. Half the fun of the game is finding out how a character plays in battle, and seeing the kind of interactions the character has with the plot.

In my mind, instead of focusing on the number of options and the kind of character you can play, it might be better to look at what a computer / console RPG tends to offer.  You tend to get a specific world view or plot line in a computer or console RPG.  Where a game master might not bother with tons of back story or complex relationships and betrayals, a game can set up this information for the interested player.  You can’t promise that, say, your spy will be a great character and fool the other players, but you can make a game where there is a well written spy who does fool the other characters.  If the player buys into the story, you have a plot-line that would be almost impossible to run perfectly in a pen and paper RPG.

While it resembles a board game, Unlimited Saga requires a great deal of grinding if you want to optimize your characters. Trying to game the system mostly involves obsessive repetitions of actions, and the depth of randomness in the game would make it unpleasant to run for the game master.

A computer or console RPG offers endless play and the chance for obsessive character management.  Other players and the game master probably have no interest in your fixations on the .1% improvement on your shiny earring, but a game can reward it.  The game master doesn’t want you to fight a flotilla of imps to  make the big bad guy in the area be a pushover.  A game often doesn’t care if you want to break the difficulty.

This WWI dogtag was modified to have a hidden letter for my Spirit of the Century game.

I’m running a pen and paper game right now.  It’s based on a fairly light system (FATE, using Spirit of the Century rules,) and is aimed to be a kind of fluffy steampunk escapade.  My plotlines are 99% determined by the other characters.  One character has a grinning maniac as his main enemy, so this grinning maniac shows up a lot in the game.  Another character is hunted by creepy doppelgangers sent in by Rasputin.  Obviously, to include this, Russian characters and doppelgangers need to be involved.  I can’t make a pen and paper style console version of this specifically due to the individuality of the plot.  If you didn’t have the Rasputin connection, the Russian characters would not be relevant.  If I was to make a console version of this game, I would vastly prefer a game that set up each character and their issues, and then set them free to explore the plot, or had a range of possible plots that a character could explore.  If I did not force the characters to be the same, it would be impossible for the basic web of the plot to be as effective.

All in all, I think pen and paper RPGs have a specific role that computer and console games cannot easily fill.  These RPGs are customizeable, full of multiple ways to play them, but simple enough to be run (often) by a single person.  They are designed to do short one-shot events or long campaigns.  The rules have to be complex enough to be fun to interact with, but simple enough to be learned in a reasonable time.  A computer or console game can hide a lot of tedious calculations behind a pretty interface, and offer a polished, but less customizeable world.

  1. Giauz’s avatar

    Hope you still keep up with this site because the article is great. When I can I will ask The Crpg Addict to take a look. Maybe he will even give Lost Odyssey another try.

  2. Rav’s avatar

    The CRPG Addict has a very neat website (assuming I found the right one.) I suspect that no persuasion could make the author enjoy Lost Odyssey. After all, if a game doesn’t give the “fun” that you want, it’s not going to be fun. If I had a more modern system, I’d enjoy checking out Lost Odyssey. Unfortunately, I can not. What I’ve heard about the game sounds interesting.

    I wonder what he’d think of Unlimited Saga. It’s a bad game, but it really does feel like a Japanese pen and paper game, run by a guy who can’t speak your language. Unfortunately, the bad elements outshine the charm a lot of the time.

    Wizardry on the PS2 might be another appealing option. It has some really attractive oil painting like sketches of the characters (done by the same guy that did a lot of the Nintendo Power versions of Link, FFIV, FF, and the like.) Gameplay feels a lot like a more modern and story heavy version of Wizardry. It lacks some of the unforgiving difficulty of the earlier games. It’s also dirt cheap, which is a benefit.


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