Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tabletop RPGs offer living, infinite worlds

I enjoy computer RPGs (CRPGs) like Skyrim, but one can't escape their finite maps or even just pick up a grain of sand. Tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) lack those limits.

TTRPGs don't just offer a 'higher level' of world detail than CRPGs. They offer practically *infinite* world detail. I teleport past the 'impassable' mountains, exploring the great continent beyond. I reach an ocean; I build a boat and sail to new lands. I circle the globe, and look to the stars. I travel to entire new planets, exploring them each in detail. I pick up three grains of sand. What do they look like? What minerals are they made out of? What are their histories? I shrink down, and explore their surfaces as if they were entire alien worlds. I shrink down further, and break off individual molecules with my hands. There is no limit on the breadth or level of detail to which a TTRPG can go. This is absolutely extraordinary, and IMO it doesn't get enough attention.

CRPGs also lack mechanics for an almost infinite number of things which can easily be attempted within a TTRPG. In most CRPGs, you can’t chop down a door even if you’re carrying an axe. In a TTRPG, you can easily attempt that – whether there’s a written rule for it or not. You can also tell the GM you're measuring that door to find out its exact height and width. You can ask what kind of wood it's made out of, and examine the grain on its planks to try and figure out what year the tree was cut down. You could try to drill a peephole through it with a dagger, and on and on. Because in a TTRPG *that door is a real door with all of the characteristics of a real door*. You are in a real world, where things behave like real things. It is going to be a long time until CRPGs get anywhere near that level of immersion. If ever.

This is not an attack on CRPGs. Like I said, I enjoy them *and* I enjoy TTRPGs. I’m bringing up some of the limitations of CRPGs in order to highlight the unique, practical strengths of TTRPGs.

TTRPG GMs need to understand, and own, these astonishing capabilities. I’ve used the example of picking up, examining, and sorting three grains of sand - which would be incredibly irritating if my players actually did it. The point is that they *could*, and dealing with that is part of the GM's job. Which is how this post ties into, and is a continuation of, my previous post about what a GM is.

A GM who's just running a cookie cutter out of the box adventure, and not breathing life into it by treating every pebble and blade of grass whose existence is implied (but not specifically described) within it as an equally real detail, and limiting their players’ actions to things which are specifically covered by the written rules,  is failing to take advantage of the major things which make TTRPGs uniquely awesome in the first place.


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