This wasn’t the article I intended to write today. I intended to write my long overdue Realms of Cthulu review, since I played Savage Worlds with Sean Preston and Sean Patrick Fannon at Con On The Cob and now feel familiar enough with Savage Worlds to review it. But Martin’s article got me thinking, which is always a mixed blessing, and I got this one big question in my head: Is tabletop roleplaying going to survive in the digital age?
Roleplaying Is Relatively Young
When you think about our current concept of tabletop roleplaying games, the field isn’t that old. Board games like Senet have been around since the time of the Egyptians (3,500 BC according to Wikipedia). The modern concept of roleplaying games, not counting improv and theatre games, evolved in the late 1960s and hit the boom in the 1970s when Gygax and Arneson descended from the holy d20 and gifted us with the ability to roll crits. When we are talking about the field of gaming, roleplaying games are the baby on the block, still being under 50 years old.
Like Everything Else, The Digital Age Is Providing New Tools
Martin’s article is timely. It coincides with the release of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center’s demo of D&D using the Microsoft Surface table. Click that link if you haven’t seen this yet. You need to see it. WotC’s D&D Insider and similar offerings, like the Dungeon Mastering Tools from Dungeonmastering.com, are providing more options to deal with a details heavy game. This parallels what is happening in many other sectors of the world. Life becomes more complex and evolution isn’t keeping up fast enough for mankind. It is an inevitable that our gaming, which has been limited to the world of the printed page and spoken word, will be changed by the technology of the day.
Is It Leaving Room For The Roleplaying Though?
I’m going to say something to stop some of the responses right now. As detailed and complex as any game can be, the roleplaying is something done by the players and not the rules. Any game can have roleplaying because the players do it. The question is, does the new wave of technological advancement encourage the roleplaying element? If a game system becomes so complex that you are required to use a computer to be able to viably play the game, are you going to have the mental space to focus on the social elements of the game?
Does the inclusion of the technological element free up some space so you can focus on the roleplaying or does it turn your mind in another direction and hinder it. The biggest thing I saw in the Microsoft Surface D&D Demo that scared the hell out of me was the use of the digital mini. Why? The slippery slope. For now it is just a mini. A few good animators and it becomes a digital enemy with its own set of animations. If you can click a button and have your character make a sword swing why bother describing it? Why bother attempting something that doesn’t fit into the computers purview? Why bother attempting something that isn’t explicitly explained in the rules that are printed out on the cards?
The chief complaint that I’ve heard from many many people about 4e is that it feels like a videogame. I’m definitely not against the inclusion of digital elements at the gaming table, I just wonder about the line where we realize we are just playing video games.
The Pendulum Swing
One thing that must be remembered is that the more complex and technical games get, the more people look to fill the void by going in the opposite direction. A village of moderates breeds more moderates, while a village of extremists breeds opposing extremists. Roleplaying games aren’t limited to one way of doing things. There is no one system to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. As far as some roleplaying swings in one direction, so to will it swing in the other direction. Communities like The Forge, Indie Press Revolution, Story Games, and a slew of independent designers will keep developing different types of games that don’t fit in with the prevailing wind. Venues like Drive Thru RPG and RPG Now, as well as the other sites run by OneBookShelf.com, provide a way for projects without the funding of the big boys to get out to the masses. A definite case of the digital pendulum swinging towards the side of roleplaying.
Will tabletop roleplaying survive? I don’t know. I think computer games will become more interactive, even to the point that they become holodeck-like scenarios. The element of roleplaying will still be present but different. It will certainly modify as technology changes. The only answer I can think of is that time will tell. We can see trends beginning to form, but without knowing what the next innovation is we can’t tell how things will play out. If procedurally generated animations are perfected and a player can describe her character actions only to have the game computer lovingly render them in digital glory, then roleplaying becomes something entirely new. There is no way to know for sure. What do you think? The answer to the question will be found in the discussions we have about roleplaying over the next generation of changes.