The Limitless Potential of Pen-and-Paper Worlds

Some of the most memorable moments in gaming are when we’re surprised (and, perhaps, delighted) by some hidden layer of depth to a game. It doesn’t have to be a massive, groundbreaking idea; small touches can be eye-opening revelations for the player. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you’re warned in a mission briefing for the first level that some hostages don’t have long to live unless you defuse the situation quickly. Now, you might dawdle along the way, searching every enemy and trash can along the way, but if you take too leisurely-a pace, those people will be dead before you get there.

It’s an insignificant story detail, but it’s one that makes you think about the game on its own terms for the rest of the playthrough, lest the guys at Eidos Montreal pull the rug out from under you again. Calling out players on player-like behaviour was famously in Chrono Trigger, too, in which townsfolk testify against your in a trial if you stole their things or acted in rude ways that other JRPGs have taught us are game. In Stardew Valley, people sometimes ask you to “wipe your feet” when you come into their homes or shops. Worlds can also feel more realistic if the bits-and-pieces are laid out just right; it’s no accident that millions flock to each new Bethesda game for their “nothing nailed down” approach to game world design and patented (if buggy) approach to NPC behaviour and reactions to the player.

These details tend to amaze people because they make the game world feel that bit more believable, and it’s impressive when developers think outside the box enough to call out players for their more nonsensical learned habits. And it’s really important for games to pursue this because it really reinforces that notion of habitation, making virtual worlds feel more real and changing the way that we behave in them. These worlds are given depth.

However. Where we’re at in the games industry right now, in terms of technology, in terms of man hours, and in terms of business, it’s not entirely reasonable to expect meaningful and consistent depth from games right now. Even Bethesda, the giant that they are, seem to sacrifice a whole lot of stability for their expansive worlds, as even in that case the cracks are starting to show in their glitchy NPC behaviour and inconsistent level of interaction with the environment.

Technology is evolving all the time and I’m not alone in being very capable of looking past some glaring limitations of video games to immerse myself their worlds. And while I’ll continue to encourage and applaud advancements in game world engineering, there’s been a readily available resource for game worlds without limit for several decades, now. That resource is tabletop RPGs.

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My main experience with these games is from playing Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, and to a lesser extent Fiasco (which uses a decidedly dialled-back approach to roleplaying)- so bear in mind that the former two games are the core experiences that have spawned and shaped my opinions on pen and paper pursuits.

Boiled down into their most basic concept, tabletop RPGs are a platform for group storytelling. The DM or GM (that’s Dungeon Master or Game Master) writes a world (including locations and NPCs), and sets up a series of encounters for players to deal with on their quest. These plans must, of course, be malleable- there are no invisible walls to keep your players on track unless you railroad the heck out of them, and the mark of a good DM is not only in their writing skill but in their ability to react to players’ whims.

On the player side, you roll a character by selecting characteristics like race and class before outlining a backstory, which can be as detailed as you wish- the key is to isolate your character’s motivations. Then you move on to work out and assign your stats. A lot of people can be turned off by the number-crunching, but with a knowledgeable friend on hand you’ll be done in no time- and you’ll find it’s quite fun to shape a character’s abilities and persona. You will be spending a lot of time with them, after all.

When you’re actually playing, the interplay between player and DM begins. The DM describes the surroundings and events pertinent to what the player characters will notice, and the players describe what their characters may attempt to do given their surroundings.

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Therein lies the potentially limitless depth of tabletop RPGs: you’re free to attempt anything (within reason, of course), so your harebrained scheme to circumnavigate a massive battle by assassinating one important target might just work if you’re creative and lucky enough. And since the world is entirely in your collective minds, you can always ask the DM for more detail on parts of the environment that interest you. With a talented DM, you get as much detail as you want.

This potential for crazy, “just-might-work” improvisation gives players a level of freedom and agency that was frankly astounding to me when I played my first game of D&D back in 2012. Importantly, the system doesn’t feel broken thanks to the limitations of dice rolls and what your DM will decide is physically possible, meaning that progress feels earned and success does not come cheaply. There’s nothing quite like rolling a perfectly-timed critical success, or a devastating (and potentially hilarious) critical failure.

Some of my most fond and satisfying gaming memories came from the trials and triumphs of my characters in D&D and Shadowrun campaigns. I’ve improvised my way out of a hostage situation by telepathically throwing a grenade from my belt at my captors. I’ve cleared an entire room of enemies with a prayer to Thor and a thunderous blast of lightning. I’ve thrown a companion at a swooping hell-bird to have him strike it from the air. And I’ve won the trust of policemen in Cyberpunk Belfast by quoting Father Ted at them (“want to come through the park to grab a kebab, mate? G’waaaaan…”).

Tabletop/ pen-and-paper roleplaying games don’t have invisible walls. Your options to solve problems aren’t limited by the foresight of a rushed development team. You’re not limited to scant and dissatisfactory dialogue options. You’re not always forced to use violence as a solution. You’re not subjected to the uncanny valley. You’re limited only by your imagination, and with a good DM and some creativity you’ll earn some of the best gaming stories of your life. That’s not to say that you should replace video games, or even RPGs, with pen-and-paper experiences. They’re just a wonderful supplement to your gaming life while we excitedly await each new innovation in the world of video games.

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