On the Power of Tabletop RPGs

(Originally conceived as a lecture or 5-minute bit of a con panel.)

Want to know why I think Tabletop RPGs are cool and better than other games?

Hey! Leave that dwarf alone!
I'll show you. Let's play right now. I'll be the GM and give you a scenario. You be the player. We can make the rest up as we go. Ready? Begin.
"You're in a maze of twisty passages, all alike. What do you do?"
If you're like most people who have ever played an Infocom game, you flip into that mode of play and immediately think of things like LOOK, or INVENTORY, or the cardinal directions (N, S, E, and W), or even UP and DOWN. These make fine choices, but a computer game's programming limits your possibilities.

1. Unlimited Options
If you LOOK in a computer RPG, many times you'll see a list of your available moves and you can choose an option from that list. We're playing a tabletop RPG here so you don't have those limits. If you want to GO OUTSIDE, or WALK THE PLANES, or NAVELGAZE, or even EMBARK ON JUNGIAN JOURNEY INTO THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS USING SHADOW AS A METAPHOR FOR THE PRIMAL SELF, you can do that if everyone else at the table agrees to go along for the ride.

You have no limits in a Tabletop RPG so long as everyone at the table agrees.

It bears repeating: You Have No Limits.

I bet your demon is in color.
2. Player Control of the Game
While computer RPGs offer stunning graphics and a blindingly-fast servant who will take care of looking up rules for you, they don't do open-ended storytelling very well. But in a Tabletop RPG you can simply SUMMON DEMON and *poof* you've created a game element that didn't exist until you created it. Not only do you have a demon, but you've created the ability to summon demons.

Another example: you can FIND THE NEAREST CASTLE. With that one statement, you've not only challenged the GM to create a castle in reasonably close proximity, you've established the very existence of castles in the world. If you want to DESTABILIZE THE LOCAL ECONOMY have at it, but in my game you'd better start doing research and come up with a plan.

This is Player Agency, when players make conscious choices which have a meaningful impact on the world. Computer RPGs and Choose Your Own Adventure books offer a limited set of endgames; their meaningful impacts have already been defined and coded. A Tabletop RPG offers the choice to go completely off the rails into other adventures, other plotlines, other worlds, or other realities.

Hedge maze or stone? You decide!
Either way they're mostly skippable.
3. Skip to the Good Parts
Computer RPGs sometimes let you skip travel, usually as an unlockable advantage you gain along your journey. You find the airship, or you get the portal network back online, or whatever cheat will let you zip from Point A to Point B without all those inane random encounters between. Tabletop RPGs let you focus on whatever you want to focus on and handwave details that aren't relevant.

With a willing GM, you can always find a way to TRAVEL TO THE CAPITAL in an instant, or you can SKIP THIS ENCOUNTER SINCE WE'RE GOING TO WIN WITHOUT BREAKING A SWEAT. You've already defeated the Rat King waaaay back in Chapter 1, so why should you waste your time beating up a couple of refugee rats from that adventure? Computer RPGs keep track of details really well, but that advantage also spawns the Dark Side of Incessant Pedantry. Some GMs fall into that trap as well, but I've taken to handwaving the final few rounds of combat once it's clear the PCs have the upper hand.

Pretty walls are still walls.
Why do I play Tabletop RPGs?
As mentioned above, Tabletop RPGs let you:

  1. Do Anything You Can Imagine
  2. Change the Game World
  3. Focus on the Good Bits

With any other form of game, you eventually find the walls that define the game world. A board game can't reach beyond the confines of the board. A computer RPG will block you from specific areas until you're ready, and it will contrive to keep you under its control. If it doesn't have programming to cover what you want to do, it doesn't exist in the game world.

In a Tabletop RPG, you get to create the walls. If you share your table with adventurous souls, you don't need walls at all. If you want to have a gonzo planehopping game without serious PC consequences, have at it. If you want to create a world where butchers rule and processed meat products are used as currency, knock yourself out. If you want to explore possible reactions to a specific situation, you can replay a scenario over and over using different approaches.

You have control with Tabletop RPGs. Take it. Use it. Push the limits of your imagination and creativity.

But most of all:

Thanks for reading!

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