You’ve seen me talking about how much choice, adventure, and freedom you have in pen and paper role-playing games and how much I love it. You’ve seen me saying that in a pen and paper role-playing game, I love being able to figure out a way out myself without being constrained to what the game master has thought up. I like having the freedom to move away from the storyline and make my own way around the game world. These are the prime reasons that I love playing in pen and paper games and why I much prefer it over game mastering. An example of not being constrained, you ask? Well, I was playing in a Star Wars game back in October, and my party and I were trying to disable an anti-air battery so the Republic could land its ships on the planet and take it in the Clone Wars. We arrived at the anti-air emplacement and knocked out its shields by driving a speeder bike into it. This set off major alarms, but we managed to get into the base and start placing explosives. This is when trouble started. The alarms caused Separatist reinforcements to show up, including a AAT, and we were pinned down. We couldn’t get out, and we had bombs ticking. My character wasn’t going to go out with a bang, at least not in that way. I was playing a Cerean Officer named Ke-ali, and he wasn’t the best at fighting, or flying, or slicing. What he was good at was talking. He had a silver tongue, and he was able to talk himself out of a lot. He was also a quick thinker–a very smart and quick-witted man. He was an officer in the army, and he got there by wit and guile, not physical ability. He’d thought his way out of bigger fixes than this, and by gum, he was going to think his way out of this one.
Where was I?
Blaster bolts were fizzling past our heads, and our team’s clone commando went down. That was one of our 6 dead, and we only had two minutes to get out of the base before it blew, and there was no way we were going to fight our way out of this. Our Jedi was doing his best to hold them back, and our mechanic to get the bombs shut down. The slicer, Lillia, and I were trying our best to think of a way out of it.
“What about an EMP?” Ke-ali said to Lillia
“An EMP? Is that do-able?”
Our GM looked stumped. I explained to him how an EMP worked. If you funnel enough energy into a location, it can cause an electromagnetic pulse, which doesn’t hurt people, but does hurt machines. How is that helpful, you ask? How does hurting machines stop you from dying at this point? Well, dear reader, I’m fairly certain you’ve seen Episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Star Wars, and I’m willing to bet you remember the droids. That’s right, droids. And droids are machines. Droids are what the Separatists fought with. On the right train of thought now? Proud of you.
That’s right, we were going to use an EMP to bring down the droid armies. Our GM hadn’t thought of it, and it was an unorthodox approach, but he nodded. “Okay… let’s roll some dice and see what happens.”
We rolled some dice, and the slicer managed to direct all the power from the anti-air base into it’s satellite dish, causing an electromagnetic pulse to go off and defeat all the droids. It also defused the explosives, but we had more to set, meaning we accomplished our goal, and the session ended with a bang.
What you see here is players taking advantage of the flexibility and openness of a pen and paper role-playing game and using their own imaginations to create their own solutions. The true thrill of pen and paper role-playing games is not being rail-roaded (explicitly directed) into a decision, and being able to solve any problem your own way.
That can’t happen in video games.
Here’s why that’s the case: Because of the nature of the medium, every solution to a problem has to be thought of by the devs, at least in a role-playing game, which is what I’m talking about here (Kerbal Space Program fans, do whatever you want, it’ll work eventually), and then coded in. When you played Dragon Age, every single solution was hard-coded into the game, and scripts were written, and art assets made. Having that so fundamentally ingrained into a game limits what you can do with it. An old pen and paper adage is that you can’t account for player creativity, and the world of modded games speaks to that. There are mods of the Elder Scrolls games that Bethesda couldn’t have accounted for in a million years, and that is the same idea here. You can’t account for creativity when making a game. That’s why one of the biggest tips to game mastering is to be prepared for your best laid plans to go to waste, as shown in the example above.
In Oblivion for example, in the Dark Brotherhood quests, if the developers hadn’t decided to let me poison a mark, I couldn’t poison him, that’s the end of story. To me, that’s the major issue with video game role-playing games. I’m not saying that I don’t like role-playing games that are computer-based. In fact, The Witcher 2 is one of my favourite gaming experiences of all time.
And that might be why I prefer linear games in general. When playing a game like Skyrim, Oblivion, or Fallout, I get easily distracted, and it’s easy for me to lose direction. I’ve always thought that it’s because there’s too much choice, and I can’t decide on one thing to do. That’s definitely part of it, but now I think that it’s also got to do with the fact that whatever I choose to do is already been predefined, at least in terms of in-game content. I’m going to get tweets and emails saying “But in Skyrim, you can play as whatever character you choose, and set your own goals and everything.” I know that. What I’m saying is that it feels like I’m simply watching a story or playing a choose-your-own adventure book. It’s hard for me to immerse myself when no decision is truly my decision. Linear games don’t make you do that. They, generally, although recently it’s been on the rise, don’t force you to make a decision, and if they do, they don’t do it in the pretense that it’s a decision you’re making for yourself.
Now that I mention it, I think I can say why I like The Witcher 2 over games like Skyrim, too. It’s not a linear game, but it does follow a story. Decisions you make change that story, and it evolves around choices that Geralt, the main character of the Witcher series, makes. The same is true of Alpha Protocol. And for me, it works because they’re written characters. There’s no identity that I have to put into the characters, and because they have none of my identity, having the choices written out for me makes sense. Because a character I play in Oblivion has my personality, he would make decisions that I want him to make, but he can’t. And that’s what throws me for immersion, and what, I believe, ultimately stops me from having as much fun in an open-world game as other people do.