Sunday, 15 April 2012

Traditional RPGs are Wood

One of my weekly without-fail podcast listens is BBC Five Live's World Football Phone-In. This week somebody called in and asked Tim Vickery, the "football in South America" correspondent, the simple question: why he loved football. He gave a lot of reasons, but one which struck a chord with me was that he said, in the modern age, there is so much interaction with gizmos and gadgets that sometimes it is nice to just go home after a day's work and touch something that is made out of wood.

To him, football is like wood. It is something from an age before computers, before iPads, before mobile phones, and before the internet. To play or watch football is to connect with the past, but also to the world of physicality and physical objects. It is to feel something natural, tangible, ancient. Something that was around before you were born and will be around long afterwards.

I think role playing games have a similar attraction. There is something about the simplicity of the implements - dice, pencils, paper - that has an actual touchable, holdable charm. They are not the ephemeral, non-corporeal, soul-less products of the computerised age. They are something older and weightier and nicer. There is a trusty, prosaic feel that you get from rolling the dice and scrawling things in pencil that a computer interface can't emulate.

This is why, for me, there is always going to be something unsatisfactory about online gaming, something missing. (Even though it has its obvious advantages.) It's not just the face-to-face interaction: Skype or Google+ hangouts give you that. It's being able to pick up the dice and roll them and let everybody else see the result. It's being able to pick up a piece of scrap paper and pencil out a map. It's being able to decorate your character sheet with doodles of your character. It's being simple in an age of increasingly complex things. I don't know what goes on inside my computer, and I'm fundamentally alienated from it as a result. Dice and pencils are understandable.

22 comments:

  1. Even if you do understand what is going on in your computer, there is still something fundamentally satisfying about "weight", holding a die, of flipping a page, the physical resistance (however slight) from air and gravity has a very different feel than clicking things in Grimrock (which is still good in its own way).

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    1. That's what I mean. I'm planning a Diaspora game for G+ but you know what? I want to be able to use poker chips for FATE points. That physicality has a meaning.

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    2. I still use poker chips for hit points even on G+, the only thing is other people can't pass them around, which is a shame.

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  2. To me, RPGs are not about a connection to the past, they're mostly about other people that you're playing with. Technology or lack thereof is a sideshow. I associate my fellow human beings with "now".

    G+ games are less fun than playing with those same people in a room, but talking on the phone is less fun than talking in real life. The past and the present don't really come into it.

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    1. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying G+ games aren't worth playing or anything like that. Just there's something more primal about sitting around a table with pens and dice, and something alienating about the computer interface (just like there's something alienating about a phone interface).

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  3. Naturally a person's age and their gaming background will be a factor.

    Young enough and you won't feel what Tim Vickery feels about anything.

    Will a twentysomething feel what "wood" is, whether they claim to understand what is meant or not? When they reach their forties will they be lucky if there is a 21st century analog (forgive me) for the sensation?

    Or maybe years of lightspeed war and emotional dissimulation will have incapacitated them.

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    1. I guess we'll find out in the fulness of time...

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  4. I agree, there is something special and unreplicatable about gamers and dice around a table.

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  5. Not all computer games are soulless. [cough] nethack! [/cough]

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    1. I prefer Angband, but point taken.

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    2. It is only a simulation of a soul ;-)

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  6. As another over-educated old geek with a beard, I can only agree!

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  7. As a DM It is a lot harder to intimidate players online than face to face.

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    1. On the other hand, you can't smell their B.O.

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  8. It's the same reason I still buy real books instead of buying/using a Kindle or similar.

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    1. I love my Kindle, but I have to admit I do prefer books and still buy them.

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  9. Plus, online games (for example) are inherently limited in what they can do. Traditional RPGs are guided mutual storytelling, and to make something closer to "infinitely variable" would be very difficult.

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    1. There are some great tools for online play that help remove some of that trouble... But I do have to agree that occasionally it can be stressful to really get that variability through with players.

      Now, if you can develop a half decent voice-changer to let me change about while playing in real life? I will never leave the table :).

      Slainte,

      -Loonook.

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    2. Oh, man, I would buy that in a heartbeat.

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  10. Even for videogames, I can't get enough of cloth maps and big cardboard boxes with trinkets in them to put on my shelf.

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  11. I also think there's something nice about the tactile nature of character sheets. When we were playing 4th edition and we printed out our character sheets, it felt very abstract. Some people would lose their character sheets on what seemed like a weekly basis and then just print them out again.

    But an AD&D character sheet is just a piece of paper with pencil marks on it. If you lose that sheet, then congratulations, your character has just retired.

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  12. It’s funny, though, to think about how much I know about pencils and dice today that I didn’t know back in the ’80s. ^_^

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