Monday, 10 February 2014

"Like the falling of small stones": Tabletop RPGs as the Ultimate Procedurally Generated Game

Tabletop beats video gaming. A bold statement perhaps, but some of my most immerse and emotive gaming moments have been around the gaming table. The ability of a GM to adapt to a given situation is what makes tabletop gaming the ultimate interactive storytelling tool far beyond the limitations of video gaming.

This topic was sparked by the events of our monthly game of Vampire the Masquerade (V20) which is a system that prides itself on the importance of telling a good story. Veronica, the childe of the Sheriff of Birmingham was snooping around the outside of a very well protected house. It was supposed to be a simple night of observation and information gathering. The rest of us were already crossing out our night's blood point and readied our actions for the next night. Unfortunately player action stood in the way. What followed was a string of actions and reactions between PC and Storyteller that took us completely off track:

  • Veronica was caught on an external security camera, so she decided to steal it, putting it in her car and driving back to her haven.
  • The camera had a tracker in it which activated as soon as it was disconnected from the power supply.
  • The following night, Veronica awoke, failed to get through the casing of the camera (which contained no useful infornation anyway).
  • Agents from the security firm arrived with a police car to locate the camera. Upon discovering that the car was registered as stolen, (a problem when you are one of the living dead, very poor car tax) the police broke into her boot and retrieved the camera.
  • After returning the camera to the security team, the police ventured into the apartment block to ask some questions about the young woman who was captured in all her high-def glory.
  • Instead of cutting her losses, getting out of dodge, finding a new haven and laying very low for a while; Veronica decided that she needed to get the camera back. She waited for the police to leave and moved to the security van.
  • Attacking and exsanguinating both men, Veronica was camera in hand and free to leave any time she wanted...
  • ...that is if she hadn't been seen by a young woman in the car park. Veronica tried to give chase, but the witness disappeared into her apartment and could not be located. A few minutes later the sirens of the recently department police officers went off and they returned to the car park.
  • Veronia hopped into the security van and attempted to make her escape, but upon crashing into one of the police cars, the safety locked up the wheels and she was required to enter her 'Drivers ID' to continue. Oops.
  • So instead she burst out of the van armed with only a short blade, a sharp pair of teeth and the almighty, blood-pumping power of Celerity she took down one man and chased down the second... Of course all while the Masquerade violation noise wailed all through the building, windows full of twitching curtains and camera phones saw the whole thing.

What started as a bit of casual solo investigation ended with a neonate in hiding, with a furious Sheriff, half the court hurrying to cover this up and the other half baying for her head. 

How would this have been different in a video game? Well if it had been an investigation game then Veronica would have moused over every part of the house until her cursor changed into a hand or something similar. She would have probably been somewhat aware of the camera's presence and either avoid it or use some in-game mechanic to disable it.
Her stealing the camera and returning home with it would not have been factored into the game, and in fact it might have been a part of the world that the character couldn't interact with. Furthermore the Storyteller was required to not only anticipate what would happen if she stole the camera (that the highly paid security firm would track her down), but also what would happen when the police got involved...

In fact sometimes leaving things up to chance creates drama that nobody anticipates. In another game of Vampire, I was happy to leave the fate of my character down to a cutscene. While surrounded by hunters all armed with stakes, the Storyteller offered me the token of resistance and wouldn't you know I rolled so well in that moment and the subsequent combat that I slaughtered every mortal in the room and sired their leader! This was so off-book that the game was required to pause so that our guest who was playing NPCs for the ST would gen her character and new addition to the group. Ten minutes of roleplay became two hours. Has a video game ever admired your pluck and creativity so much, that it rewarded you with a spontaneously generated new character?

Where tabletop roleplay excels over video gaming is the overall reliance on creativity and chance. A player may attempt something unexpected at the gaming table, but it isn't a hack or a cheat, and reacting isn't a line of code but a thinking human. Of course some tabletops vary in their flexibility; a complicated encounter for D&D can't be pulled from the air, whereas something like Wushu or even WoD can be much easier adapted to the situation. However, encounters can always be created, plot points threaded in or pulled out, drama can be served by the addition of a human element. Something that no video game has ever managed, even a procedurally generated one. One day perhaps, I hope to see something that relies more on the player than the creator...

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