Just Die: Against “Real” Role-playing Games

I do love dice though.

Point: If only computer RPGs could match up to Pen and Papers RPGs. You know – real RPGs.

Counterpoint: Piss-right off.

You still hear this attitude a lot. Hell, back in the day, I suspect I expressed it a bit. But I was 13 years old, and an idiot. That it’s persisting over two decades is getting increasingly embarrassing. The implicit elitism and defensiveness does a lot to explain why Pen & Paper (P&P) still gets eye-raises even in otherwise all-accepting geeky circles. Nothing makes someone more willing to dismiss your opinion than you sneering at something they love.

If you ignore anything else I say in this column, here’s one reason to stop using the phrase: That it’s self defeating conservative ghettoism. You either see that as a problem or you are the problem.

Perhaps what most interests me about the continuing existence of this argument is that it’s an internal-to-gaming phenomenon directly comparable to gaming’s comparison with other cultural forms. The film and the novel see the game and looks down it, noting it doesn’t do – for example – narrative nearly as well as them, and is therefore is inferior. An old form judging a new form by its own standards, and logically, finding it lacking. As if architecture would look down on opera for not providing particularly good roofs, or similar. Meanwhile, P&P RPG devotees judge Computer RPGs by their own standards, and find them equally lacking. Like, obviously. In the same way that proto-P&P Wargamers looked down on D&D for having all this yap getting in the way of the actual game. It is different. It does different things. One is not more “real” than another. Each is its own thing, using its strengths to explore the same idea.

And while some people who use the phrase will protest, the inherent prejudice and rejection-of-another to a second-class citizen is betrayed by the language. Specifically, the use of the word “real”. This struck me as directly equivalent to the idea of Rockism in pop-criticism. This is where some forms of music – linked to its production methods – are intrinsically more authentic than others – and authenticity is a sign of merit. In short, the Byrds are better than Betty Boo because they’re from the sixties playing bits of wood and string while wearing tassels while Betty Boo came from Mars by way of Glasgow and made music out of spangles and shiny. Oh – and they’re guys, of course. There’s all sorts of nasty conservative tendencies bubbling beneath the most common examples of the attitude. Rockist leanings are the sort of thing that get you laughed at if you talk in pop-critic circles, because of the obvious snobbishness.

In other words, this article isn’t about actually preferring one to the other. You can prefer either. It’s the sneer in “real”. The “real” can go fuck itself. For a Fantasy game to come down to a question “real” is openly ludicrous.

They are simply different things. And looked at cleanly, without idea of some virtues being intrinsically better than the other, they come across pretty well as complimentary, overlapping forms. According to Ron Edwards’ old GNS Theory there’s three sorts of urges underlying pen and paper RPGs, and each creates its own priorities: the gamist urge, the simulationist urge, and the narrativist urge. Gamist is the most obvious – the idea of using the mechanics of a game to triumph. A battlefield full of foes and you; how can you use the rules of the game to win. The simulationist is about the shared fantasy – the idea that this is a place which you go and explore. A key observation, for me anyway, would be the simulationist urge is often fine with rules which add to the sense of place, which serve no other function. The rules are a device to help reach this fantastical, imaginary place. They’re its fictional physics. The narrativist is about creating a story and supporting theme. Which doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily solely freeform, but rules to help encourage the central issues of what’s the game’s about. For example, the scribbles I have for my own Phonogram RPG is firmly narrativist, with the level system subverted so that as players progress, they lose absolute power, so simulating the slow drift into irrelevance with relation to pop culture. It would make the game a tragedy as what the individuals gave up so much of their life to slowly bleeds away.

To state the obvious, computer RPGs do a job which compares favourably to pen-and-paper RPGs in two of the categories, while lagging well behind on the third. Gamist is, frankly, an easy win. In P&P games you gain a freedom of tactics – but the solidity and speed of play in basic problem-solving exercises that a computer RPG brings to the situation overpowers it. On simulationist, it’s more both ways. You lose the delicacy of touch human interaction can add to the world, but gain an enormous, robust physical simulation. While not all simulationist, P&P games lean toward realism – it’s about a consistent fantasy world – many simulationist P&P games play slowly due to the rules’ complexity. Does something float or sink? In a computer game, the answer is there and extrapolated instantly. We can see the simulation’s results and it plays out in real time. In short: Dwarf Fortress is a better simulation model than any pen and paper RPG in history. It also does it far quicker than any of them.

The argument being that the player’s leap of faith which allows you to transform the situation into something more magical – the room a kingdom, your probably-pallid-gamesmaster into a beautiful elf-maid. And yeah, you can do that. But you can also apply the same leap of faith to your experience of a videogame and imprint on the universe another human mind has created for you there. And it’s as easy. It’s much easier, because the touch of another is more distant. When you gasp at the idea of multiple layers of flesh in the new Dwarf Fortress, that’s the Simulationist urge being delighted. And for every limitation of the game you bump against, even in the less physics-based RPGs, factor a disruption of the session when another player decides to quote a joke from their favourite sitcom.

If you’re sticking to the Real RPGs position at this point, you’ll probably say “you must not have good players”. I’ve played with humans rather than imaginary hyperrobots. And if you’re genuinely overlooking the disruption of humanity in favour of what else hanging out with people means, you’re not actually talking about P&P as a game – you’re talking about P&P as a social activity. A chance to get together with friends and have fun. Which is fantastic – but irrelevant to P&P as a game’s merits and if you include it in the positive attributes intrinsic with the form, I’ll just end up comparing P&P games unfavourably to getting high on tasty booze and making out with hotties. Because that’s far better than throwing around polyhedral dice and thinking about orcs.

Well, mostly.

Or, to take that particular observation the opposite away, assume it is part of P&P RPGs. As Edwards’s later model puts it, the social contract between players is actually part of the game. Single Player Computer Games don’t have a social contract. That removes both problems (sulking folk, The Smelly Chap No-One Wants To Play With And Everyone’s Too Polite To Tell To Go Away) and benefits (glorious improvisation interplay).

They do different things. And the different things, if explored properly, can be enormously rewarding. Jim notes that in his Pen & Paper history that he stripped down the gamist elements enormously, because it was so treacly slow, in favour of the joys of the story. With Computer Games you don’t have to do that. And, running at full speed, it seems that the pure gamist elements which underlie many more traditional P&P RPGs are wonderfully compulsive systems to wrestle with. Jim views narrative in videogames as of secondary importance, and it’s at least in part as he’s aware that P&P games just do it better. But that’s a difference in the form rather than a difference in merit. He prefers computer games to be gamist as they’re better at it and he prefers P&P games to be narrativist because they’re better at that. The “real” doesn’t come into it.

In short: the common insult is that computer-role-playing games don’t have any real role-playing, so shouldn’t be called role-playing games. The only riposte is that pen & paper role-playing games don’t have any real game. Compared to computer RPGs P&Ps gamist elements are embarrassingly minor. Neither have any real better claim on the name “Role-playing games”, because the other side has a far firmer grasp on the side half of it.

“The other side” is a misnomer. Understand the joy here. We don’t need to pick sides. We can identify the unique benefits of each – and then with that knowledge be better equipped to face new things, like Sleep Is Death, and cleanly examine what they specifically offer. We get to focus on what is interesting and new… which is another piece.

In practice, the name problem isn’t a problem unless you want to pick a fight. If we’re talking about videogames, “role-playing game” is fine. If you’re in the context of real world games, it’s equally clear what you meant by the phrase. And if there’s confusion, neutral terms like “Computer role-playing games” and “tabletop” are the correct way to draw a line. First does not mean primary or “real” any more than Epic Verse existing before Tragedy in ancient Greece is any more than a historical note. And politeness hurts no-one, bignose.

And if you have no interest in what computer RPGs can do and insist on calling pen and paper the “real” RPGs, you’re the sightless man saying that no-one should care about colours. And just as blind.


  1. And Triage says:

    i enjoy both mediums very much. they each have their own strengths. i like computer rpg’s because they can convey ideas, emotions, scenery, etc. with more ease than a DM or GM or whatever. but i also enjoy p&p sessions because you don’t have any real established boundaries that you find in video games.

    they’re both great. but at the end of the day, i prefer sitting around a table with some good friends and rolling some awkwardly-shaped dice.

    • 7rigger says:

      I agree with you there. NWN is great when I can’t get everyone together, but I still prefer P&P.

      So why am I a geek for playing AD&D and not for playing WOW?

      Social acceptance I suppose. But you’ll never take my Dungeon Masters Guide!

    • Snall says:

      7, people are geeks for both playing DD and WOW…I have only done one…though it was GURPS actually..but w/e.

    • 7rigger says:

      So am I a doublegeek?

      I’m keeping that term :)

    • MajorManiac says:

      I think reading and commenting on this website adds another geek point (or ‘Website of geek + 1’).

      Just think how limited peoples choices were before computers and the internet. We’re all heading for Geektopia. Weeeeee!!!

  2. Ian Struckhoff says:

    I don’t really care about the digital/computer/online versus paper/dice/tabletop divide. People who say that only one side of that can be a “real” RPG are, as you say, being arbitrary, conservative, and pig-headed.

    On the other hand, I do think the term Roleplaying Game (or RPG) is far too broadly applied. An RPG is a game where you play the role of a character, and should include elements where you are required to participate in characterization– doing things because the character would, not because you want to in order to win the game.

    What I’m saying, I guess, is that a there’s a difference between a “Roleplaying Game” and a “Level-based tactical combat game”. Some of that difference depends more on the players than the game itself, so any game that gives opportunities to play a role is fine by me.

    • Pardoz says:

      ‘What I’m saying, I guess, is that a there’s a difference between a “Roleplaying Game” and a “Level-based tactical combat game”.’

      Quite so. Welcome to the letters page of Different Worlds ca. 1977.

    • bob_d says:

      I took umbrage when I realized that in pop-culture terminology, a computer “Role Playing Game” was defined as centering around item collection and management (with an assumption of it being tactical and level-based). That’s about as far from “role playing” as you can get… and simultaneously both overly broad, but also strangely specific, in its definition.

  3. Karacan says:

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. Note: I’m both, a hardcore Computer RPG player and a hardcore pen&paper-roleplayer. I like both for the entertainment they offer – but I am heartily sick of every single linear “press this button to advance this stat first”-computer-game calling itself a “true roleplaying experience”.

    Roleplaying, to me, means: I’m in charge of the character. I define how his/her story unfolds. If I want to jump of a cliff, I have the option to do so.

    Computergames naturally limit the amount of choices open to me – unless there’s a Gamemaster sitting on the other side of the screen, like what is possible in Never Winter Nights, for example, and even there the actions are limited by the players’ imagination and the profiency of the Gamemaster in the tools.

    So for “roleplaying” (as in playing a role unconcerned by having it follow a specific storyline), pen&paper gaming remains superior.

    • AndrewC says:

      Kieron actually does cover that point in the last third. He agrees with you! And also disagrees with you, but I guess that’s why he’s Kieron.

    • MartinNr5 says:

      I disagree with your disagreement.

      In an RPG – no matter the type – I play a character that is defined by something; be it the backstory, the stats, the way the world shapes him, whatever.

      If I’m playing a family man that needs to get back to his family after fighting in the war then I won’t jump off a cliff no matter how much I as a player think it’d be funny. That’s not playing a character – quite the opposite.

      For me the whole “I’m in charge” argument doesn’t fly just because of this.

      If your character is a nutjob that decides his next action based on whims and what the myriad of voices in his head tells him then any random action is justified but that type of character gets quite boring after a while as he would never be able to progress through a story.

      There’s little that annoys me more than a P&P RPG player who plays, say, a peaceful monk that for some reason decides to burn and plunder a village just because the player felt like it.

      This is why I consider Final Fantasy be as much an RPG as any session in D&D.

    • Contrarian says:

      @Karacan: You’ve never had a GM (in a P&P setting) railroad you to the next objective? There are always limitations. Perhaps we need to discuss both these kinds of games in terms of a Platonic form. Both are aspiring to some sort of ideal role-playing game experience, both hit it in different ways, and different people value different aspects of this ideal role-playing game more than others. Some people (like you (judging from your admission to playing and enjoying both types of games), like me) play both, to get from one what they can’t get from the other. I have no problem with both types calling themselves RPGs.

    • Jesse says:

      That’s a pretty broad definition. There’s not much roleplaying going on in FF XIII, unless you count running down the right side of the hallway versus running down the left side as roleplaying.

    • Karacan says:

      I’m an extremely snobbish Roleplayer. ;) I had my share of railroading, and I didn’t enjoy it at all or considered it roleplaying.

      It’s still all about freedom even if my character is defined by someone else – even the manual things. Why can’t I push the mine-cart that’s sitting there in the scenery for mobile cover? Why can’t I climb up the tree in the forst to get a better overview of where to go? Why do I have to go through the hedge labyrinth while I’m carrying around a huge chainsaw sword with which I could create whatever shortcut I feel like?

      I love computer roleplaying games, but not for their roleplaying value. I do enjoy online roleplaying though.

      Anyway, Opinions. :) I’ll stick with mine, and know it’s snobbish.

    • Vinraith says:

      Thanks, you said pretty much what I wanted to say and saved me the trouble of saying it. To me this isn’t even an argument worth having, I play PC RPG’s to try to capture the feel of PnP RPG’s (without the need for other people), so of course they’re always going to be second best. People that grew up on PC RPG’s are looking for something else, obviously, and are always going to disagree/fail to understand. It’s a matter of player history, of what your expectations of the acronym “RPG” really are, and it’s not something we’re ever all going to agree on. If the argument here is simply “be less of a dick about it” then that’s well and good, everybody could stand to be less of a dick about gaming anyway (myself very much included), but no one’s going to change any preferences with words.

    • Vitamin Powered says:


      I think it’s disingenuous to submit FF13 as an example in this debate, given that it has become fairly famous for its 30 hour corridor gameplay. Noone would want to throw FATAL into the debate if we wished to cross-examine P&P’s mechanical and narrative capabilities.

    • TenjouUtena says:

      Meh. This is silly. ‘RPG’ in the computer realm has come to mean a certain type of recognizable game who’s system has it’s roots in tabletop RPGs. That is the popular term for a certain type of game, and because it used to mean something else doesn’t make the before more or less ‘real’. As KG points out.

      To counter the ‘roleplaying experence’ point; yes, people expect different things out of CRPGs and Tabletop. You don’t grind mobs in tabletop. Nor do you fight dozens or hundreds of baddies an hour. In most ‘games’ of almost any variety you play a role. Read the fluff for Puerto Rico or Settlers. Are you not playing Fenix in Gears of War? Each of these allows you to play the role in certain ways. You may feel more immersed by tabletop, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. And I doubt that you play out in real time the 10 hours your character rides from one point on the map to the other? Or the sleeping? How often do you roll for how long it takes you to evacuate your bowels? You choose what parts of the role you want to play in tabletop, just like in other ‘games’.

    • MartinNr5 says:

      @Jesse: Well, FF might be a stretch but you know what I mean.

      @Karacan: Agree, you don’t have the same freedom in a CRPG as in a P&P but that is changing as well. Ten years ago you couldn’t do a fraction of the things you can today, especially so in a graphical game.

      Computers will most likely never be able to match the quick thinking and ingenuity of a good GM but in another ten years I’m sure not only the hardware but how we write the software will have evolved into something we really can’t imagine right now.

      And for the record – I’ve grown up on both types of RPG. I’ve actually played Zork and Kings Quest I. I played my first P&P RPG when I was 12 (an unknown Swedish game) and still play P&P today, 26 years later.

    • Luckylad says:

      Well I guess this is the point I add in my 2 cents. Essentially we are fighting a battle of semantics which from the beginning of time has been a battle of stalemating. One guy looks at a ball and calls it green, another guy calls it red; so who’s the colorblind person? But if you were to tell me to stop being silly and pick a side I’d say screw you and your sides. I’m off to play one and then the other and enjoy the greater parts of each game. They don’t satisfy the same needs but the same could be said for romances. One person may satisfy you physically and the other might satisfy you emotionally and at the end of the day they are both time vacuums and however much pleasure you obtain from either one is entirely up to you. So you could go, well hey I like my time wasted in such a fashion because it gives me pleasure. Someone else will tell you that your pleasure isn’t nearly as good as the pleasure your missing and in the end he’s a snob. So I guess the issue is… why is this even an issue?

  4. Dominic White says:

    So, where do you stand on Neverwinter Nights, which was basically all the streamlining and accessibility of CRPG gameplay, but with the DM system and on-the-fly scripting possibilities of pen and paper? Because I’ve had some of my best moments in gaming ever in NWN 1 & 2 because of that hybridization.

  5. CHEtongueEK says:

    Yeah! P&P RPGs are rubbish! You tell ’em!

  6. JuJuCam says:

    Great article, but what brought it on?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      People using the “real” RPG line a lot in the Sleep Is Death comments.


    • JuJuCam says:

      Oh sorry I’ve been away from internets for a couple of days and missed the discussion. Time to catch up.

  7. Inigo says:

    It’s that time of the month.

  8. Morph says:

    Good article, though some people get annoyed about the idea of their being a GNS theory at all (not me, I agree with it, but just saying…). I enjoy both, and don’t really have a problem with the limitations of a CRPG because, as you say, it’s a game. P&P RPGs are more of an excuse to have fun with friends.

    As an aside I’d totally play a Phonogram RPG.

  9. 12kill4 says:

    “But I was 13 years old, and an idiot. ”

    Isn’t that about as redundant as saying “I have a double degree in English and Philosophy, but I’m unemployed”…?

    • 12kill4 says:

      by the way, if anyone has a job for a Bach. Arts grad in Political Science, Sociology and Digital Cultures give me a yell :P

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      12kill4: Some 13 year olds are worryingly together. Curse them.


    • TeeJay says:

      @ 12kill4: “by the way, if anyone has a job for a Bach. Arts grad in Political Science, Sociology and Digital Cultures give me a yell :P”

      link to army.mod.uk

    • dog says:

      @teejay – very funny :)

    • Dolphan says:

      I have a degree in philosophy, and am perfectly well employed, thank you :p

    • Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

      Something against this double degree?! But then again, mine is going to be from the Faculty of Education and it’s actually English Language and Literature + Social Sciences….eat that! And our country never has enough teachers in both fields, so… :))

    • 12kill4 says:

      @ TeeJay

      Funny you should suggest that as I was in the last stage of my application for the Australian Army several years ago, prior to getting said degree, but they discovered that I have a minor heart condition called SVT in the medical examination following my officer selection board interview and I was forced to withdraw my application. talk about good luck!

    • Luckylad says:

      Sometimes I wish I could just quit being an engineer and write finish at least 1 of the 5 fiction novels that are half written and half-thought out. But someone’s gotta pay the bills

  10. H says:

    I’m a big fan of both and will remain so. I once said to some gaming pundits that computer RPGs would never replace P&P because the computer just couldn’t handle the roleplaying. I was a doofus. The correct argument of course would have been that the two compliment each other and both offer something the other doesn’t.

    For my money the P&P RPG conjures the imagination like nothing else; as the narrator, storyteller, even GM (I personally hate that term, GM or DM), you get to see the spark behind the player’s eyes and feed it. You get to see the reaction to what you’re telling them. You get to thrive from that. Would you see that in a computer RPG? Dunno, but that’s no reason to dismiss them.

    Both have their place. To say one is intrinsically better than the other is just snobbish and counter-productive.

    Good article, that man.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      Unless it’s D&D 4e which is trying to be a card game with the framework of a videogame.

      I mean seriously, wot?

    • sebmojo says:

      That’s exactly what Kieron was talking about but from the opposite direction, you nonce. D&D 4e is just as much of an RPG as anything from the ’70s, and the sneering ‘it’s just WoW with dice’ comments are purest asininity.

  11. Colthor says:

    Now that’s real games writing.

  12. Eoin says:

    I think what seems to rub “real RPG” players up the wrong way is the blanket application of the name RPG to just about every computer game going. It’s this dilution of what is a very personal type of game which causes them to set up barriers and say “your computer game isn’t an RPG because ….” And so the arguments begin.

    I also think that there is a sense for P&P players that their hobby has been co-opted as a marketing tool.

    Personally I always fell into the whole white wolf/world of darkness side of this with an interest in shared stories (narrativist) as described above and I can’t quite see this in current games simply because it’s not possible to anticipate each and every player action. Eventually you exhaust all the possible interactions you can have with the game world. The multiplayer neverwinter nights was probably closest but I never had the chance to try it out.

  13. Tom says:

    I wonder if the relationship between computer RPGs and P&P isn’t so much like the relationship between pop and rock but between rock (and all that happened after it) and jazz. The conquering successor form secure in its power but with one occasional, guilty eye on the ancestor it toppled and then (in popularity) surpassed. The ancestor turned into a kind of heritage industry from the outside, and internally subject to its own struggles with competing purisms, wild experimentation, and the agony of public irrelevance.

    In other words I see “rockism” and rockist-shaming as I understand them (and I’m not sure I ever DID understand them) as impulses within both PnP (gamist v narrativist is a good example) and computer RPGs, more than as impulses between them. Good stuff though!

  14. Cinnamon says:

    These are those games that are about killing rats in cellars, right? Seems that people take them awfully seriously these days.

  15. 12kill4 says:

    This article is a further reminder to me of the potential of multi-user computing, such as MS’s Surface. Integrating computer visualisation and processing into a more social, rapidly tailored design environment could prove very successful in cancelling out the flaws of both forms of RPG discussed.

  16. Turin Turambar says:

    Well, nothing new, i also thought of that years ago.

    A videogame with the freedom and all the action & consequences of a pen and paper RPG is the holy grial of RPGs, so of course people like to dream about that.

    P&P rpgs get these virtues as the “cpu” and the “AI” is something very smart and very advanced code: a human. When we reach someday a game-ai as smart and knowledgable as a human we will have our dream game.

  17. Eight Rooks says:

    (For some reason logging on seems to have no effect other than if I’m replying to something.)

    Good article, for the most part, though

    “The film and the novel see the game and looks down it, noting it doesn’t do – for example – narrative nearly as well as them, and is therefore is inferior. An old form judging a new form by its own standards, and logically, finding it lacking. As if architecture would look down on opera for not providing particularly good roofs, or similar.”

    is the usual OH GOD THE WORDS ARE COMING nonsense that brings tears of rage to my eyes. I look down on videogame narratives for the most part because they’re not very well written. Not that hard to understand, surely? The creative medium that houses them is irrelevant, as is its age or technological underpinnings. The continuing insistence that part of the future of the industry hangs on this idiocy is one of the things about it that drives me up the wall. If you see a string of words, you know precisely meaning, information and subtexts they’re supposed to convey, and they don’t do that job as well as they could do, that’s the most pressing problem. The idea that ‘we can’t do that because then we’d have to tighten up the graphics on level 3’ applies in more than a fraction of cases is complete and utter lunacy.

    Anyway, rant over. For now. It was actually a much better article than that had me expecting.

    • Baboonanza says:

      I’ll agree with you here. I do think it’s much more difficult to present narrative in a videogame, but that’s no excuse for practically every single one of them being utter tripe.

      One method that works is the ‘in-game’ narrative, given to you in small chunks as you progress through the game without stopping play at any point. Valve do this very well, as does Bioshock and System Shock 2.

      The problem is that in RPGs you usually get information by ‘talking’ to people. Except that ‘talking’ actually means ‘sitting and listenning to mediocre (at best) dalogue’ with no two-way interaction. This just isn’t how conversation works, and until a way around this problem is found most RPGs will be characterless and unengaging (narratively anyway) for me.

    • Feste says:

      But what does a game succeed on? Narrative is important to a game, but it’s not the only issue; whereas with a novel we’re only talking about narrative and as such I would expect it to do a better job. I’d sort of like to see it as a spider graph with the different forms of media expanding in different directions.

      Furthermore when you look at games, packing them into one generic media-form is almost impossible. Bad writing in C&C4 is sort of by-the way, criticising it or Supreme Commander 4 for the writing is absurd; bad writing in even a single module of Dragon Age can be damaging to the whole experience.

    • Mark says:

      Wanna know why the writing in most games is gash? Good writers don’t want to work in games. They write novels or screenplays or plays or TV or just about anything else instead.

      Games writers get a huge amount of constraints, no recognition, and their work isn’t taken seriously by anyone except a few gamers. Most of the time writing is done by designers (not hired for their writing skills) plus maybe some consultation from (normally rubbish) outside forces.

      The writing in P&P RPGs seem so great because they don’t have to be expressed so literally in text and graphics that go through a dozen layers of code, artistry, shaders, camera angles, animation, voice acting etc etc before hitting you in the brain. P&P stuff by contrast utilises your imagination which is 100 times better at making you feel something. Games are just a really hard medium to try and express anything, especially when 75% of your players are more concerned with their next headshot or getting some more xp – and they probably weren’t even looking in the right direction and skipped all the dialoge anyway.

  18. Baboonanza says:

    I can see where you’re coming from, but there are some points you don’t touch apon.

    It’s indesputable that the early CRPGs were heavily inspired by pen-and-paper games but were limited by the technology and budgets of the time. The problem is that most modern RPGs haven’t advanced the genre in the directions that differentiates the RPG genre from other types of games.

    You could argue that in the 3D era CRPGS have actually become either action-adventures with numbers or (almost) interactive fiction. I guess that’s fine in some ways, but in my mind a ‘true’ CRPG is more in the mold of Ultima and Fallout and should involve more (and deeper) choice in narrative and action than is currently offered.

    IMO developers have simply stopped pushing in the direction that makes CRPGs most interesting, and most like PnP RGS, and that’s meaningful choice. There are games from the 80s and early nineties that give you more freedom than modern RPGs, and I think that is why people can regard them as poor step-children to PnP games.

    (Note: I’ve never played a PnP RPG).

    • Corporate Dog says:

      See, I read this, and I go, “Huh? Fallout had more narrative (and/or gameplay) choices than, say, one of Bioware’s latest?”

      I played Fallout when it first came out. Played the sequel, too. Enjoyed them both. Replayed them many times over the years. Still have the discs.

      But I’m really not seeing where it had significantly more meaningful choices than, say, a Dragon Age: Origins or even a Mass Effect.

  19. Sunjammer says:

    I have never in my near-30 years as a tabletop/p&p/computer gamer heard this opinion of p&p superiority expressed. Not even once. Is it REALLY that common of a topic? Sounds like something only the very elite of the elitists would even think to discuss to me.

  20. Gap Gen says:

    The idea of levelling down is interesting. Has anyone done that sort of thing before?

    • Devenger says:

      I’ve seen it used to parody the up-up-up nature of the PnP RPG genre, but I’ve never seen it done in order to evoke serious feeling in players. Sounds very interesting, very interesting indeed. The question is, would players keep coming back, session after session, to a game where they feel their power is reducing, not increasing? How excellent a writer, or worldcrafter, do you need to be to make a world sufficiently engaging that your players are not disheartened by their continuous losses, to the point of choosing not to play?

      Maybe many of us (myself definitely included) have been spoilt by constant upward progression, and would have difficulty facing things being the other way. I’m kinda looking forward to getting new powers in the two PnP games I’m currently playing… being stripped of my existing ones would really turn me off the games. (Narrativism is not an apt shield to hide behind; the implication of KG’s brief description is that players’ very influence over the game world would dwindle.)

    • Feste says:

      Call of Cthullhu had your sanity decreasing as you get more experienced. Your character becomes more effective but more brittle.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      Flower’s for Algernon: teh Game!

      I’d play that. Once…

    • Psychopomp says:

      The Frozen Throne undead campaign did it, but that’s all I can think of.

    • jarvoll says:

      WoD’s Vampire *kinda* works that way, according to the vanilla rules anyway, in that the further you progress, the more and more inevitable becomes your bestial insanity (at which point your character becomes unplayable – game over). Every game mechanic is essentially based around the player’s efforts to delay this as long as possible, but even if you try to min-max against it, the chances are very, very low of *not* losing control of your animal nature, going on a frenzy and doing something that reduces your humanity (a score out of 10 where 0 is insanity and most players start on 7) almost once per couple of sessions. I played in a group that basically gave up as soon as the first player frenzied (about 45 mins in) because everyone suddenly realized the tone of this game: you are going to have a slow, horrible decline. I, personally, had read the books and so was prepared for this, and love the idea, but apparently no-one else did. WFIW, it achieves that goal really well – just a pity no-one seems to want to role-play inevitable, personal doom.

  21. PlayNoEvil says:

    The more frustrating argument is from computer gamers who act like “gaming” is 20 to 30 years old… as if board games, card games, dice games, etc. are not all part of the same form.

    • Arathain says:

      The same form? Where the form is what, playing? Competitive playing? I mean, your statement can be assumed to be true, but it takes the definition of form to be so broad as to be meaningless- playground games are the same form as Half-Life, for example. I mean, looking just at videogames it’s hard enough to talk about Tetris, Dragon Age and Sleep is Death as being the same form without broadening your definitions beyond that.

  22. ToadSmokingDuckMonkey says:

    There have been few CRPGs (as the table grognards who wrote both digital and table games mags in the 80s referred to them) that let you play a character in the world.

    Sure, CRPGs figured out how to provide consequences to player’s actions. Ultima IV and many games after. Ultima IV and others, on through the early Fallouts and Deus Ex say, provided enough ways to solve problems that players at least had a choice of how to solve them, and enough choice between problems that it support the illusion that the player could choose whatever problems to solve that they wanted to.

    Similarly, interacting with NPCs though some sort of dialog system was achieved early on. Inverse text parsing, going all the way back to Moria, was later adapted in many titles to “talk” to “people”. I’m not sure when dialog trees, first appeared, but they quickly became the dominant species (though sometimes accompanied by another mechanic or minigame to influence your standing with the NPC).

    This is what CRPGs have always lacked. These two fundamentals. The rest of the presentation is done far better by computer, unless you consider your Gamemaster the equal of Shakespeare or Tolkien at wordsmithing. The GM brings life to the characters, and can react to the player’s actions in the world by providing a new, dramatically appropriate and thematically consistent encounter (which might be anything between “some wary guards poke their head into the room to see whats going on” to thinking about the demon prince whose plot the characters just thwarted, and what his schemes might be, ergo fuels the character’s story, the overall state of the world, and probably advances the generic evil threat to a character with motivations in the overall narrative; or, just how to deal with some characters that just decided to build a boat one day, and float down the river because someone looked at their skill list and decided to do it).

    CRPGs don’t do that yet.

    • mujadaddy says:

      @ToadSmokingDuckMonkey (in case the Reply doesn’t work):

      Hear hear. Your “boat” example is perfect. No amount of scripting can replace a good GM. Self-serving example: My PCs had decided to go the “wrong” direction and do something that, while exciting and fun for them, wasn’t going to allow them to “keep up” with the Big Bad and see what was happening in the “main” story. The priest had cast a “Howling Hurricane” at the site of a massive battle, in order to stop or at least slow the fighting. I had an “air elemental” and a “water elemental” show up and chuckle at the PCs, telling them they were missing the big picture. The PCs took the bait, and the elementals transformed them into water vapor; they ascended into the sky, and fell as the next morning’s dew in the hills above where I had tried to lead them originally.

      What KG’s discussion misses is that there is ANOTHER PLAYER of the tabletop RPG — the game master — who cannot be replaced by algorithm

    • disperse says:

      Hmm, I think I want a game where I am the GM and the computer replaces the players. Oh, right, that’s why I play Dwarf Fortress.

  23. DMJ says:

    I look forward to the day in which new collaborative storytelling and simulation techniques are developed that can combine the strengths of both. Then we who play this mega-game will all be the winners, and the losers will be the ones still clinging to their old-fashioned battlements trading juvenile insults based on semantics.

  24. PacifismFailed says:

    All my opinions on this disapeared when i read “Phonogram RPG”, pretty please with a cherry on top.

  25. Dawngreeter says:

    “Real RPG” argument is obviously idiocy, but I have deeper issues with this. Comparing tabletop RPGs with computer games is kinda like comparing amateur improvised theater to big screen cinema. It’s not that one is better than the other in certain aspects and worse in others. It’s that you do it for entirely different reason and get to do entirely different things. The fact that both very likely have “xp” somewhere in there doesn’t really make it comparable.

  26. Serenegoose says:

    I like this article. But what then, of people who play tabletop RPGs over email, or forum?

    Accursed abominations of two sires are they, and such progeny of ill-thought progenitors cannot have a happy end.

  27. Langman says:

    Good read, although it’s not really that much of a problem. Most reasonable people would already accept that they are entirely different experiences, and I don’t come across many people in real life who are that elitist about it.

    I love both CRPGS and P&P roleplaying, but my most memorable experiences by far naturally come from the P&P’ing. CRPGs can be loved and appreciated, but P&P you’re kind of living through it as it happens, with other people right in front of you. If that makes any sense.

    • Langman says:

      Although, obviously a good DM is often the key to decent P&P.

      If you find a ‘great’ DM, hang on to him or her! They’re worth their weight in gold! Perhaps keep them hostage for P&P weekends.

  28. Dan Pryce says:

    Having never tried P&P RPGs before (but wanting desperately to have friends who would play with – not that I’m a billy-no-mates, it’s just that none of them want to be heard invoking a +something of whatever), I’ve always wondered how the experience differed from computer game RPGs. Surely it would no be too difficult to translate the same frameworks that a P&P provides into a game? To have the game simulate the board, the pieces, the cards and everything; but be completely reliant on the players (as heroes and Dungeon Master) to make all the decisions.

    • Vinraith says:


      Actually it’s not merely difficult, it’s impossible with current technology. You’re talking about creating a 100% interactive environment that always responds realistically (or alternatively, always responds the way the DM chooses) to every action any player takes. You’re also talking about 100% freedom of player action, one can try anything that springs to one’s mind in a PnP RPG. At heart, PC RPG’s and PC RPG’s are two different things, and while the latter may have started as an attempt to capture the feel of the former they’ve grown apart in a lot of ways. Personally, I look for PC RPG’s that give me any scrap of that sense of freedom I used to get playing PnP RPG’s, but many console/PC RPGers don’t value that at all (look at Final Fantasy’s popularity, for example).

      The irony is, though, even if what you proposed was possible it wouldn’t accomplish much. There are already plenty of ways to play PnP RPG’s online so having a graphical client, while neat, only really changes the aesthetics. From the perspective of this old PnPer, the holy grail would be a game that somehow managed to capture all the freedom of a PnP RPG without the need for a human DM on the other side. After all, if I had one of those I’d be playing PnP.

    • Dan Pryce says:


      That’s fair enough. Perhaps it’s counterproductive to try and fit the P&P square block into the computer gaming circle slot. At the end of the day, no one’s saying you can’t play both. I say let both be their own sperate identities.

    • Dan Pryce says:

      Identities? Entities, rather. Oh lord, I hope this replies properly.

    • Vinraith says:


      Exactly. At the end of the day arguments like this one arise because the term “RPG” is being applied to two rather different things. They’re both great, of course, but one of them defined “RPG” long before the other came along, so it’s no surprise that people get a little testy about the term being co-opted. I’d love to see the “two RPG’s” converge into a PC RPG with PnP-like freedom, but the reality is that the strengths of PnP RPG’s are hard to translate to the PC RPG experience (and vice versa), so it’s probably best to treat them as the two different beasts they are. It’s a shame it’s probably too late to come up with a more accurate term for the PC variety, it might help quell the kind of outrage that gave rise to this article in the first place.

  29. mujadaddy says:

    You’ve never had your pre-game discussions dominated by 1+ hours of talk about some players’ MMO experiences? You’re lucky, if that’s the case.

  30. GHudston says:

    “In short: the common insult is that computer-role-playing games don’t have any real role-playing, so shouldn’t be called role-playing games. The only riposte is that pen & paper role-playing games don’t have any real game.”

    Is it so hard for people to imagine that we could have the best of both?

    It’s 2010 and the closest we’ve gotten to taking P&P RPGs and Tabletop Wargames online is a couple of instant messenger apps of varying quality with a map and a random number generator tacked on. I love tabletop games but no longer live close enough to anyone who wants to play them, why is there no alternative yet?

    Besides, why do we have to argue semantics and discuss what is and isn’t an RPG when we should just be making games with a complete disregard for genre “rules”. The goal should be fun, not “an RPG but with”.

    The best games that I’ve ever played have been ones that can’t be described as “It’s an *insert three letters here*”

  31. the wiseass says:

    Wow that was one angry article. To be honest, I don’t think the problem addressed here is a problem at all. I mean every single role-player I know, and I know quite a few, enjoys both forms of role-playing, be it pen & paper or video games. I wasn’t even aware that this trench even existed until I read this article.

  32. Ffitz says:

    I stopped reading at “Betty Boo”.


    Where are you, baby?

    • Edgar the Peaceful says:

      Well she used to live in Clapham , so you could start looking there…

    • Ffitz says:

      Splendid! That’s not far from me, so a search shouldn’t be too taxing. I can take one of the pictures from my shrine and use it when I stop people in the street to ask “have you seen this woman?”

    • JB says:

      We used to have so much fun.

  33. TooNu says:

    I feel stupid when reading this sort of thing. The subject has bothered me at times but only when I play Baldurs Gate and think, “This is not an RPG because the story, dialogue and characters were not made by me”. So instead I think of it as a game, a truly wonderfull game but not an RPG.

    RPG is just a title, what’s in a name?

    And again I want to say that reading this makes me feel stupid, how on earth your brain can think up how to string this together and not melt is beyond my simpleton ways. Practice I guess.

  34. misterk says:

    I don’t know, I suspect when people say “this isn’t a real roleplaying game” they mean something a bit more subtle. The genre as it applies to the computer games industry is ridiculous to apply, as it was something of a handle to apply to games that seemed to mimic the pen and paper roots. However, proclaiming final fantasy and planescape as from the same genre is a little bit misleading.

    Regardless, roleplaying games came first, and to my mind DO have some tenants that make them so, that, if I was being a purist, do not apply to most video games. Particularly, utter player control over what my character does, and, much more importantly, says. Games can’t do this without a human on the other end, and it does stop it being something I’d call a true roleplaying game. It doesn’t stop them being good, but it makes them fundamentally different. The point being that in a pen and paper world, you exist in a world created entirely by the gm, but who your player is is pretty much up to you (while existing in the rules of the world of course). In computer games, who your player is is defined by what they say and do, which typically means, that even with the most ambitious game your character is really only one of about three or four types- baron von loony,baron von goodpants or baron von compromise. We can have computer games that circumvent this. NWN apparently does (I’ve never played with humans, don’t know how much freedom there is there), and sleep is death certainly does. I’d actually be happy to call the latter two roleplaying games, because they allow you to totally roleplay.

    I’m not claiming superiority here, but to an extent, the genre of roleplaying games is a little misleading- there is a fundamental disconnect between most of the genre and pen and paper because players are detached from their characters. I love both, but they are fundamentally different on a definitional level which does kind of make me say that most computer rpgs are not real roleplaying games.

  35. Greg Wild says:

    Having discussed this yesterday, and again today after the post went up, I think the summary is blindingly obvious:

    “Real” is a relative term. If you honestly need to differentiate, do it on technical terms – PnPRPG vs CRPG. Bringing “real” into the discussion just drags it into a subjective slugfest over which you feel is better.

    In otherwords: An entirely pointless exercise in which much is said, but the only thing that is decided is that an awful lot of brain power has been wasted banging your heads together.

  36. BigJonno says:

    Interesting read, if only because it wasn’t the argument I was expecting. I’m used to debates along the lines of “Final Fantasy/Diablo/Borderlands/Anything else with stats and levels shouldn’t be called RPGs because they don’t contain any role-playing.” I’ve never really come across the blanket argument that no CRPGs are RPGs; it’s just accepted that, while they don’t have the same freedom inherent to tabeletop RPGs, at least they’re trying to emulate the whole “playing a role” thing.

    I’ve always felt that the biggest problem with CRPGs is the, quite frankly, bizarre notion that tabletop systems need to be simulated, with little virtual dice and all that jazz. As Kieron mentions in his piece, the whole point of computers is that they can do all that number crunching in much greater detail than a human being and much faster. Combine it with the idea that “RPG” means “stats and levels” and you have the current situation where ME2 is apparently less of an RPG than ME1 because there are less visible statistics on gear.

    When I sit down to play a tabletop RPG, I’m there to take the part of a heroic adventurer or a paranormal investigator or an incredibly mopey vampire or something. It’s about being whisked away on an adventure. The stats and levels and dice are there to add a random, dramatic element, but I honestly couldn’t give a shit about them. If there was some way to get the same feeling from a computer game, with nary an experience point or schlong size stat in sight, I’d be there like a shot.

  37. Dave says:

    My P&P gaming experience has actually been mostly a tactical small-squad wargaming thing. Socializing is first, mechanics and tactics are second, and roleplay comes in at a far distant third.

    I would still love to see a turn-based, faithful, by-the-book 4th edition D&D RPG, or one that was well done in 3.5 edition. One that simply provides adventures to play through and takes care of the bookkeeping, without trying to be the be-all and end-all of roleplaying experiences. Why? Because I can’t get my group together every time I want that type of experience. (As hard-working adults in the gaming industry, we can’t even get together online twice a month reliably.)

    Everyone seems to think CRPGs need to be real-time and actiony. I miss the old SSI “gold box” D&D games and wish something like that existed for 3.5 or 4th edition.

    • Dave says:

      …so I guess I feel exactly the opposite way BigJonno does and yet we still are both unsatisfied with the current state of CRPGs.

    • BigJonno says:

      The thing is, I like “tactical small-squad wargaming things,” which is what most combat-heavy tabletop RPGs are when you strip away the fluffy bits. The same way that if you take LARP and take away the RP, you’re basically left with paintball, but with swords instead of guns and huge amounts of alcohol consumption.

      The point is that the “game” part of “RPG” can be any kind of game, not just a small-scale tactical thing. I’d argue that the career modes of many recent wrestling games amount to RPGs with homoerotic, pantomime man-slapping as the game part.

    • Dave says:

      Heh… I used to RP, at least in my head, while playing Atari 2600 games. Just racing pixelated cars in Enduro wasn’t good enough, it had to be to chase down a fugitive or deliver some kind of dangerous something-or-other cross country before it exploded/got loose/whatever.

  38. Malibu Stacey says:

    What makes a game a “Computer RPG” as opposed to it being a game of any other genre?

    Is S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl a CRPG? Are Half-Life 1/2/? Is Portal? Is Bioshock? Are XCOM/TFTD? Is AI War: Fleet Command? Is Sword of the Stars? Is Dwarf Fortress (fortress mode)? Is Left 4 Dead (2)? Is Team Fortress 2?

    • Dawngreeter says:

      In computer games, calling something an RPG is usually just a shorthand for saying characters get XP and develop skills.

    • Tei says:

      Re: “What makes a game a “Computer RPG” as opposed to it being a game of any other genre?”

      I love wen people make these questions on the internets, because Is a excuse to be pedant to the max, and start a post with a definition!.

      Of course, obviusly, … CRPG are games with character progression, the character the player drive gets better with time. As oposed to games where is the player-skill that get better, these are Arcades.

    • Tei says:

      Re: “What makes a game a “Computer RPG” as opposed to it being a game of any other genre?”

      A generic reply would be. As like any RP game. A roleplay game put the player inside a character. The player must play this character or the character he want to become. On a no-RP game, a template his given to the player, and actions, that are external to him. He can’t interpret the character, and give him different actions or motivations. Freeman want to get out that shit, and help the rebelts. You can’t roleplay a Freeman that want to help the invaders control the humans.
      But this definition or difference betwen RP and not RP games is weak, because part of it is given to the player, so the player can “roleplay” inside a non-roleplay game, so is a weak definition/difference.

    • Pardoz says:

      “What makes a game a “Computer RPG” as opposed to it being a game of any other genre?”

      A crap implementation of 30-year-old PnP RPG mechanics.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      Tei you’re completely missing the point.
      The games I listed are all role-playing games. I intentionally left out things like KOTOR, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Torchlight etc because they conform to the “xp & levels & stats & loot” bullshit.
      In S.T.A.L.K.E.R you’re roleplaying an amnesiac in the Zone. GSC are the DM
      In Half-Life 1 & 2 you’re roleplaying Gordon Freeman & VALVe are the DM.
      In Portal you’re roleplaying a test subject (Chell) & VALVe are the DM.
      In XCOM & TFTD you’re roleplaying a military commander & the Gollop brothers/Microprose are your DM.
      Read the intro for AI War & it doesn’t need an explanation.

      Pardoz gets it completely. Just because a game tries to implement the game parts of PnP RPGs, doesn’t make it a CRPG, it generally makes it a game with shitty mechanics. The fact that subsequent games of this genre are hiding, changing or removing those same mechanics just reinforces that view.

      The way I see it most modern games are RPGs, whether you’re fighting 12 colossal monsters to bring your dead lover back to life, pushing a bomb to a point where it’ll destroy a structure, attempting to escape the zombie apocalypse with 3 other survivors, trying to become the ruler of Japan by defeating the other Daimyos also vying for the throne or organising a resistance against alien overlords using only your camera, a metal staff & a glove that shoots purple discs.

  39. Steven Hutton says:

    I suppose the interesting thing here is what happens when everyone starts bringing thier iPad (or netbook, or nearest portable computer equivalent) to the D&D (or tabletop game of your choice) table.

    With a decent piece of software for your laptops (and I think Wizards already offer some sort of online DMing interface deely) you can gain the benefits of a seasoned DM at the hand of the narrative AND the processing power required to do satisfy the gamist/simulationist urges of the player.

    Imagine a World of Warcraft without repetitive quest text. Instead each NPC is voiced (perhaps over VOIP) by your DM as he sets up encounters and leads you through the narrative in real time.

    Hell, WoW is a terrible example for this. Why restrict yourself to the (fundementally not much fun) gamist elements of WoW. Borderlands might be a better choice.

  40. disperse says:

    OK, point taken.

    Let me take a moment to voice my (elitist) point of view.

    My problem isn’t with CRPGs having an XP advancement system, dramatic cut-scenes with voice overs, and freedom in the form of a branching storyline.

    Baldur’s Gate II is one of my favorite games. I generally skip through the dialog and don’t role-play my character beyond thinking up a dual-class combination that allows me to dual-wield Crom Faeyr and the Celestial Fury.

    My problem is with CRPGs being defined by an XP advancement system, dramatic cut-scenes with voice overs, and freedom in the form of a branching storyline.

    When developers forget what CRPGs were inspired by (*ahem* pen-and-paper role playing games) they end up limiting the scope of their ambitions. Games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress have given us a tantalizing look at what could happen if the game stepped aside and allowed the player to create their own story.

  41. Ghiest says:

    I used to love P&P RPGs (shadowrun, mechwarrior were my favourites but also played MERP and Paranoia), but most of my friends who played them with me moved away and it eventually come to the point where there was no one left really. Would love to start up again at some point but it’s meeting like minded people around your area that like 20 year old gaming systems as well as P&P gaming.

  42. Tei says:

    1) Steal underpants
    2) ???
    3) Profit!

    ??? make P&P games superior, because you can’t play CRPG in underpants anymore,

  43. TheApologist says:

    Quite right too, Mr. Gillen

  44. Mario Figueiredo says:

    This is all fine Kieron. And I mostly agree. But two questions:

    1. Are there no connecting threads whatsoever. I can’t draw qualitative comparisons between two genres, or the progress of some genre throughout history?

    2. Does this also include accusing the new of being shallow and the old of being ugly? Or to put it in another way, do I have to ignore my own standards and refrain from commenting based on them?

    Throughout my 30 year old history (really) as a video gamer, I’ve realized three major points of interest:

    a) As I grow older my standards have constantly been changing. Not always (almost never always) in the same direction as the industry. Because the (mainstream, at least) industry is really not very interested in producing content for +40 year old farts.

    b) Despite this, in every moment in these years, say every 3 or 4 years, at least one new game has been able to inspire me beyond my ability to describe it.

    c) I have all reasons to believe, as we grow older the more emotionally attached we become to past experiences and, in consequence, the more value we tend to give them. Because of this, we tend to devalue present work because we simply have a real hard time battling against the “best years of our lives”.

    So I do tend to agree with your assertions. But I do see connecting threads between the old and the new, the FPS and the Simulator, the Pen&Paper and the RPG, the Blue and the Green, Led Zeppelin and Tokyo Hotel. Should I ignore them? Should I refrain from drawing parallels? Should I not have any sense of aesthetics?

  45. Alexander Norris says:

    One is not more “real” than another. Each is its own thing, using its strengths to explore the same idea.

    So your point is that CRPGs are in fact, not pen and paper RPGs. I don’t know how this works as a refutation of the argument that CRPGs are less of a pen and paper RPG than pen and paper RPGs are (which is what I consider the “real RPGs” argument to be about, although I didn’t see the Sleep is Death comments that prompted this so my interpretation of it probably isn’t in line with what is being reacted to).

    The problem is basically one of terminology. “RPG” is shorthand for “pen and paper roleplaying game,” and the people who think pen and paper RPGs are better at being pen and paper RPGs than CRPGs are think that they shouldn’t have to tag those two extra words and one conjuction in front of the term “RPG” just to clarify. In any case, the two are very different creatures (which I think is something we’re all agreed on), and there are some things which CRPGs simply cannot do, notably being an RPG.

    And here’s why I think that: because RPGs are not about character stats, rolling dice, or even about playing a role (if they were, wargames, boardgames and every video game ever would all be RPGs). RPGs are about collaborative story-making. Not interactive story-making, not co-operative story-making – though both of these can be subsets of the collaborative story-making – but collaborative story-making. CRPGs always get the interactive part (by nature of being video games); to my knowledge, they haven’t gotten the co-operative part yet (i.e. allowing multiple players to wield comparable power over the story and work together to make said story), although The Old Republic looks like it might; and they are mechanically incapable of getting the collaborative part right as it stands, especially given the current trend of voice-acting everything.

    P&P RPGs are “real” in this sense, the sense that they are about collaborative story-making, and that CRPGs are not and therefore are not RPGs. When I play a “real” RPG, I am collaborating with other people to make a story. Even in the case of games like Agon or Paranoia or Vampire, where the nature of the game is somewhat competitive, it is still collaborative: acting against another player’s character in order to promote your own character’s interests (even if those interests are just proxy for your interests as a player, as would be the case with particularly bad roleplayers) is still collaborating with them to make a story. CRPGs completely lack this element of collaboration, because you do not collaborate with the developers; you consume the story that they made on their own, without the player’s input.

    Essentially, what this boils down to is the ability to internalise (make your own) the character you’re handed. This goes beyond picking a face and a character class, and into how the game world interacts with your character. In a “real” RPG, no matter how much the DM railroads, your character’s motivations and opinions still have an impact on the game world, even if they have very little impact on the overall direction of the plot – they will change how NPCs and the other PCs react to your character, if only because there’s someone sitting opposite you who can make changes to his characters’ dialogue based on your character’s dialogue. Most CRPGs are like having an extremely railroading DM without any possibility whatsoever of having the motivations you picked for your character matter in any way, unless you happen to have picked the two or three motivations that the game chose to factor in. Without the ability for the motivations and opinions you picked for your character to have an impact on the story, the character is not truly yours.

    This is entirely to do with the format in which this experience is delivered: as a video game, a CRPG has to be made in advance then distributed, and it has to be made on a budget – both in terms of money and in terms of time. This means that it’s impossible for the “GM” (here, the developer) to be there and change the story according to what you imagine your character’s internal monologue is, and it means that it is impossible for the story to take into account enough possible character motivations that the majority of people can feel the characters they create in a CRPG are truly theirs.

    This isn’t to suggest that the human element is mandatory for collaborative story-telling to occur, by the way; it should be possible to create a CRPG that tells a collaborative story, for example, by having a GM involved who can modify NPC dialogue and incidental setting details on the fly based on your roleplaying… but then, I would argue that such a thing would no longer be a CRPG and would instead just be a pen and paper RPG played on a computer. The obvious example is Neverwinter Nights’ multiplayer, which was basically pen and paper D&D3.5 with a more limited set of mechanics, a 3D world and a computer there to resolve all dice rolls. Of course, CRPGs have one big advantage when it comes to gamist or simulationist systems, as pointed out: they allow people to not preoccupy themselves with the actual rules and instead focus on the story-making.

    CRPGs simply aren’t pen and paper RPGs, so they aren’t “real” RPGs. That doesn’t mean they have no value at all or that you’re dumb for liking them; it just means that they’re a different animal compared to pen and paper RPGs, and should probably be called something other than “computer RPGs.”

    Personally, I used to love CRPGs, but I’ve slowly become more and more disillusioned with them, to the point where I can no longer enjoy them. I have grown out of them; they simply do not afford me enough control over the aspects of my character that actually matter (my character’s motivations and ideologies can only be imagined and have no effect on the story, and for them to do so they would have to be written into the game and thus I would only be offered to choose from a very narrow selection of motivations due to simple time/money constraints). Only when they do start offering me this control – even if it’s only the illusion of choice, as described – will I be able to enjoy CRPGs again.

    The irony is that Sleep is Death is a real RPG (just a narrativist one that happens to be played on the computer), whereas something like Dragon Age: Origin or Neverwinter Nights aren’t.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Incidentally: assuming that using computers to play pen and paper RPGs is a desirable thing, I believe it should be possible to make a GM-less computer-based RPG (rather than a CRPG) by offering the player the illusion that their character’s imagined motivations have an impact on the game world. It’s just a matter of adapting NPC dialogue in current dialogue systems to include a player-defined aspect; i.e. the standard save the princess/save the princess for money/don’t save the princess trinity is replaced with a save the princess because A/save the princess for money because B/don’t save the princess because C, where A, B and C are written by the player at character creation, and by restricting the availability of certain PC dialogue choices based on what the player has defined those motivations as being generally indicative of.

      In other words, let the player create a “conversational alignment” for their character which defines a set of response archetypes that are inappropriate for their character to say and thus which the player shouldn’t be allowed to pick, and let them write the “qualifiers” that will be pre- or suffixed to their character’s dialogue options and NPC responses in certain cases. Yes, the strings that pull the puppet are visible, but it should be enough that internalisation of a CRPG character becomes possible (at least for me).

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Your reply to your own post is priceless. My compliments!

      Your post also very well reflects my views of the two genres (Yes, two. They are two different things). But as it is clear by your thoughts and Kieron’s own article, they are comparable. And to paraphrase Hamlet, “therein lies the rub”.

      I’d like to just make a comment to one piece of your post however. Neverwinter Nights clearly exposed another problem with a CRPG trying to emulate a P&P RPG; Investment of Time and Knowledge. With our current technology, it demands a great deal of investment. A lot more that what you and I remember a P&P demanding of us when we were creating our own adventures.

      The difficulty to create a fast paced interface for the GM was also an obvious problem. That and the fact the GM was himself tied to whatever world they created and how they scripted it. Creating content on the fly was either a challenge or simply impossible, depending on your scripting skills. So I don’t exactly agree, CRPGs emulating RPGs have the ability to free the players (and GM) to concentrate on the story. And I’m very positive we are still far from reaching that.

      NWN however will have have a spot on my heart for having tried it. But I honestly think the whole experience was essentially a fiasco.

    • mister k says:

      (repost so iits actually a reply!)

      Well exactly. I say similar things above- they are usually distinct, although sleep is death is closer to a “proper” rpg.

      Now I think about it, perhaps that is the issue. Sleep is death is very close to pen and paper rpgs, by having two players on either side- player motivation and interaction are retained, which might be why some might argue that one might as well play a pen and paper rpg.

      The advantages of sleep, which are yet to be articulated by merely “you can’t see the gm” (its really easy to get round that if thats your obstacle!), is that

      A-theres a time limit, so improvisation is essential, which can lead to strange and unexpected detours (true of course with pen and paper, but the time limit is interesting)
      B-The story is recorded in a format that does not exist for roleplaying sessions. Journals written after the fact rarely capute rp sessions, and filming it would be tedious (it could be done, but would require lots of editing and hard work to make watchable)
      C-Art can be defined by the restraints. The tools for both player and controller are deliberately restricted to a particular style, which forces innovation on the story teller’s part. In short: the medium is the message.

      This should probably be attached to sleep is death post, but never mind!

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @Mario – I don’t know; I’ve given some thought to the time/effort investment required to get a NWN campaign going compared to that required to plot the same campaign on paper, and while my original position was identical to yours, I’m not as sure now.

      Yes, for someone who has experience as a pen and paper GM and no knowledge of the NWN editor suite (or other software required to mod the game), designing a campaign in NWN will obviously take more time and effort than designing the same campaign on paper; that said, I’m sure there are people out there more comfortable with using a level editor rather than drawing maps, writing descriptions and building encounters.

      I think your second point is a much fairer criticism, though – whereas a DM can adapt the rules of the game to his players if necessary, the same level of control is absent in something like NWN. This is something I should’ve brought up in my first comment and forgot about.

      @mister k – Sleep is Death is probably what I would consider an example of a pen-and-paper-RPG-on-computer done right, in that it allows for a roleplaying game to be run across the Internet, much like IM allows for conversations across the Internet, thereby making it possible for people without a gaming group to play a pen and paper RPG. In some ways, it reminds me of something like MapTool but built with being a game in mind rather than being a tool to play a game with, although I’m sure that doesn’t do it justice.

    • Psychopomp says:

      “because RPGs are not about character stats, rolling dice, or even about playing a role (if they were, wargames, boardgames and every video game ever would all be RPGs). RPGs are about collaborative story-making.”

      To you maybe. To some people, it is about the stats, the dice, and the playing. To some of us, it’s none of things, and merely a cheap excuse to fuck around with your friends until 5 o’ clock in the morning.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Alexander Norris

      Very well put, I couldn’t agree more. At the end of the day the problem is the definition of “RPG,” of course. If RPG is defined by the pen and paper game that originated the term (and I know that’s the case for me) then this entire “debate” is openly ludicrous. Furthermore, any attempt to redefine the term (and I have a fundamental problem with doing so) is immediately confounded by just how sloppily the term is used in the realm of electronic gaming, especially these days.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      @Alex: did you just define Heavy Rain?

      Computer games are still a juvenile art form – they’ve got no self-confidence, they try to be things they’re not… see how many reviews use “cinematic” as praise. The purest computer games – Tetris, Nintendogs,Snake – need no such comparisons – they could only exists as computer games.

      Or something.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      To you maybe. To some people, it is about the stats, the dice, and the playing. To some of us, it’s none of things, and merely a cheap excuse to fuck around with your friends until 5 o’ clock in the morning.

      No, the one common trait that every roleplaying game has is that it is about making a collaborative story. I’m attempting to define the term in the most inclusive way possible, not saying that it’s what I most enjoy in RPGs.

      There are statless, diceless and even two-player RPGs, but they all have in common the collaborative story-making.

  46. Tyshalle says:

    Personally, and while I agree with a lot of this article, this sentiment that “Real in a fantasy game is ludicrous” is, frankly, a fucking stupid thing to say. Every time I hear somebody echo this kind of sentiment I basically write them off as being completely beyond help, sort of like you would child rapists or Palin supporters.

    Would the Lord of the Rings movies, which are inarguably fantasy, be less “real” if suddenly the Care Bears showed up and shot rainbow light out of their asses to defeat the dark lord? Or if Aragorn started performing Jet Li-style Matrix action? Of course they would.

    Real is a relative term, but it’s something that can be judged, and judged accurately, even in a fantasy setting. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age probably lend a lot of their integrity to the fact that, even though they are in fantasy settings, they still feel real enough that you can set up realistic expectations for them within the confines of what you know about the real world. Realism still exists here. I can’t even fathom how this is disputable.

    • The Hammer says:

      That’s “realism” rather than “real” though right, Tyshalle? Though I agree it’s rather an unconnected point to make. The rest of the argument would have worked fine without it.

    • Tyshalle says:

      Yeah, it’s about realism rather than real, though I don’t know how to take the “For a Fantasy game to come down to a question “real” is openly ludicrous,” any other way than in terms of realism.

      If he really meant that specific line not in the context of realism, but instead seriously of the “real” tone of the rest of the game, then that’s even more retarded, as every piece of fiction, fantasy or modern, is ultimately not “real.” Non-fiction, for that matter, is still in the eye-of-the-beholder more often than not, and suffers from dubious ‘realness.’

      My point is, if he meant it how I took it, then it’s just a stupid sentiment. If he meant it the other way, then it suffers from being completely meaningless in the first place.

    • Vinraith says:


      Thank you, that REALLY needed to be said. This notion that because the setting is fantasy things like internal consistency can simply be thrown away is both bizarre and profoundly irritating. A compelling universe is a universe bound by its own rules. They may not be connected to the laws of our world, but they have to be “real” within their own context or the whole setting loses credibility and (in most cases) ceases to be interesting. Certainly it’s possible to have an entirely abstract, self-inconsistent universe that’s compelling, but that’s not what’s usually meant by “fantasy” and it’s probably best kept as the unusual treat that it is.

  47. Urthman says:

    There’s one bit that’s disingenuous about Mr. Gillen’s article. He doesn’t acknowledge that the computer RPG people started it.

    When Pool of Radiance came out in 1988, it was labeled “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and “A Forgotten Realms Fantasy Role Playing Game.” It was a lot of fun and contained many elements borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons, but it was not by any stretch of the imagination the same thing as playing a pen and paper game of AD&D. It is no insult to say that the Gold Box games are not “real” AD&D any more than saying that Madden 2010 is not “real” American Football.

    P&P RPGs came first. If computer gamers take the name “RPG” and apply it to something that’s similar but definitely not the same thing, it’s not really a problem — language changes and all that — but it seems a little lame for computer gamers to get offended if a P&P gamer says, “That’s not really what we mean by the term Role Playing Game.”

  48. DMcCool says:

    So Kieron Gillen wrote the article I tried to write when I was 18 (put it up as the first on my blog), but properly. I was petrified my article was going to get linked to as an example of how not to handle the debate, but you know what? I stick by 18 year old me. He was alright.

    I do honestly think the “CRPG as an abstraction of real pen and paper RPG” is a useful way of looking at things. Exactly because the CRPG WAS invented to ape the PnP RPG is what has made the “genre” so convulted and confused. Just because a game uses PnP tropes for its “game” aspect really doens’t imply its carried over any of the narrative or the simulation aspect of the PnP (or isn’t exploring Role-playing in a new way). Its important not to get sidetracked by “purer” translations of PnP roleplaying, or saying one mode is any better than any other (regardless of where it thrives), but lets not presuppose the majority of people making the games, critiquing them or playing them actually knows whats going on. The subject of roleplaying in computer games is perpetually confused, every day thousands of gamers across the globe argue why Final Fantasy is an RPG but Deus Ex 2 isn’t really, why S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Mass Effect are but apparently Mass Effect 2 isn’t, ad infinitum.
    A lot of games are pretending to be something they are not, or at least calling themselves something they never really wanted to be.

  49. Wulf says:


    “For a Fantasy game to come down to a question “real” is openly ludicrous.”

    You have no idea how often I’ve expressed that to people only to get blank stares and anger, it always amazes me how people do that, no matter what the context. Gamers aren’t immune to it, either, because you get elitist pissy gamers getting annoying that a fantasy game doesn’t have realistic combat filled with blood and gore.


    My point is that I agree: There is no true representation of anything involving fantasy, since it is fantasy and not reality that pretty much implies that just about any and every approach is correct. If a Universe has a sea-like space in which one can breathe and witness space whales–like in Treasure Planet–who gives a flying fuck whether that’s realistic or not? Or whether it’s a proper representation of fantasy or not?

    It’s fantasy for chrissakes. The same applies to D&D versus videogames, when representing a fantasy setting, there is no one, true, proper way to do it. Every way is equally valid due to it being fantasy.


    • GHudston says:


      There are also those of us who want realism in the context of the universe that we are currently experiencing. I suppose “immersion” or “believability” could be better words to use, but I like “realism” for some reason.

      I don’t buy the “it’s fantasy!” argument for a second. That only really counts up until the setting has been established and what constitutes “real” in that setting has been put in place.

    • Cunzy1 1 says:

      Someone clearly hasn’t tried the PnP Lumines then.

    • Wulf says:

      “There are also those of us who want realism in the context of the universe that we are currently experiencing. I suppose “immersion” or “believability” could be better words to use, but I like “realism” for some reason.”

      Okay, believability I can buy. It’s like Star Trek, create the the laws and lore of the land, fashion the world and create your own rules, and then stick to them. Sticking to the rules of a world, even a fantasy world which has different rules than ours, adds believability. This does not need to be realistic. Floating islands aren’t realistic, but if that world has well explained ore magically charged with levitation properties that caused the phenomenon, then who gives a toss?

      To cite realism in the face of insanity is just silly, not the good kind of silly either, but a very narrow-minded kind of silly that doesn’t embrace big dreams. A very flat and dull kind of silly. Perhaps the word I’m looking for here is normal. It’s a very real world, normal way to look at fantasy, and that just robs fantasy of what makes it fantastic, wondrous, and absolutely bloody beautiful.

      So you can keep your realism, I’ll have my believable fantasy and be happy with it. Really, does escapism mean nothing to you?

      “I don’t buy the “it’s fantasy!” argument for a second. That only really counts up until the setting has been established and what constitutes “real” in that setting has been put in place.”

      If the reason is well explained and it fits into the lore of the world then–yes–it is fantasy, of course it’s fantasy, that’s what it bloody well should be, and until you fully understand the nature of the fantasy world the author is weaving, you’re in no position at all to question it. If they give you a decent explanation then that’s all that should matter, it works for immersion and believability, they can turn the world inside out as long as it doesn’t defy or contradict what they’ve done previously. A clever writer can create a world that evolves every minute.

      And really, what you’re talking about is ‘reality’, and you can’t bring reality into fantasy, with a plane that isn’t our own you have to let the author paint it for you, and if the author claims this or that is possible, and it doesn’t contradict their own work, then what’s the problem? Believability, yes, but not realism! Never realism, because realism is the bane of imagination. Let the authors have magicks, technology, different realms, and whatever else they want. It is fantasy, it is not reality.

      You know, I’ve encountered this attitude before where people demand realism in things, where they say that if a sword cuts a person there should be a lot of gore, and that magicks should only use the elements (fire, water, earth, and air) and should be able to call upon nothing else, and it really irritates me, because that’s sucking the soul out of fantasy, that’s robbing it of its potential. Let yourself go along for the adventure and you’ll have a hell of a time, or you can be a prissy, uppipty, elitist nitpicker.

      And yes, when I’ve asked people like this for their opinion on what a fantasy realm should be, I almost always get the same damn response: Basically a variant of medieval England, perhaps a bit gritty, and with the odd Dragon and other elements nicked from Dungeons & Dragons thrown in for good measure. And that’s boring. That’s incredibly dull. It’s tedious. It’s unimaginative. It’s not fantasy.

      Go and play The Whispered World, that’s a great depiction of high fantasy right there, at least what I’ve seen and played of it thus far, and you might understand me then.

      But here’s a hint: Fantasy should be fantastic.

    • GHudston says:


      I hope that you didn’t see my last point as evidence of me being “a prissy, uppity, elitist nitpicker.” I could not be further from that.

      I was simply trying to express that a lot of people, myself included, often mistakenly say “realism” when they mean “believability”.

      I actually could not agree with you more if you paid me!