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Just Die: Against "Real" Role-playing Games

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.

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