Computer RPGs vs Tabletop RPGs

I Never Asked For ThisGame Theory

You might have noticed the slight Deus Ex theme. I recently managed to finish the game on the uber-hard, perma-death, one-save-only mode aka ‘I never asked for this’. So in this post I’m going to discuss the game theory and key differences between computer based RPGs and tabletop RPGs (ttRPGs)

What has this to do with regular RPGs you ask? Unlike tabletop RPGs, video games usually have a save game feature, if you die, make a mistake or regret a choice you can undo it by reloading.

For some, this mentality has carried over to ttRPGs. I can specifically recall a game of Deathwatch where a players reaction on meeting a merchant was to kill him and take his stuff (which was worthless compared to his equipment). As another player it was frustrating for many reasons. Needless to say it didn’t end too well for that character (or game) but wasted a lot of time. This sort of behaviour is generally known as acting like a ‘murderhobo’.


Whereas computer games can sometimes render player decisions meaningless, ttRPGs usually result in decisions that are important and have in-game consequences. I’m a firm supporter of the games theory which believes that meaningful choices (that at least give an illusion of choice) are what make players happy. In a tabletop RPG if you kill a dragon in a lucky few hits, it is still dead when you leave and return the the area.

Computer games are riddled with funnels, railroads and invisible walls to force players to be in the right place, which we accept because computers have limited options.  If the game doesn’t want you to kill that dragon yet then you simply won’t be able to. Similarly if that door is unopenable yet there’s almost nothing you can do to open it earlier. If we come up with ingenious solutions (stacking boxes to jump over a wall, or taking massive steps to defeat a much superior foe) then we’re more surprised if they work than if they don’t.

That being said, a poor GM might also heavily fudge things and shift the goalposts behind the scenes to overcome player solutions, although one hopes it’s to keep the game and story fun. We’ve all heard of the ‘DMPC’; author-insertion fantasy style NPCs that are invincible mary-sues which ultimately ruins the fun of the players.  On the other hand a good GM can roll with the punches and use what the players throw back to challenge and change the game for the better.

This all leads me, in my quest for better RPGs, to always consider the choices available and to help players with their decisions. Players by mission of action generally want to influence the world their characters inhabit. Even slaying some goblins is changing the world in a small way, so similarly their bigger decisions should have a bigger and more meaningful impact on the world.

This isn’t to say that every time they hit the tavern post adventure that there needs to be an earth shattering choice, but simply that overall players exert some influence on their situation. Even in dark RPGs like WFRP or Darksun, where things are more ‘grim’, players are special and that should mean something.