Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles by Chandra Reyer and Timothy Connolly examining the relevance of analog games in a digital world.
While much has been written about how alike tabletop games and video games are, not much has been written on how they are different. It’s in this difference that tabletop games still thrive when it was once thought that video games would kill them off. One of the major differences is in characters. It’s possible for a player to customize the look of a video game avatar, but that has its limits and doesn’t explain *why* that character looks that way. Someone could certainly make up a back story for their character, but it wouldn’t make any difference in the game when it came to accomplishing goals and progress.
Take for instance, a recent example. I friend contacted me to tell me her husband was introducing her to D&D and she really liked the look of the Drow when going through character options on a D&D video game. Inwardly, I groaned. Not another good Drow. So many have popped up since Drizzt Do’Urden that you’d think goodness was perhaps the norm and not the exception in Drow populations. I told her to only play the Drow if she had a reason for her to be good and not…Drowish. In the end we came up with her Drow being a good cleric. In addition, her Drow was a good cleric, because she has severe arachnophobia. Also, her cleric was an anomaly among female Drow clerics in that she was very much into fashion and clothing, which evil female Drow clerics are not known for. As tongue-in-cheek as these reasons are, she now has a rather memorable character rather than a drone. If you’re a female Drow drawn to religion and spirituality, but are extremely scared of spiders and love wearing complex clothes, you really have no choice but to leave the underground with the rest of Drow society lives.
This background could have been created for a video game character, too. Yet, in a video game, if this character decided to run from a giant spider encounter, then there is no going forward in the game. With a tabletop game, my friend can run from a spider encounter and this is going to force her to find another solution. Here, the characterization of the character can drive events and cause the game to go into new directions. The game isn’t stalled or at an impasse.
Of course, I’m not saying this makes tabletops superior to digital games, just that it is different and perhaps these differences should be embraced rather than trying to force one to be like the other. Besides, sometimes, at the end of the day, you just want to bash twenty goblins in a row rather than think about the consequences this will have on society.