Gaming: Computer vs. Pen and Paper

This was a response to a guy (named “ghy”) over at Ace who said he didn’t get the whole pen-and-paper gaming concept; that computers could handle the rules more fairly and competently, so why aren’t all the P&P types giving up their buggy whips for the wonders of the modern age?

I’ve played both from about the inception (of both). Not only that, I’ve written more than a few CRPGs. And even though I don’t do much of either these days, and it’s a way bigger deal to get a group together for a real game of D&D, and there’s a huge social aspect to MMOs, there’s really no comparing the two experiences.

That’s not to say that there couldn’t be a remote form of D&D, like Neverwinter Nights tries, and the new 4E D&D’s helper program could facilitate. They’re both sort of approaching the same idea in different directions. Still, CRPGs are just shallow distillations of mechanics (and I say that as one who has played and loved both “Nethack” and “Planescape: Torment”).

As a guy who was a DM (almost exclusively, in fact), I can say that when I write a scenario, I might think of several different ways for the players to handle it, and only hit about 50% of the time the way they do handle it.

I sort of hate the new rules (4ed) precisely because they seek to reduce everything to a computer game.

CRPGs are generally combat-oriented. Go someplace and kill something. Even the most number crunching combat-oriented D&D games are more than that, with a good DM.

A good DM doesn’t do “level grind”. Good CRPGs–actually, many computer games–live off the level grind. That’s their feedback mechanism. RPGs can provide for feedback that’s far less mechanical. When I was introducing The Boy to D&D, he and his pals came across a city of ratmen, where he became a heroic figure. (Later, the party ended up undoing the magic that allowed the city to exist, and he was devestated.)

DMing is part performance art, as well: I once had a game where the characters started in the typical tavern, and never left. It wasn’t part of my plan. I had planned for them to sally forth and, you know, do stuff but they were completely convinced that there was intrigue going on between them.

I wasn’t completely innocent here. The rules said that there was a 5% chance of a particular action causing a demon to be summoned, and as they were teen boys, there was always some smartass who thought it would be funny to tempt fate. I rolled, hit the 15%, and so sent a demon to torment them.

But unlike some hacks who would have it appear and attack–something I knew would just result in its death, and I always liked to play monsters with the idea that they wanted to survive, too!–I had it arrive invisibly. And then throw a gem on to the table where they were all sitting.

The resultant paranoia was consuming. But entertaining for all

So, I rolled with it, and re-used the scenario the next time we got together.

Good DMs don’t let the game get boring any more than a musician lets his set get boring.

Although I don’t play much any more, I wouldn’t trade the past experience for the world. Being a DM helped me think about how the world works. Playing CRPGs, on the other hand, makes me think about how the game works. That’s fun, but it’s not at all the same.

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