19 April, 2016
And, I think they have a lot of great design lessons for any aspiring game designer as well.
A player’s imagination is a magical place
Tabletop RPGs are an experience where you’re expected to believe that they bespectacled bearded guy at the table is a magical elven princess because that’s what he says he is. It says so right on the character sheet! While some people do try to make an idealized version of themselves, you often get people who play characters very different than themselves. As I mentioned before, I chose to play a Lawful Evil “Evil Paladin” not because anti-heroes are cool, but because it was a very different mindset than my own.
Even beyond the characters, you often have to imagine yourself in a completely different time and place. Some games and gaming groups don’t even use battle maps or figures, meaning that whole combats take place within your mind. The imagination is a fertile thing when you give it the right prompts.
And part of the appeal of tabletop games is that the adventures are boundless. Beyond every hill there could be a new, exciting adventure. A cave full of dragon’s gold, a crypt holding a mystery from generations past, or an army marching to war against a terrible enemy. It’s that possibility that can make the world seem larger and more magical than anything written in a book, module, or the GM’s notes.
I think this is important to realize as a game developer. Even with advances in graphical fidelity, the player’s imagination is the canvas you should really be working on. Giving the player hints at something bigger makes the game feel more full, even if the game can’t truly be boundless and some invisible wall halts the player eventually.
Test the rules
I’ve never played in any group where we didn’t agree on some alteration to the rules. Perhaps the rules for weapon speed were too cumbersome to remember. Maybe we wanted more variation in attacks so we added a few more attack modifiers for specific situations. Maybe we thought it was silly that Dwarves couldn’t be magic uses, so we let them be Wild Mages. Whatever the reason, there was usually a house rule or two we came up with and agreed were better than the existing rules.
One reason for house rules is because the rules can’t cover everything. What exactly is the attack bonus if you use telekinesis to hurl the Halfling wielding a pointy broken leg of a chair at an orc vampire knocked prone by a shield bash the previous round? You can dig through the books and maybe come up with an answer, or the DM can adjudicate something like, “Use the Wizard’s ranged to-hit and double the damage on the improvised wooden stake weapon” because it’s just fucking cool that everything lined up that way for that amazing scene to happen. As a game tries to account for all these ultra-specific situations, the more cumbersome the rules become.
The other big reason is that sometimes you want to change the tone of the game. The weapon speed rules in 2nd edition AD&D were probably intended to give some advantage to choosing to use a dagger (damage: 1d4, speed factor: 2) instead of a two-handed sword (damage: 1d10, speed factor: 10), but that didn’t fit the type of game we wanted to play and it ultimately felt like a bit of extra bookkeeping that didn’t add enough to the game. So, my college group scrapped the weapon speed modifiers and just went with initiative. Sure, it made two-handed swords much better than daggers, but it fit the feel of the game and it was one less number to pay attention to on a character sheet already packed full of numbers.
For me, tabletop gaming was a real taste of game design. I would analyze the rules, see how they play, then tinker with the rules if the result didn’t match what we wanted. It’s a way to change the game and see those changes in actual play fairly quickly. I think it’s a great experience for for novice game designers who want to work on their craft.
A safe space to explore
One great thing about tabletop games is that it gives you a little safe space to try out new things. The nerdy kid who gets picked on for being different from everyone else may become a dashing hero in his adventures around the table with friends. Instead of getting frustrated, the kid can learn how to deal with situations in a healthy way in a space that allows exploration of what it means to be courageous and to make hard moral decisions.
I think tabletop RPGs also give a way to explore the world from a different perspective. A boy who decides to play a female warrior might get shocked at how poorly the character is treated by others and decide that sexism is a terrible thing to be countered. The person confused by their own sexuality could play different characters and explore different perspectives and realize the truth about themselves.
One thing I developed from tabletop games was the ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes and see the world from a different perspective. This makes me very empathetic despite being a pretty stereotypical nerd who sometimes ignores the feelings of other people. I’ve learned to put myself into the shoes of other people and start to see the world from their perspective.
No plan survives contact with the players
If you’ve played a lot of tabletop games with a lot of groups, you’ve probably run into this situation. The GM just bought a new module or create a huge scenario and is very excited about it. So you sit down and play it, and at some seemingly trivial fork in the road, the party goes the wrong way and doesn’t even go near the planned adventure. An inexperienced GM will either throw up his or her hands in defeat, or railroad the players into somehow going back on track with the adventure. A great GM will gladly toss aside the plans and perhaps even start spinning an off-the-cuff adventure for the session. Maybe the players will get back on track later, and you can use that module or plans. Or, maybe you pick apart your planned adventure and remix the different elements into an entirely new adventure based on the players’ actions.
I think this hold obvious lessons for game designers. You expect the players to go right, but a bunch of them suddenly veer to the left. Did you plan for that? Can you get them back on the track without railroading them or simply putting a literal invisible wall in their way? Can you use this as an ability to hint at a larger world even if there really isn’t any actual art assets beyond that point?
Gaming is more fun with friends
Maybe this is my socializer bias, but tabletop gaming demonstrates that games are generally a lot more fun when shared with friends. I think it’s no mistake that the best friends I kept through college were the ones I met while gaming. Even as an adult, sometimes getting around the (virtual) tabletop is simply a good excuse to hang out and socialize with each other.
So, what do you think? Have you had experiences with tabletop gaming that have made you a better person? What other lessons could you take away from tabletop games?