Limited by the Code

Serious Play was born from minds with mixed sets of interest. Between us we are  librarian, anthropologists, media scholars and creative writers. We are interested in games and play, analog and digital, indy and AAA, puzzles and adventures, E-sports and RPGs. So it’s no wonder that many of our discussions center around comparisons. This summer #TheLunchZone took on the hefty task of exploring Witcher III, a massive Digital Role Playing Game (DRPG). Those with the most frequent flyer miles on our twitch stream are Kelly and Nathan. Kelly is a long time tabletop rpg (TTRPG) player, while Nathan focuses most of his energy on digital games, making them an interesting pair as they explore this wild world and all hilarious glitches that come with it.

This last Wednesday, Nathan posed the question, “how akin is this game to TTRPGs?” Essentially Kelly’s answer is that it isn’t. Although it is closer than say Final Fantasy, it does not feel as contingent as TTRPGs played at the table, a sentiment I share. Although the game is somewhat sandbox like, and the dialog is very interactive, it’s not the same, as the player is always limited by the code. Although TTRPGs do have rules, the rules are largely negotiated through play, that is the players at the table decide what the rules as written really mean for the world they are in and the characters they are playing.

Kelly brought up another difference I hadn’t thought of, through discussing the presence of the rules in the game itself. As we have talked about a few times amongst ourselves and on stream, DRGPs attempt, sometimes, to make you forget that the code even exists, particularly games like Witcher III, Dragon Age, or Skyrim. They provide expansive worlds and interactive stories that are meant to absorb you. In DRPGs you are allowed, for the most part, to forget the code that limits you. For instance, unless you are leveling up, you needn’t ever look at your character stats. In TTRPGs like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), the character sheet is ever present, the rule books are on the table, and the dice are frequently in your hands. In a fully theater of the mind game, the only physical representation of your character you have is the ever-present character sheet in front of you. Player’s must be constantly aware of their stats, adding, subtracting, and multiplying damage or skill points as they move through the world. Although they didn’t explore this idea very long it is an interesting one, and ties into an idea I have been teasing out for some time

DRPGs and TTRPGs are both limited. What interests me is how they are limited and when people notice. For instance, I rarely play video games as I have, until recently, found them rather boring. I never found myself absorbed into the story of a DRPG, annoyed by the tedium of the grind. Watching the same cut scene 1,000 times was never my particular cup of tea. I always found myself limited by my own ability and the need for more nuanced dialog choices. Even games such as Mass Effect, which allowed for multiple dialog options, only rewarded taking the diplomatic or violent paths path, swallowing the red or the blue pill. In TTRPGs, ostensibly, the player can always choose to take the path most true to their character. However, that does not take into account the social net that limits a character’s actions.

Where DRGPs attempt to absorb you into the character, TTRPGs have you layering the character on to your physical person, that is, your voice is the character’s voice, your eyes are the character’s eyes. The character sheet, the rule books, and the DM act as the interpreters, one might say the brokers (to use one of Thomas’s favorite words) of imagination, bringing what is only seen in the players’ minds out, sharing it amongst the others at the table. The players and DM have to work together in order to map out the world and the story they are creating. This means that those sitting at the table must be able to agree, at least minimally, on the story they are telling and what world they are telling it in, creating a code with which to communicate.

The adage goes, “Never split the party,” that is the characters in a group really ought to stick together. A character can always go off on their own, as you may have seen in #DoctorsandDMs our DnD 5e show on Mondays, where Ash, Franz, and Em frequently have their own agendas. However, the phrase is indicative one of TTRPGs limitations. A player can choose amongst several paths for their character, however, those decisions must often fall in line with what the other individuals at the table are expecting of them, otherwise it creates social strife that is sometimes played out in-character, but more often than not, creates discord between the players outside of the game (which is otherwise known as bleed, a term that much has been written about). Players are then limited by the social expectations. When determining rules, you are governed by the need for consensus. If we are all playing by different rules, questions of fairness or arguments are bound to erupt, breaking the immersive environment often carefully crafted through group effort, like a glitch in the system you might say. When the horse is stuck in the tree in a DRPG, or one of the players can’t quite make it past their feelings of rule inequity in a TTRPG, play halts until the issue can be resolved. Essentially, no matter what game you are playing you are limited by the rules of the designers, whether a designer creates the code or you do.

Laya Liebeseller – Anthropologist


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