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It’s cliché but true that nothing exists in or comes from a vacuum, and video games are no exception to this. Nowadays, video games have become so widespread that the terms gaming and gamers are treated by most as basically synonymous with video gaming and gamers, which is understandable, but certainly says something about but how pervasively video games have supplanted many of the games that people played before the mass production of computers and consoles.
So, for a change of pace, I want to deviate from the standard discussions about video games to instead talk about one of the forms of gaming that existed before and came to be one of the biggest influences on video games even into modern day, that being Tabletop Role Playing Games, or TRPGs.
Tabletop gaming, for the uninitiated, is a form of RPG where the participants meet, either in person or through online correspondence, where all actions taken are described by the players through speech. Within the rules of the specific game, players have the freedom to improvise, their choices shaping the direction and outcome of the game. One player, known typically as the Dungeon or Game Master [DM or GM for short], plans the scenarios and controls the NPCs. The most archetypical example of Tabletop Gaming that most would know about is Dungeons and Dragons.
Some of you reading are probably wondering why I’m blathering on about some outdated form of gaming rather than what’s current and relevant, and that’s because, as I alluded to a little earlier, TRPGs have played a massive role in the evolution of video gaming and is responsible of many landmark developments throughout its history. As much as its important to keep abreast of continuing developments in our favourite form of entertainment, its also important to look back on the origins of video gaming and what lessons have been taken from its predecessors and what other things modern gaming could afford to learn from TRPGs.
Already it will be pretty obvious to many of you reading that the most present influence on TRPGs on modern video gaming is the existence of the RPG genre. The whole idea of gaining experience and levelling up a character over time was born from the likes of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as the concept of being able to build the player character a certain way to fit a preferred playstyle. This particular development has been important enough to modern gaming that many games completely distinct from the RPG genre now include ‘RPG elements’, adding levelling systems or semi-customisable abilities to more standard shooter and action games.
To go into more detail into the RPG genre, games such as the Witcher series, the Elder Scrolls and much of Bioware’s previous library are all heavily influenced by the world building, lore and storytelling that goes into developing a TRPG setting. This is particularly poignant in the case of games such as Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and Planescape Torment, all of which are both greatly acclaimed as classic games and also all directly drawing from existing TRPG settings to make their stories.
This in turn brings me to my main point about the contribution Tabletop Gaming has made to the evolution of video gaming, that being the idea that games can tell a compelling story. It’s no coincidence that many of the most famous and compelling video game stories came from RPGs, as the genre, similarly to it’s tabletop predecessor, explicitly encourages the player to become personally invested in the story of the game as it unfolds. At video gaming’s inception, story, if it was present at all, took a back seat to the action on the screen, being little more than a thin justification for whatever goal the game set the player. Tabletop Gaming meanwhile, all but demands some manner of underlining narrative for the players at the table to get invested, and when RPGs started aping this, story began to play a much larger role in the game, attempting to invest the player as much as the actual gameplay.
As gaming has developed, other genres have demonstrated the capacity to tell interesting stories, though even many of these games usually includes some RPG elements, the Bioshock series, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions and Red Dead Redemption being good examples of these. Nevertheless, the RPG genre was where gaming first developed the idea of telling compelling narratives in addition to providing gameplay.
Expanding on this, Tabletop Gaming added one particularly essential aspect to modern RPG storytelling, in fact the aspect which made RPGs so popular, the ability to make choices. Before games such as Baldur’s Gate and similar RPGs, your choices in video games were at best limited, when they were present at all. Your goal was established, the player character was pointed to the direction of said goal, and really only had one way to approach that goal, usually killing everything between them and that goal. With the inception of RPGs, however, so too did multiple options for approaching these obstacles. Perhaps instead of killing the bandits threatening the village, you could threaten them into backing off, bribe them to bother someone else, or even cut a deal to split the village’s spoils between each other. Indeed, one of the more noteworthy results of having more options was the ability to do the wrong thing, to deliberately not act like the hero the game sets you up to be.
Again, this element of choice taps into an integral part of any tabletop gaming experience, where the players are expected to literally roleplay the parts of their characters and make decisions that are consistent with those characters. This in turn has often led to the players making decisions that the DM was unprepared for, which, unlike a video game, the DM can’t simply say no to, barring some extreme cases. Instead, the DM has to roll with the punches, adapting the story on the way to account for these choices, much like narrative based video games attempt to do, to varying degrees of effect, much like the DMs before them.
Of course, video games inherently only have a limited amount of choices and responses compared to tabletop games, limited only by player creativity and DM patience, but video games have taken on the lessons learned in tabletop gaming and applied it well to the RPG genre. This has also had a knock-on effect for other games, encouraging them to move beyond the simple narratives of ‘save the princess’ or ‘kill the bad man’ of the past, and develop deeper, more meaningful stories, as well as ones where the players are able to exercise some level of control over the events of the story. Though the idea of sitting around a table and playing make-believe for a few hours may seem silly to outsiders, it cannot be denied that Tabletop Gaming has left its mark on video games.