From Paper to Data: The Digitisation of Tabletop RPGs
RPGs past, present and future, in conversation with Wargamer.com's Alex Evans
Tabletop RPGs and their digital cousins share a common history. Before the advent of video games, storytellers were forced to tell stories with imagination alone.
However, with the birth of what is now called the CRPG in the 1980s and 90s, dungeon masters were given a new medium through which to tell their stories. Starting with Ultima 3 and epitomised by Baldur's Gate, these early CRPGs sparked a revolution in storytelling and narrative design.
Both CRPGs and tabletop RPGs have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. With the popularisation of Dungeons and Dragons through celebrity campaigns like Critical Role and the emergence of modern CRPGS such as Divinity 2: Original Sin, both mediums have enjoyed a meteoric resurgence.
However, with technology evolving far beyond the wildest dreams of those 1990s RPG pioneers, new questions about the future of both genres emerge. Is a sufficiently complex online tabletop environment a CRPG in all but name? Are the two mediums heading for a convergence? Are we heading towards some kind of nerd singularity?
A Brave New World?
At WASD, a recent London-based video games convention, I was lucky enough to sit down with Wargamer.com's Alex Evans, who not a day before, led a panel on the digitisation of tabletop RPGs.
In the dingy, but mercifully quiet press lounge underneath the main convention, we talked at length about the past, future, and present of RPGs, both classic and tabletop.
For Evans, Baldur's Gate 3 is a source of immense excitement:
"I loved isometric CRPGs when they were old and ugly, but this one is new and pretty, and actually very close to D&D. Unlike most of the others, it is explicitly built on D&D rules with some Larian tweaks, but it's real cool."
However, it's in the tweaks that we see some of the more ironclad boundaries between CRPGs and their corporeal siblings. The tweaks in Baldur's Gate 3 are numerous. Using lines instead of grids, altering the coefficients behind spell damage and the elimination of alignments may all seem like relatively minor changes, but they serve to smooth out the experience – a vital step when recontextualising D&D into the digital medium.
However, this does not necessarily mean that the digital and physical versions of the game will inevitably converge. As Evans continued:
"There is always a point where you get diminshing returns, where the tabletop version of Dungeons and Dragons, because it lives in the collective imagination of several people with brains who are building it around themselves and a GM who can create more story. They will always have more scope than a computer game."
He concluded that convergence would only be possible with "an infinitely powerful AI." We agreed that this would be a bad turn of events since neither of us wanted to be turned into paperclips.
A Separation of Powers?
If there is a fundamental incompatibility between CRPGs and TTRPGs, it manifests in this "diminishing returns" factor. No matter how advanced and glowy your graphics card may be, it cannot be a substitute for the human brain.
However, digital tools for TTRPGs have seen increasingly widespread use, especially in these strange times of social distancing and isolation. Platforms like Roll 20 and Foundry Virtual Tabletop have allowed players and DMs alike to keep games rolling over the internet.
However, these tools are often far from perfect. As Evans put it:
"Even though Roll 20 is very popular, and it's currently the most popular platform, even the keenest users of it, like me would say: it's pretty scrappy."
"Pretty scrappy" could be considered a generous assessment. Though Roll 20 is an extremely useful tool, it is clunky and suffers from an extremely counterintuitive interface.
However, it doesn't always have to be this way. Evans spoke fondly of his co-panelist, Adam Bradford.
"Adam Bradford, having made D&D Beyond, is now focused on creating platforms for playing TTRPGs remotely that are genuinely immersive."
D&D Beyond, for those not in the know, is a powerful tool, licensed by Wizards of the Coast which allows players to build and track online character sheets as well as run combat encounters on the fly. Though more limited in its scope than Roll 20 (not to mention only confined to D&D), it is powerful and intuitive.
Demiplane, Bradford's new TTRPG tool, though not necessarily a direct competitor with D&D Beyond, aims to provide DMs and players with a new, intuitive set of tools.
If digitization cannot accurately replicate the TTRPG experience, perhaps, with tools like Demiplane, it can gently help it along.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Evans what the future holds.
"Lots of people are exploring different variants on creating virtual tabletops that are pretty, that are three dimensional rather than two dimensional. There's argument as to whether or not that's the right thing and whether it makes things too much like a video game. There's a general consensus that, if you make a digitized TTRPG into a genuine video game, where you are asking GMs and players to pre-program things, then that's going to be a negative thing that'll strip the creativity."
There will always be tensions between competing views of what an RPG should be. The line between "useful tool" and "creative constraint" is not only very fine but clearly varies from person to person.
Mirrorscape, championed by actor Joe Manganiello, is an attempt to offer a comprehensive Augmented Reality suite to players and GMs, allowing them to tell their stories within virtual reality.
Evans shared his thoughts:
"[It is] the same game, but entirely aided by tech - entirely populated by tech - and that idea seems exciting to me, but I think we're a little way off of it working fully, yet. The pitfall of it is that to simplify the creation incurs the risk of creating what is just a video game."
However, though receptive to the problems that might be inherent in a system like Mirrorscape, Evans did not deny the potential existence of a "holy grail" that could offer a "large library of design assets" without sacrificing the "flexibility" required to "create your own imagined universe".
"That would be very exciting, and I've still got a little back pocket bet that Larian are going to try something like that with Baldur's Gate 3."
At the close of our conversation we agreed, that despite the limitations of systems like Mirrorscape, the future for TTRPGs and CRPGs alike is bright and full of potential. Though we stand on the cusp of a whole array of dizzying technological innovations, the storytelling and passion that brings any RPG to life is as abundant as ever.
There has never been a better time, on paper or on a PC, to roll up a character and go out in search of adventure.
Cat Bussell is a games journalist and reluctant academic. She plays Paladins and thinks 'Lawful Stupid' isn't an insult, but a goal.
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