Video game and tabletop RPG players have always had a slightly rocky history, mainly due to the two play styles being fundamentally different. To an outsider the crossover seems obvious, especially for MMOs that are often based upon tabletop concepts.
Tabletop RPGs focus in on imagination and take place in the theatre of the mind. Games are led by a DM (Dungeon Master) who will tailor the game to the players; often creating worlds, events and stories just for them. This is in contrast to an MMO, which has a fixed story with a schedule and rules that cannot be "bent" to enhance the players’ experience. Instead outcomes are confined to the rules set out in the games code.
While there is some overlap between player bases, there is also friction as to which gives a more authentic experience, with each side convinced that their play style is superior. This hit a fever pitch when Wizards of The Coast released the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, forcing an MMO play style on the unsuspecting tabletop audience.
Are MMO’S Just Watered Down Tabletop?
MMO’s are driven by code, rather than fueled by imagination. When you play a tabletop RPG there are rules to abide by but the DM can be bend or even break them, in order to provide a more engaging experience to players and further the story in a way that delivers on their individual vision.
Take character classes as a prime example. In a tabletop RPG, classes can often be combined. This provides numerous possibilities, for both player and DM and can fulfill a specific story need. In an MMO like World of Warcraft however, you have a choice of just a dozen classes with set rules.
This extends into how you create a backstory and build out the rest of your character. In a tabletop RPG every decision a player make is based upon the characters story. MMOs are unable to provide this level of detail and every player is restricted to cookie cutter characters, with greatly limited options to customize.
One gripe that tabletop RPG players have with MMOs is with immersion, or more importantly the lack thereof. Tabletop for them provides a fully immersive experience, limited only by the players imagination. MMOs on the other hand are not built around this and it is rare to find players who want to engage in roleplay. Most just focus on learning mechanics, grinding gear and or even simply cheating their way to the top.
For some, MMO stories do play a key part. However, it is not that of the players, but rather the lore that surrounds the universe they are playing in. They’re able to complete quests, explore locations and witness key events as the story unfolds – with beautiful looking onscreen visuals and special effects. MMO players feel that their experience is like being in an interactive movie or graphic novel, although the story and setting are locked until the next expansion. Tabletop meanwhile provides an almost infinite number of possibilities and players are able to explore a new world every session.
It's All About The Numbers
We’ve already mentioned the class limits in MMOs but there are also limits to abilities, quests and combat which aren’t usually present in tabletop RPGs.
An MMO forces a player into a set role and guides them down a pre-laid path. Their goal will be to complete the quests laid out for them. Combat focus is based on arbitrary numbers, with only minor amounts of luck coming into play. You progress in MMO’s by grinding. You kill enemies, collect loot and equip it, to allow you to kill bigger and stronger enemies next time and repeat the cycle all over again.
Battles are about number crunching in MMOs. Adding to your gear to boost your numbers, hitting buttons in the correct order to increase damage. All the skill in MMOs is based on “playing the numbers.” It’s learning a series of button presses, rather than making strategic choices in combat. You cannot chose to change your stance or your move and expect a different outcome. The only changes will be slightly higher or lower numbers.
D&D gives you far more flexibility. Not only can your role be totally customized but so can your quests and your combat. A good GM will adapt to the choices of the players, setting out a story which fits their unique characters. Combat is also much more flexible, as players can adjust tactics mid fight and truly work together to combat their foes – and with ultimate power belonging to the DM, numbers can be fudged where necessary to progress the story and player experience.
The Fourth Edition Of Dungeons & Dragons
Fourth edition began after players complained that the rules weren’t clear enough for players and dungeon masters in version 3.5. This led to Wizards Of The Coast moving towards a tactical combat game with light roleplaying, making the game more in line with how Video Game/MMOs are played. When it came out the changes were bigger than anyone anticipated.
Firstly the new edition came in many different books. Rather than having a player guide, dungeon master guide, and monster manual, fourth edition featured several versions of each of these. This made it feel like a cash grab for some.
They had also rebalanced the game from the ground upwards. It was overhauled and resembled a miniature combat game, which many assumed was trying to appeal to the rising number of World of Warcraft players.
The game felt to RPG fans like it focused on numbers, tactics and gearing up, rather than the rich stories tabletop historically focused on. It had much stricter combat rules, meaning players had to make specific moves in order to be victorious.
There was also a focus on miniatures, something which traditionally was used in wargaming such as Warhammer, rather than in Dungeons & Dragons. For a game usually played in the theatre of the mind, the switch to a heavy lean towards physical miniatures was another downside for players.
Thankfully it looks like Wizards of the Coast has learned its lesson with the new fifth edition of D&D, one that focuses more on the core roots of storytelling. It has regained lost ground to competitors and new generations of people have started playing due to a rise in 80’s pop culture thanks to shows like Stranger Things. However, its not been enough to reverse the tide of disdain for MMOs from tabletop purists, a rivalry which also flows the other way, as some MMO players feel that the visuals of gaming cannot be matched by a book and a table.
It's a divide that probably won't be closed anytime soon, although there are plenty of us out there that like both.