One of the most popular genres of video games today is the RPG. They’re characterised by narrative-driven gameplay, in which the player controls a character or party in an immersive world, levelling up and gaining experience points, often fighting enemies, and acquiring treasure. Such games are one of the oldest forms of video game, and today can be subdivided into categories such as the JRPG, MMORPG, Tactical RPG, and Action RPG. However, each and every one of these games owes its roots to an even older gaming medium, one that is much less often in the public eye: The Tabletop RPG.
Tabletop RPGs encompass a wide range of different styles and game systems, however there are common elements that unite them all. At their core, TTRPGs are a form of collaborative storytelling, in which friends get together to immerse themselves in a fictional world and carve out their path within it as they see fit. The games are generally played pen and paper style, with everyone involved sitting around a table together, and often using a gridded battle map for combat. However, they are increasingly (especially given the state of the world today) played online, using the wealth of digital tools available. A ‘game master’ (GM) controls the overall flow of the game, describing a scenario to their players, who generally manage a single character (PC) each, and who then react to their liking. Participants roll dice to determine the outcome of various actions, and the GM is responsible for adjudicating the results of these actions.
Tabletop RPGs have been around for many years, with the release of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 marking the start of this type of collaborative gaming medium in the commercial space. However, throughout their history, TTRPGs have never managed to achieve the same level of success as their digital descendants. There are many likely reasons for this. Firstly, TTRPGs possibly require a greater buy-in for the participant. Unlike RPG video games, which present a neatly packaged experience for the player to engage with and enjoy, TTRPGs require the players themselves to direct the flow of the game, improvising their own experience. This doesn’t come easy to many people and does require an amount of practice to become comfortable.
A further aspect of TTRPGs that represents an obstacle to players is the forced cooperative nature of the medium. While the cooperation of an adventuring party is one of the greatest draws of the game, anyone who’s ever struggled to find a gaming group knows how difficult it can be to work with; and without that group, well, you’re on your own – both literally and figuratively. It’s also important to mention the effect that the Satanic Panic of the 1980s had on the popularity of TTRPGs, and especially on Dungeons and Dragons. During this time, individuals campaigned against the game and spread misinformation, asserting that it was a satanic cult recruitment tool, and even induced youth suicide. Some campaigners went as far as to set up an organisation called B.A.D.D – Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons. I’ll give them credit for the catchy name at least.
Of course, we know today that tabletop RPGs are innocuous sources of entertainment, and in fact, despite previously mentioned difficulties, have seen somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. The simplified approach of the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, released in 2014, as well as the widespread appeal of live online TTRPG shows such as Critical Role, High Rollers, and Acquisitions Incorporated has led to a surge in popularity for the gaming medium. Shows like these have helped to destigmatise the game and demonstrate that it’s not some weird thing a bunch of sweaty guys do in their mother’s basement. In fact, I argue that any RPG fan – or fans of any type of video game for that matter – can find more similarities than they perhaps expect between the mediums, as well as benefits not seen in the digital space.
Let’s start with the similarities. You boot up a new RPG, play for an hour or two and voilà, you’ve finally finished creating your character! If this is something you love, then rest assured that it only gets better with pen and paper. Character customisation in video game RPGs can range from the simple – such as in the laid-back simulation RPG Stardew Valley – to the complex, as found in games like Divinity: Original Sin II. However, even these more intricate character creation systems can’t hold a candle to what is possible in most TTRPGs. The wealth of combinations of class, background, and race/ancestry, as well as stat distribution means there are almost limitless options for how your character takes shape – what your character is. And as for the who, the only limit is that of your creativity.
So, you can create a more complex character, but say you’re a hardcore gamer, you like nothing more than the tactical challenge presented by games like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy – what does a story-driven RPG played with dice have to offer you? Lots, actually:
Depending on the game system, and the approach of the gaming group, the TTRPG can offer some of the best strategy-based gaming there is. The wide array of mechanically diverse character possibilities, as well as the myriad of spells, abilities, and items available provide ample opportunity for tactical genius. Enemies can be cut down in an instant with a single well placed spell or strike, or alternatively could be reasoned with by a quick-talking member of the party. Whatever solution you can imagine, you can try. After all, there’s nothing greater than that feeling of triumphing over your enemy by sheer wit alone. In addition, the cooperative nature of the game also lends itself well to strategic play; as any tactician knows, the more units on the board, the greater the room for creative solutions.
Now you have a character, and you have the capability to defeat your adversaries by force or by wit, so lastly: what are you going to do, and where?
The beauty of the tabletop RPG, as I hope I have conveyed so far, is that it is entirely up to you and your gaming group. While video game RPGs can be expansive and immersive, and offer choices and branching paths, the simple fact is that they are limited by what the developers thought to design into the game. Suppose you’re tasked with dethroning a violent and ruthless leader to restore peace to a region. You’d love to convince their jealous younger brother to offer help by leading a revolution rather than tackle the leader alone, but unfortunately the game has no such questline and you’re out of luck. When playing a TTRPG, you can simply just… do that. It’s then up to the GM to facilitate their players’ ideas and roll with the punches. To borrow a term from improv theatre, TTRPGs live off the idea of “Yes, and…”. Whatever the players come up with, provided it is reasonable within the context of the scenario, goes.
Ultimately, the tabletop RPG is whatever its players desire it to be. To facilitate this, there are many game systems available today, each with a different focus. I have so far spoken mainly on Dungeons & Dragons, as it’s the system I am most familiar with, and is a great system to begin with due to its open-ended design – practically any style of campaign can be played using its rules, from high fantasy to horror. Though Pathfinder offers an alternative style of play in the fantasy genre, with perhaps even greater character creation tools. Starfinder is perfect for sci-fi adventures that span the galaxy, and Call of Cthulhu assists in running horror adventures of cosmic proportions. While D&D is the most well-known system, likely in no small part thanks to its presence in Stranger Things, and its longevity within the RPG space, there are hundreds of different thrilling TTRPGs to be explored. Whatever your tastes, be they mundane or weird, there’s an RPG for you.
By now I hope to have convinced at least a portion of this readership to give pen and paper a try, even if only to experience the history of the precursor to video game RPGs. So, grab some friends (when safe), grab some dice, and venture forth on a role-playing adventure of your own design.