Tabletop vs. Computer Roleplaying Games

There are certain problems I’ve heard game masters (GMs) of tabletop, or pen and paper, roleplaying games (RPGs) complain about recently that seem to me to have one common source: the style of play they see in their “problem players” is a style of play that works in many computer roleplaying games (CRPGs). If the players are unfamiliar with the differences between CRPGs and tabletop RPGs, they may have no reason to believe or understand that what they’re doing is considered wrong for a particular game. And even if a GM explains the differences, it may take the players some time to get it–after all, some of them may have spent a long time in front of their game box learning their current style of play, and it can take time to learn a new one.

Obligatory disclaimer: I don’t particularly think one kind or style of gaming is better or worse than any other–they’re just different. So please don’t read any kind of “your preferred kind of gaming sucks” sentiment into the following.

A few of the differences you might see

Time vs. Events

The progression of many CRPGs is based on events rather than time. Players are expected to take time to explore the world a bit, find nifty things, and so on before running off to solve the next plot point. In some cases players can really cause themselves problems by not doing this, because they end up not finding the handy items or getting the useful experience that they need to solve the plots. Players grow accustomed to the fact that they can — and often should — ignore a plot point until they feel ready for it, while they run around doing whatever interests them the most.

In a tabletop RPG this is often the opposite of what a GM wants. Many GMs want to create a feeling of tension and deadline pressure. And in a tabletop game, usually there’s a desire for at least some amount of realism. Which means that if the player characters (PCs) just ignore a plot and go do whatever they want, bad things should happen. For example, there’s a monster threatening a town. In a CRPG the players probably have the option of gaining items and experience for a while until they feel ready to fight the monster (and if they don’t do this they may find themselves woefully under-prepared when they take the monster on). But in a tabletop RPG meant to more closely simulate reality, that monster is probably coming for the village whether the players feel ready for it or not, and if they dawdle and mess around the villagers are going to get quite upset about not being protected.

What to try: As always, explain things to your players first. If you don’t tell them that there’s a difference from what they’re used to, they may never come to understand that. Sometimes that isn’t enough, however; as I said, long-held habits can be hard to break. So, make sure that the plots move on without them if they dawdle too much. Don’t go too nuts with this — sometimes it’s perfectly reasonable and even smart for characters to be cautious and take their time. But make sure there are visible, noticeable consequences for ignoring the passage of time. Also find ways to reward players who get involved in the game world and start treating it as real. Give them extra experience points, or give their characters allies who appreciate their help or resources they earned by helping people.

Non-Player Characters: Objects vs. Real People

Non-player characters (NPCs) in CRPGs are often little more than objects. They engage in fairly set patterns of speech and behavior. Players can do weird things around NPCs without those NPCs even noticing unless they’ve been specifically programmed to. Characters can often even do things like wander through the homes of NPCs and pick up anything nifty they see lying around. NPCs are useful as little more than sources of information, items, and plot points in many games.

In most tabletop RPGs NPCs are meant to be much more like real people. They’re played by the GM, who can converse naturally and think and respond as a person rather than with pre-programmed lines. If a PC does something thoughtless toward or dangerous to an NPC or group of NPCs, that should anger those characters and cause them to react negatively toward the PCs.

Some people who are accustomed to playing CRPGs don’t understand that NPCs are no longer objects, that they’re thinking, breathing people with feelings and complex reactions. Therefore, the PCs do things that should get them tossed out of a town or even killed. They do things that the players would never do to other people in the real world.

What to try: I’m going to flog this subject a little more: explain the problem to your players. Next, make sure there are consequences for the PCs’ actions. If a PC casually kills an NPC, then have him arrested for murder. If he takes an NPC’s property, have him arrested for theft (or fined, or otherwise punished according to the rules of the society of your game world). If he alienates the NPCs who are important to the plot, then let him fail at the plot because he can no longer get the help he needs — or at least make it harder for him to succeed, and make sure that he can tell why things are so hard. If one or two players are doing the right thing and interacting well with NPCs, then have the NPCs only be willing to speak with or help those PCs.

Reward positive interactions with NPCs. Start out with extra experience points; some GMs like to use a token system, where tokens can be traded in for perks (experience points, dice re-rolls, etc.). If one of the PCs helps out an NPC, then have that NPC come back later and give him useful information as thanks. Allow PCs who treat NPCs like real people to develop useful contacts and friends as resources, while those who treat them like objects develop a list of enemies. As is often the case, you may find rewards more effective than punishments.

Note that this doesn’t mean that every PC must be a charming, friendly guy with a love of his fellow man. He can be sneaky and manipulative, or anti-social and awkward, or anything else that a real person can be. But it does mean that the players must understand that how their characters treat NPCs will have consequences.

Complexity of Storyline and Certainty of Solutions

Depending on the games the players are used to, they may be accustomed to the idea of a simple, rather linear storyline that is pretty much handed to them, and which they’re more-or-less guaranteed to get through unless they get stuck at one point they can’t solve, in which case they can’t move forward at all. Since CRPGs often require players to be good at specific things (rather than allowing for nigh-infinite creative solutions as tabletop RPGs, at their best, can), they also need to work in a way that makes things easier on those players who don’t happen to be quite as good at those particular skills. This often means making sure that players can’t accidentally shoot themselves in the foot by missing an important part of the plot. It can also mean setting up the plot so that the players can eventually accrue enough items, or abilities, or whatever to move forward in the plot even if they aren’t very good at the relevant skill. It may not occur to such players to try the creative or unusual approaches that long-time tabletop roleplayers take for granted. They may get frustrated when they can’t figure out what’s going on or what they’re “supposed” to do.

The consequences for failure are often different as well from CRPGs to tabletop games. In a CRPG there is one over-arching plot thread, generally. If the player gets totally stuck, that’s it. The entire game becomes pretty useless. They’ll never get any farther or advance the plot any more. In tabletop games the consequences for failure are variable. They can range from minor setbacks to total devastation, destruction, and death. Failing at one plot doesn’t necessarily mean that the game is over (depending on the plot, of course), and getting stuck doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing else left to explore and enjoy in the game world. Players accustomed to the single linear plot of many CRPGs may feel frustrated and angry when they feel that they’re failing, because they’re used to the idea that failure means the end of a game.

What to try: All together now: “explain it to them!” Make sure they understand that they can literally try anything they can think of, even though plenty of those ideas won’t succeed. Try giving them a few examples from games you’ve run or played if they seem to have trouble grasping the issue. Occasionally design adventures that specifically encourage them to get creative. Consider using a helper to give them a few nudges, and occasionally using NPCs to prod them a little (see below).

Also remember to explain that failing at a plot doesn’t necessarily work the same way that it does in a CRPG. If the characters get stuck it doesn’t have to mean that they’re literally stuck with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Failure doesn’t have to ruin the fun. Explain that dramatic, heroic deaths and noble sacrifices can be fun to roleplay. Give examples of stories in which failure doesn’t mean the end of the game. Make sure the players understand that the consequences for failure depend entirely on the plot.

A different permutation: Of course, then there are those players who are used to the idea that death and failure are totally inconsequential because they can just load their save game and keep on going. For these people you need to take the opposite approach, which is pretty much the same as the approach in the section on NPCs, above: teach them that actions have consequences. And if you’re taking the approach of explaining that the consequences for failure vary from plot to plot and can range from mild to severe, that can apply to both types of expectations.

Rules of thumb to remember

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Use your words. Explain things. If you don’t tell your players what you expect from them, you have only yourself to blame when you don’t get it.

Think of it like this. If you don’t tell them how you think they should be playing, then it’s like handing them a complex board game, leaving out the rules pamphlet, and then punishing them whenever they break one of the rules from that pamphlet. This would be considered ridiculous by people playing a board game, and it should be the same in roleplaying games — yet while people explain the basic rules of a particular RPG all the time, they often leave out all the unwritten expectations and assumptions that go along with those rules. It doesn’t help that many gamers think of their methods as “the right way to play,” and so assume that any decent player will already know the correct thing to do. Truthfully, there are so many different shades of behavior in so many areas of gaming that no two groups could ever game in precisely the same way.

So do your players the favor of letting them know what you expect from them.


If you want to encourage your players to create characters that behave realistically, then make sure the world reacts realistically to them. If you’ve already explained that you want them to behave realistically, then this should back that up and help to drive the point home. If your characters don’t behave realistically, then you can’t expect the PCs to do so in return.

Recruit a Helper

Recruit a player with experience, whose style you like, to join in the game. Ask him to suggest creative avenues of approach, steer the other players toward reasonable behavior, and so on. Ask him not to push too hard or take over; you just want him to give your other players a nudge when those players have trouble remembering what you want. Make sure you’ve told your other players what you want from them first, or your helper is likely to just get frustrated when the others ignore him.

Use NPC Helpers

Occasionally use NPC helpers to give the PCs a nudge. Give them a boss who instructs them not to upset the locals when they go through a town (and who backs that up by demoting them or docking their pay if they don’t heed his instructions), or who gives them a deadline by which to accomplish something. Have the occasional NPC throw in a helpful suggestion for a novel way of approaching a problem. Do not overdo this, however. You want this to be the players’ game; you’re only helping them to get the hang of it. NPCs should not become the protagonists of the story.

Respect Your Players

You’re frustrated. You’re annoyed. You think you’ve made everything obvious with lots of hints but your players are too stupid to get it, or too contrary, or whatever.

Sit back and take a deep breath. Different people play in different ways, and those ways aren’t necessarily smart or stupid, right or wrong. It may mean that you and certain other gamers shouldn’t game together, but it doesn’t mean your players are necessarily evil or incompetent. Not everyone out there is well-intentioned, sure, but it helps if you just step back and think about things a little less emotionally. If, after that, you believe that a player really is that awful, stop wasting your time and energy trying to punish him–just let him go.

Keep in Mind Personal Preference

Do try to remember that some of what you might see as obvious could just be personal preference on your part. Lets go back to point one: deadlined plots versus players who dawdle or spend too much time in preparations. Some GMs complain that their PCs just barge in and take on powerful enemies without bothering to prepare for the encounter. Others complain that their PCs prepare too much, and that this slows down the game and keeps them from getting anything done. What you should take away from this example is that many issues exist as continuums–they do not have simple yes or no, right or wrong answers. One person’s proper preparation is someone else’s ridiculous slow-down. One person’s lack of creativity is someone else’s good behavior. It may be worth talking to the players about the issue, and it may be worth using your world to nudge them into different behaviors, but do keep in mind that what seems like an obvious issue of game-play to you might not be to others.

And of course if your players just don’t want to play things your way, and you don’t want to run things their way, then maybe it’s best for both you and them to play in different gaming groups. Hopefully you now have some ideas for fixing a few of the problems you run into, but not all differences can be solved.

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