Are Video Games Ruining Your Role-playing?

I love RPG video games, but they might be causing some sub-optimal habits in our tabletop role playing. So what’s a GM to do about it?

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It's Dangerous to Go Alone. Take This (Advice)!​

Way back when, video games and RPGs weren’t too different. The video games often focused on killing stuff and getting treasure and so did plenty of dungeon modules. But it wasn’t very long before tabletop games moved into more narrative and character driven play which video games had a hard time following. While some video games like Dragon Age have tried to mirror role playing, you still only get a selection of options in interaction.

Nowadays, tabletop gaming has branched well beyond the elements that have been automated in video games. For players coming from video games, those elements can cause a biased approach to tabletop gaming that might make the game less fun. Below are some examples of how "video game creep" can affect tabletop RPG play styles and how to address them.

The Plot Will Happen Regardless​

While no one likes an interminable planning session, they do at least remind us that the players are not just participating but driving the story. In a video game the story happens whether you like it or not. You just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and the story will happen regardless. So the bad habit here is a desire of players to ‘just move on’ assuming the GM will just give the plot to them as they go. This often comes unstuck in an investigative RPG where the players need to plan and consider, but it can cause problems in any game. Just pushing ahead will often clue in the bad guys about what is going on. Worse, without some effort to uncover clues, the players will just be floundering, wondering why the plot hasn’t miraculously appeared.

To get players out of this mode the GM might have be initially be a bit more obvious with clues. Almost to the point of putting a helpful flashing icon over them so the players can find them. The key here is to get them looking for clues and trying to understand the plot rather than just assuming inaction will solve the adventure regardless. Once players remember the clues will not come to them they will start trying to find them again.

“Nothing Is Too Much for Us!”​

With the option to save and return to a tough problem, video games offer the idea that any character can potentially tackle anything that is thrown at them. After all, the hero of a video game is a pregenerated character with all the right skills (or at least the means of acquiring them). This is also coupled with the fact that if the video game throws an army of zombies at you, then you expect to be able to fight them off. No problem is insoluble as long as you are prepared to persevere.

While perseverance isn’t a bad trait, sometimes the player characters shouldn't attempt to face all obstacles with brute force. The GM might have put them against insurmountable odds because they should be retreating. They assume putting 100 zombies in the room will make it pretty clear the way is blocked, then get surprised when the PCs draw swords and dive in. Then they are even more confused when the PCs accuse them of killing off their characters by putting too many monsters in, when no one forced them to fight them.

It is hard for some players to realise that retreat is also an option. But if you are used to facing and defeating supposedly insurmountable odds it is unlikely you’ll think of making a run for it. This attitude might also give some players the idea that any character can do anything leading to some spotlight hogging when they try to perform actions clearly suited better to other characters.

At this point the GM can only remind them retreat is an option, or that the thief should probably have first call on the lock picking. If they ignore that warning then they’ll eventually get the message after losing a couple more characters.

“I’m Always the Hero!”​

In many games the player characters are heroes, or at least people destined for some sort of greatness. But in a video game you are usually the chosen hero of the entire universe. You are the master elite agent at the top of their game. The problem is that in any group game not everyone can be the star all the time. So it can lead to a bit of spotlight hogging, with no one wanting to be the sidekick.

That is usually just something they can be trained out of with the GM shifting the spotlight to make sure everyone gets a fair crack. But being the greatest of all heroes all the time may mean the players won’t be satisfied with anything less. There are some good adventures to be had at low level, or to build up a great hero, and starting at the very top can miss all that. So, players ranking at the lower level of power should be reminded they have to build themselves up. Although there is nothing wrong with playing your game at a very high level if the group want big characters and bigger challenges.

Resistance Is Futile​

One of the things RPGs can do that video games can’t is let you go anywhere. If there is a door blocking your path, in an RPG you can pick the lock, cut a hole in it, even jump over it, where in a video game it remains unopened. If you get used to this concept it can lead to players thinking the opposite of the insurmountable odds problem. A locked door means they should give up and try another route or look for an access card. They start to think that like a video game there are places they are meant to go and meant not to go, and that they should recognise that and not fight it.

This might apply to any number of problems, where the GM is offering a challenge but the players just think that means they shouldn’t persevere. Worse, the players might think they need a key to open the door and will search for as long as it takes to find one, never imagining they might smash the door down.

This is a tough problem to get past as it means the GM needs to offer more options and clues to the players. If this doesn’t remind them they can try other things, then that opens up the following issue. So the GM should try and coax more options out of the players and make a point of rewarding more lateral thinking in their part.

“I’m Waiting for Options”​

While there may be several ways to defeat a problem, and the players know this, they might not be used to thinking of them for themselves. They will expect the GM to suggest several ways to defeat any obstacle or interact with an NPC rather than think of them themselves. This is easy to spot as the GM will notice that any clues or suggestions they make are always followed rather than taken as a helpful starting point.

The simple answer is to stop offering options and let the players think of them themselves. After all, RPGs are not multiple choice, they should be infinite choice. So the GM might also make a point of throwing the question back to the players and ask them what they will do about the encounter. The GM might offer clues if asked, but they should try and keep the focus on the players thinking of a way through rather than giving them clues.

Gaming in Every Medium​

The issues above aren’t a problem if that is how you all want to play. But they do put a lot of pressure on the GM to hand out all the answers and takes away the player’s agency to interact and influence the story. So it is worth taking a look at your group's gaming habits, particularly new players, and reminding them that although video game RPGs and tabletop RPG have a lot in common, they should be played differently.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Quoted for truth. I remember playing the old The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth adventure and completely missing that there was a plot. We came to the central room and found this vampire chick, and we had no idea who she was or why that mattered.
I don't remember there being much opportunity for players to learn the backstory actually in the caverns. Either the DM has to info-dump before the start, or it's a DM only easter egg.
 

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I did see a Jedi in a D20 star wars game say "Wtf why not just break out the lightsabers and blasters" in the middle of a port over taxes....
There is a kind of social contract that players and DM need to buy into for the game to work. If you are playing a jedi you agree to act like a jedi. But there is no mechanical enforcement, it's just a social contract. The same as if you are playing a Star Trek RPG. There is no mechanical restriction to stop a PC starfleet captain going in guns blazing, but there is an expectation that the players will respect the genre. If the players don't want to play that way then it's time to get out a different game, or at least switch the focus to smugglers or klingons.
 

Starfox

Adventurer
"Don't worry about the boat, the crew, or the food supply, (the DM) will make sure we get where we need to go." It was clear that they had no intention of managing or tracking their resources, and I would be considered at fault if they were forced to.
I have a lot of sympathy for your players in this case. Some enjoy rpgs as a resource managing exercise, others do not. I am pretty sure others would disagree with other things on the list, or would want to add more complications to the list. Either way of play is correct. In this case, I would say that putting an NPC in charge of resource management, or just saying "I handle this" and then making an Int roll, or even, when the problem crops up, asking to make an Int roll to have managed the problem in the past, are all perfectly viable options.

For me, the bottom line is that the GM is an entertainer. Anything that is fun is good. Anything that is unfun is at least potentially bad - a little bit of unfun can enhance later fun. And we cannot determine which is which here, as it is subjective. If your players enjoy your GMing style, more power to you! But if they don't things may need to change.
 

Starfox

Adventurer
Nothing happens until-unless you do find some loot you'd have otherwise missed, which makes it worthwhile - particularly in 1e (which the U-Series was written for) where by RAW character advancement is directly tied to treasure found. Having some treasure be easily miss-able is a feature of many of those early modules.
I recall how we, back in the early 80s, at the end of the G2 module (The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl) went thru the cave and used stone to mud to shave a foot of every wall to find all the hidden treasures becasue we had become so annoyed at this phenomenon. :)
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I have a lot of sympathy for your players in this case. Some enjoy rpgs as a resource managing exercise, others do not. I am pretty sure others would disagree with other things on the list, or would want to add more complications to the list. Either way of play is correct. In this case, I would say that putting an NPC in charge of resource management, or just saying "I handle this" and then making an Int roll, or even, when the problem crops up, asking to make an Int roll to have managed the problem in the past, are all perfectly viable options.

For me, the bottom line is that the GM is an entertainer. Anything that is fun is good. Anything that is unfun is at least potentially bad - a little bit of unfun can enhance later fun. And we cannot determine which is which here, as it is subjective. If your players enjoy your GMing style, more power to you! But if they don't things may need to change.
This would be all fine and good if everyone were on board. But there was one player at the table who had planned the voyage very carefully, and was cheerfully fussing over rations and water supplies and cargo. They were obviously looking forward to the journey, like they were going to be playing a D&D-themed "Oregon Trail" and arriving safely was their goal. But the other players were having none of it, and eventually argued and shamed them into silence.

Anyway, I made a bad call in the moment, feelings were hurt, and a player left the group over it. "It was for the best," everyone agrees, but: I won't let players hijack my table or steamroll someone like that again.
 


Oofta

Legend
Yeah, I've played in games like that also. The thing I discovered is that when you hand-wave or ignore everything except combat, combat doesn't just become the focus, it becomes the expectation. Like, if I handwave the party needing food and drink, all taverns become fight scenes because why else would the party bother going to a tavern? You'll think I'm exaggerating, but I've actually had a player throw up his hands and say "Look, if we're not going to fight why are we even here?"
I never have the PCs track minutiae like that, for me it would be quite boring. I have to keep a shopping list at home, I don't want to do it during the game. But if I want to play a survival game there are plenty of video games out there. There's nothing wrong with it if everyone is on board of course. On the other hand not having to play planning and chores doesn't lead to more combat, it just opens up time for more fun interactions.

But what's even worse is when the DM never asks you to track this kind of detail and then traps you somewhere and suddenly if you don't have it written down on your character sheet you don't have it. :mad:
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
I don't remember there being much opportunity for players to learn the backstory actually in the caverns. Either the DM has to info-dump before the start, or it's a DM only easter egg.
Yeah, from the player's perspective, the dungeon is:

Get trapped. Find the way out before the monsters/traps/gas gets you.

Even if finding out the backstory where possible, and it's pretty hard to piece together, the players/characters concern is getting out quickly.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
Yeah, I've played in games like that also. The thing I discovered is that when you hand-wave or ignore everything except combat, combat doesn't just become the focus, it becomes the expectation. Like, if I handwave the party needing food and drink, all taverns become fight scenes because why else would the party bother going to a tavern? You'll think I'm exaggerating, but I've actually had a player throw up his hands and say "Look, if we're not going to fight why are we even here?"
I've never went to the tavern to eat even in games where I was forced to pretend to care about rations. I just turned my gold to an unholy amount of rations at the start of the game so I can just minus 1 whenever I was supposed to eat and ignore it.

Then I went to the tavern for character interaction.

The problem there usually comes when the DM just tells you there's a tavern, then expects you to initiate any interactions up to and including having to ask who you see there. When the PCs walk into a tavern, they should at the very least be told about the barkeep, waitstaff and at least one interesting person or group that's already there. Taverns do not have fog of war!

Also, another great thing DMS can take from videogames: Fallout's environmental storytelling. It helps convey the backstory in a place where all the inhabitants are dead or hostile. Have frescos, journals, and set pieces that tell the story instead of the ISO standard adventure info dump.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Quoted for truth. I remember playing the old The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth adventure and completely missing that there was a plot. We came to the central room and found this vampire chick, and we had no idea who she was or why that mattered.
That about sums up my own experience playing Lost Caverns. I-as-player had no real idea why we were there or what we were supposed to be doing; and so I just focused on the small picture - the day-to-day encounter-by-encounter elements - and simply assumed the big picture would take care of itself somehow.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I recall how we, back in the early 80s, at the end of the G2 module (The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl) went thru the cave and used stone to mud to shave a foot of every wall to find all the hidden treasures becasue we had become so annoyed at this phenomenon. :)
Your DM was being very nice in allowing Stone to Mud to only remove a foot of the wall. Usually I think S-to-M is/was supposed to work in (is it 5x5x5'? 10x10x10'? I forget) cubic chunks at a time.

Your DM was being even nicer in not checking on what effect you were having on the structural integrity of the caves you were standing in... :)
 

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