RPGs: Bored with boards?

In this week’s RPG article, Steve takes a look at the distinctive differences between roleplaying games and board games, focusing on five core RPG elements.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of everything Paizo has ever published.”

I’m sure there is a point to that parodied quote, although for the life of me I can’t quite state it yet. I just really wanted to use the first line of my favourite novel. Maybe if you reach the end of this article it might, by then, reveal some ultimate truth. For now though, I will start this week with an opinion a friend of mine shared with me not so long ago: “Isn’t all board gaming, heck all gaming about roleplaying? How is roleplaying different?”

I’m paraphrasing slightly (he didn’t use the word ‘heck’) but he did emphasise the words gaming and roleplaying and in his mind RPGs were somewhat redundant, since he chose to play thematic, character-driven games in which he could roleplay. My first thought was to be offended that he could dismiss such a large sub-culture of the gaming world in such an off-hand manner. Then I realised I was no longer 13, remembered it was only his opinion and did what any reasonable adult would do: I proceeded to drown him with my opinions.

Five things immediately sprang to mind that, for me, separated the roleplaying experience from the ordinary board game night. Of course, it wasn’t enough just to state those five things, I had to explain them. I don’t think I did a very good job, however passionate I sounded. So this article is my attempt to readdress the five points I made and try to make a more compelling case for what makes RPGing a unique experience that not even the deepest dungeon crawling board game can replicate (I’m looking at you, Descent!). As a sort of disclaimer, I like all of the board games I seemingly dismiss. Some I have genuine affection for – just not as roleplaying experiences but as what they were designed to be, board games.

1. The Character

Mice & Mystics Cover
Mice & Mystics Cover © 2012 Plaid Hat Games

Mice and Mystics has a cute little band of rodentia, Space Hulk has its brigade of well-armed marines, and Descent has a disparate posse of folklore adventurers. The characters are represented by plastic models and defined by player mats full of stats and skills. They, like many other board games, have mechanisms for gaining points that can be spent to upgrade your party, bettering their stats and claiming newly learnt abilities. New equipment and harder, stronger, faster heroes will help you overcome bigger and badder bosses throughout extended campaign settings. There are plenty of games that don’t even purport to be roleplaying experiences that require a hero to be generated by the player during set up. Heroes Wanted, for example, involves you combining cards to create characters. I picked this game because it does more than most to get you into the spirit of roleplaying the characters to get the most out of the experience – the quirk cards and catchphrases see to that.

Nothing though, can better the character sheet. Not an amazing likeness moulded from plastic. No amount of beautifully rendered tokens and equipment cards. Pencil and paper. That’s all you need for a true roleplaying experience.

Everything you need to know about your character is contained on those pages but often extends far beyond the margins of what an A4 sheet of paper can contain. The essence of RPGing is the fun and excitement that lies in reading between the lines, thinking outside the box. A character sheet is a framework, just a guideline. A dungeon-crawl board game is restricted by what the character card says the player can do. If the player mat says your figure can move 4 spaces, guess what, you’re not going to be allowed to take a skill check to see if you can sprint ten feet further. Likewise, that orc on the corner square of the corridor tile is not going to acquiesce to your request because you decided to charm the lad instead. Your player mat states you have two options right now, combat or run. There is no point in using your gaming smarts to try and outwit him – fight or flight, remember. And don’t even think about the player controlling the evil creatures putting on a creepy voice for the necromancer in the final room. All he has to do is check line of sight and roll a bunch of dice to see if his fireball hits you.

You will notice I didn’t use the term dungeon master (DM) or games master (GM) for the player controlling the evil creatures. More on why later.

The character summarises everything about the roleplaying experience. It requires you to know that person, their history and their personality. But you learn and grow with it, a symbiotic relationship that would be wholly inappropriate and unhealthy if the character were a real person. They take on bits of you, ultimately because you’re the one that makes their decisions. Sometimes their judgment is better than your own; their morals more principled, their efforts more scrupulous. Occasionally they can make choices you could never dream of making in real life. No matter how deep the game play, board games offer a limited range of options that pales in comparison to an RPG. I will not be swayed by die-hard board gamers on that.

2. The Equipment

How is roleplaying different to board gaming? Look inside the box. If there is a box. Otherwise you are just going to have to look inside the book instead. There are of course plenty of RPG systems that offer maps and modular boards but I tend to find them restricting and unnecessary. The most amazing thing about great systems is how little information a rulebook needs to give a player before it is playable. The Fate Accelerated and Fiasco core books are a fine example of succinct brilliance.

You need enough information to generate characters, pick up a few rules for defining the success of actions within the game and some details to immerse the gaming group into the world their characters inhabit. That’s it. This can be done in one book or through a library of rulebooks, source materials, campaign modules, monster bestiaries, faction guides and universe almanacs. Despite the voluminous tomes of some campaign settings and the vast array of rules in others, I genuinely find myself consulting the rules less at an RPG table than when board gaming. I find there are far more ambiguous rules and frequently asked questions in board game rulebooks. It’s not that roleplayers don’t care about getting it right, it’s just not the most important thing – and it won’t break the game if you get a few things wrong from time to time.

A picture paints a thousand words, so the saying goes, but I doubt anyone would argue that the contents of a board game (no matter how competently rendered) provides the same setting and immersion than an RPG source book. Besides, whatever word wizardry is conjured by a beautiful game board is nothing compared to the verbosity that rumbles around a roleplaying group. With a board game you are once again bound by what the components show. They are your every reference tool to transport you to that universe. If an RPG doesn’t tell you what that particular part of the universe is like, you make it up. It isn’t a hindrance when something is badly illustrated or poorly described. Lack of description of an RPG setting can have quite a liberating effect. Now you belong in that universe, because you all helped create and define it.

Other equipment used when roleplaying have greater synergies with board gaming. Multi-faceted dice, decks of cards and boxes of plastic or cardboard pawns are by no means irrelevant. Almost all RPG systems use dice. The RPG world has claimed some dice almost exclusively: d20s are largely associated with roleplaying. But this extra paraphernalia, to be packed into your bundle of holding every game night, does not define the game experience. I have played RPGs in the d20 system without using a single dice and rarely do I bring maps or miniatures to the table. Now tell me you could enjoy Dominion without a deck of cards or any of the million and one zombie games on the market without a horde of plastic undead. When a game is defined by its pieces then the imagination and creativity of the players is confined by those same pieces. This makes roleplaying very different from board gaming.

3. The DM

I said earlier that I had not referred to the player controlling the evil creatures in a board game as a dungeon master or games master. For the simple fact that they aren’t. To be master of any setting, the DM has to control all aspects of the game. They describe what is going on for the players, establish what they can see, hear and do. The DM controls the narrative flow and provides the circumstances, in which the players can communicate, collaborate and act. But they aren’t just acting against the players as the rules lay out they must. They are arbiters, there to bring balance and fairness. Rules are just as likely to be abandoned by the DM when they restrict or conflict with the narrative. They are the master storyteller, there to facilitate the enjoyment of the group and challenge their gaming skills.

Blackmoor Supplement Cover
The original Blackmoor supplement (TSR, Inc., 1975)

This is not what a player does when they take on the role of the bad guys in a board game. In this circumstance they are more often than not playing directly against the other players. Ergo they are trying to win the game as much as the players controlling the good team. This is not what TSR intended when they invented the title of DM for their second supplement, Blackmoor, back in 1975. Therefore this type of player role is not strictly a DM or GM; they are a player who happens to be on the opposing side.

There is a great deal more expected of a DM in a roleplay game than of any single player in any board game. They create and run the adventures, even when they are using module books containing pre-prepared settings and campaigns. A DM must use a certain amount of discretion and can never rely wholly on what the book tells them to do. Bear in mind that a player playing against a group of others in a board game is told what their objective is to win, or at least, end the game. The DM must bring the players to certain breaks in the narrative where the session can end and be picked up again at a later date. A campaign-based story board game such as Mice and Mystics will tell you where to start and stop, so that the narrative can flow next time. You are unlikely to ditch a chapter half way through but may well retry the chapter if it ends in failure. With an RPG session there is no ‘half way through’ and there is rarely a chance to go back and try something again. The narrative is constantly evolving, a character is not likely to reset and restart. This is a lot of responsibility to be borne by the DM but also an immensely fulfilling and exciting one. Recreating the DM experience has been out of the reach (and remit) of any board game I have ever played.

4. The Journey

The destination is not the prize; it is the journey that is important. Never has a truer word been spoken in reference to roleplaying. Yes, it’s great to kill the bad guy and claim his gold, or rescue the princess, or destroy the enemy space fleet. But the how and why of what got you there means so much more. For the simple reason, that you invest so much in the journey itself. How often do you play a board game where you aren’t constantly checking the win conditions? The rulebook tells you the objective and how to win the game before it divulges anything else. Character development is often a means to an end, rather than the reason for playing.

There is a depth of experience that far outweighs any board game I have played – and I’ve played some pretty long wargames in my time. Europe Engulfed is an epic experience that took me almost an entire week to play solo. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But then I packed away all the pieces and it hasn’t returned to the table since. It isn’t likely to either. A very good friend constantly remarks about how they dislike long, drawn-out games. Our gaming sessions gravitate towards the short and sharp (done within an hour) whenever possible. But he seems just as eager to roleplay as I do. Keep in mind that RPG sessions tend to last for at least two hours and can be considerably longer. Not to mention they are often revisited over several sessions.

I wager that the cinematic expanse and theatrics of the epic novel we are telling is what keeps us coming back for more. Roleplaying is the closest 99.9% of us will come to writing our Lord of the Rings. And with the multitude of RPG universes, these ambitious bestsellers could just as easily be from the pen of Frank Herbert, H. Rider Haggard or Geoffrey of Monmouth. A board game will largely require you to tell the story it needs you to tell for it to have any truth. Unless you’re playing a storytelling game such as Tales of the Arabian Nights or Trzewiczek’s Robinson Crusoe (and playing it damn well, I might add) then you’ll find most board games fall flat on the narrative front.

A board game needs you to get from A to B, where B is the list of winning objectives. Ok, so you might be able to go via C and D to get there, but B is where you’ll have to end up. In a great RPG there is no B. Well, of course there is a B, but it isn’t the end of the game. There will eventually be a Z and the DM might possibly plan what that will look like from the outset. But you’ll have to go through the rest of the alphabet to get there and almost always Z will change (have to, in fact) to accommodate the changing characters and their achievements and failures. No board game offers that. Period.

5. The Players

I spent the entirety of my last article talking about roleplayers and their many foibles. I shan’t retread too much old ground, enough to say that different gamers bring different flavours to an RPG session. They can to a board game night too but there are still many more boundaries for them to work within. The true nature of gamers and their ability to express themselves will be limited by the board, the rulebook, the objectives and the highly structured character (faction, army, corporation) they pull out of the box.

So no, not all gaming experiences involve roleplaying. I would go as far as to say such an insignificant number of board games offer any semblance of true sandbox roleplay that they aren’t worth counting.

A somewhat off-message conclusion

I think I’ve said enough about how roleplaying is a distinct entity. I’ve expounded sufficiently about why board games and RPGs are not the same experience, and why the former can never truly be the latter. Since it’s my article and there is no board gamer with their opinion to interrupt my flow, I have one final point.

It is not unique to roleplaying that someone with a deep interest in the hobby would want to buy every product available. Many, many board gamers have the same ‘must have all the shiny’ mentality. Same goes for miniature hobbyists, stamp collectors and old ladies with houses full of cats. But there is something, in my view, that is distinctive about the RPG collector. The universal acknowledgement I shoe-horned in at the beginning to satisfy my desire to be both erudite and droll does have a ring of truth to it. I’m not saying that every roleplayer is a single man or indeed independently wealthy. I am one but not the other (I will leave you to suppose which) but the large proportion of roleplayers I have come across and played with do own every written resource available for their favourite system or brand.

PathfinderRPG Logo
PathfinderRPG Logo © Paizo Publishing

Paizo, publishers of the Pathfinder RPG, have several distinct products in their range. They sell the hardback Core books, Adventure Paths, Modules, Scenarios, Campaign Settings, card decks, pawn boxes, miniatures in different iterations, maps, dice, novels, comics, audio dramas and apparel – not to mention a huge range of third party products through their Compatibility License. Paizo’s range is so extensive and relentless that they have a subscription service for each product type. If there had been a drop off in quality then these ranges would have stopped by now. There is little doubt as to its enduring popularity, based predominantly on the continued excellence of the writing, artwork and value – both in terms of affordable price points and added gameplay. There are very few board games with this level of monetary commitment on the part of the player.

Even allowing for Kickstarter projects such as Zombicide and Heroes of Normandy, whose business model is based on feeding the market with as many expansions as they can manage to produce, there are few companies that operate like an RPG publisher. Descent and X-Wing are good examples of collectable miniature games and trading/customisable/living card games like Android: Netrunner and Magic require a not-insignificant investment. But they still don’t produce expansions anywhere near the quantity of a company like Paizo, for example. No, not even the market-flooding might of Magic: The Gathering.

Oh, and they still aren’t roleplaying games.

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