Desktop Killed The Tabletop Game

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 11, 2009

On August 1, 1981, MTV played their very first music video, Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. What does a song from the 80s have to do with Dungeons & Dragons? Perhaps more than we know. This month’s blog carnival, hosted by Role Playing Pro, is about the future of RPGs. As our contribution, the Dungeon’s Master team wants to focus on technology and what it means for the future of RPGs and D&D in particular. Much has already been written on this topic and our intent is not to repeat or regurgitate old arguments. In stead, I intend to add to the conversation and provide our particular point of view.

Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind we’ve gone to far

Video Killed the Radio Star, The Buggles

When Wizards of the Coast announced 4e D&D they also announced the Dungeons & Dragons Insider. Dungeon and Dragon magazines would move online and a host of tools would be released for DMs and players. When WotC – the industry leader in RPGs – says they will be providing content on a digital platform it indicates that change is in the wind. Now, I’ve criticised WotC previously about the DDI and I won’t rehash that argument here. However, it is my firm belief that the future of the RPG industry rests with the expansion of technology. In other words, the desktop will kill the table top.

The first hint at this came from the computer game Neverwinter Nights. It offered a DM toolset that allowed DMs to create their own modules to run their characters through. While I don’t think Neverwinter Nights changed the RPG industry, it certainly indicated that running a session of D&D through the computer was possible.

My gaming group has met faithfully every Sunday night for the past ten years. During the past four years I can’t remember a session where at least one laptop wasn’t present during the game. More often than not there are six laptops sitting on the table. There is no paper map and there are no minis present.

This change began when the group played its first Eberron campaign. I was the DM and I was looking for some interesting maps. I found more than I ever needed online; the challenge was the scale of the maps and the amount of ink I would need to print them out. I realized that I was either going to have to draw maps myself or find another way to make things work.

Enter MapTools published by MapTools is a free, java based mapping program. You can create maps in the tool or import pre-made maps and then populate them with monsters. It has a slew of functions that allow you to track the various conditions that are part of the 4e game. Add in some macros and you can automate your hit roles, track your damage, healing surges and action points.

This has changed the way my gaming group plays D&D. Some of our members have moved to other cities or started families, and using this tool means we can still play as a group. When my son was born I wasn’t able to play in person for over a month. However, I played remotely every Sunday night because MapTools allows you to set up a sever. The macro system allows online players to roll in the tool so their die roles are never questioned. To make it even better, if I had to assist with my son while playing remotely, someone else can run my character for me. So the group doesn’t suffer for my absence.

When WotC announced the Virtual Tabletop I looked forward to a whole new way of gaming. While my expectations might have been crushed, I realize that the conversion to the desktop won’t be an overnight phenomenon. It’s going to take time; new advances in the technology will need to be introduced slowly.

My arguments for the advancement of the desktop should not be mistaken for a belief that the tabletop game will die or disappear. Nor do I believe that support for it from the major players in the RPG industry will end. It is still, and will continue to be, a lucrative market. When we consider the music analogy we all know that radio still exists. The radio plays in the background of every waiting room and in every car driving down the freeway. Radio is still a large part of our everyday existence.

However, the introduction of video catapulted radio stars into a new dimension of celebrity. It created the celebrity industry that we have today and it allowed the product, in this case music, to be more accessible to its audience. This is what I believe technology has the potential to do with RPGs. Technology will introduce RPGs to new players; it will keep the industry alive and growing. If industry leaders like WotC can keep the momentum going others will follow. If they don’t, third party publishers will do the job for them.

In the words of an eighties pop band “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone to far.”

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1 Lurkinggherkin May 11, 2009 at 7:30 am

I beg to differ – video didn’t catapult radio stars into a new dimension of celebrity, unless they looked good. The advent of the music video was a big handful of nails on the coffin lid of musical integrity.

I sincerely hope that the RPG industry can do better than to follow the model of today’s celebrity industry that encourages people to idolise a bunch of highly photogenic but talentless idiots.

By the way, I’m not some anti-tech luddite (far from it). But too many people get hypnotised by the shinyness of the new, as if new technology is automatically a good thing regardless of the way in which it’s used.

I appreciate that you haven’t said that tabletop gaming will die and you’re just making a case for greater computer assistance for the tabletop gaming style, and I don’t have a problem with that in principle. I just don’t think that what’s happened to the music industry since the 80’s onwards is any kind of a good advertisement.

I think the future of digitally assisted gaming lies with the open source model. Open source is slowly eating into Microsoft’s cash cows of Office and Windows – though old habits die hard and many people use pirated copies of Office for free anyway, otherwise its death would proceed even more rapidly. I believe that any sort of open game table offered by Wizards as a subscription service has a limited lifespan as a viable business model – someone, somewhere will develop open source code that does the same thing. Before long there’ll be a whole server stack you can install on a home machine to run your own personal virtual world. Subscription services will then only make sense for people who want to play massively multiplayer style….then you need something more upscale.

But you want to roleplay, right? 😉

Lurkinggherkin’s last blog post..The Trap

2 j_king May 11, 2009 at 8:29 am

Well I think the technology has been more present than many realize. People have been running RPG games over IRC for ages and MUDs have been developed based on many TTRPG games. Even blogs like this are a part of the extended virtual table. I’ve found many useful tools like character sheets and encounter sheets for enhancing my games through them. Technology has already changed the table.

I’m a programmer myself and am working on more tools to enhance the table top game. I want to create tools which can manage my campaign notes both geographically and textually and can hyper-link in encounters and dungeons of my creation and run them as we play. The problem I have been having and witnessing is “rules chatter.” Any sufficiently long battle will start off with embellishing descriptions of actions and creative decisions but certainly devolves into long chains of modifiers, statuses, and kills the excitement. It’s my hope that a computer tool can remove the need for monitoring all those statuses, modifiers, initiative orders, readied actions, and so forth from the table so that we can focus on smiting ogres and bull-rushing mind-flayers down wells.

The rules make the game a game, but computers are so much better at keeping track of them. Why not exploit that? I’m sure it will make my games much more fun and feel more like story-telling than knit-picking.

3 Stuart May 11, 2009 at 9:23 am

The RPGs on the Computer bus left the station a long, long time ago. Just because some people in the RPG book publishing biz recently realized they wanted some of that sweet, sweet money it doesn’t really change history. 😀

If I want to play an RPG on a computer… like I did with Vampire back in the 90s… I’d do it. If I want to meet up with my friends, roll some dice and have fun – then I don’t need (or want) a computer for that. 🙂

Stuart’s last blog post..4eroes of Falconcrest – Part 1

4 The Recursion King May 11, 2009 at 10:49 am

I agree with Stuart.

My own gamer group is growing, I started with only one player six months ago and now there are six others and myself. None of them use laptops, although there was a point when one of them brought one in for a couple of sessions, he soon fell back on pen and paper. I myself, as the DM, use a netbook and (being a programmer) a number of computer programs I have made to do such things as generate a full encounter, with treasure, distance, reaction and so on, at the click of a button. I use the computer only to get instant answers and keep the action moving – very useful for the sandbox campaign I’m running. I also use a custom initiative program I created for our house ruled ‘four phase initiative system’ and do searches in pdf’s to find answers to rules questions.

Everyone else, though, is using pen and paper and dice rolled in front of the rest of the group. We use minis in combat, too.

So, computers will not kill the tabletop game like your headline states. They’re just another tool.

The Recursion King’s last blog post..Low ability scores

5 Wyatt May 11, 2009 at 4:29 pm

While I don’t agree they will kill anything, I do prefer them to meeting in person, which often involves too much hoopla I’ve no time to set up. With a computer and the internet, I can just send an email, IM or text, ask people what’s up and start the game right there. No driving involved, don’t have to put up with other people’s homes and family situations, don’t have to contribute to the snack pool. So in that, I agree with everything else you said.

Wyatt’s last blog post..Monsters of Eden I: Muikara

6 Wimwick May 11, 2009 at 5:59 pm

@ Lurkinggherkin
You’re right it was really only the good looking musicians who were sent into the realm of celebrity. The advantage of the computer is that they can make it look good, if the software also has substance then the community will embrace it. I agree with you that it will be open source or third party software that will lead the way.

@ j_king
What you suggest is the next logical step. With all the conditions that are present in 4e a way to track and automate the process will speed game play up. This holds especially true with epic tier play.

@ Stuart
I think you miss the point of what I’m suggesting and how technology has assisted my group in playing. I’m by no means suggesting that Computer RPGs or MMO’s are the next step, far from it. They are a different beast. What I see technology doing is assisting and streamlining game play. In my gaming groups example we’ve had a long time member of the group move four hours away, because of MapTools he can still log in and play.

@ The Recursion King
You’re experience with the computer at the table echo’s the first uses my group had several years ago. Since then our usage and need for the computer to allow our whole group to game together has increased. I don’t believe that the tabletop game will die, in fact I think the introduction of certain technology will allow it to grow as I mention in the article. The title may be a misnomer, but it serves to draw people into the dicussion.

@ Wyatt
Agreed, techonology allows us to start on the fly at any time. One of our group members recently had an idea for a new campaign. He decided to run it on Tuesday nights at 8pm. If you could make it you’d log in and play. Imagine having a desire to play a LFR module, checking the WotC servers for a game and logging in and playing using the proposed virtual tabletop. This is how I imagine technology has the ability to advance the game and make it more accessable to new and old players alike.

7 Bog97th October 11, 2009 at 6:18 am

I just have a short response. Nothing on-line will ever take place of face to face gaming. The tools offered on line I welcome greatly but nothing beats a bunch of soda and junk food and the rustle of pages as dice at being thrown.

8 Wimwick October 12, 2009 at 11:14 am

@ Bog97th
I’m inclined to agree with you, but felt it was a topic worth exploring.

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