I’ve recently started playing Mass Effect 2 – late, as I usually am with computer games – and I’ve also just fired up Skyrim, the latest offering in the Elder Scrolls series. (Not late on this one!) They’re both great representations of the typical RPG styles of their developers – Bioware and Bethesda respectively – and I’m enjoying them both a lot. But their styles are very different, so I’ve been enjoying them for very different reasons – and it occurred to me that something similar applies to my enjoyment of tabletop RPGs as well. (Possibly to LARPs too – I don’t play many so I’m not sure!)
Before we move on to the contrasts, let’s point out the big similarity: combat. Don’t get me wrong, combat is handled very differently in both games, but the basic challenges of combat – can you pick the right tactic for this fight? can you execute it effectively? – are the same.
Between combats, though, the gameplay is markedly different. Bioware’s games are generally fairly linear in plot, but allow considerable flexibility in how the player’s character reacts to that plot. The player is encouraged to judge how they feel about each situation, and can choose how they react to it – which has a small, but not insignificant, effect on the progression of the story. As Chuck Wendig put it on Twitter, “Our Story, Your Way”. They also tend to have a very tight narrative – something that I think can only be achieved (currently!) by enforcing a linear plotline.
Bethesda, on the other hand, focusses much more on flexibility and exploration. The philosophy behind Bethesda games seems to be “go anywhere, do anything”, and they build huge game-worlds populated with numerous NPCs, quests and locations to explore – of which the “main” plotline is just a small, optional, fraction. This is fascinating and exciting, but as a result the narrative is a lot less tight, and in general the player/character’s input is less critical – they pick up quests and do them, and aren’t generally encouraged to think about their reactions to what’s going on. Chuck’s summary of this style was “Our World, Your Story”, but to me it’s not “story” enough for that – I prefer the “Our World, Your Game” suggested by Rick Carroll.
There are exceptions to both patterns, of course. In Bioware games, the focus is on the story and the character interactions, but that doesn’t mean exploration isn’t possible – usually it is, but the exploratory side-quests never feel particularly meaningful. In Bethesda games, the focus is on “here’s a world, what do you do in it?” but that doesn’t mean none of the quests provoke judgements or difficult decisions – some do, but again they often feel a bit shallow.
So. The point is that, in my experience, tabletop RPGs often tend towards one or other of these game types too. Sometimes the focus is on the characters as they are pushed into difficult situations and make difficult choices to get out. Other times, there’s a whole lot of content to explore, ready for the players/characters to go and prod and poke at their discretion. Usually there’s a bit of both, but often one dominates.
In general, my preference is for the former – the “Bioware style”, if you like. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I think it’s at least partly because it is something that’s much more satisfying in tabletop than it is on a computer. Computer games necessarily restrict “the story” to whatever it is the game designers have written, whereas pen-n-paper games can write the story as play develops – but still keep that tight narrative and pacing that I like about Bioware’s games. Exploration-style games, on the other hand, I find similarly satisfying in both tabletop and computer formats (albeit in slightly different ways).
Thoughts welcome! Have you played any of these games? Do you think the parallel is valid?