Tag Archives: Tabletop RPG

D&D, But Online

I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs. Probably because it’s all the fun of storytelling coupled with the inherent zaniness of improv comedy. Imagine, you get a good group together who feed off of each other’s energy and are all too willing to “yes-and” off of whatever random plot or character development another player throws out. Stories spiral into ridiculousness, while still maintaining the cohesive shared fantasy of a mutually constructed narrative. Of course, it helps to have a Game Master who’s able to roll with the punches and keep the story going no matter the curveballs the players toss out there.

Virtual tabletop has been a thing for a long, long time, and with the pandemic preventing any sort of game sessions in meatspace, more and more people are turning to services like Discord and Roll20 for their games.

And by ‘people’ I mean me.

I’ve long been a proponent of tabletop games — RPG or board — being played in person due to the very specific sort of chemistry that emerges from people hanging out together. Yes, there’s the part of communication that’s done through hand gestures and facial expressions, but there’s also the knowledge that everyone around the table is doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same people. And side conversations too, those are fun. When playing games over Discord and only hearing someone’s voice, interactions change.

Of course, there are some parts of those interactions that change because they could only be done through computer-mediated communication. There’s the obvious stuff, like how the multiple voice channels that Discord offers provides a way for the GM to have a private conversation with a player. It’s a simulation of going off into a room for a beat in real life, and certainly does take on its own form of formality when heralded by the sound of someone leaving and reentering the voice channel.

That Discord also offers text communication allows for a second conversation to be happening alongside the game, although in my experience it’s mostly us sending funny gifs and memes around that relate to whatever’s happening in-story. This creates a bizarre record of the adventure, though one that’s done more through an association game than anything else (for example: dumplings, training montages, the Hatch from Lost, Ackbar declaring it to be a trap, and Eric Andre demanding to be let in). They may not affect the story or the gameplay that much, but they provide a bit of color commentary on the proceedings.

With actual gameplay taking place via a system like Roll20, however, the very nature of playing changes. Skill rolls are an intrinsic part of most any tabletop RPG, they’re what determines how well a character does something. Roll high on a Persuasion Check, chances are, you persuaded them. Roll low on an attack and that’s a swing and a miss. Technically, you can roll the dice on anything, so long as you can justify the skill you’re using (Animal Handling to corral a group of children, for example). Of course, in-person, you have to declare it, which can mean having to calm down a very talkative table trying to decide on the course of action.

When all your rolls can be virtual through a website and show up in the logs, though, things can work differently. After all, click the “Persuasion” button on your character sheet and the roll happens. It’s all there on the screen, the dice, the results, and the stat that was rolled. The GM can ignore it or uphold it, but, point is, it happens without the need to tell everyone “Shut up, I’m rolling to Intimidate!”

When it comes down to it, I think I’m less intrigued by the way it changes gameplay than by how it changes the interactions of players. Often we look at computer-mediated communication as a lesser shadow of in-person dialogue, but I think it really opens up a different means of getting points across. You can’t drop a gif into a conversation in real life like you do online, but that doesn’t make it a less valid form of communication, does it? Maybe after this pandemic we’ll have a better appreciation for all the ways of speaking.

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Great Artists Steal

When explaining what make the Mac so good, Steve Jobs quoted Picasso saying “Good artists copy, great ones steal.” In an interesting twist of fate, that quote often gets attributed to Jobs now instead of Picasso (who may or may not have said it first). It’s a fun quote that definitely is the background for the Mac, it’s also very applicable to, y’know, art. And here that means everything.

Especially Neill Blomkamp’s filmography. Who, you ask? You might know him from the Halo: Landfall short and as the guy Peter Jackson chose to be the one to direct the Halo film. When plans for the Halo film fell through, Jackson instead gave Blomkamp the resources for District 9, an amazing piece of serious science-fiction that showed a few shades of the Halo games in its design and look. It’s subtle, but there’s some resemblance.

E
nter Elysium, the trailer for which dropped earlier this week. It’s Blomkamp’s next film and it looks just as cool as District 9. It too has some stolen design influence. Let’s look at the titular Elysium. It’s a ring-shaped megastructure, like the titular Halo (which wasn’t the first, but more on that later). So we have that look, but it doesn’t look just like a Halo but like Mass Effect’s Citadel as well (the spokes and the interior design). Artificial world inhabited mostly by the rich? Looks like the Citadel’s Presidium to me. It’s an almost uncanny resemblance. But it’s not bad. It’s a good idea, and Blomkamp’s not just copying the idea, but he’s stealing it and mixing it into his own work. He’s using it for a different story.

Halo’s a thief too, particularly from the film Aliens. How much? Halo’s Wikia has an entire article listing them. Not only are the marines’ armor very similar, but Sergeant Johnson is more or less Sergeant Apone. They even have some of the same lines. More than that, the setting of a ringworld is similar to the titular structure in Larry Niven’s  novel Ringworld. Halo took conventions, ideas, and designs (and a secondary character) and gave it a new life with a totally new story. Halo doesn’t feel or look derivative; that’s good stealing.

Uncharted is another culprit. Globetrotting treasure hunter who more often that not finds something with a supernatural power? Nathan Drake might as well be Indiana Jones without a whip. They’re often in similar predicaments: already up against crappy odds, everything goes wrong and they’ve gotta fumble —sorry, improvise— their way out. Nathan Drake is Indiana Jones set sixty years late. Yet the works as a whole are different enough. Uncharted’s supporting cast is more different and consistent than Indy’s and the plot and character arcs are very different. Uncharted takes what’s essentially the Indiana Jones mythos and reworks it for a more modern age. The end result is a fantastic video game that, for no small reason, has been called the best Indiana Jones video game.

The trick with stealing is to not take something wholesale and repeat it. As Steve Jobs said in the interview where he quoted Picasso: “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done, and then try to bring those things to what you’re doing.” Just copying something isn’t enough, you have to blend it in to what you’re making. Look at Dungeons & Dragons. Much of the setting is taken from JRR Tolkien’s work; you’ve got Hobbits, Ents, and Balrogs (all of which had to be renamed in later editions). But Gygax and Arneson gave the world its own spirit, mixing in influences from other worlds as well. Super 8, Mass Effect, The Secret of Monkey Island; everyone steals from everyone else. The thing is to make it new, to make it work, to make it yours. Don’t copy; steal.

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