So Newitz' article about Second Life, which I never played, got me to thinking.

Back in the late 1970s some of my friends cut their first programming teeth making character generators in programmable calculators like the infamous HP-41c. These were incredibly crude, printed out on narrow strips of receipt paper. They had randomly generated names, ability scores, starting money and a few other chunks of data. Once generated, my friends would then transfer this data to a proper piece of paper or a photocopied blank character sheet (If one was made available by the game system publisher.).

It was all about saving labor and avoiding bookkeeping errors. For those who remember it, D&D in 1978, was a pretty idiosyncratic and number dense system. To use gaming jargon, it was "crunchy." If you forgot certain numbers in the middle of play it could hurt you.

One of my friends were lucky enough to have parents who worked for the University of Washington and, as a graduating high school junior in advanced classes, was given access to the UW's student/faculty computer center. He had access to the university's DEC Vaxen. So he immediately started writing up code for his own Roguelike and text based ADVENT clone. (Which he still has the code for! It's written in Forth! Awesome!)

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My friends doing this eventually got them jobs at Microsoft, which then went out to crush the world, and the rest is history.

My relating all this antediluvian stuff to make a point that computers can always be used to make crunchy roleplaying games easier to deal with. In doing this, computers served two roles:

  1. They'd automate the generation of content (NPCs, maps, room contents, etc. etc.)
  2. They'd help a GM bookkeep physics and rules (This is huge labor saver in combat or physical challenges faced by players.)

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In the decades that followed, as we've seen in the software game industry, computers have really come into their own in terms of the first point. And on the second point, game AI has gotten so good that human GMs aren't really necessary. You play something like Torment and it's just you and the computer. And you don't really have to know D&D's rules in order to play something like Zelda, Zork or Everquest. The machine handles all that.

People who'd never pick up dice, pen or paper will play something like WoW or Skyrim because it's a lot easier for them to deal with. The computer manages all the numbers for you so that you can immerse yourself in the fictional world the computer generates for you. It's all transparent now. You can power game it or not. Just point, click and hit something. If middle aged real estate agents played WoW, what did that say about this aspect of nerd subculture?

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But never mind that, this is probably mostly obvious to people reading this anyway.

But in the process of doing so well, software roleplaying games lost something from the original tabletop experience: flexibility, freedom of choice and direct human interaction.

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The AI of Elder Scrolls is reasonably smart but it's nothing like a human gamemaster. In Mass Effect or Skyrim you only have the choices the dialog tree puts in front of you, even sandbox games have limitations. You, as a player, can't take it deep into some direction the builders of the game didn't anticipate. MMOs can have sysops (Remember those?!) who can make the game seem smarter, even taking the roles of the enemies you're fighting and can be more surprising than the hard-coded AI is but they are limited by the game's functionality too.

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This is why, I think, tabletop roleplaying games persist as a hobby. There is a fluidity there that hasn't yet been fully captured in game AI, despite all the spiffy graphics and physics engines.

But here's the thing. I don't see computers as an enemy to pencil and paper (Or games like Puerto Rico or Lords of Waterdeep.). This is because broadband is sufficiently wide spread now that people can video teleconference over VoIP software and virtual tabletop tools have been common enough and easy enough to use, that you can turn the Internet into your virtual living room and actually interact with human beings.

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So I say, even as WoTC's D&D 5 is floundering, there is something of a revival of tabletop gaming going on, thanks to VoIP and VTTs. And I hope to talk a bit more about that in some later entry in this piece of the Denton Facet.