Today after I finished the second half of the lawn, I decided to sit down and turn off my brain for a bit. My mother-in-law had borrowed the kids for the afternoon, so I actually had some time to relax. I played Skyrim. It was fun, I killed things and took their stuff, I made myself a new set of snazzy Orcish armor. But everything that happened was something I more or less expected to happen. Partly because I’d done some of it before with another character, partly because there aren’t a lot of surprises when you’re spending time crafting something out of something else. After supper, my friends came over for RPG night.
What I love most about tabletop RPGs, probably what most people like most about tabletop RPGs, is the unexpected things that can crop up. Tonight, in the game I’m running, the players started off getting ready for a minor adventure, and one wanted to offload a sword he’d looted in the previous game. The problem is, they’re currently in a valley populated by peasant farmers, and there isn’t a single person with the coins needed to pay him what the sword is worth.
In any computer or console RPG, that would have been the end of it. Either you can buy or sell something, or you can’t. End of story. Tonight? The player asked me if he could trade the sword for anything besides coins. I replied that the only thing these people had was dirt, vegetables, and livestock. He said he’d happily take payment in livestock.
So… the group of them and a small herd of goats and a pig went off on the rest of their adventure, and the goat became the unexpected focus of every joke of the night. Clever (and horrible) puns, naming the goat after another player’s character just to egg him on. It was fun, and it required the sort of adaptability you just don’t get in programmed games. You have choices, you have options, but those options have to be coded in advance. The game can always roll with the punches you throw at it because you have a limit to the types of punches you can throw, the game never has to improvise. In this sense, the coded game can only very rarely surprise you.
Also, there’s no published walkthrough for the game I’m running, so I know for a fact that the players never know what’s coming.