I just finished watching Erik Mona’s Keynote from the 2009 GamesU on youtube. He has some interesting things to say about the future of pen and paper gaming, some of which I think are fairly apt, especially when he talks about PDF publishing. On the other hand, in certain areas regarding technology’s influence on gaming I think he actually goes so far as to directly contradict himself.
Specifically, he mentioned the promise of things like the D&D Microsoft Surface demo and augmented reality games. If you don’t know what those are, check out the linked videos, which unlike Mona’s keynote are pretty short. Anyway, he’s quick to see huge gains from things like this and other virtual table-top systems. On the other hand, he says that one of the big reasons pen and paper game will continue to survive is because video games continue to not be as adaptable and open as pen and paper.
Can he not see the obvious corollary? I think stuff like the microsoft surface demo are doomed to fail just as badly as stuff like running DMed games of Neverwinter Nights. The barrier of entry for creation is simply too high. If I want to introduce a new monster or a new location I must now be a pretty good graphical artist, or spend time searching the internet for someone else’s work to use. Even if I have that talent, I still must predict everything I’ll need well in advance, because we’re certainly not going to stop the game while the DM creates custom animations for the NPC he just invented.
And NPCs and locations are just the simple stuff. With pen and paper, you can truly do anything. As DM at a pen and paper game I can describe a harrying chase across windswept cliffs as easily I can a massive war with hundreds on a side or a tense conversation in a formal ballroom where each sentence spoken is rich with subtext. How do we do these things in a computer rendered system that’s optimized for grid based combat between a handful of opponents? Why should I shackle my games, once only limited by the players’ collective imaginations, with the slim selection of options predicted by some programmer or artist?
I’m not saying technology has no role to play in the future of roleplaying games. In fact, I think the real gain will be when virtual communications become as good as live interaction. If me and a group of friends could each sit at home and put on a pair of glasses and a set of head phones and then look around and it really looks like we’re all sitting at the same table, well that will certainly blow the door wide open for RPGs. But until there’s a holodeck, I don’t really see a need for anything interrupting the connection between the words I speak and the imaginings of my players.