Tabletop RPGs Are Still Way More Immersive Than Video Games

As much as I love video games, there are moments you experience in an RPG session that no digital game can provide at this point.

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Nov 13 2015, 8:00pm

'Pathfinder' packaging art via Amazon

Not so many weeks ago, VICE ran an article written by games media folk, sharing the classics they'd never played, their geeky Achilles-heels. Since I have bested or at least dabbled in every single worthwhile video game known to man, reading this piece had my thoughts turning instead to another kind of game that's been an unfathomably influential cornerstone of geek culture at large (and video games, too), but one that I've somehow never got around to playing.

It's called Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe you've heard of it. It's kind of a big deal, a pen-and-paper role-playing game wherein you and your buddies sit around a table and enact, if your Dungeon Master is any good, a thrilling jaunt through your imaginations aided by a few miniatures and lots of sparkly dice rolls.

So it came to pass that, after years in the wilderness, I was finally inducted into the hallowed D&D tradition by a nerd-stereotype-busting team of trendy, sociable gay men whose patient guidance and vivid imaginations made the day-long session—proper campaigns can last for months, or even years—an unforgettable shoring up of my geek credentials. More specifically we played Pathfinder, an offshoot created in 2009 by original D&D employees as a set of "house-rules" after frustrations with the longevity and flexibility of the then-current 3.5 version of D&D proper.

And now I'm hooked, and video games just don't seem quite the same anymore.

The Velvet Partridge himself, photo courtesy of Sam Baer

As much as I love video games, there were moments in our Pathfinder session that, understandably, no digital game can (yet) offer. Character creation will never be quite as versatile for one, and rarely as flamboyant: our intrepid party consisted of my mountain-hermit druid "Cragface"; a simple-minded, mysterious female thief; a condescending wizened old sorceress with an Indian accent; a Kitsune (a fox that can transform into woman) archer, whose tragic past has made her prefer her womanly form; and the flamboyant buccaneer known only as The Velvet Partridge, whose elegant player actually wore a Venetian-style mask.

Quest narratives of video games are similar but can't compete on the finer details. To set the scene: our budding guild members were lulled into a false sense of security by a classic tutorial fetch quest, in this case to track down a rare vintage of wine in a dusty tavern cellar, but we inevitably stumbled across a far greater mystery. It led to a crypt, and a specific casket, the whole place guarded by a solitary, low-ranking cleric who forbade desecrations of any kind, which must suck for the goths of the city. Between our magic, guile, and charisma, convincing him to let us search the remains should have been a cinch.

But the dice are so very fickle.

While once-stereotypical views on video gamers slowly dissipate, D&D and its various offshoots still struggle with their own. However, the tide is starting to turn.

And so what should have been the easiest diplomacy in the campaign, and what in a video game you'd accomplish by having a high enough stat for the right dialogue option to be available, or sticking a bucket on the cleric's head and helping yourself, became an awesome, hilarious impasse. We rolled for charisma: the cleric was unfazed by our winks, creepier than they were charming. We rolled for knowledge: attempts to pass ourselves off as following the same faith as our modest adversary produced no results. We failed our sneak checks (the DM was already rolling his eyes by this point), and briefly debated just killing the cleric, but I couldn't get a mandate. Eventually, someone recalled they had a disguise spell, and by the skin of their probably pretty fantastic teeth someone else succeeded on their knowledge: our party "remembered" we knew what the head of the order looked like, and The Velvet Partridge snuck around a nearby statue and did his thing (just about) before nonchalantly walking around and convincing the cleric that we had special permission from his superiors.

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Admittedly the whole thing takes a while to get set up, especially if you factor in the artisanal vegan nibbles I insisted on making, and to those weaned on a diet of fast-leveling and bingeing on loot, progression can seem slower than a ticket line when you need a pee. Yet, this change in pace was one of the things I found most refreshing. It leaves you some headspace, and encourages you to role-play dialogue between your party, troll your DM by experimenting with the rules and their willingness to bend them, or fully committing to the fiction and making your character insist on being concussed after taking a blow to the head. If you're already into tabletop stuff you're on the right track, but the sad thing is that for many, even those already on the fringes (playing Magic: The Gathering maybe, a spot of Hearthstone and such) could still be put off by preconceptions, stigma, or the "difficulty" of playing a game they can't pay to win.

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While once-stereotypical views on video gamers slowly dissipate, D&D and its various offshoots still struggle with their own. However, the tide is starting to turn. Sites like Polygon (whatever you think of them) are doing their bit as a mainstream video gaming site to give tabletop play some good exposure, such as this interview with Feargus Urquhart, a man heavily involved with making usually great video game adaptations of D&D and more recently Pathfinder itself. And D&D has another unlikely champion these days in Twitch. The popularity of the streaming service combined with entertaining groups, such as Penny Arcade's Acquisitions Incorporated, characterized by Mike Krahulik's dastardly Jim Darkmagic, means a new level of visibility for these board games and their spin-offs. For anyone curious but intimidated about giving it all a go, these insights into what makes D&D and more tick are invaluable.

So maybe you're still not likely putting down the controller for a set of dice, but I beseech you to give it a go. Get in the booze and snacks and invent a wacky backstory for the tortured, rugged elf you've always fantasized of (being?). There isn't nearly enough space here to relate more of the great anecdotes from our Pathfinder session, but the main thrill was in knowing it wasn't pre-scripted. Later in the game, as my until-then useless druid dealt the critical hit to the campaign's fire-elemental boss, replete with super gory descriptions of the kill from our DM, our party triumphantly reveled in how far we'd come: from a hopeless group of strangers to a seasoned band of inseparable Pathfinders, perhaps in real life, too.

Follow Danny Wadeson on Twitter.

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