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Natural 20's Random Thought Table - Traditional Gaming, Modern Means Print
Written by Brian Nisbet   
Nov 20, 2009 at 05:33 PM
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Natural 20's Random Thought Table - Traditional Gaming, Modern Means
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This week Brian chats about gaming online using some technology you've got (and some you'll never get your hands on) and in doing so gets Nick all hot and bothered about RPGs on Google Wave.

Gaming these days, certainly when the media mention it, tends to be all about computers. Gone are the days when there were public scares about the dangers of D&D, it's far better to talk about how parents buy massively unsuitable games for their children and then get shocked that there might be sex or violence (or both!) within. However I'm not going to talk about that today. My meandering thoughts today bring me to the notion of using modern technology, those cursed computers, to play more traditional games.

Online traditional roleplaying has been around for a very long time, ever since students got access to servers and started to roleplay on usenet and talkers. As with any medium the standard and depth of the roleplaying varied immensely, but for the first time you could play in real time (or certainly faster than the postal system would allow) with people from around the world. As the software evolved, so too did the roleplaying. MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and MUSHes (Mulit-User Sensory Hallucinations), MOOs and MUSEs appeared, allowing for combat, loot, much world building, incredibly detailed character creation and much, much more. My first experience of this was watching Nick Huggins play TrekMUSE, marvelling at the complexity of the game and at the fact that the other players weren't in the same room, or likely even country. Shortly after this I created my first character on a MUG called TransCentral, but I feel the less said about that the better. These games evolved, but even with the appearance of more graphically interesting games they haven't gone away, nor would I expect them to. Text is an excellent medium for roleplaying and the simplicity and low bandwidth of these games allows them to be played on devices and in places that simply wouldn't allow for more complex, or indeed obvious, software.

The direct evolution of these text based games brings us to MMOs, or more specifically MMORPGs, whether Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes, EVE, Warhammer or, of course, the all conquering World of Warcraft. However very few of these games really allows for roleplaying in the sense most pen and paper players understand. EVE, perhaps, is the only one of those mentioned that truly allows the players to change the world, certainly roleplaying in WoW quickly becomes frustrating, even though I know vast numbers of people still use it as a sandbox in which to play. Second Life, crippled in various ways though it is, perhaps allows for the greatest roleplaying freedom and has more in common with the wizard run MU* games that gave the players the opportunity to build parts of their own world. Second Life allows for total freedom, assuming you build it yourself and you can roleplay to your hearts content, once all the graphics have loaded. Living, adapting, worlds, with intelligent NPCs and ongoing storylines (of a more fluid nature than expansions) are still a fair bit away and AI that can mimic a human is even further away.

To get a little less complex, there have been two developments recently that really caught my eye from a technology-aided roleplaying point of view. The first is the current geek darling, Google Wave. Wave, for those of you who haven't played with it yourself, is a collaboration tool. Multiple people can be invited into a Wave and have permission to create their own Blips (don't blame me for the terminology, blame Firefly obsessed Google engineers). A Blip can consist of just test, or you can drop code in there, links, pictures, polls, videos, apps, whatever. Other people can reply to your Blips, or edit them, post unconnected stuff, whatever. The potential for long distance roleplaying was noticed immediately. Wave combines instant messaging, email, web forums, file sharing and a bunch of other things, it allows for collaborative posts and for a full history of all interactions to be kept in an easy to reach online location. Of course it's Beta and it's free, so you're getting what you pay for and while unlikely, it's more than possible that the system might be down when you all settle in for your session, or when you desperately need to post a scene that only exists in your head (sure, you can write it down and then copy and paste, but shush). Wave also potentially lends itself to ARGs and hopefully many other potential gaming uses will become obvious as we get more used to the technology. As an aside, Wave would also be awesome as a collaboration tool if you're running a convention, get all of your committee on there, go nuts.

The final piece of tech I want to talk about today is the Microsoft Surface, the table based, multi-touch platform. I recently had the pleasure of viewing this surfacescapes demo. There's a easier to view version on vimeo here. The concept of having the map appear on the surface, along with character sheets and abilities all accessible once you put the right mini down is, well, sorta mindblowing. I've seen some impressive gaming tables, but this beats them all. Load up your map software, drop in all the other relevant data and you have an ever expanding game world, with appropriate maps and information, right there, with fewer dead trees. This is, of course, all in the experimental stage now, and while it remains slower than real world (and there's something about throwing your own dice) it's nice to look at, but right now it's just a very expensive way of doing what you can do more easily on any flat surface you care to mention.

Gamers are often tech geeks, we often flock to the next best thing, wanting a dice app for our phones, to have our character sheets online and to try out the new shiny, but so far tech hasn't replaced pen and paper. Nor has new tech replaced things spawned in times past; text based online gaming is still going strong and even usenet is still used for many in character purposes. One of the many great things about roleplaying is that there are so many ways to do it and so many tools to use. I've touched on a few of them in this article, but I haven't tried to cover them all. It's possible I'll deal with a few more in depth in the future, but hopefully this sampling should whet your appetite for alternate, and more technical, ways of playing games.

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