A lot is said about “muscle memory” when it comes to getting back on the horse, and often times bicycles are invoked, and…man, this is a lot of metaphors for an opening paragraph. Let’s just skip to the next one.
A lot of folks I know used to play pencil and paper RPGs when they were younger. It’s what we had before these new fangled “computer RPGs” came around. But when they did come around, we adopted them because A) their fangle was new, and B) they allowed us to play RPGs without the logistics or time constraints of getting a group of people together in a physical space. When MMOs came around, we could now play with others, but it brought back the logistical nightmares of getting all the ducks in a row.
PnP gaming feel by the wayside for a while, at least down from where it had been in the 80’s, and I’ll go ahead and blame PCs and consoles for lack of any solid evidence to the contrary. During this time, our muscles developed new memories for how to “win” at CRPGs, while we allowed our TRPG muscles to atrophy.
With the resurgence of tabletop gaming in general, a lot of people are returning to TRPGs, but with some unintended side-effects.
The most notable is during character creation. Technically, we can blame this on D&D because it’s the font from which our modern RPG concepts sprang, but it was the CRPG that boiled away the fat and left the lean meat of what we know as “the holy trinity” of tank (keeps the enemy’s attention), DPS (does the damage), and healer (keeps everyone alive). Whether it’s indoctrination or nature, I don’t know, but this trinity just works. It’s a perfect setup for survival.
Because of this, CRPG players in TRPGs may tend to focus on ensuring that the trinity exists in their tabletop session. It’s not a bad thing, really, since it does work, but rather than playing what they might want to play, players might simply subvert their desires to ensure that all relevant slots are filled. They decide that they need a tank to soak the damage, DPS to whittle down the enemies, and healers to keep everyone healthy. So creation conversation invariably turns to “do we have class X?”.
Really, we’re metagaming at this point. I guess arguments could be made that what they’re doing is some kind of Ocean’s Eleven thing, but part of the TRPG narrative is often that the players come together organically, like if Danny Ocean decided to rob a bank, and formed a team from whomever was in the bank at the time. You can’t really plan that.
Is this metagaming a problem? Of course not! Maybe it’s a personal preference against min-maxing, but looking closer it also blatantly ignores the fundamental conceit of TRPGs: the unpredictability. In CRPGs, a tank is only effective because the system is designed to respond to taunts and threat generation. When the enemies have an actual intelligence behind them — the GM — the enemies don’t have to behave that way. It might make more sense for a semi-intelligent enemy to divide and conquer — or use the trinity against the players — by occupying the tank with one group, and taking on the healer with another.
The second side-effect is what I guess I’m calling “autopilot”. In CRPGs players don’t have to really worry about numbers because the system manages that for them. Want to pick a lock? If you have that skill, the system will let you do it or tell you that you can’t. Want to stealth? Hold down the SHIFT key, and hope you’re not seen.
In TRPGs, players need to actively manage their skill use. This means that when a player walks into a room, they’re going to get the standard description. If they want to search, the table might just hear them say “I want to search the room” and then go silent.
Now, a GM has a lot to manage, like NPCs, responses to events triggered by the players, and also needs to keep his eyes one step ahead of the player’s next moves to keep the action flowing. Constantly reminding players to use their characters should not be a GM’s job. Players have one job — to act as their characters — and the character sheets have those numbers and columns for a reason. Of course, GMs need to match those rolls against something, but I’d assume that if a character wants to search he should state it and know to make the Perception roll, or if anything the GM should at most help the player determine the correct skill to use in the situation.
Systems like Fate and Numenera are different in that they streamline a lot of the number crunching inherent in traditional TRPGs, so simply saying “I want to search the room” is as good as a die roll, but even still a player needs to play within the confines of her character.
Again, I think this goes back to the muscle memory of the CRPG where everything is taken care of, and it’s only the intent to take action that’s needed, whereas in the TRPG, players need to be mindful that they’re going to need to take, and have the ability to take the action without prompting. I think this not only helps smooth out the session, but also allows for more creativity from the players, and can help the GM stay on his toes.
The good news in all of this is that it really is like riding a bike. Players can get into the groove of the old school TRPGs after a little bit of practice, and there’s something important in that. TRPGs are more about player choice, and about bending the story around their actions as they move towards a goal. If the party doesn’t mirror the trinity, then it forces the players to be more creative. If they take agency in playing their characters, they can come up with those creative resolutions instead of just mechanically doing what the GM tells them to do. In the end, these are the kinds of things that differentiate TRPGs from CRPGs.