It’s 2 in the morning and I just brought peace to Skyrim by killing Ulfric Stormcloak, again. I haven’t played it much lately. For the past several months I’ve played Witcher 3 in my off hours. Both are first person computer RPGs but they are two sides of the same coin. The similarities and differences between them are long, varied, and discussed in much more detail elsewhere. For this blog post, I just want to focus on how you can use their styles in your tabletop RPGs.
It’s funny, I know. Tabletop RPGs spawned computer games, so what is there for tabletop RPGs to learn from their computer brethren? Plenty. Computer games sell much better than tabletop so it is easier for word to spread about which games are better than others. If you asked 100 tabletop gamers to name the best campaign published in the last 30 years by any RPG company other than Wizards of the Coast, Paizo Publishing, or TSR, you’ll be at a loss for a consensus. Hell, you’ll be lucky to have 100 answers. Even if you include the major companies, finding a clear winning campaign is going to be difficult. Reason being: it takes 1-2 years to go from levels 1-20 and most groups don’t last that long. But people play the same computer game year after year. So what can we learn from computer games?
1) Get It Online
With COVID-19 raging and people playing via Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and other VTT platforms, people are playing more online. So making it easier for them to game together is something we can all take from this. I expect this change in the way we game to last long term, even beyond when “things return to normal” because it is easier for everyone to meet on their computers than to go to someone’s house game, and then go back home. It’s like going to your computer to be the Dragonborn or the Witcher, except here you can be anyone you want. So publishers should make it a regular habit to make sellable products for online gaming.
2) Adventure Pacing
This is something both publishers and home GM’s can learn. It is the pacing of the campaigns in Skyrim and Witcher 3 that I feel make them sell so well. Both have two major and interconnected plots (Skyrim: win the civil war, and kill the head dragon; Witcher 3: stop the Wyld Hunt and find Ciri), but those plots are not a single story. They are each a hundred little stories bringing you to the final story. The Bloody Baron found Ciri and will only tell you the information if you do this other job for him. The Skyrim civil war starts off properly with retrieving a crown before the other side does. This breaks the campaign up into a number of more manageable pieces.
Between each of those pieces, you can do any number of side quests. This let’s you do something different and keeps the game from becoming overly serious. One the reasons I believe that many role playing games fizzle out is that the plot becomes overly dark and heavy. Sure, time becomes difficult to find, schedules change, etc, but if something brings joy to your life, you make the time for it. If it becomes overly dark and bleak, it runs the risk ones sapping all the joy, and it turns into an obligation, one that can be easily removed.
So learn from computer RPGs and build in side quests. These should be different, fun, and not necessarily have anything to do with the main plot. Consider saving the orphanage’s puppy or returning the owlbear egg to the nest before mama owlbear comes hunting it down. On a more serious note, try escort someone to their family tomb to put their recently deceased grandmother her predetermined plot, at the very bottom of the tomb, and a necromancer previously broke in started making undead. Or retrieve the bones of an old adventurer from their tomb they had fallen in, letting both the living and the dead to find peace. Give them a treasure map or a tip about some lost magical items. No matter what, the payoff should be swift. By payoff, it can be gold or items, but what it really should be is both a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of having done good. People play role playing games to feel like heroes; let them be exactly that, both in the big campaign and to the individuals in smaller ways.
3) Pickup and Playable
This one is small but it makes a world of difference: include pregen characters with any adventure you’re publishing over a VTT. In Witcher 3, you’re playing Geralt of Rivia; the entire game is built around you being him. While I’d appreciate it if you could pick from a number of witchers, you can start playing right away. In Skyrim, the guard asks who you are and as the meme goes, you stand there for ten minutes while your face, gender, body type, and race keep shifting, horrifying the poor guard.
That is the difference between including pregen characters and not. If a GM is running your adventure during an online conversation, they’re going to have to make those pregens themselves, adding a barrier to them running your adventure at all. Remember, running a published module is supposed to make the GM’s job easier; including pregen characters is another thing to do just that.
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