Computer games are big business and because they’re big business they attract serious study without anyone feeling that they’re being silly for doing do. Tabletop RPGs attract less money and attention but they’re no less worthy of study in their own way and the same revelations and improvements in craft that computer games have gained in this way can – perhaps – be applied to roleplaying games.
Computer games studies such as this are a good starting point, though there’s a lot about computer games that simply doesn’t apply or that is made more complicated by the fact that between the producer and consumer there is the additional filter of the Games Master.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that RPGs run the gamut from tightly focussed games that target a single experience and mode of play to toolkits that are virtually devoid of narrative or worldbuilding content.
We have had GNS Theory, which has been the only theory to really gain any traction, despite being superseded by The Big Model. The problem with most of these approaches is that they are conspicuously ideological and, tellingly have not produced any knock-out, successful games as of yet. At least not commercially successful. Artistically successful is always arguable but the two need not be mutually exclusive. In the computer gaming world many of the most successful and impactful games are also those that have treated the audience as having intelligence and desire for good story alongside the game aspect.
I think we need a more objective, non-partisan, examination of RPG theory and practice and I’m not sure I’m the best person to do it, but somehow around work I’ll give it a try. Can anyone reference me to some more design models and approaches covered on a teaching/academic basis in computer games so that I can piggyback on their studies a little?
Interesting topic. As a hobby, I’ve found really good results adapting tabletop RPG principles to 3D environments. 3D tends to focus on “first person shooter” and “physics” – the simulation side. Tabletop focuses on theater of the mind and expansive scales that are hard to recreate in 3D without oceans of content. For personal experimentation, the SecondLife and OSgrid http://osgrid.org/ virtual worlds provide a great, approachable “platform” to experiment with, regarding whatever aspects of this you care to. There is a ready content library to draw from along with people who can help along the way. For example, a million and one ideas for better tabletop medieval villages will come from trying to build and populate one in 3D using even rudimentary MMO techniques for quests and NPCs. For a more involved example, try converting even a simple tabletop game rule set into its 3D equivalent is a vastly educational experience of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. This will also give you a new appreciation for the Neverwinter and D&D MMO games and what those took to get as far as they did converting D20 to 3D.