Friday, 4 April 2014


There are some pretty substantial differences between CRPG and PNP experiences, and because Shannon brought it up in passing, I wanted to have a quick think about them.

Time sinks

One pretty major discrepancy is how you spend time. The time taken for particular activities differs enormously because of differences in the media and their capabilities, most notably because one is a brilliant calculating engine and the other a brilliant language parser.

Here are some major contributors to time spent in CRPGs:

  • Revealing the map and establishing what exists
  • Walking from one place to another
  • Killing monsters
  • Looting
  • Transporting loot to shops
  • Finding a place where you are game-mechanically permitted to rest
  • Working out what you need to do to continue with the game

Here are some major contributors to time spent in PNP:

  • Searching rooms
  • Questioning NPCs
  • Arguing over tactics
  • Killing monsters
  • Checking rules queries
  • Finding a safe place to rest
  • Working out what you want to do

In a CRPG, you have to find out what's on the map by physically clicking around it, waiting for your character to move, looking at the things revealed, and deducing what you can about them. Interactible Object buttons may come into play. In a town, you frequently have to physically enter a building and talk to its inhabitants to find out anything about it. Because in CRPGs there's a general sense that whatever you encounter must be playable content of some kind, there's an urge to explore everything, go everywhere, and leave no stone unturned. You also can't entirely rely on the game being robust enough for you to continue if you've missed some content; journals are often inadequate, and there's very little way to get information about what you need to do to continue. Because all you can do is what the game permits, and progress is dependent on various flags being set by your actions, it's entirely possible to just get stuck. Games aren't yet clever enough to give hints, so if you missed one dialogue option with one NPC in a shack hidden under the trees a dozen areas ago, and as a result the rebel messenger isn't spawning to trigger the cutscene that begins the next phase of the game, there is no way for you to know. This encourages exhaustive searching. Also, of course, it's a pain to go back to an area you've visited already.

In a PNP game, none of this is a problem. The GM can sum up a town in a couple of sentences, taking seconds. You don't have to look the whole place over, but if you do, it takes very little time OOC. You can explain what you're interested in and just be told about the relevant stuff. You assume that most of a town is not relevant, just a bunch of houses, and there's no urge to wander into random homes. Because there's no reason to exhaustively search a town, and you're well aware that the GM is there to keep things ticking over, there's no concern about being unable to keep playing - the GM can drop hints, adjust NPC behaviour, change the adventure thread, and generally tinker about to ensure that the game isn't held up by a slight oversight on your part. They're also a better reminder system than a generic journal.

Assuming a D&D-like game, combat may take a similar amount of time in CRPG and PNP, although it depends rather on the edition used. However, the breakdown of that time differs enormously. In most CRPGs, the combat time is spend watching the results of battle against large numbers of monsters, while intervening to pick spells, heal, change targets and otherwise guide the battle - the actual resolution of actions is instant. In PNP, combats are generally against much smaller numbers of enemies for the same amount of adventure, and the bulk of the time is spent choosing and resolving actions. In a single area of Icewind Dale, you might easily battle twenty yeti and fifty shadows at 5th level; the PNP equivalent would be a mere handful. This is partly down to the computer's far greater calculating ability, but also because in PNP fighting the same enemies constantly gets boring very quickly and fighting is slow, so fights are occasional and different. In contrast, in CRPGs fights are pretty quick and they're the thing the game can do very well, whereas they're weak in other areas, so lots of fights are par for the course.

Travel in CRPGs breaks down into two types. There's movement around areas, which involves clicking where you want to go and then waiting until your character lumbers over there. Of course, if you haven't explored the area yet it's impossible, as you can only see about twenty yards in the typical game, even though real-life vision lets you see people moving about half a mile away, so you painstakingly move fraction by fraction. But in explored areas, you can usually just click, and then hope the pathfinding is halfway sensible. It's wise to keep an eye out, though, because a PC can easily stumble into a fight along the way and the party generally makes no attempt to stick together.

The other kind of CRPG travel is where you bampf instantaneously to another city, possibly with a random encounter along the way.

In PNP, all travel takes the same amount of time, which is however long the conversation takes. You can see as far as seems reasonable, and your pathfinding is entirely IC. If any trouble breaks out, there's zero risk of your PC being killed because you simply didn't notice (although traps, ambushes and so on are of course possible).

CRPG looting typically means individually selecting and clicking on enemies, manually choosing which items to transfer to inventories, juggling inventory space, and mousing over rooms to see what might be nickable. PNP looting typically means asking the GM what's valuable and then saying you take it, handling the whole looting phase as a single event. However, there's more scope than in CRPGs for actively searching rooms or taking unexpectedly useful mundane items.

Enough of that

I don't think there's much need to go over absolutely everything here... basically the point is that in a CRPG, you're reliant on going through the system provided by the programmers for accomplishing X, but that system calculates everything for you. In a PNP game, you can cut to the chase and specify to the GM exactly what you're after, ask direct questions, and handwave anything the group don't care about, but you have to do your own resolution.


The other major category of difference is how interaction works.

In a CRPG, all possible interaction must be programmed in by the designers. There are two main types, emergent interaction and unique interaction. For example, a programmer can set up rules for faction membership, alignment, attitude to PCs, courage and martial skill; these can then determine how all NPCs react in a variety of encounters with the PCs and with each other. This is emergent. NPCs may attack one another, raise prices for PCs they dislike, respond with hostility to aggressive behaviour, run away from armed enemies, and so on, without needing all this behaviour to be individually and specifically programmed. Of course, sometimes this results in nonsensical behaviour, but such is programming. Similarly, dropped items can be picked up and sold, doors can be opened, locks picked, and so on.

Although to be honest, in a lot of CRPGs the number of doors you can actually lockpick is so tiny as to make the skill pointless. It's plot doors all the way down. This is something else that's much harder to get away with as a GM, and rightfully so.

Unique interactions are specifically designed. That pile of rubble actually contains a buried chest. This candlestick can be moved. This NPC has a complex dialogue tree to negotiate. These open up all kinds of new possibilities, but require an awful lot of individual work and testing to ensure they work as intended. Often, they still don't. Plot flags are a regular sticking point here, since often you simply can't get the dialogue options you want, even though your character is well aware of a topic and the NPC's relevance, because the flag is tied to one line of dialogue with some other NPC, or to holding the right item in your inventory, or opening the right door, or whatever. This is down to complexity; the more natural you want the conversations (or the presence of interactible options) to appear, the more flags are needed to track what you've already done, which leads to exponential(ish?) increases in the number of different combinations that need programming. Bearing in mind that games are large and there are huge amounts of possible player actions, it's inevitable that there will be some situations where unexpected actions or events (like NPCs dying) lead to broken interactions. Unsellable plot items and immortal NPCs are one attempt to deal with this problem.

Because of the need for programming and testing, there's a fairly small cap on what unique interactions can be created. There are only so many combinations of dialogue you can write and test within budget. You don't want to program in the possibility of breaking through walls, mining under buildings, rigging up elaborate traps or luring out monsters by buying a dozen goats and letting them loose in the dungeon. You can't create complex dialogue trees for every single peasant in the game, in case the PCs want to interrogate them about events, try to recruit them or use them as spies. You want to paint in backgrounds without accounting for PC decisions to turn the curtains into disguises or use the furniture as firewood.

In PNP, there's virtually no limit to interaction except patience and the social contract. If you want to disassemble a temple brick by brick, you can (it'll be slow and boring, but possible). You can say absolutely anything to an NPC and expect an appropriate reaction. You can perform actions on objects and expect predictable reactions. There are no "background objects" that are simply immune to your touch.

Another difference is that multi-location interactions are far more annoying on CRPGs than on PNP. This is partly because of greater PC control, and partly because of travel, as discussed above. In PNP, you can have conversations with four people in three locations, nipping back and forth as needed, in about the same time as one conversation with one person. In a CRPG, traipsing across maps and areas to do fetch and negotiation quests for NPCs is generally a tiresome chore forced on low-level characters by the need to grind for XP and gold; it's tedious because instead of saying "okay, we go and talk to the blacksmith", you need to click through the dialogue choices to extricate yourself from the woodcutter, then exit the building, walk your party across the map for a couple of minutes, go into the smithy, and click on the blacksmith.

Where's the fun?

In CRPGs, because it's much harder to have genuinely interesting conversations or act in creative ways, a lot of the fun comes from a sense of exploration and progression. It's enjoyable finding cool stuff, defeating enemies with cunning and tactical brilliance (or by finding entertaining AI glitches to exploit...), seeing interesting stuff that's been programmed for you, and so on. A lot of the time, the pre-programmed mysteries and conversations are only adequate entertainment rather than great, and new locations are interesting but the shortage of interaction detracts from that. Levelling and looting are pretty core to enjoying the game, and so the mechanical balance is crucial.

In PNP, most of the entertainment comes from the interactions between you and other participants. Working together to find creative ways around an obstacle or setback. In-character banter. Teasing out descriptions from the GM, or trying out small things just to see what happens - throwing pebbles into wells, knocking on doors, eavesdropping. OOC chat about the situation can be just as big a proportion, and simply isn't there in many CRPG playthroughs that are aimed at single players. Because mechanical actions are time-consuming to resolve, having an endless stream of action is, for many players, less enjoyable than in an RPG that handles everything for you. Mechanics remain important, but because a large part of the enjoyment is based on interactions, and because of the greater scope for creativity, balance is somewhat less of an issue.

As usual, no conclusions, just some rambling analysis. To be clear, I'm not saying here that CRPGs are bad, even though a lot of the above comes across as negative. There are some very definite disadvantages to CRPGs and things that they can't do well, but they are really pretty good for combat-based adventures and as a single-player experience. However, they are really quite different to the tabletop PNP experience in many ways, and I think it's worth paying attention to that.


  1. Interestingly I think the thing about travel in RPGs is that there is no distinction between travelling to *known* locations and *unknown* locations.

    In our D&D game, the actual *exploration* bits tend to move at about the same speed as a CRPG. You move down the corridor, we all move our markers, Arthur reveals a bit more of the map. It's when we're backtracking that suddenly it all gets faster, because we just say "we go back to the rickety staircase" and we get there as if by magic.

    1. Huh, interesting point. Skipping backtracking is definitely a strong feature of PNP - particularly when contrasted with some CRPGs where you have to trek back across multiple screens.

      I think there's a second distinction between (effectively) hostile and non-hostile territory. There's very little reason for Peaceville to work the same way as the Forest of Horrible Undead. In a GM-mediated game, on reaching Peaceville, you can simply be told about places of particular relevance, and/or say what kind of stuff you're interested in, and zap straight there. Actually, the same thing happens with large subsections of the FHU, where the GM says "after ten minutes, you hear more liches up ahead". But basically, you expect to explore dangerous places and see edited highlights of others.

      CRPGs don't generally make that distinction, so even where they reveal town maps automatically and you can work out which building is the Wizards' Guild, you still have to spend two minutes waiting for the party to get there.

    2. Some games avoid this by introducing menus, such as how towns are handled in Mount & Blade: you could go to any important person with a single click of the mouse. However, fighting in towns were handled in the usual third-person view.

    3. That definitely sounds promising. Here's what I'd love to see in CRPGs: a comprehensive cross-linking function.

      Let me look at a quest log and ask to travel to the questgiver, without having to remember who they were or where. Despite this, include the name and location of the questgiver in all quest logs. Far too few games remind you of who someone actually is, let alone where they were. Some don’t even tell you what town they were in. Provide pathfinding to the NPC if in the same area, or fast travel if possible; only limit this if I’m in a dangerous area or otherwise blocked from going there.

      Let me pull up a list of shops and important locations in a town – even a town I’m not in, but have seen – and see at a glance what exists. List shops and NPCs by function, as well as by description and name, so I can look for Blacksmith, Sells Weapons or Gnarly Bob as I prefer. Most games give either names (largely useless) or unhelpful descriptions (which of the many cottages is the one with the shepherd?). Offer this when moving around the map, too, so I can mouse over a cottage and be told who lives there (Gnarly Bob the Blacksmith, Sells Weapons). You can filter this information by what the PCs know, but only do so if there’s actually a *good reason*. Assume that PCs buttonhole a passing urchin when they arrive and get the contents of the town described in exhaustive detail.

      Let me look at an item and see related quests, then ask to travel to the relevant location or person. Yes, this would tend to leave most fetch quests so obviously empty that you couldn’t really use them any more; I am all for this proposal. I am fed up of trotting from one end of towns to another, clicking through vapid NPC dialogue, in order to get a turnip for the wheelwright so he’ll give me a flower press to give the plumber’s daughter so she can marry the boot boy.

      Have an index of all known items, places and people. Let me look up Gnarly Bob and find out all the pertinent facts, including any significant dialogue, quests or rumours, as well as his location and function. Let me scroll through all known blacksmiths and see their locations. Let me find the closest blacksmith, or person who’ll buy kobold spears.

      Basically, trying to find out and remember trivia about locations in the game - not interesting background trivia, just who's where and what kind of stuff - is not gameplay. Do not make me wade through it.

    4. It's an excellent idea and something I would like many games to implement. Also, Mount & Blade nailed it, as well. It has an in-game index of every NPC and location containing every relevant information about them and a button that shows you where they are (in the case of locations; NPCs move much and only the latest known location is shown). The only downside is that the index includes *every* person and location, not just the ones the player has met, visited, or heard about (although there is a separate list of known lords and ladies but that's for other purposes).