The World In Our Minds


I’ve always been a role playing game fan. Even through the decades when I was away from Tabletop games, RPGs were my go to video game of choice. I loved the epic stories, the exploration, and the plot twists. But, even though I enjoy video game RPGs, I’ve also had a persistent struggle with them.

I almost never finish the game.

With a video game RPG by the time the main plot has been revealed, and the world has been explored, all that’s left to do is grind up levels so I can beat the final boss and end the game. Once the world is uncovered, that’s it, there’s nothing new that’s going to happen 1. The shops will have the same items for sale, the NPCs will say the same lines 2, and no one new will ever show up. So, by the time I get to this point in a game I grow bored and stop playing. The only thing left to do is “win,” and there are few games where that’s enough of a motivation for me to keep playing 3.

This isn’t a video game RPGs fault, it’s the nature of a video game. The NPCs, after all, aren’t alive–so it’s not like they can come up with new ideas–and this is true for the wider world as well. Everything follows a script and, once that script is completed, the world just…stops. Even a game as free and open as Breath of the Wild suffers from this dilemma. Because even if the player isn’t on rails everything else is 4. So, while I enjoy playing video game RPGs, I have always felt something was missing. And when I jumped back into Tabletop RPGs at the beginning of the pandemic I figured out what that was–living imaginations.

In a Tabletop RPG nothing needs to be set. Characters can be introduced in one location, and show up anywhere it makes sense for them to be. NPC’s don’t exist to dish out a pre-programmed series of fetch quests, and shopkeepers don’t always have to have the same items for sale. Events in the wider world can change the setting for the players, even if they are no where near where things are happening, and there’s always something new to interact with anytime a player asks, “OK, can I do..?” or “What do I see around me?”

Over the last several weeks my two tables, one playing Basic Fantasy RPG and the other playing D&D 5e, have been exploring different settlements. For both of these settlements I had some ideas for basic services like shops and taverns and temples, but as soon as the party was unleashed into the world these towns took on a whole new life as the players went searching for things or asked me questions:

  • “OK, the potion maker isn’t happy with us and I want to make it up to him. So, is there a coffee shop in town? Does coffee even exist in this world?”
  • “What buildings do I see around me?… A laundry? Oh yah, I’m definitely going in there.”
  • “Oh, that’s a temple to my Goddess? I’m going to go in an pay my respects.”
  • “Where can I get something to eat?”
  • “Do you all know what donuts are? No? OK, let’s go find a bakery.”
  • “What I really need right now is an outlandish outfit. Are there any clothing stores nearby?”
  • “Are there any houses for sale in town?”
  • “I need a bath, are there any bath houses in town?”
  • “I tip the door wizard…with a cookie.”
  • “Wait, so you’re saying there’s a lot of cats around me? I can talk to cats you know…”

These questions, and the decisions which emerged from the answers I gave, turned these towns on their head and made the world much more alive.

  • Yes, coffee exists in world–and because the players inquired about it the friendly halfling who runs the coffee shop came into existence.
  • The laundry turned out to be a great way to evade pursuit, and has become a convenient way to get soiled clothes washed 5.
  • The cleric opened a worship service in prayer.
  • We learned that, in world, “donut” refers to a fried fish dish popular with mer-folk. But this hasn’t discouraged the thief, who hails from another continent, from trying to describe what he thinks a donut is 6. And, in the thief’s quest to make donuts a thing, the pursuit of baked goods caused a bakery to come into existence–along with a baker, of course.
  • The rogue found an outlandish purple outfit, and made contact with Chancy, a merchant dealing in eccentric styles and who happens to know thieves’ cant 7.
  • The counter worker at the laundry, an unhappy older halfling, got to have a moment in the spotlight.
  • The players became homeowners.
  • The “force of nature” proprietor of the local bath house, Zale, was born–and he got to drag the mostly naked paladin to a bath so he could wash the salt out of his hair 8.
  • We created a cantrip which allowed the wizard to create fresh baked cookies on the fly, and any NPC who eats one has a flash of a fond childhood memory.
  • Feral cats were recruited as an army of sabotage.

This type of dynamism can’t happen in a video game, but is expected in a tabletop RPG. In fact, the sudden calls for improvisation make the world feel like it’s breathing. And the random chaos players create as they force the world to come into existence around them is what makes a tabletop RPG so much fun. Nothing is pre-programmed. NPCs don’t have a set script, after which they become useless to talk to. And change will happen because of what the players do–the butterfly effect is real.

If you enjoy video game RPGs, but have never had an opportunity to play a tabletop RPG, find a table! Because when imaginations are running rampant, you never know what’s going to happen.

  1. Unless you shell out for a DLC, in which case you get a couple of new quests. But the world still doesn’t feel as though it’s alive
  2. And stand in the same spot. 
  3. And, no, I don’t find exploring pre-generated side quests enjoyable. 
  4. For the record, Breath of the Wild may be my favorite video game of all time. 
  5. No questions asked, which is good because the murder hobos aren’t all that subtle. 
  6. Which he’s never actually seen, he’s only heard stories. 
  7. No matter what mechanic I set up to see if someone knows thieves’ cant, any time the rogue attempts to locate someone who knows it the results will always be positive. I don’t know why this is, but everyone in my 5e world seems to be a smuggler. 
  8. It’s a long story.