Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Comparative advantage in role-playing

David Ricardo certainly was no role-player, but his theory of comparative advantage can be applied to role-playing systems. The general idea of this theory is that everybody should do whatever he is *relatively* better at. So how does this apply to role-playing games? Well, if you want to play a RPG, you have a lot of very different choices, from pen & paper to MMORPGs. And if you want to create a fun pen & paper campaign, as I am currently trying, you need to ask yourself at what pen & paper is relatively better than a computer RPG.

If you haven't played any pen & paper adventures yet, or at least no good ones, you might think that computer games are better in all respects. Pen & paper games have lousy graphics, are difficult to set up, and are generally extremely slow. A fight of a full party of players against an even number of orcs of the same level in a computer RPG would take not more than a minute, while in a pen & paper RPG it can take half an hour.

But combat is what a computer RPG is comparatively good at. In a pen & paper game a player might need to look up a rule or description of a power, move over the battlefield while counting squares, roll a die to determine success, roll another die for damage, keep various bonuses to his roll in mind, and keep score. Combat in a computer game is a lot easier, because the player just needs to hit the button of the ability he wants to use, and all the calculations and score-keeping are done by the computer. Of course computer RPG combat has often been simplified, with no zones of control or other effects of positioning, and players in many games even being able to run right through a monster.

The comparative advantage of pen & paper RPGs is more on the non-combat side. Dialogue between a player and a non-player character (NPC) is extremely limited, ranging from a simple option to either accept a quest or not, to a still rather canned choice between 3 to 5 responses. And even a dialogue with 5 steps of 5 dialogue choices each usually ends up having only one or two possible outcomes, not 25. In a pen & paper game the Dungeon Master (DM) who controls all NPCs is a real human being, and thus has a much better "parser". I once was in a group sneaking into a warehouse to investigate its owner, and we were caught by the guard. And one of the players in the group came up with a fantastic bluff, pretending to be a security inspector sent by the owner to test how good the guard was, and even chiding him for taking so long to find us. The DM went along, and we ended up with lots of information and a bribe from the guard to keep mum about his "failing". Unless that particular event is scripted into a computer game, it simply cannot happen there.

This is why I try to put a good amount of role-playing and similar non-combat encounters into my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, at least getting the players to spend half of their time out of combat. Now I think that D&D 4E has quite a good combat system for a pen & paper game, very nicely tactical and all. But the comparative advantage is in the role-playing, in having meaningful choices and consequences to your actions, in puzzles and challenges the players can't look up on YouTube, and in my flexibility as a human DM. If my players just wanted combat, they probably could find a good computer game to serve them faster and better. But in presenting an open world and endless options, not even Skyrim can beat a real human DM.
I disagree. Not with your fundamental premise of applying comparative advantage to RPGs, but that pen and paper combat is a weak point.

I absolutely adore combat in DnD. I love building my character to be superior in combat, I love the tactical and strategic aspects of it whereas MMOs only tend to have it with bosses in instances or raids, and even then, there is very little actual tactics. You strategize what to do in every situation, since you know it beforehand or after an attempt or two, but nothing changes so you are done minus some getting out of the fire. And especially the team aspect, where you have a group of people that can work together to take down outrageously powerful foes.

Combat in DnD is amazingly fluid, and there are more than enough monsters or opponents with classes that with a good DM you may never be in the same situation twice, both within a single combat, and hell, over an entire campaign.

I don't disparage or dislike very non-combat oriented campaigns, hell, I've played in some good ones myself, but I am a bit sad when people tend to insult combat oriented campaigns as being somehow lesser.
The beauty of Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage is that it remains true even if you assume that pen & paper is BETTER in all respects to a computer game. Because you would still have to admit that *comparatively* the pen & paper game is MUCH better in non-combat, and only a little better in combat than a computer game.
I am a bit sad when people tend to insult combat oriented campaigns as being somehow lesser.

The issue with combat-orientated games is that it pushes players to min-max their characters, which is what a lot of non-combat orientated GMs frown upon.
One of the big advantages in pen and paper gaming is that you can tailor the adventure to the characters. So if you have a lopsided party who are all thieves, you can just set them up to have loads of theivish adventures.

One of the big downsides though is that the quality of gaming is very dependent on both GM and players. Compare with something like SWTOR where everyone (all 2 million of them) get a similar quality of game.

Also, combat in pen and paper games is a pain in the arse unless everyone really wanted to play a tactical strategy game and not a RPG. Time spent rolling dice and working out who gets advantage is time not spent roleplaying.
Actually, that is why I moved my campaign to MapTools. The framework handles the combat, so players and the GM just press macro buttons that figure out all the rolls and math and whathaveyou in 2 seconds, and we can get on with playing.

It's the best of both worlds. The computers do what they do best, and we do what we enjoy.
Certainly imagination and freedom of action are huge advantages of RPGs over computer games. Even the best sandbox is strictly limiting in comparison.

My group enjoys roleplay encounters just as much as combat so any adventures I design invariably mix the two. I often turn travel into a chance to roleplay, for example the Eberron published adventures are all travel heavy. So rather than skip over days of travel I'll pepper them with brief scenes with NPCs where the players can interact.

As was mentioned above in comments there are advantages in RPGs even to combat. RPGs are turn-based so can be more tactical, plus there's always a much better variety of opponent available!
I break all RPGs into three (over-generalized and simplistic) parts. Story, Mechanics, and character. I feel every game and every group creates an hierarchy of these three, which shapes the way the game develops. Take the FRP system. Clearly, that's after mechanics. On the other hand, early White Wolf games were clearly about character, Other games are very story heavy; consider ... shoot, I can't think of one right now. Dear Esther, there.

At any rate, Each of those categories can be further broken down, though I'll spare this comment the pain of my doing that. Overall, computers are better at mechanics while PnP RPGs are better at the other two. This is one reason that I think I'll always love PnP no matter how awesome comp RPGs become.
Well, the simulation combat (when you have lots of stats, variables and some interplay within them) is of course weaker in pen&paper games, because computer can crunch more numbers.

But if you are willing to abandon juicy game mechanics for stronger story, you may find that combat in narrative system can even turn out to be more tactical, despite it's usually played without a map and defined character abilities whatsoever. Despite that, the characters can apply literally any effect imaginable to their opponents, and swinging on chandeliers, setting stuff on fire, yanking carpets and all this stuff can not only make for a more colorful story than a succession of hits and misses, but also turn out to be more tactics-heavy due to non-trivial situations and interesting solutions.

I personally like Ars Magica (and even more Dresden Files), because players can cast any spell they come up with on the spot, no rulebook required.
I mean, I wouldn't say pen&paper battles are far worse than their videogame counterparts, you just have to use advantages of pen&paper systems to the fullest.
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