The Unreal World Gets A Little Less Real
In the best of all possible worlds, every gamer and aspiring gamer out there would have a friendly, well-established, long-standing tabletop or LARP group to call their own and attend once a week or more. For most of us down here on Earth, however, this isn't the case. Summer vacations and work conflicts can break up groups for months at a time, and cross-country moves and lifestyle changes can do so permanently.
In the best of all possible worlds, every gamer and aspiring gamer out there would have a friendly, well-established, long-standing tabletop or LARP group to call their own and attend once a week or more. For most of us down here on Earth, however, this isn't the case. Summer vacations and work conflicts can break up groups for months at a time, and cross-country moves and lifestyle changes can do so permanently. Most gamers will tell you that they've experienced the sudden evaporation of what seemed like a very stable group and the subsequent confusion as everyone rushes to find a replacement and/or longs for a return to "the way it was." Fortunately, in cases such as this the gamers of today have an option which was not readily available to their forebears. I'm speaking, of course, of online gaming.
The idea of bringing tabletop action to the PC is at least as old as the Internet itself. Play-by-email or message-board-based games, where gamers roleplay by trading emails or message board postings, are out there and have a small but devoted following. MUDs, MUSHes, MUCKs, and MOOs have existed for years, giving procrastinating gamers a great way to while away their evenings and weekends killing beasties in a text-based environment while their GPAs plummet in protest. There are as many of these as there are gaming systems under the sun, though more visually pleasing games such as EverCrack, I mean Everquest, and Ultima Online are beginning to replace them. The biggest problem with MU*s, however, is their all-too-frequent focus on combat and killin' stuff and exclusion of real roleplaying. Gamers in search of a more interactive environment have gravitated to games taking place via IRC, chat rooms, or the once-extremely-popular-before-the-bastards-made-you-start-paying-for-it WebRPG software. Online gaming may have begun as a mere supplement to "real" gaming, but now there are plenty of people around the world who play Everquest every day but wouldn't know a d20 if it bit them in the ass. Clearly, online gaming has something that face-to-face gaming does not-but what?
The denizens of GamerChickPlanet, my website's forum, noticed this phenomenon and began to discuss the merits of face-to-face ("flesh") gaming versus online gaming. Eventually, the thread became a survey about which type of gaming the roleplaying community preferred. A slight majority of respondents seemed to prefer online gaming, primarily for reasons I'll go into a bit later. However, I have to dissent. Both have their good points, but in the end, I'll have to say that nothing can ever replace a good old-fashioned tabletop session. Why? Read on.
Online gaming, first of all, has two major pluses going for it. The first is privacy. Thanks to instant-messaging systems such as the "whisper" or "page" commands, players can trade messages with each other or with the GM without anyone else having the slightest idea what is going on. This makes it easier for players to spring fun, nasty little surprises on their fellow gamers. Players who do the same in a game via passing notes or asking for a private conference with the GM have a much more difficult time keeping their evil intentions secret, since everyone sees you doing it and knows something is up. I experienced this firsthand when, while playing in a MOO-based Mage game (about which I'll tell you more later), I was able to secretly cast some Mind effects on an evil fellow member of my cabal and prevent her diabolical plan from succeeding. It was truly a beautiful sight to behold, and never would have worked in a normal tabletop game; the GM and I would have been unable to keep straight faces long enough to fool the player on the receiving end!
The second (and most important) merit of online gaming is its convenience; you can, quite literally, do it from the comfort of your own home. All it takes is a computer, an Internet connection, and the proper (and often free) software. Apart from a few logistical hurdles such as time-zone differences, there are next to no worries about getting everyone in the same place at the same time. Online gaming also makes it a cinch to connect groups of people who would otherwise never be able to game together. The GM of the MOO game I mentioned before, for example, has been able to keep playing with members of his college gaming group despite moving across the country. It also allowed me to finally "meet" a number of GCP regulars and readers of my site who I might never have been able to game with otherwise.
However, the two biggest bonuses of tabletop gaming outweigh even these benefits, in my humble opinion. The first bonus has to do with the technical side of online gaming. Earlier this year, my friend Eustacio and some GCP regulars started a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game via WebRPG and asked me to join. Excited, I made a character, downloaded the program, and successful accessed it on several occasions. But when the first night of the game rolled around, the program quite suddenly refused to work. After many hours of swearing, frustration, and trying everything I could think of to get the program to work, I found out the school's firewall was the problem, which led to many more fruitless hours of trying to find a way around it. Eventually I gave up, resigned to playing only when I had access to a dial-up connection at home. Summer came, and I looked forward to finally getting to play in Eustacio's game...until, once again quite inexplicably, the program quit working again. I gave up on the game again, this time for good. Technical problems such as these were definitely the most prohibitive factor working against my being able to fully enjoy my first experience with online gaming. With tabletop gaming, the biggest technical problems I've ever had were a car breaking down and preventing me from getting to a session on time, or having to walk across campus in a snowstorm.
Secondly, there's the social aspect of a good face-to-face game. One of my top reasons for gaming is the excuse it gives me to spend a few hours with my friends every week, goofing off and having fun. My online Mage group was perhaps unique among online gaming groups in the amount of ambience (virtual furniture and vending machines "selling" everything from Mountain Dew to Doritos to barbequed wenches) and social interaction provided, partially because so many of the players knew one another beforehand. But no matter how many new gadgets we add, the fact remains that my fellow gamers are spread far across the country, sitting at home and typing the same as me. It's still enjoyable, but it's definitely missing that out-of-character fun that I've come to depend on so much.
I don't want to make it sound like I didn't enjoyed my foray into the world of online gaming, because I did. My Mage game was one of the best roleplaying experiences of my life, and it was a sad day when the group went their separate ways at the end of summer. But no matter what, I always got the inexplicable feeling of missing something by gaming while sitting in front of my computer rather than in the midst of a boisterous group of friends who are right there, right then. This tells me that while online gaming may be better than nothing when it comes to keeping a group together, there will never be anything to replace real, honest-to-God human contact-in gaming or in any other area of life.
At least, I'd like to think so.