Wednesday, June 27, 2012

GM vs. Computer - Versimilitude

I've been steadily playing through Skyrim, and I occasionally reflect on the oddness of a GM-less sandbox video game.

One advantage the GM has is verisimilitude of encounters and interactions.

NPCs can't answer basic, free-form questions. You can't find a store in town, you can ask a guard, right? No. Good thing you have a map but really, you can't ask. Your follower might kill someone in a sprawling outdoor combat and can't show you where the body is so you can search it. You can't ask a storekeeper when something will be in stock or special order it.

Thieves have no concept of target difficulty. Seriously, my guy runs around fully armored and kills dragons, and is trailed by a plate-armored character with glowing weaponry, and thieves will walk up to me outside of town and try to mug me. "Hand it over." Yeah, that's going to happen. But more importantly, they'll fight to the death one-on-two for the chance at some gold against a prepared foe. A GM would recognize this is crazy and have the thief try something more clever (or pick on easier foes).

Encounters scale oddly. Bandits start showing up with plate armor, and you have to wonder who they're robbing to get it. Actually, store contents in games tend to level-scale, so a rich but low level character can't buy stuff that a rich high level character can. While this can happen in a GMed game (and probably should), there isn't much explanation of why. Is my one guy driving the whole economy? I guess so.

These aren't criticism of Skyrim per se, just of the lack of a GM. There is a clear bit of "What the hell?" going on here, because the script doesn't match what's exactly going on.

Okay, got to go slay another dragon.


  1. CRPGs always remind me of the way some people played RPGs when I was 13 and the classic AD&D modules were our main source of adventures: the DM expected that the module would answer every possible question. Anything that the game designer didn't think of and write down simply doesn't work.

    That's why I don't play them. (I also prefer the graphics in tabletop games.)

    1. That's a good summary of our early play - "Anything that the game designer didn't think of and write down simply doesn't work." We ran a lot of modules that way. I expect much of it came from being normal argumentative 4th and 5th graders - imagine the South Park kids playing AD&D. "Dude, the module totally says there is a +1 sword there." "Cartmen, you fat fuck, you're not supposed to read the module!" That was us, basically. You did what Gygax wrote or nothing. ;)

  2. Ironically, as a GM, I find that games like Skyrim offer me an outlet to be the player for a change. While it isn't perfect, video games give me the opportunity to see things from the other side of the fence and frequently act as inspiration.

    Although that inspiration usually translates to "Pfft, I could make this scenario so much better on a tabletop."

    Good post!

  3. I stopped playing WoW and similar games because it simply seemed too much like a waste of time for me. I suspect Skyrim would be the same, in spite of what many have said. I enjoy the prep work and game world design as well as fiction writing too much. (Not that I don't enjoy playing tabletop games -- it's great fun; but I seem to be able to run a game off the top of my head, in part because I've spent so much time in gameworld design.)

    The computer based games miss a lot of opportunities for amusement, even in straight DF style games. In more serious games, they fail utterly, since you're still on a "path" no matter what variations the game allows. No chance to just say "I don't like this town/region/kingdom/etc., lets go East!" -- rocks fall from the sky and everyone dies. Or something like it.

    And no chance for the unintentional hireling to randomly become an ally, enemy, or simply remain the party's book cleaner -- it's scripted, generally.

  4. For me, I like a GM who weaves a good story. The computer games have beautiful graphics and interesting combat but the story is pretty simplistic. A good GM can create a story that the PCs are interested in and expand it while reducing the stuff that is boring. My GM used to play Vampire the Masquerade with us and having a character with somewhat realistic motivations was appealing to me. We also use to combine this with AD&D and Call of Cthulhu and the result was a dark mythical earth with tons of forces of darkness to contend with. A good GM can invoke a mood and atmosphere that computers don't seem to be able to recreate, at least for me.


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