Role-Playing in Digital Games

Recently at Cologne Game Lab we had a lecture by Claudia Küttel from the University of Klagenfurt. She is doing some research on Pen & Paper RPGs. She raised a lot of fascinating points during her lecture. One of them stood out for me personally. She mentioned a couple of reasons why Pen & Paper players disliked digital RPGs. The problem apparently was often the role-playing itself.

  • Reflection Digital RPGs don’t do a good job at reflecting upon what the player already did. Previous events aren’t recalled. Of course they are in the embedded narrative but this part is not interactive therefore not really role-playing. Otherwise, players can often steal and murder and NPCs rarely remember. Of course there are attempts but they feel stiff and general when compared to the personalized, specific feedback you get in a Pen & Paper RPG. There, important events in adventures can have repercussions on many subsequent campaigns. Players build up a wealth of history they can draw upon. The recollection of the player’s actions become their character’s identity.

  • Character Traits Pen & Paper RPGs are often about creating distinct characters. The characters go beyond simply a list of skills and a customizable appearance. The focus is very much on character traits, their idiosyncrasies. Those traits often heavily influence the kind of challenges the group will have. The example Claudia mentioned was having to cross a river with one of the characters being afraid of water. Again, some games try this (Fallout 3) but the traits often boil down to tame combat buffs. They do not inform the narrative like they do in Pen & Paper RPGs.

  • Action / Reaction Possibly similar to the first part: in Pen & Paper RPGs characters change. The change is often influenced by big events happening. After almost dying in combat and being miraculously saved by a very lucky roll, one character may become religious, entertaining a belief of having been chosen (Pulp Fiction style). Changes like this may happen in digital RPGs (Cecil becoming a Paladin) but mostly in the embedded story, not because of events that were initiated by the player. This is basically what of Ludonarrative Dissonance is about.

  • Crowded Storytelling more generally, Pen & Paper RPGs are more about participating in crowded storytelling, about experiencing a fiction in the making. It’s constantly about people throwing in ideas and other people picking it up, rolling with and turning it into something more. It’s closer to brainstorming than to what you do in digital RPGs. Digital RPGs are more about consuming a story. There are some aspects of leeway and exploration but the fundamental course of action is not something that can be negotiated. There is nobody to negotiate with anyway.

I don’t suggest this is something game designers can or even should fix. I’m just throwing it in here. I think it may be something interesting to keep in mind. It may help us to see digital RPGs in a differend light. Discuss.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

6 responses to “Role-Playing in Digital Games”

  1. Nels Anderson

    Tabletop RPGs are what sparked my interest in making games and I’ve always found them a good companion to digital games. D&D was the staple for a long time, but recently my weekly gaming cabal has been experimenting with more crazy indie RPGs. Fiasco ( and Apocalypse World ( are both really interesting, rules light games that I’d suggest anyone interesting in tabletop RPGs check out.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Thanks for the suggestions! The games look great. I think in one regard digital and analogue games are the same: the most interesting titles thrive on the fringes.

  2. Nick LaLone

    I think that the digital rpgs are a great compromise. The worst part of pen and paper gaming is the amount of effort it takes to arrange playtime. By sacrificing certain aspects of the social interaction, I can play a game with a person that is always there and can sometimes be an ok dungeon master. Over the long haul, as these games get more complicated and unpredictable, I think that this argument will lose a lot of ground (well, it mostly has already).

    1. Krystian Majewski

      That was my initial reaction. But I think the argument transcends this notion. The players Claudia interviewed were incredibly experienced (playing games for over 15 years) and they played digital games as well. They clearly preferred Pen & Paper games for the above mentioned reasons. They also noticed that with time, the entire group moved through different phases. They eventually became less interested in the mechanics of the games (killing stuff, rolling dice) but in the actual role-playing aspect. It may have been because digital games don’t even come close in this regard.

      While digital games certainly improve technically, I don’t think they can ever completely overcome these issues. Especially considering the general trend is actually towards simpler, more “cinematic” games about killing stuff in a spectacular fashion while fulfilling a rigid role within an embedded story. They are actually less about expressing a unique, individual character in a highly reactive and dynamic world. Older games are often much better at doing this (Ultima Series?). Even if we tried, there are still fundamental difficulties which Pen & Paper games solve effortlessly. Take dialogue. Almost all dialogue in digital games is multiple-choice in the best case. Dialogue in Pen & Paper games need to be improvised and performed by the players. It feels more natural, while allowing for an overwhelming amount of choice and control. Sure it’s more difficult. But that’s kinda the whole point. It’s like recognition vs recall with a vengeance. It’s a huge gap but within this gap is where the magic happens.

      I think this is what Claudia was talking about. I see very little attempts from digital games to try to narrow this gap. I don’t think they even can. Maybe they don’t even should.

  3. Nick LaLone

    I have a feeling we’re talking about the same thing but I thought i’d reply:

    The interesting thing about digital gaming is the ultimate limitations and disbelief that specific games bring; especially when they actively try to shorten this game. Sleep is Death was a really great attempt at solving some of the problems that happen between the player and the gm. However, because it was an indie game and because it required a bit of technical know-how, the game has been swept under the rug.

    I think the issue with video games and the way pen and paper worked is that video games are ultimately a technological event while pen and paper games are mostly believed to be a creative one. I see it everyday, mental blocks due to a belief that a technological object is somehow complicated and difficult to understand.

    Games like KOTOR or a couple other Bioware games actively used the d20 system. You were essentially playing in a very tightly constructed pen and paper adventure.

    The problems that arose from that were numerous. Understanding how the system worked through a controller and a screen were troublesome. Bioware doesn’t use that system anymore. They use some modified, video game like system. It was a unique event!

    There are some great books that go along with the study Caludia seems to be doing. They have a lot of problems in their method and rigor but they’re pretty outstanding due to their uniqueness:

    The last one is probably the most useful.

  4. Jorge Albor

    I had a brief conversation with someone working on an educational game they touted as the greatest innovation for the next twenty years (not a modest claim by any means) which relied heavily on AI advancements. Considering the elements of RPGs that I continue to find immensely appealing, I’m fairly certain the gentleman was over-exaggerating his capabilities. Tabletop games seem like a great conceptual measurement for how digital RPGs progress along a path towards better AI.

    Also, another interesting and heavily streamlined RPG system you might want to check out is Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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