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How can I briefly describe the limitations of contemporary Computer Role Playing games comparing the traditional Tabletop Role Playing games.

I am working on a presentation and I need to highlight the limitations of CRPGs in terms of narrative flexibility, story development, re-playability and player experience comparing regular Tabletop roleplaying games. However, I am finding it difficult to make it clear and concise.

Also can anyone give a a simple/brief example that clearly hightlights those limitation in more obvious way?

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Interesting article about the problems with creating the table-top experience in a computer game: escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/issues/issue_4/… –  Philipp May 4 at 12:55

6 Answers 6

Sure, here's a concise differentiation.

In computer RPGs, every course of action that is allowable must be specifically coded for, potentially at great expense. At the single scene level, in a fairly open world game like Fallout: New Vegas, you can go into a shop and attack the shopkeeper, or buy from him, or conduct a canned discussion with him. You can't offer to go into business with him, or threaten him, or ask to marry his daughter, as these options haven't been coded in advance by a programmer, provided with art and sound, etc. But in a traditional RPG using the same setting, you could, as the only restriction on the players' activity is the mind of the present gamemaster and activity of the players; the game adapts to become what they all want to do instead of vice versa. Infinite scenarios are thus created using the same "engine."

What is true in one scene is even more true in the long term. The game's narrative, even in an open-world game, is constrained to the metaphor of the game and what it intends the player to accomplish. In the best CRPGs, a player can wander where they want to, and maybe pick one of several paths, and adapt based on "good vs evil" moral choices or the like. But they have strict limitations based on the need to control the narrative, including constructs like "the door that cannot be opened until a quest condition is met," or "the NPC that cannot be talked to until a certain phase in the game." A CRPG doesn't support many alternate paths and doesn't learn based on the player's choices. In a tabletop RPG, the prostitutes would stop getting into your car after a couple of them get killed, whereas in Grand Theft Auto they just keep lining up.

Of course, the tradeoff is that instead of extensive visuals and recorded dialogue and twitch-pleasing combat, all the activity occurs in the mind's eyes of the participants - but it can be done anywhere, anytime, with practically no gear or expenditure.

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Level of detail

The content of a CRPG has to "exist" at the time of shipping the game (or an expansion of the game) to you, while in a tabletop RPG most of the "content details" are usually generated on the fly during the adventure, no matter how much the GM has prepared. If player(s) want to focus on a specific narrow area or topic, then in a CRPG that can be done if such a focus was preconceived and that content implemented before the players got that idea, but a tabletop game (assuming a good GM) would be able to switch focus on something entirely unplanned. Both tabletop game rules and CRPG game rules model the typical player actions and the mechanics for their resolution, but a tabletop game can be extended on the fly as needed - for example, if the game rules don't have anything whatsoever about ship-to-ship combat, then in a CRPG ship-to-ship combat would be impossible, but a tabletop game would be able to do it somehow.

In a CRPG the amount of "depth" available is practically limited by resources - either the capabilities must be shallow enough so that their artists (or procedural generation) are able to implement that level of detail throughout the whole game world, or they must "railroad" the experience so that it's predetermined where & how the player will see that depth, like in a movie; which is also a significant restriction for player capabilities and freedom. There are good CRPGs with both approaches, and if you analyze them then you can easily see those tradeoffs being made.

CRPG-style as a subset of all RPG genres

You could ignore the actual media (in person, over a chat or group phone calls, email/mail games, MMORPG, single-player CRPG) and take a look at the pure game - rule mechanics, story and content data. The same games IMHO can be switched between media, they don't do completely different things, they just have different limits for allowed player/character actions in the same game/story. You can run a tabletop RPG in very different ways as very different gameplay (as opposted to story) genres, and CRPGs are simply a narrower niche, a strict subset of all those possibilities - CRPG systems include those things that can be implemented well on a computer and excluding all those that can't.

The typical tabletop RPG is too different from a CRPG, but tabletop RPG groups can and occasionally do run games that are very much like CRPGs, or imitate/copy specific classic CRPGs - a tabletop game is able to emulate a CRPG, if the group wants so, but the other way is not (yet?) possible. A limited system/engine cannot run a more demanding game, but a more flexible system can 'run' all stricter styles of RPG. I.e., a classic CRPG such as Rogue, Zork or original Final Fantasy could be reimplemented in a modern CRPG engine (but not vice versa), and a good GM could run a Fallout or Skyrim game with the relevant content and comparable mechanics.

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Computer RPG's have:

  • Limitation of Setting
  • Limitation of action
  • Limitation of mechanics
  • Limitation of dialogue
  • inability to restrict to sensible interactions
  • Ability to Save = Lack of Risk
  • Hardware and Power
  • Illusion of Choice
  • Multiplayer


In a CRPG, the setting is fixed by the programmer. Occasionally (NWN, Realmz), it can be changed by conversion packs, but the fundamental axioms are still often hard coded. In a TTRPG, the setting can be changed by the GM fairly easily - it's one of the more common things to do, in fact.


In a CRPG, your action choices are limited to those selected by the programmer and story team as possible. In many newer games, this can be a quite extensive lost, but it's still pick from a list. In a TTRPG, the rules may only cover a specific list, but most provide for the GM to adjudicate anything the player decides to have his character attempt. (A few do not - usually for genre reasons - eg: Golden Sky forbids physical attacks as a blanket prohibition, as they're out of genre.)

To be blunt, however, this is very often not much more open in actual TT play - many GM's restrict actions, especially in combat, to a limited list. This actually boils down to interface - in CRPG, the interface usually tells you what you can attempt, while in TTRPG, even when your choices are limited, you are not generally confronted with a list. You can often describe an action, and the GM will convert it to whatever the closest "on the list" action is.


In a CRPG, the mechanics are limited solely to those included in the codebase, intended or not. (Yes, bugs sometimes allow actions other than those the design and programming team want.) If one of the mechanics annoys you, you're stuck with it. If one has bad simulation, you're stuck with it. If it's lacking an important mechanic, you're stuck without it.

In a TTRPG, the GM (or the group) can modify the rules as needed. Often, the GM modifies the mechanics unintentionally - misunderstanding of rules, misremembering of rules, and assumption that it's the same as in another game often lead to unique flavors for every GM.


In a CRPG, dialogue is the most limiting aspect. You usually cannot say anything that wasn't pre-programmed; in a few, you can't say anything at all (like the Zelda games). In a very rare few, you can say what you want, but only certain key phrases get responses.

In a TTRPG, you can say whatever you want. The GM usually can parse it, and react accordingly. (A few rare exceptions exist - eg: Parsely restricts the GM to a keyword list.)

Non-sensical Interactions

In a CRPG, sometimes the allowed options include some non-sensical ones for certain situations. Sometimes this is lazy coding, sometimes it's due to reskinning an extant engine, and sometimes, it's an intentional illusion of freedom, and rarely, it's an intentional effect to simulate intoxication or insanity; most often, tho', it's a bug.

In TTRPG, non-sensical interaction choices are almost never presented explicitly, so when they are, it's almost always an intentional puzzle to be figured out. (Examples include a dungeon set up as a hypercube, alien dimensions, and prophetic dreams.)

Sense of Risk

In a CRPG, most of the time, one has access to a save feature. It varies where and when, but usually, it's coded such that one can restore from an old save. The sense of Risk is thus very illusory, if present at all. Even in the few coded against restorign from old saves, one can usually back up the save file. The primary exception being on cartridge games, such as those for Nintendo's hand-helds.

Hardware and Power

CRPG's require a computer. And a computer requires electrical power. No power, no play. Even on a handheld, when the batteries are drained, you're done.

TTRPGs require only that you have players and a GM, and enough light to read and write as needed, which can be as low as a single candle. In some cases, TTRPG's can even be played in total darkness - feeling the pips on d6's, and keeping character abilities either with tangible markers or in memory.

TTRPGs can be played equally well by the blind, the deaf, and those lacking dexterity - the only requirement is to be able to communicate, and that at least one person in the group be able to make annotations as needed.

The Illusion of Choice

Fundamentally, playing a predesigned adventure to conclusion is much the same in either. You have a series of required encounters to pass, and a series of actions to take to accomplish those, and often, freedom to work within encounters by a couple different approaches to the encounter.

In CRPGs, the appearance of choice is much more restricted, simply by the interface. If you don't see it, you usually can't try it (but there are exceptions to this).

In TTRPGs, the appearance of choice is much more open, even when the GM is restricting to stuff covered by the rules, because the GM doesn't always need to say, "that's really this rule" - the GM just uses the rule to resolve it, and reports the result. And in some people's games, the freedom of choice isn't even illusory; you can have your character try anything, and the GM will apply common sense and rules to adjudicate it, hopefully in a fair manner.


Fundamentally, most CRPGs are single-player experiences. Even in MMO's, the typical experience is that of being alone at your computer, possibly interacting with others, but still being limited by the system. Even when a group gathers together for a LAN party while playing, the experience is still focused upon separate screens.

The fundamental experience of a TTRPG played in a traditional mode — 3-20 people in one room — is one of a group activity. Everyone interacts with the GM. Everyone can interact with each other, as well, both in and out of character.

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In addition to mxyzptlk's excellent answer, I'd like to point out the BROADER scope of the difference between the two.

In a computer game, you gear the way you play around what the game needs you to accomplish. In a practical sense this means if you don't like games on rails, you try to buy open world games rather than those where your experience in on a guided tour. In a literal sense though, you're playing the game the way the game wants you to play it. If you want to play GTA as a law-abiding citizen, you're more or less out of luck. As mxyzptlk said: you can't offer to marry the shopkeeper's daughter if the programmer's never thought of that scenario as valid.

In a tabletop RPG, your GM gears the game you play around how you want to play it. This means if he knows his group doesn't like to stick to the rails of his script, he'll do more fleshing out of secondary or even very minor characters. The game will succeed or fail on your abilities as PLAYERS, not your character's abilities as heroes. If you make good choices that drive the story and your GM isn't completely incompetent, the story will be compelling.

Essentially this means that though a "party" in World of Warcraft is often a tank, three damage dealers, and a healer, a "party" in Shadowrun can be any group you can imagine. In World of Warcraft (et. al) your job is to adapt your strategy to beat the scenario. In Shadowrun (et. al) your job is to play the way you enjoy the most and let your GM build a scenario that adapts to your strategy.

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You asked for concise so I will try to provide concise.

  • Computers are limited to the number of choices that can be determined before game play starts. By contrast, human interaction in TTRPG's allows for improvisation.
  • Everything else is commentary.
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What do you mean by "Everything else is commentary?" –  GMJoe May 22 at 5:18
@GMJoe Meaning, all the differences that come from non-concise answers, are extrapolations from that first main principle. Allusion to: First quote here: jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Quote/hillel.html –  GMNoob May 22 at 5:31
Ah, right - commentary on the previous point; Somehow I didn't make that embarrassingly-obvious-in-hindsight mental leap. Thanks for clarifying that. Also, +1. –  GMJoe May 22 at 5:55

Actually pretty easy. In a true role playing game, the players have equal input into the creation of the games reality. Anything can happen to change the narrative. A computer game in no more a role playing game than a choose your own path book. You are just making choices that are already desiginated.

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Not in traditional play. –  aramis May 22 at 23:20

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