Today's Irregular Webcomic has a long discussion of tabletop role-playing games, their rules, and the different approaches to creating them that Morgan-Mar has encountered throughout the years. One part of this essay goes into the differences between computer "role-playing games" and their tabletop namesakes. In my opinion, Mr. Morgan-Mar's analysis is spot-on:
The essential component of [tabletop roleplaying games] that distinguishes them from board games, and even from modern computer "roleplaying games" (which have borrowed the terminology), is that in a roleplaying game you take on the role of a character and you can choose to do anything that character could do in their world. A computer roleplaying game, even one styled as a "wide open" sandbox is still a very tightly restricted sandbox. You might be able to travel anywhere on the game map and talk with or fight any creature you come across, but you can't climb a tree, hack off a branch, and carve it into a set of dominoes. You can't sit in a pub nursing a beer and pondering wistfully over a lost love while flicking peanuts at the bard attempting to perform in the corner. In a traditional tabletop roleplaying game, you can.
It's the flexibility of having a human game moderator that allows your character to do, or at least try to do, anything you can imagine that gives roleplaying games their intense fascination, at least for me. I love the freedom of roleplaying games, played face to face with other people. But I've played a few computer "roleplaying games" and very quickly gave them up because of how uninteresting and uninteractive I found them, though I recognise that many other people enjoy them immensely for other good qualities that they possess. It's a totally different experience, and I think that co-opting the name "roleplaying games" for computer games does a disservice both to them and to the traditional face-to-face games.
This is pretty much exactly how I feel about tabletop role-playing games versus their computer analogues. I've long been of the opinion that "role-playing game" when applied to a computer game is a major misnomer, especially when referring to the earlier attempts at such, like Wizardry, Ultima, Dragon Warrior, or Final Fantasy. Even more recent incarnations of the computer "role-playing game"—such as the Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, or Fallout series—are really just storytelling games that give you some options as to a) how your character looks, b) what your character does, and c) how your character responds to dialogue or situations. In the best of these, the story can be told in several ways that are sufficiently different from each other that it continues to be fun (just look at how long I've been playing Skyrim for an example), but it's still fundamentally the same story. Even a game that can be heavily modded, like Skyrim, can only be pushed so far before the technical limitations of the engine are reached.
But a tabletop role-playing game is truly limitless. No two games, even played by the same people with the same characters using the same rules and the same setting, are ever the same. The story arbiter (usually called a Game Master) is in control of the setting—which includes the game world, the people and creatures in it, and the situations that the player characters find themselves in. But the players themselves are in control of their characters, and characters can (and often do) completely derail the intended story and take the game in a completely unexpected direction. And this is what I love about them. As a player in a tabletop role-playing game, I am a co-author of the story along with the GM and the other players, whereas in Skyrim or Dragon Age, I'm always playing someone else's story. It may be a good story, a fun story, a very engaging story—but it's never mine.
So thank you, David Morgan-Mar, for putting into words something I've felt for a very long time but hadn't been able to adequately express.