More lessons from the Wasteland

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I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 3 lately. Parts of it are brilliant. Parts of it suffer in contrast to the brilliant bits. I keep thinking of it in comparison to a tabletop RPG, and thinking about what could have been done better on the tabletop and what couldn’t have been done at all on the tabletop. Here are a few observations:

Reputation and Morality

The karma system in Fallout 3 is better than that in many computer games. Nonetheless, it can’t really take your intentions into account. There’s one group in particular that – as a good guy – I have trouble leaving alive. If I kill them, though, I will lose (as far as I can tell) as much karma as if I had killed anyone else.

Another problem: people react directly to your level of karma. Perhaps you’ve done all your killing of innocents behind closed doors, in secret, wearing a full-face mask and coveralls. When you walk around town in a fancy hat and old-style business suit, you’ll still be treated like a murderer.

Both of these things are near-trivial for people to handle in a tabletop situation. Can it be done in a computer game? Probably. It would be tricky, though.


Some people have incredibly vivid imaginations and are able to fully immerse themselves in an imaginary world given just a few words of description by a GM. Most people don’t fall into that category. There are few times that I’ve been panicked or really creeped out by a tabletop game. It happens, but it is rare. In Fallout 3, I’ve been getting creeped out regularly while stalking through old, labrynthine buildings or abandoned metro tunnels filled with boobytraps and other dangers (don’t get me started on the fire-breathing giant ants). Then, there’s all that wandering through ruins when someone starts shooting at you and I can’t see where he is and oh my god he has a minigun and gah he isn’t even human!

The reaction to that is a bit different from my reaction to something that begins with the words, “You failed your spot check?”

Similarly, wandering around in the Wastelands in Fallout is fun. You run into burnt-out husks of abandoned houses and all sorts of things. Describing the minutia in a tabletop game to get that level of detail would, I think, not be terribly interesting.


Fallout 3 is pretty good about conversations with NPCs – for a computer game. All NPCs have actual voice acting, and it generally doesn’t suck. Many of them have their own story to tell. Many of them are totally insane. You generally have multiple conversational options.

That said, unless they start having live people portray NPCs, this is the one place where I don’t expect to see CRPGs close the gap with tabletop games (and even then, it would be tricky). I like to think outside the box in RPGs and solve problems creatively. Someone has a quest for 18 widgets? I want to know what they need those widgets for and think about whether there’s an alternative solution to their problem. While most quests in Fallout 3 seem to have a few ways to complete them, I’ve still run in to several places where I want to do something that just isn’t an option.



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