Platform and the Brain: What does Dungeons and Dragons run on?

A few weeks ago in class we touched on the subject of tabletop roleplaying games, like Dungeons and Dragons, and how they were related to the idea of a gaming ‘platform’. At the time I remember talking about the game system (system meaning the name of the game – D20 modern vs Call of Cthulhu vs. Dungeons and Dragons) itself as platform, because it stands independently from support, unlike, for example, a console game.

Tabletop Systems

Recently, however, that hasn’t sat well with me. As I think about it, it becomes more apparent that my idea of a game system as independent is flawed. Tabletop games have requirements beyond the system, after all, and while the system provides a framework for play, it is not the medium of play itself.

So, in thinking about the underlying platform I first considered the actual, physical platform,  just as in video game platform studies – the table. More specifically, the hardware of the game; sourcebooks, polyhedral dice, ect. But this doesn’t quite work. Platform studies is useful because it demonstrates ways that the platform limits the simulation, and in doing so how that effects the game experience. Physical objects fail to be meaningful in this case – we can make the claim that a reliance on dice limits the randomized/probabilistic outcomes of the game (after all, we don’t have any d7 systems), but this breaks down we consider tabletop games which use a deck of cards, or some other method to make these decisions.

Right now I think that the closest thing to a ‘platform’ in a tabletop game is the game master (GM),  the player who facilitates the others. Meaningful limitations on what a game system can and cannot have stems from the brain of the game master. This is why tabletop systems break down when they become to mechanically complex or diverse (I’m looking at you, 3.5!).

Okay, we’re only going to use a few of my favorite books. PHB, DMG, Book of Exalted Deeds….

The interesting dimension to this is that the ‘platform’ these games are built for are all so diverse as individuals. When we discuss the Commodore 64 as a platform, we know what the typical Commodore 64 can do. Even when we discuss games made for the PC, the time period and geographical release of the game can inform us as to what the platforms look like. But in tabletop games, there is no way to know what the platform will be like. How can we ever hope to examine the limits of a game that runs on the human brain?

What do you folks think? Does Dungeons and Dragons run on the human brain? What is the role of the players in this experience? And what about tabletop systems that don’t require a GM?

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