No D20s required
Let's be honest. I'm not about to run out and play Red Dead Redemption, even though it looks amazing. I literally just completed Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which most of you probably had long since sold back to GameStop by Christmas of 2006. I'm behind, I know. The next games on my list are Force Unleashed, BioShock, and Fallout 3. I consider myself to simply be "fashionably late" for these gaming experiences. I do look forward to checking out RDD, however, but I also fear that it could mark a trend that could deal another heavy blow to conventional, tabletop gaming.
Let me back up a little bit. The traditional RPG hobby, not to mention traditional card and board games, have seen much of their market share eaten up by video games. I suspect my elders would point out that this problem began long before I achieved gaming consciousness, and I'm sure they would be right. However, RDD represents a major step in the development of the console gaming experience that could pull even more of us away from the table.
Here we have a game that seems to be taking the next step from where other titles have already tread, incorporating RPG elements into both shooters and open-world games. Modern Warfare and Borderlands come immediately to mind. We're handed a character that we get to equip and improve as we guide him through a story, making decisions and taking down the bad guys (or good guys, as the case may be). Sure, it's not the same as rolling up your own character from the start, but many of the same elements are there.
The big difference here is the multiplayer. Unlike Fallout 3 or Knights of the Old Republic, there exists in this game the opportunity to game with friends on a shared adventure. You can team up to go on raids or explore, or gun down other players. It doesn't, however, extend into the realm of MMO, with its grinding and questing and unending work to keep up with the latest level cap. To the casual gamer, MMOs are for the weirdo fantasy dork on tricked-out gaming rigs, where RDD fits comfortably into the judgement-free console zone. RDD looks like it fits nicely into this gap, as it will certainly be played by traditional gamers, but won't scare off more mainstream players by being too much like Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft.
The real threat posed by RDD and its ilk is the emergence of extended gameplay as time goes on. Rockstar has already announced the first free downloadable content for Red Dead, and you have to think that this will continue, though certainly not always for free. While DLC is no new animal, these expansions are multiplayer-friendly, allowing groups of players to continue their shared experiences with additional storylines in addition to extra single-player content.
I believe that we can all get along, but there's no doubt that such games make it easier to put down the dice and pick up a controller. If the point of role-playing is to enjoy some escapism, be part of a cool, interactive story, and to spend time with friends, I'm getting more and more options every day that, while they aren't quite as fulfilling, also require that much less effort and preparation.
The lesson here, to me, is that tabletop gaming has got to evolve if it's going to stay relevant. The only question is, how?