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Possibly most useful to a paper designer making the transition to computers is a habit of mind, a propensity to simulate. Paper games have modeled all kinds of interactions, from social climbing to persuasion to interrogation to missionary work, and topics from soap opera to Wuthering Heights romantic melodrama to Venetian Renaissance politics, not to mention every variety of combat and magic system. That skill in quantifying dynamic interactions helps designers adapt well to a silicon environment where literally everything is a number.
Not every paper game designer has that inclination, and those that lack it run into trouble. Paul Jaquays made the jump better than most. A versatile creator, Jaquays did remarkably fine work in the paper field as designer, editor, and painter before moving to id Software to design levels for Quake III Arena. In his view, "There aren't as many ex - pencil-and-paper folk involved in computer gaming as you might think; it's actually fairly difficult to make the crossover. Most RPG gamers are novelist wannabes, and writers aren't as needed in computer game production as they are in the roleplaying biz."
Of the designers who successfully negotiate the transition, most stay in computers, or try to stay. Compared to paper, computer games promise a far larger audience, and the money is a lot better. (For that matter, the money is a lot better in fast food and janitorial, too. Hensley comments, "Many people in the electronic world hope to get into pen-and-paper endeavors - until they realize the financials.")
And they love having the computer do the paperwork, as it were. Greenberg's Holistic Entertainment recently restarted development on their Noble Armada computer game, based on the miniatures game of the same name, which in turn was derived from their Fading Suns roleplaying game. "This is a perfect example of the advantage of having a computer do all the hard work of number crunching and record keeping, allowing me to do the things I like as a player: fly spaceships, explore the galaxy, trade with weird aliens, and blow the bits out of other players' ships."
Some designers miss the old days and the old ways. Hensley says, "The ability to explore so many different worlds and concepts is definitely where my heart (and short attention span) is." But Harlick enjoys both fields. "Even though I'm working in the computer industry, I tried to do a freelance project each year in the paper game world, just to stay in touch. I think paper games are fun because you don't have the whole huge development cycle and waiting to see the final game that you do with the computer games. On the other hand, I love seeing the concepts and systems translated over to the computer for the video game projects."
The paper gaming business remains small, even stagnant. But small-press "indie" paper RPGs continue to innovate; check out Breaking the Ice, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Mountain Witch, among many others. With no worthwhile paper market, imaginative paper designers will keep migrating into electronic gaming for years yet.
Allen Varney is a freelance writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. His published work includes six books, three board games, and nearly two dozen role-playing game supplements.