I think it would make little sense for designers of pen and paper roleplaying games to try and create types of games that work better on computers. If some kinds of roleplaying game are consistently more fun in computerised version than when played around a table with pen, paper and dice, then we should play other types of games when we are sitting around a table. In the following reflections I will try to find out whether such types of roleplaying games exist, and if they do, what they are.
Taking our cue from the crude but still useful GNS-distinction, it is very easily seen that if computers have an advantage, it must be in the realm of Gamism. At least at this stage of their evolution, computers have no 'feeling' for dramatic issues and thematic situations, nor can they adequately respond to the different directions a player might want to take the 'dream'. What computers are good at, though, is keeping track of variables, manipulating them according to strict rules on the basis of discrete actions taken by the player, and calculating its own 'actions' from a list of discrete possibilities based on rule-bound tactical considerations. In other words, computers are good at types of gamism where the possible actions at each point of the game can be written down in a relatively short list and the rules for success and failure are also clear, rigid and non-fuzzy. In yet other words: computers are excellent at D&D 3rd edition fights.
Fuzzy and rigid gamism
Now, gamism comes in many types. I suggest, based upon the above considerations, that we distinguish between fuzzy and rigid gamism. In rigid gamism, all (or most) tactical options are rigidly determined and classified by the rules. In fuzzy gamism, tactical options that are not rigidly determined and classified by the rules play an important role.
A good example of rigid gamism is chess: the most important tactical options - the possible moves - are rigidly determined and classified by the rules. You can make a list of possibilities, and it is always clear which one you have chosen. I said 'most', because chess does offer some minor fuzzy tactical options: making your moves very fast and with an air of superiority might unnerve your opponent and make you more likely to win, for instance - all the tricks of psychological warfare do apply. But, from my experience, they are of little importance during real chess games.
A good example of fuzzy gamism is Diplomacy: although the actual moves on the board are rigidly determined and do carry tactical weight, the real tactics of the game lie in your social interaction with your fellow players. These interactions are not classified by the rules, nor is it easy (or often even possible) to say whether some social move was a good or a bad move. The tactics of Diplomacy lie in the fuzzy social realm.
Computers are much better in rigid gamism than in fuzzy gamism. This is why playing chess with a computer is a lot like playing chess with a human, whereas playing Diplomacy with six computer enemies/allies would differ dramatically from playing it with six humans. You could (and can) play Diplomacy with other people over the internet, but as internet communication is a lot less natural than face-to-face communication, this is probably less fun than playing the boardgame.
Simple and complex gamism
With those remarks have not yet plunged the depths of computer-assisted interaction between humans. But in these depths lie our answers, for playing with other people cannot be usefully compared to playing without other people. Me vs the computer can be fun, but you can't really compare it to me vs another person. What we want to compare, in this essay, are games played by people sitting around a table, and games played by people sitting behind their respective computers.
I will now introduce another distinction: that between simple games and complex games. What I am not talking about is tactical depth: chess is very deep, tactically, but it is a rather simply game. The distinction I want to make is between those games that have relatively simple rules, track few variables, involve few die rolls, and so forth; and games that have very complicated rules, track many variables, involve lots of rolls, and so forth. Simple games are games that have little search time and handling time; complex games are games that have lots of search and/or handling time.
Computers are great at calculating, looking things up and keeping track of variables at an immense speed. This means that using a computer can dramatically decrease the search and handling time of a game, and can allow you to play very complex situations at a very fast pace.
The best Gamist moments I have had while roleplaying must have been while I was playing Baldur's Gate 2 in multiplayer with a friend of mine. This game was based on AD&D2E rules. I still recall with pleasure the many fights our party had with other parties of adventurers (mostly evil); the sheer tactical depth of these encounters has never been surpassed. We literally had dozens of spells available, many special abilities, huge numbers of different weapons and potions and stuff; and the enemies were as varied as they come, complete with their own arsenals of spells and potions and stuff.
A fight with such tactical depth might take only 5 minutes of play time (though often you had to restore and try again, a feature which I will not talk about now): fast and furious action, with the blessed 'pause' function that allowed you to think and give new orders to your characters.
Using the pen and paper game, such a fight would have costed at least an hour - and it would have had the exact same content. I kid you not. The exact same content, but in more than 10 times the amount of time. And that would have been less fun.
My conclusion from this example is that when you play AD&D2E, or D&D3E for that matter, as a tactical gamist game consisting mostly of fights, you are simply better of playing a computer game. You get the same thing, but without all the tedious and slow looking things up, rolling dice, keeping track of spells and hit points and inventory and position and initiative of twelve characters, and so forth. The computer is such a great assistant when trying to cater to this Gamist agenda, that there is no reason I can see not to use it.
That doesn't mean that you have to stop playing D&D: there may be other reasons why you prefer the pen and paper game to the computer game. But D&D seems to be designed with a Creative Agenda in mind that it can cater to only in an unfulfilling way, and if that is true that surely is a big mistake.
Gamism in a digital age
What I am claiming is that rigid, complex gamist games will generally benefit from the assistance of computers. If you are serious about your attachment to tactical gaming, you would do better to connect to your friends online and play the computer game, than to go through the rather more tedious process of playing the game in a pen and paper format.
Game designers, then, shouldn't make pen and paper rigid complex Gamist games. (I beg you pardon for that sentence.) Or rather, they should think deep and hard about why their game will be more successful as a pen and paper game than as a computer game - and if you can't think of anything, you'd better think again about making it. Making something that is destined to be inferior is simply wasting your time.
I can restate the previous claim in a positive way. Designers who want to make a Gamist game should explore the realms of social interaction and non-rigid tactical options - I am sure there is still a lot of ground to be covered, and I look forward to seeing people cover it.
Meanwhile, I'm still wondering what to do with Monsters we Slay...