A fireball streaks overhead – the heat almost seems to scorch you as it passes overhead and explodes with a deafening boom. The shock wave sends you reeling and knocks you down. To your left, your friends are engaged in a melee with two large, blue skinned frost giants. To your right you see the trailing goblin armies that followed you up the Mountain of Gindoria. The soft snow that had escorted you up the mountain is beginning to swirl into a powerful blizzard. You take a deep breath and hoist yourself back onto your feet. What do you do?
It’s moments like this that endear Dungeons and Dragons to many of us. For those unfamiliar, Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game designed around a comprehensive set of rules to help manage the various aspects of the game. While the game can be complicated with various spells, player states, and modifiers it can be simply boiled down into one phrase: what do you do?
It’s the beauty of Dungeons and Dragons. Similar to the real world, there are limitations to the things you can do (no, you can’t lift up a mountain and put it in your shoulder). You can’t kill everything you see without making some sort of roll. But again, what you do in Dungeons and Dragons is entirely up to you. Maybe in the scenario described above you cast a fireball spell at the top of the mountain to try and create an avalanche to overwhelm the goblin army below. Perhaps you find a clever way to convince the ogres to fight the goblin army. Maybe you just run. The options are more limited by imagination and creativity than game mechanics.
So here’s my pitch: video game designers – use Dungeon and Dragons as a template or inspiration.
That is to say: give the player tools, freedom, and choice that enables for more dynamic gameplay. I want to be clear though: I realize it’s almost impossible to simulate the “Here’s what I do…” type of mechanic in Dungeons in Dragons. That’s because in Dungeons and Dragons you have a Dungeon Master who can take liberties with the rules, who can interpret the rules, and who can explain just about any outcome based on the players’ creativity.
Clearly, video games can’t have that same level of interpretation, flexibility, and freedom in it’s game design as a Dungeon Master does. While games have improved thanks to procedural worlds, more choices, and more openness – there’s always a limit. But embracing these values or ideas in a game can make it far more enriching.
I think a great example of this is when game developers allow and support modding in their game – or at least make it easier to do so. Games that allow modding are giving more freedom, more interpretation, and more creative license to their players.
Here’s some other cool things, inspired by D&D, that’d I’d love to see more in video games:
- Don’t force players into a situation with binary choices (THE WORST: games force you to take an action, like who lives or dies between two party members). Give them real, non-binary choices.
- Allow for choice in how users can undertake a mission. Allow for characters to talk their way out of a situation. Allow them to fight. Allow them to sneak.
- Grant more creativity in combat. In D&D, I always love Dungeon Masters who encourage their players to be creative in the way they fight during a battle. Likewise, D&D does a pretty good job at rewarding tactical players.
- Make your high level/end game character feel like a total bad @$$. Seriously. When you’re high level in D&D you are a legend. People know you. People love you. Or people fear you. In addition, you are an absolute BEAST with all your hit points, abilities, and spells at higher levels. Yes, the enemies become more difficult too, but you still feel awesome.
- In-game choices should have visible consequences. If you save a town, they should all recognize you. Maybe someone in the city gives you free stuff, a discount at their shop, or wants to hire you for another task because you’ve proven yourself. Cause and effect.
So, D&D is good. But there’s other great tabletop RPGs out there as well with wonderful mechanics and ideas too. It’s worth looking for inspiration from many of our tabletop friends.
Also, I really hope some of these blog posts don’t come across “holier than thou” or “game designers aren’t doing a good job!” That’s far from the truth. There’s an incredible amount of good games these days. For me, this is just a fun exercise in things I love or would love to see in video games.