Freedom, D&D and PnP

A while ago, I wrote about freedom in DH. I got a comment on that and wrote a reply, but my response overran and is probably more suitable and certainly more readable as a post of its own. For convenience and context, here’s the comment:

What are your thoughts of DH and D&D systems vs totally free RP on forums etc?

To me, the greatest difference between PnP (pen and paper) RPGs like DH or D&D and an MMORPG or even a standard single player RPG like, say, Diablo or Baldur’s Gate, is the extent to which decisions are made based on the players.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge the impact D&D has had on mainstream internet gaming. The essence of D&D is characteristics measuring physical or inate prowess in an area (eg. strength, or charisma) combined with skills (things you can learn) and talents (remarkable things about you). The majority of the game is in skill checks, which are done via a random number (generated on the tabletop by dice) and utilise your innate characteristics and ranks in your chosen skills to determine whether you have been successful in your attempt to deploy a skill, or how successful (or not!) you’ve been.

Does that sound like pretty much every RPG ever? It should. From games you’d definitely expect to see it in (Mass Effect, World of Warcraft) to those you wouldn’t (Borderlands, The Sims), D&D always has and likely always will remain at the heart of gaming.

But why is it so popular? PnP connoisseurs will be aware of the myriad of alternate gaming systems out there, including things like GURPS; it’s not as though there’s a surfeit of choice for budding games designers to co-opt inspiration for their systems rules from traditional PnP games besides D&D.

Well firstly, D&D was popular at just the right time for it to be a firm favourite for the generation of geeks who grew up into the developers pushing forward the boundaries of games design today. This seems like a bit of a cop out in terms of answering just why D&D has had such an impact on computer games design, but there’s no other way around it: the geek zeitgeist at the height of D&D’s popularity ensured that the system had a lasting impact on those responsible for making systems design choices for today’s games.

dungeons and dragons motivational imageI think the other main thing to think about is randomness. Why do we have randomness in games? Why isn’t gaming totally skill-driven? If you pause to consider it, shouldn’t you hit someone in your favourite RPG by swinging your sword using the mouse or keyboard at the right time? Shouldn’t your skill as a player dictate your character’s prowess?

On the face of it, I personally would be tempted to answer yes to those questions. Now for the sake of full disclosure, I enjoy playing FPS games too so that obviously affects my perspective on the issue of skill. I think that the ideal game would require the player to actually display some ability; I find there’s more fun in that kind of thing than in pressing Mega Blow whenever it recharges.

However, there’s a problem with totally skill-driven RPG gaming and it’s this: it doesn’t fit with levels. I mean, your level is there to represent your character’s power and ability — but if the main thing which governs that is the player and not the statistics, a level 5 character could easily be far more powerful in-game than a level 25 character and if that were to be true then the level system would have lost all meaning.

Levels are borrowed from PnP RPGs because in that medium player skill is difficult or impossible to judge; how do you define skill in describing your character’s actions? In the world of video gaming though, it’s suddenly possible to include genuine displays of ability. Your character Jim-Bob might just roll a die to see whether he manages to make a particularly difficult jump in PnP D&D, but if you’re playing it on an XBox or PC then isn’t that jump’s success better determined by requiring the player to physically time the jump correctly?

As above though, whilst such things are commonly applied to simple things like jumping anything more complex tends to be left up to a random number generator (or dice, in the PnP games). The reason for this, in my view, is that the human brain is too good at learning. Inevitably, the players will face the same challenge (or a similar one) and quickly be able to overcome it in future by applying or adapting successful tactics from previous encounters.

a d20 showing a roll of 20

Dude, you rolled a 20. You rock!

In a game like Half-Life 2, the developers’ commentaries reveal just how carefully they train the player: a mechanic will be shown to the player once (or their hand held through the first instance of that mechanic). This will then allow the player to use or adapt that skill in future. In an RPG though you don’t necessarily want that, because an RPG (at least, 99% of RPGs) are about progress.

Difficulty is difficult. As a GM, I find getting the balance of risk vs capacity vs reward fairly trying sometimes. How dangerous should this activity be, to counter-balance the potential rewards whilst also not being impossible with an eye to the party’s’ current ability levels? Within the confines of a truly level-based system it’s difficult enough, but it would be fiendishly hard – if not impossible – to successfully balance for a party of different people in a truly skill-based system.

Doubt what I’m saying? Try assembling a Counter-Strike team of vastly differing abilities. If you can match that against an opposing team whilst keeping everyone equally challenged, I’ll eat my own face.

And who does that balancing? That’s actually the crux of the issue. Despite the fact your PC can now return instant search results for almost any subject you desire, despite the fact it can participate in the search for a cure for muscular dystrophy or search for an alien civilisation, despite its ability to give you the answer to complex mathematical equations in less than a second, your PC is really stupid. PC (and Macs, if you’re offensively stylish) are hardware strictly limited by software and currently that software is really, really bad at thinking.

The closest we currently have to the way human beings think in the computing field is a neural network. But this technology is just not good enough to allow your PC to make judgements. You’re basically sat at a very expensive pocket calculator. You wouldn’t expect a pocket calculator to run your PnP gaming session, would you?

The reality is that when you run a dedicated D&D game like Neverwinter Nights your PC really has no idea about whether it’s providing the right level of challenge. It’s just guessing, based on the database of possible enemies and the indexed threat level of those enemies. If that data is incorrect, your PC is blindly going to provide the party with an encounter which is of an inappropriately easy or difficult challenge.

And frankly, that’s not all. Because how do you assign a threat level to something? A critter which can paralyze its foes is of a much greater threat to a class which relies on mobility, and that’s something that a PC just can’t consider in the same way a GM can. What items do the player characters have? What are their specialisms? In what areas are they weak? These are questions integral to balance but currently these myriads considerations are absurdly hard for video games to truly consider.

A PC (or Xbox, or PlayStation, or Wii, or…) therefore has as its primary role the limiting of the player and the environment. It’s not about what you can do, but what you can’t because determining what is outside the player’s capabilities is frankly much easier than deciding what they can achieve.

I have experience in browser-based games design and in running (and participating in) PnP gaming sessions. The latter is much more simple despite its increased complexity. It’s counter-intuitive but it does make sense when you think about it: the human mind is designed to solve problems in a way that computers really aren’t just as computers are designed to handle numbers in a way that nobody can hope to compete with.

Right now video games just don’t have the access to context which allows human GMs to run a free-form campaign and so they inevitably end up being far more linear or sacrificing story to a large extent.

Pen and paper RPGs are strange: their systems are designed to constrain possibility to create an even playing field and represent character skill in an environment where player skill is either absent or impossible to judge; however the fact they have an interpreter in the GM rather than in the software layers means they are inherently far more flexible. If I want to tell my story rather than a pre-packaged story, I’d always look to a PnP RPG system.

Rulesets which by their nature bind on the PC are able in a PnP backdrop to facilitate creativity and open up new possibilities. Slavery is freedom.


1 Response to “Freedom, D&D and PnP”

  1. 1 Jonathan
    September 12, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Really enjoyed reading that, but what I meant was this..

    PnP (As defined) vs a forum or mb where everyone just sorta shows up and plays a character and interacts, with no rules, just them writing what they want.

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