From tabletop to desktop

By Shamus Posted Monday Mar 6, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 28 comments

I admire the d20 system of gaming. I think it has survived for 30 years for a reason, and that reason is that it offers the right balance of fun and playability, while preserving the in-game metaphor of swordplay and sorcery. It works.

But a lot of video games have tried to adopt a d20 based system, and I’ve never been entirely happy with the result. KOTOR was a fantastic game, but it was hampered a great deal by the underlying d20 system. Official D&D games (such as Icewind Dale) also use this sytem, and in doing so they cripple what might otherwise be a great game with an akward combat system.

The d20 system is just ideal for tabletop gaming, but not for computer gaming. In a table game, each dice roll is an exciting moment. Let’s be honest: Rolling those colorful and oddly-shaped dice is fun. But even when the game is moving at a good pace, each attack takes about ten seconds. If something unexpected happens, you might spend almost a minute resolving a single attack. In a video game, attacks happen at least ten times that fast. On the computer, the excitment doesn’t come from individual attacks, but from the outcome of the battle as a whole. The battle is the event on the computer. Combat is much more common, much faster paced, and you can’t expect the player to get excited about dice rolls spewed out by a random number generator at the rate of once a second.

The d20 system is also designed to reduce complexity. You don’t want a bunch of paperwork to do with each attack, and so everything is simplified. For example, if my weight for encumbrance is 100lbs, then I can run around with 99lbs of stuff on my back with no penalty, but if I pick up a 1lb item, I suddenly start moving at half speed. This is done because you don’t want to be doing long division and cranking weights through some formula to figure out how fast you can move. To keep things simple, you want to add and subtract whole numbers. But on a computer, this is no problem. It can handle oddball movement speeds like 1.35 and having things like 23.41 hit points.

The d20 system allows for a lot of randomness. This is because, as I said before, each dice roll is an event, and you want each event to matter. You want suspense. Will I hit? Miss? Score a critical and lop this Orc’s head right off? Roll a one and fall on my butt? Lots of randomness means lots of variety and lots of suspense.

But on a computer, you don’t see the dice rolls. The randomness of the rolls makes the game itself feel random. I’ll fight one Orc and take no damage. I’ll fight another and nearly die. Since I’m not seeing the dice rolls, I don’t see that he got a critical hit. I don’t see that I “rolled” a one and dropped my sword. I just see that I fought the same monster twice and got very different results. The whole thing feels like a crapshoot. Because it is.

The other major problem with using a d20 system on the computer is that the game almost always assumes the player has a deep understanding of d20 mechanics. I can’t tell you how many times I’d find an item in KOTOR that said “+2 to all attack rolls”. Wow. Really? Um… is that good?

Or how about: “extra 2d6 + 2 to all damage rolls vs droids” Do the makers really think “2d6 + 2” means ANYTHING to non-D&D players?

Instead of, “+2 to attack rolls”, it should say, “+10% chance to hit”.

Instead of, “2d6 + 2 damage”, it should say, “4 to 14 damage”.

Instead of “+3 to all fortitude saving throws”, it should say… geeze. That’s hard to explain. I mean, in combat sometimes you have situations where your player might… ummm. Well, first let me explain how the CON attribute and fortitude are linked, and how that affects combat. If you look at page one of your character sheet…

You know what? Let’s toss this d20 system in favor of something that is easier to grasp. The computer is doing the legwork, so we don’t have to keep the math simple. We just need it to make sense.

I like the system used by Morrowwind, which was something entirely new. Every time you hit something with your sword, your “sword skill” meter went up. When the meter filled up, you gained another level of swordfighting skill. There was another one for using a bow. And wearing heavy armor. And bartering. And diplomacy. And using various kinds of magic. In short, the more you did something the better you got at it. The player is easily able to grasp this. There was a huge list of diverse skills in the game that worked this way. On paper, this would be impossible to use. Every battle would require stacks of paperwork. But on the computer the system is easy to understand and intuitive.

I’d like to see more RPG’s dump the d20 system and try to come up with something new and different. If they did, I’d be willing to pay $(2d20) + (1d4) for something like that, with a +1d4 chance to buy the sequel.


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28 thoughts on “From tabletop to desktop

  1. Nathan H. says:

    This is something my friends talked about in college, when we all played paper RPGs and computer RPGs. Basically, we came to the same conclusion as you… paper gaming systems require speed, ease-of-use, and simple math. Something like Rolemaster gets mocked for its complexity.

    But even our 386s back then were capable of doing calculations and looking stuff up on tables at speeds far beyond human capability. Our prediction for the future of human RPGs (ie group play, with a person as the GM) was that games would move in two directions: even simpler mechanics, like in Amber Diceless; and “computer mediated” where the game would have the complex mechanics, but your computers would do all the heavy lifting. The GM would sketch the area of the combat, and the GM software would flesh it out with terrain types, vegitation/furniture, etc; you would say “I shoot the orc in the back with my shortbow!” and at the same time, on your computer, input “shoot that orc”. The GM’s computer would calculate the ballistics, determine if it hit, then check if it tears the orc’s triceps and weaken it’s swordblows, etc. The GM’s job would be to come up with plot, NPCs, and settings; every player would buy “TSR’s AD&D v12.6” and it would do _all_ of the heavy lifting of details. And for the Thursday night campaign, we’d all load “World of Darkness v18 by ConglomerateCorp” and play that- new rules, different mathmatics behind the scenes, but still, the PC would be doing the calculations and the humans could make the story.

    A few of the new computer RPGs have modes that trend this way, what with user-creatable content, and acting as a GM on your own server. But we visualized more like everyone bringing a palmtop or laptop to the table, and it sat there just like your character sheet and player’s guide once did. The young’uns would roll their eyes when Grandpa started talking about how he’d go to a game in the 1980s with thirty pounds of books in a backpack, uphill in the snow…

    Maybe it’ll come.

    PS Sorry for posting a comment months late. I think I wasn’t reading this blog yet when you originally posted.

  2. Cineris says:

    I agree the D&D system isn’t meant for RPGs on computers or consoles. However I’m not sure expressing things in natural English would be any better. A +2 to your attack isn’t all that confusing — It may not tell you as much as +10% might, but then +10% is slightly confusing in its own right. What happens when you’ve got five different things giving you +10% and you still miss more than 50% of the time against a challenging opponent? Then you’ve got to know that the +10% is actually a +2 and that percentages were based off of an AC of 10… Kind of complicated.

    1. WJS says:

      All you need to understand is that hit percentage isn’t limited to [0%,100%], and can be so low you only have a token chance to hit.

  3. Jeremiah says:

    If you want to see a cool tabletop RPG try and tackle the whole “get better by trying” you should take a look at Burning Wheel ( Sure, it’s an indie game (oh, god hippies!), but it’s well done and innovative.

  4. Jeff says:

    Actually, translating 2d6+2 to 4 to 14 is a bad idea.
    People are going to want to know the numerical distribution for the values…

  5. DaveJ says:

    I remember a friend of mine going on and on about how great kotor was. I went to his place and I realized it was basically a mod for neverwinter nights. Then I had to explain basically everything about this d20 crap to him.

  6. CyberGorth says:

    I think that most of these games use the d20 system becuase they’re taking most all their other game material (setting, NPC’s, etc) straight from established d20 (D&D and Star Wars) RPG settings. Use of the system might be part of the deal with WoTC to be able to use those settings. It might be a marketing ploy to attempt to rope some tapletop gamers into trying the comp. game or vice-versa. To be honest, I kinda like it in some cases. I mean, if I’m playing in a D&D based world it’s nice to have most of my D&D knowledge be relevant to how to get things to work. If I’m playing in some comp company’s completely self-developed world, then I’m expecting to have to learn a new set of rules. If the game’s promised to recreate the Forgotten Relms or Living Greyhawk on the other hand, then I expect it to be faithfull to the it’s table-top ancestry.

  7. Miako says:

    I like rolemaster, particularly as a model for RPGs.

    And, if you’re going to have cool criticals, make it so that they matter — at least give me a text message saying I hacked the guy’s arm off and he’s bleeding heavily.

    If I spend an entire battle missing an opponent (and they do the same to me) — honest gaming story — please put a message down at the bottom saying “wow, you both suck. go home and train”

  8. Casper says:

    Ah, I see we have here a lot of people unsatisfied with the games available in the market.
    Maybe we all must join forces and create our own game? After all, Shamus has experience with making 3D maps and character models (well, male models at least) :)

  9. Alfryd says:

    Actually, I should mention that sill-based character progression dates back significantly farther than Morrowind, certainly to Quest for Glory V: Dragonfire.

  10. Merle says:

    The meter-skill system is a good one. You really want to be computing skill increases not as occasional chances of integer changes, but continual tiny increases to some fractional number (or a larger-range int that gets scaled down for the user).

    And: nice anti-spam word. I like the simple ones. ;-)

  11. william says:

    for an older game which used the same skill increase technique as morrowind, i recommend runequest. it was my first tabeltop RPG,and its still my favourite. skills are based on a percentage range, with 90% meaning you were a master of that skill. but then there were skill modifiers depending on the situation, for example, fighting in pitch black gave a -75% to hit chance, so a swordmaster would only have 15% chance to hit. the way skills were increased was that if you succeeded in using your skill in a stressful sitation, you recieved a skill tick. you could then spend a week when the quest was over, learning from your skill use. i liked it alot

  12. Corsair says:

    Actually, the skill-based progression, I believe, originated with Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero/Hero’s Quest. Released way, way back in 1989.

  13. Farulosonoth says:

    I disagree.

    I believe there IS a place for turned based strategic RPG combat in computer games. I believe that the need for faster and faster battles and less strategy is one of the few problems with better and more powerful computers. You may recall Wizardry I, yes Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, A computer based RPG, and every swing of the sword mattered, the strategy of every single action each character took in combat mattered. It is ashame that there are NO games out there anymore that indulge in this deep down and nitty gritty type of personal combat. In my opinion, RPG games are missing the forest for the trees, unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority.

  14. LikeDaniel says:

    I actually agree with Farulosonoth. I LOVED both KOTORs, couldn’t stop playing ICWD2, and played Baldur’s Gate 2 (for a while until my friend wanted it back) with GREAT enjoyment. Sure, maybe the majority of people want a fast paced, high graphics game (Hey, I LOVED Oblivion!), but I don’t think that means we should just throw away the others.

    Imagine, if you will, a world where EVERY GAME is like Halo. Sure, I can play Halo, it’s slightly enjoyable, but if every game played just like it, it’d be terrible in my book. Game diversity allows everyone to find something they like. Should businesses invest millions into a weak franchise? Maybe not. But if that weak franchise has a loyal following, should they chuck it? I don’t think so at all.

    Just my two cents.

  15. Winter says:

    Sounds like you want to play a more complicated version of Saga Frontier… which might be good or bad, really…

  16. "John Lee" says:

    So, you’d be willing to pay 23.5 dollars on average for a sequel? That’s a price I’d expect only from a secondhand “used” dealer, such as eBay…

    The thing is, I see 4-14, and it annoys me. It’s a challenge, in that I need to translate that to engage in power comparison (assuming only “standard” dice are being used, which is not necessarily true, 2d6+2 is the only working option). It’s not a challenge in the sense that it’s fun. More transparency is something I desire in pretty much every computer game, and it’s one of the reasons I was pleasantly surprised by pen-and-paper roleplaying. Even if it’s not the default, it really ought to be there.

    Is +2 to attack rolls good? Well, it’s better than +1 to attack rolls; and that’s all I need to know as a casual player. As a d20 veteran, I really don’t want to be confused (as mentioned earlier) by an arbitrary “+10%” modifier of questionable origins.

    But every other premise I agree with. I just want to know how the game works under the hood. This was one of my annoyances with Morrowind; I had to break immersion and go on the internet for full-time powergaming, instead of intuitively playing the game with a simple eye for power.

  17. acabaca says:

    “I like the system used by Morrowwind, which was something entirely new. Every time you hit something with your sword, your “sword skill” meter went up. When the meter filled up, you gained another level of swordfighting skill. … In short, the more you did something the better you got at it. The player is easily able to grasp this.”

    That’s not “new”. Dungeon Master did this back in 1987. Granted, it had only four skills instead of thirty-six, but the principle of “do something, get better at it” is the same. Chaosium’s Runequest and Call of Cthulhu and Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 did the same thing on pen-and-paper about a decade before Morrowind too, and at least the latter has everything it does (a gigantic amount of skills that all gain “experience” individually through use).

    1. And Final Fantasy II, for stats as well as weapon skills and spells. Of course, it led to a pretty broken game: Trivial to grind to godlike power, but hard to grind the best spell…

  18. EMK says:

    A computer will always be a great tool for DMs, because, if you have internet (who doesn’t?), you can quickly find monster stats, pictures and stuff like that.

    Microsoft Office is also great for keeping your character’s stats. A DM i know made his own system, and made the character sheets in excel. The good thing is excell automaticly calculates your speed or any other stat that depended on other parameters. You just need to put the right stats in the right places.

    He even made a function that calculated wether you hit or not. He just inputed the result from a dice roll and viola!
    This system realy optimised his games.

    It still used dice, so that didn’t take away from the tabletop game charm.

    Video games, on the other hand, like you said realy shouldn’t use DnD systems. I didn’t like Neverwinter Nights one bit because of it.

  19. Ghills says:

    I completely agree with you that Morrowind’s leveling system is awesome.

    But it’s not new at all. Check out pen-and-paper RuneQuest (the 80s version, not the Mongoose bastardization). Every time you succeed at something, you make a check next to the skill on your sheet. When you have a few days to rest some where, you roll dice to determine if your skill goes up, and how much it goes up by.

    RuneQuest eliminated experience points, D&D classes and levels, feats, skill tricks, and combating ratings all in one go while increasing how realistic the game is. All about 2 decades before Morrowind came out.

    I started RPGs in RuneQuest, and never really got over the intense trauma of trying to play D&D. ;) Speaking as a some-times system designer, it’s just so painful that a setup that bad simply won’t die.

  20. the_JJ says:

    Aha! But you see, 2d6+2 is not the same as 4-14. You’ve got that bellcurvy thing going on. Bwahahahaha.[/pointlessness]

    Sorry, I saw this post like a year ago and it landed right in my pet peeve center. Stumbled on it while archive trawling, so I figured I’d get it out of my system. Feel free to ignore this… hell I don’t even do tabletops.

    1. WJS says:

      Aha! You fool! Don’t you understand that two dice is a triangular distribution?! You need three dice before you can realistically call it a bell curve! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!</O’malley>

  21. Bercilac says:

    What’s all this business of the d20 system being around for 30 years? Surely I’m not the only one that remembers THAC0?

  22. I think the comments section has tied into some interesting counter-points. In a video game, it may be cool to have the computer do everything in the background, but it is also cool to CONTROL WHAT THE COMPUTER DOES. All the massive theorycrafting behind WoW characters with complex algorithms, the incredibly complex FAQs and theory behind Pokemon, frame analysis and exploits in fighting games… all are based in the idea that hardcore people who really enjoy the game want to understand what makes it tick and how to win by using that knowledge. Having a D20 system makes it more feasible to control what you’re doing on the ground.

    Further, a lot of the abstractions appear in similar or analogous form in these RPGs. In FF games, for example, you can carry 99 Potions and 99 Antidotes, but not 100 Potions. And I’m pretty sure that both Morrowind and Oblivion used discrete points for encumbrance, not a continuum.

    And in a turn-based strategy game, where you have time to ponder everything, you may damn well WANT to know all the algorithms very precisely. Think of Heroes of Might and Magic, for example.

  23. Sullivan says:

    An historical point, first edition Runequest came out in 1978. Not long after TSR started the switch to AD&D.

    We switched from AD&D around 1980-81 and more or less never looked back. The fact that everybody can learn to fight, sneak, cast spells, etc. appealed to the players and the rapid, but gradual skill increase system made for attractive short-term rewards. And the fumble table added complexity, interest, randomness, and frustration in equal measures.

  24. Disthron says:

    One thing that buggs me is when real time RPG’s use the d20 systems for working out things like arrow shots. The hole reason they use a dice for that is becose having people take a shot at a dart board would be too combersom, where as simulating bullets and such has been apart of video games since space invaders.

  25. JJ says:

    I absolutlely adored Morrowind system. I really like skill and point based systems in favor of level and class based systems. It makes sense that you get better at stuff you use/practice/learn from tutor, not that you get better all around because you have killed enough goblins. ( In DD it works like that – I slay a dragon, gain a level and now I can put ranks in basketweaving) I like GURPS and I like Call of Cthulu system ( never played the last one but the idea goes something like this – for every time you used a skill in campaign at the end of campaign you can make a “learning” roll if you FAIL the roll you improve your skill ( means you have to use soemthing to improve it and means higher skill levels are harder to learn)
    For a good application of D20 in a computer game I do love Baldurs gate series ( espescially Shadows of Amn). The pause anytime realtime system gives enough of the DD turn pased feel ( and options to control every member of your party to use their turn optimally), also theres a little slider which shows all the rolls made at any time. So you really can see your +2 sword making a difference. I think I would be disappointed if this game wouldn’t try as hard to use the D20 system. (Lot of the fun in this game was to be immersed in this silly DD world of dice rolls/classes and levels/ experience points and +2 swords)

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