on Nov 4, 2006
Jay Barnson is talking about using the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying system on a computer. I just want to refer back to this bit I wrote a while back, where I pointed out that d20 gaming is great for pencil and paper but translates poorly to the computer.
Adding to my previous thoughts in that post, I would say another important concept to keep in mind when making roleplaying games for the PC is that the games ought to look for ways to make the character growth ladder as tall as possible.
The idea is that players love to get “power rewards” where they become stronger, usually by leveling up in some fashion. These rewards keep them playing, but you need to keep them coming at a steady rate if you don’t want the game to feel like a grind. You also need each power reward to matter. The player is not going to get excited if you give them an extra 0.001% damage and another half a hitpoint when they level up. They want real, tangible rewards that they can see in action. Finally, you’ll want lots of them, since the goal is to make games that are long.
The only way to do this – to have lots of meaningful rewards that go on for a long time – is to make the difference between the starting player and the end-game player be several orders of magnitude. Now, this isn’t exactly realistic, but it does make the game fun. The Final Fantasy usually works this way, where the player starts out at level one or two and maxes out at level 99. Yes, it’s funny when you travel back to the beginning of the game and find some monster with fifty hitpoints that used to give you so much trouble, and kill it with a single attack that delivers 9,999 damage. Not realistic, but funny. And rewarding.
A computer RPG doesn’t need to go quite that far, but it should look for ways to reward players more often than standard D&D. With only 20 levels, you just can’t give the player rewards very often.
Another issue is the time taken during level up. In D&D, leveling up is a big event. There is paperwork to do. Allocate skill points. Select a new feat. Perhaps select an attribute to improve. Roll up your new hit points. Add some spells to the spell book. There is a lot of screwing around to do and numbers to run and tradeoffs to consider. In the slow pace of a pencil and paper game this is fine, but in the context of a computer game this becomes quite an interruption. When using the d20 system on the computer, rewards are too rare, and when they do come they are too big and take too long. Better to re-work the system so that that one big step is broken in a few smaller ones.
And finally, a lot of stuff in D&D just doesn’t translate at all. D&D is a social game where real human beings have real conversations. On the computer, the game is focused more on combat, and if you’re talking to someone then you’re usually navigating a dialog tree. There are social skill and feats that just don’t work very well in this context, and some that are all but useless. (Gather information and sense motive are particularly tricky to convey in a game. I’m sure there are others that can’t be used at all on the computer.) Even if the designers went to the trouble to allow you to use social skills in a conversation, it isn’t nearly as satisfying to do so, and not as obvious that you are actually using those skill points when you do.
The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that d20 on a computer is a bad idea. This is not to say that Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights, or Planescape: Torment are bad games. There is a lot of fun to be had, but I think they are so in spite of their shortcomings. I think those same stories, built on a system geared more towards the computer, would be even better.
LATER: Many excellent thoughts from David V. S. here, as well as in the comments below. The post over at Maggid’s Musings is particularly brain-tickling if you’ve ever contemplated game systems and how they work (or do not work) and how they could be made better.
MORE LATERER: I like how my link to Maggid’s Musings said “Megid’s musings” for a whole day and nobody said anything. Makes me afraid of what other typos I’ve thrown up here and everyone just let slide.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.