Pencil and Paper vs. Pixels

By Shamus Posted Saturday Nov 4, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 17 comments

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.


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17 thoughts on “Pencil and Paper vs. Pixels

  1. Hagan says:

    If you want to see d20 translated near perfectly look at the Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic game. Most levels were great and something to look forward too, and they tied social type skills in pretty well (some of them not all of them) the fact that if you had a high enough awareness you got extra coversation options to shortcut coversations was nice.

    Some of the translations in NWN were solid too, mainly the ability to bluff and intimidate in conversation. I dont think d20 makes bad video games, they just dont make necessarily mass appeal video games.

  2. Cineris says:

    Agreed with you here. I see absolutely no reason why anyone would want to use the d20 system in a videogame when you can harness the power of the computer to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

    I do have to disagree with the idea that the rewards at level up are too big in D&D — Maybe in a probabilistic sense, but getting a +1 to something is rarely impressive. The Final Fantasy series works much better in terms of providing psychological rewards because the numbers are just much larger and more substantial.

  3. David V.S. says:

    Concidentally, I just wrote a related post.

    One aspect of AD&D2 (all I’ve played) is that there are so many rules. Since the setting, especially its magic, is not intuitive it must instead be presented as a huge toolbox of options that can be acquired/used.

    This is terrible for a computer game, and not ideal for a pencil-and-paper game either. Who wants to play a game that requires constant reference to the manual or help screen to keep track of what all my “toolbox options” allow me to do (and those of foes could do to me)?

    Too many AD&D-genre games only work because there is already a trained audience with previous knowledge of when to best use magic missiles, a lighning bolt, or a fireball.

    The Jedi Academy games show a nicer balance, with a small enough set of “toolbox options” (force powers) that they are easy to keep in mind, yet there are enough of them to be interesting and allow players to do creative things.

    In college I used a pencil-and-paper RPG system of my own design with a magic system that was completely described in less than five pages. (I can’t do fantasy RPG any more.) There were eight categories of magic (earth, air, fire, water, light/dark, living things, magic, time/space). Each was a percentile skill. Magical effects were easily classified by extent and intensity to get one percentile penalty, and by duration to get a second. Encumberance provided a third percentile penalty. Mages simply decided what they wanted to do, within the categories of magic they knew, and attempted it. The magical effect happened if they succeeded with an appropriate penalized die roll based on the least proficient magic category involved. Spells also caused fatigue, with fatigue reduced by how much the die roll succeeded by. So skilled mages could do little things all day long; all mages risked being knocked unconscious when attempting something at the upper border of their ability. All spells had a range of sight.

    This would be difficult to impliment in a computer game in its full creativity, but a variation could be done to a wide degree, especially as computer games get better “physics engines”.

    It worked great for a pencil-and-paper game: NPCs knew tricks such as using living things magic to “cheat” with their range of sight, or using magic magic to boost a spell’s intensity or duration after it was first cast in a wimpier version. Thus the PCs got better at magic not only through gaining more skill, but also by learning to creatively use their abilities and by stealing tricks from those more experienced.

  4. some kid says:

    I’ve played Never Winter Nights and KOTOR, but all the rules were too confusing. KOTOR wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t even finish NWN. It was so slow and so confusing I got board and quit.

  5. Jay Barnson says:

    Oh, I don’t disagree that D20 is not ideal for computer games. After all, it is optimized for human, table-top play. All the points you mentioned in your previous post and in this one. D&D is optimized for human-moderated, turn-based play where combats are lengthy (and appropriately rare), but dialog with NPCs is cheap & easy. Shoehorning it into a real-time, computer-moderated game where combat is quick & easy but dialog is time-consuming and expensive (to develop) isn’t exactly a match made in heaven.

    Dungeons & Dragons Online went so far as to introduce drastic changes to the game system to make it work in a massively-multiplayer setting.

    However, the whole point of Neverwinter Nights is the licensing of the system, It DOES make for fun, human-moderated (computer-assisted) multiplayer gaming. People are attracted to it partly because it allows them to experiment with a familiar rules system. Especially if they’ve got a favorite character they only get to play rarely (or not at all) in the dice-and-paper tabletop game, and want to see how they’d fare in some approximation of the tabletop experience.

    Which is why the review – which was really just a rant disguised as a review – failed, in my opinion. As a rant, it was fine (though I disagreed with it).

    My big contention is that there’s a little bit of a sim / building game that to me feels like part & parcel of the computer RPG experience. You remove it, and it’s no longer an RPG for me. It’s Doom. Also a great game, but it doesn’t satisfy the RPG urge.

    So I don’t think you and I are in disagreement at all.

  6. Cineris says:

    NWN depends heavily on the pause feature, especially if you’re a caster. It also is rather poor for a game in general for looking at the D&D ruleset, particularly because it’s more appropriately described as “D&D rules for thee but not for me.” I gave up on it after encountering a moderate level enemy Wizard that took hundreds of points of HP damage without batting an eye.

    David, the magic system you describe sounds pretty nice. Very close to my sort of ideal system. How do you assess the “extent and intensity” of the magical effect, though? It seems like that ruling is primarily up to the GM’s discretion (which, while everything ultimately is, is an unsatisfying solution to me, at least without strong guidelines).

  7. Shamus says:

    It DOES make for fun, human-moderated (computer-assisted) multiplayer gaming.

    Ah. I missed that aspect. That does change things quite a bit. If I was “running” a game via computer, I would certainly want a familiar rules set underneath it.

    So I don't think you and I are in disagreement at all.

    I didn’t intend for it to sound like I was. I really just wanted an excuse to dig up that old post of mine, and this seemed like a good opportunity. :)

  8. I’m that my pen-and-paper RPG of choice, GURPS, seems to have addressed all of of David V.’s concerns as far back as the early 1990s, and yet gone largely unnoticed. GURPS line editor, Sean Punch, has stated that GURPS’ guiding principle is one of “playable abstraction,” with the intent being first to create an experience that approximates the real within the limits of what is playable at the table. A broadsword may give +1 to hit, but would be described as having “fine balance”. Unfortunately, the GURPS Online project ( fell apart.

    I think something that’s been lost in history is that D&D is based on a playable abstraction where the focus is hundreds or thousands of individual creatures, with a few highly exceptional individuals mixed in — the tabletop wargame Chainmail. While many retroactive rationalizations have been inserted to justify the assumptions, I believe Arneson, Gygax, & co. found it was more playable to treat a great and mighty warrior as tougher than his horse rather than account for his ability to defeat a dozen foes through superior tactics and skill.

  9. David V.S. says:

    Hm. Cineris, I can’t find an e-mail address for you on your blog. So I’ll post an abbreviated answer here: examples pasted from my old rulebook. I am happy to let others steal my idea, but also want them to design their own game mechanics.

    There does need to be GM discretion as the final ruling, but in practice disagreement was quite rare. The main issue is to correlate the categories with significance during combat (no significance, a successful attack, ending combat, much more than ending combat).

    The weakest magical effects (5% skill use penalty) affect a small amount of material or a small area, and do so in only a minor way. Examples are detecting things, purifying a bag of air to breathe, identifying spells, crumbling small rocks, creating a small amount of a common material, warping a small area of wood, accelerating healing a little, speeding up or slowing down time slightly in a small area, or pushing tiny objects around by shifting space. In combat an effect this powerful is fairly negligible.

    Slightly more powerful magical effects (10% skill use penalty) have notable extent or intensity but not both. Examples are blowing a person over with a gust of wind, making a metal lock as pliable as clay, shooting beams of light, blurring a person’s image, creating large fires, making a small shadow solid, teleporting tiny objects by warping space, or drastically altering the flow of time in a small area. In combat an effect this powerful is as significant as a successful blow or strategic positioning.

    Powerful magical effects (25% skill use penalty) have notable extent and intensity. Examples are creating windstorms capable of blowing many people over, dispelling magic, causing the earth under a foe to open into a pit and then close on him, a classic fireball spell, creating detailed illusions, creating a blinding light in a direction, talking telepathically or to animals, bestowing on someone the ability to breathe water, teleporting or telekinesising people, and altering time flow severely in a large area. Effects this powerful can determine the outcome of a combat.

    The most powerful magical effects (50% skill use penalty) have truly breathtaking scope of extent, intensity, or both. Examples are lighting an entire town on fire, solidifying the air to trap a huge monster, causing earthquakes, creating suits of armour or rainstorms from nothing, and instantly healing a group of people of all wounds. Effects this powerful make combat look silly.

  10. Cineris says:


    Those tiers seem fairly understandable. Here’s the real gist of the question, though: If I, for example, wanted to flood a valley, would that effect be blanketly judged as a 50% skill penalty, or could I go to the source of the nearby river in the mountains and use a more minor effect (10% skill penalty, lets say) to divert the river and flood the valley? (Naturally this might take awhile naturally.)

    In other words, would you judge the power of the magic based upon its initial scope or long-term effect?

  11. Justin says:

    There’s always the much-overlooked option of the Temple of Elemental Evil, which was actually a turn-based game, and I don’t mean turn-based in the sense that NWN was, but where the combat actually stops to let each combatant choose its action, and it implements the d20 system really well.

    The problem is that the game itself was quite buggy. Thank God for reverse engineering, though, and the Circle of Eight team that did what Atari wouldn’t let Troika do–fix the bugs and add the censored content from the TSR module (i.e. the brothel and a couple of other things).

  12. It is a balance between complexity and playability. Diablo II caught it nicely I thought — and would have been hard to encompass in pen and pencil.

  13. David V.S. says:

    Cineris: initial effect directly caused by the use of the magic. (Naturally it pays to be a smart mage because you’re actually clever, not just for die roll modifications.) Another example of a clever trick experienced mages used (which the NPCs did not start off knowing about) was using light/dark magic to make a small area of darkness around an enemy mage’s eyes, so that his magic’s range of sight was nil. As a spell it is of the smallest category of intensity, but due to strategic use it could tip the tide of battle.

    Shamus: I noticed the typo but didn’t care. It’s not like anyone knows what a maggid is anyway. (A rabbi without the degree, a conjugation of the Hebrew verb “to preach”. In the former Soviet Union each town would have a maggid to keep the local synagogue running, while the rabbis left their ivory towers annually to do circuit-preaching among the region’s towns.) I was more disappointed to do a Google search for “megid” and not get anything interesting.

  14. CyberGorth says:

    Interesting thing about the GURPS system, I believe that it was the rules system that the Fallout game series was built around.

  15. Pada V4.5 says:

    There is one thing which very disturbs me in D&D. That the better the armor, the harder it is to hit you. C’mon thats a total nonsense, better armor is usually bigger so actually its even more easy to hit someone who wears it. The combat system in fallout was good with the armor reducing the damage, although oddly you were harder to hit too…

    1. I think the conceit is that you HIT, but don’t actually score a damaging blow. But I agree, that’s deeply unsatisfying. Why doesn’t my crossbow pierce the armor better than a club? Why doesn’t the armor periodically take damage that actually lowers its AR? Wouldn’t a sufficiently powerful blow, like a blow that WOULD have hit for 80 damage, rattle the person inside the armor? Etc.

      I’ve always preferred the Palladium system: Armor has separate AR and separate rules, and has its own HP (SDC technically, but same thing). This isn’t totally satisfactory either, but I think it’s closer to accurate.

  16. Slithe says:

    Shamus, I don’t know if you are still monitoring these old posts, but still….
    I have enjoyed reading the archives of your blog over the last few days, but I kept noticing that when you referred to d20 and CRPGs, you would sometimes mention Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale as examples of good games, but you never mention the Baldur’s Gate series! Since they were far more popular than the other two, I will assume you have played them. Do you have something against them? I just brought this up because it seems like a weird oversight to me.

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