Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Dungeons & Dragons Effect

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 26, 2010

Jason Wilson explores the influence of the original dice-and-paper RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, on the video game industry — from the early days until today. The article includes comments from Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry series, among other games), Thomasz Gop of CD Projekt (The Witcher), and Tony Evans of Obsidian  (Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir, and others) and now Bioware.

Gamespy: The Dungeons & Dragons Effect

Evans in particular takes the “RPGs are dead, long live the RPG” attitude. He notes that while many gamers view RPG as a “badge of honor,” for most gamers it is a “dirty word,” and believes that attitude needs to shift. One assumes that means making RPGs more accessible, something which Bioware seems intent on doing.

Which of course, we old-school hard-core RPGers see as a code-word for “dumbed down.” But when selling to the masses, they ain’t got much choice anymore.

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Adamantyr said,

    D&D’s influence on the CRPG is pretty easy to see… heck, early games blatantly ripped it off.

    What I find funny about it is that on old vintage machines, a lot of the mechanics of D&D with it’s simulation-focus are a lot of expense to code. Doing derived results from multiple sources (ability scores, class, etc.) is really quite a lot of math to do on the fly in 6502 assembly.

    Tabletop gaming is a different experience from computer games. Tabletop game rules have to be flexible enough to allow for improvised tactics and crazy ideas. CRPG’s have to define all potential actions in a system. Sooner or later, the two will deviate.

    If 4th Edition D&D has one serious flaw, it’s that they have, at many points, gotten way too tactical and mechanical. I bought the latest Dark Sun adventure and was appalled at the fact it was NOTHING but tactical maps and encounters. The adventure in Dungeon magazine, though, has a lot of meaty story and background, multiple skill challenges, and only a handful of fights, many of which the players can avoid if they’re clever.

    Also, the dependency on miniatures is going to get seriously limiting for the hobby. I like mini’s but I can’t afford to buy and store them, and I don’t have the time or skills to paint them either. Older D&D rules had conventions to allow for non-mini gaming, those really need to come back.

  • AnnoyingLawyer said,

    At the risk of cross-pollination, Adamantyr, you might want to check out the Old School Renaissance, or OSR, if you haven’t already. People playing old versions off D&D or so-called “retro clones.” Grognardia is a good place to start: http://blogspot.grognardia.com It’s sort of like the indie gaming of the tabletop world!

  • Adamantyr said,

    I have all old editions of D&D, and I even ran a 1st Edition AD&D session for a bit of change a few months ago.

    Unfortunately, sites like that are rife with 4E haters… Hatred and disrespect for other gamers does nothing for me. I like 4E and I want to fix the issues with it, not curse the company that made it and anyone who dares have fun with it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I remember all the 3E haters… 😉 But the thing was, we’d gotten bored with 1E and weren’t impressed with 2E a decade earlier. 3E got me excited to play D&D again. Part of it was because it did have enough of the old “1E feel” that we loved, but a lot more flexibility so we didn’t feel so limited like we did in the 1E days.

    I have the 4E Player’s Handbook. After reading through it, my attitude towards 4E softened. It looked like a fun game. But it didn’t really excite me very much.

    Pathfinder is what really got me excited. As far as I’m concerned, *it* is the real 4th edition of D&D. It’s kinda weird, though, that it “feels” more like D&D than D&D these days.

  • McTeddy said,

    Yeah, I’m one of the 4E haters 🙂

    It’s just far too combat heavy, and far to little RP for my own taste. 4E just feels like the free MMO of Tabletop role-playing. Nothing more than grinding for levels and gathering top tier gear.

    While I respect Adamantyr’s desire to fix the issues, I’m happy enough pretending it doesn’t exist.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I feel quite sad that Tony Evans appears to be saying the only way forward for cRPGs is to make them more accessible and less overtly RPGs.

    For a start, I hate the term “more accessible”. If they meant that the interface and control systems should be easier and more intuitive that’s fine, but unfortunately it would appear complexity and depth are the things that are sacrificed.

    I really enjoyed Storm of Zehir, and would gladly pay for similar games in the future. It really reminded me of those old RPGs, and was far more “baldur’s gate”-like than Dragon Age in my opinion. Certainly the best thing Obsidian have produced (that I’ve played).

    I really hope the indie scene with the likes of Dead State, Age of Decadence and others can make those niche games that people like me crave, because we get precious little service from the major developers.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Thanks, Andy, didn’t mean to derail things.

    Like any genre, RPG’s need to educate the player as to how to play these types of games. Frankly, that’s what RPG’s are best known for being BAD at. Learning curves are steep, gameplay is arduous and grinding, and little or no resources are used trying to draw new players into the genre.

    And it hasn’t gotten any better in 20-odd years. Dragon Age is horrible for controls and ease of use. (And frankly, if you’re going to have turn-based complexity, you should make the game TURN-BASED…) Maybe because we’re all veterans in RPG’s and CRPG’s, we are under the delusion that there’s something wrong with simple and accessible.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The problem is that “accessible” (and even “simple”) doesn’t and shouldn’t mean “dumbed down.” But too often, that’s exactly what it means.

    Take the game of Go. Or Chess, if you will, but Go has even simpler rules (IMO). But they are extremely deep, brainy games.

    They DO intimidate new players (or even just “not very good” players, like me), not because of the rules, but because, when you start out, every opponent will totally kick your butt. You have to eat a lot of humiliating defeats before becoming good enough to enjoy the game.

  • Adamantyr said,

    It’s not so much a simple rules-set like Go or Chess have, but that you need to build the player incrementally. You throw them in the deep end at the start, they lose interest and go play something else. And all too often, RPG designers think that this is fine. “We don’t want rubes like that playing our game anyway.”

    For example, if I was doing a CRPG with a more narrative style, I’d have the player start out controlling ONE character. That one character would be identifiable to the user because he’s not exotic, throwing weird strange magic about. Then as you introduce new characters, you build on the character system, showing the different varieties that exist and their strengths and weaknesses.

    This is not the same as an in-game tutorial, or “starting zone”. Having a place where everything is easy and then it goes super-bad-ass-hard the moment you leave the zone is also bad design. World of Warcraft has an excellent methodology of teaching the player to play, to the point that by the time you reach max level, it’s all routine.

    Mind you, it’s all useless if you don’t have solid marketing. If you want people other than hardcore gamers playing your game, you need to get it in front of them. This is also something that’s been a serious challenge…

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Glad to get things back on track Adamantyr! 😉

    Dragon age is really a funny one. I feel like I should applaud it for what they said they were attempting (essentially a new Baldur’s Gate but without the IP or D&D issues), but they fell so very far from their hype and delivered few of their promises.

    It is also rather confusing and tedious to play unless you bother to read up on the best way to use the tactics, or find the various exploits (Winters grasp anyone?).

    One of the things that I found odd was the skill trees. Now, fighters and rogues can get spell-like abilities to use! Unfortunately, the bulk of them had very limited use and seemed to be padded out to make sure there were a similar amount of skills compared to the mages number of spells.

    I find it difficult to adequately articulate why this bothers me (without writing a 10,000 word essay), but basically I guess I grew up with Ultima and D&D where Fighters usually hit things and chose between weapons/armour and mages got spells but didn’t get the armour/weapons choices. The other classes kind of fall in between these extremes.

    I highlight that point in particular because it is a shift from the player being part of a party, to the player controlling the party. In the first instance, you are part of a team, in the second you have followers who do your bidding. It’s really a rather subtle difference in practice, but I find it’s the feel of the thing… compare if you will the (soon to be) Avatar in Ultima IV: You pick a character class and take one of each other with you on your quest (once you prove your worth to them). If you don’t pick a mage, then your mage companion casts the spells. In later games (I think Ultima VI may have started it, but it was certainly in full flow in Ultima VII), the Avatar is capable of doing anything/everything and his companions are there for a little extra muscle and chatter.

    This kinda turned into a rant, and I think I lost my way somewhere, but I’ll post it anyway and try and do better next time…

  • Brian \'Psychochild\' Green said,

    I think the comment that some think RPG is a “dirty word” is not quite accurate. I’ve been playing Borderlands recently, which is a shooter with a thick layer of RPG elements layered on top. Another huge game was Puzzle Quest, which was a rather simple match-three puzzle game with fantasy RPG elements heaped on it. As far as I know, both of these were fairly successful games.

    I think what’s really being lost here is the super-geeky version of RPGs, particularly the “you better know the rules before you even hope to build a non-gimp character” version that has been discussed in other comments. There’s something to be said for allowing players to get into the games easier.

    That said, it’s still a balancing act. For example, I might chafe under Andy_Panthro’s suggested system if I really wanted to play a mage out of the gate. There’s a balance between preventing the player from shooting him- or herself in the foot, and trying to protect the player form his- or herself even if they do know what they’re getting into.

  • Andy_Panthro said,


    Certainly in Ultima 4 and Baldur’s Gate you have a tough time early on as a Mage character. However, in both games it is relatively easy (BG especially) to party members to prevent your PC from having to deal with too many direct attacks.

    The key I suppose is making sure that they player will realise if their PC is no good very early on, so they have the ability to re-roll without feeling like they are already too invested in the story to go back. Of course some people (like myself) spend rather a long time with different characters until they find one they want to complete a game with.

    With good game design, the issue of a gimped character can be negated a bit. I certainly wouldn’t advocate a system where such characters could be made without either a tutorial or pre-made characters for those who would rather not have to go through a trial and error process.

    Two of the best (and worst) for character creation in my eyes are Darklands and Megatraveller. Both allow an amazing scope for unique characters, but the randomness and number of skills means that a new player would need a lot of help to make sure they had a balanced party.

    Megatraveller in particular required you to have certain skills to pilot a spaceship, which I learned the hard way when I played it without the manual.

    I truly felt out of my depth, and I consider myself quite experienced with RPGs! Of course these days you can often get manuals online, but on the flip side, many games these days don’t come with much in the way of a manual at all, but rely on in-game tutorials and documentation.

    I think tool-tips are perhaps the greatest invention of the modern age really, the ability to just hover over something and get a description can often help getting around a clunky or non-intuitive interface.

    Of course I could talk all day about the importance of a good interface and feedback, but I think I may have gone too far off on a tangent already!