One final video game genre closely related to D&D, but not usually seen as such, is open world games like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Assassin's Creed, and others. Open world games enhance player freedom over more traditional, linear genres by offering both a larger set of possible player actions and opportunities, and a larger set of consequences for them.
But even open world games have their limits. In particular, since a computer has no common sense or intuition and cannot improvise, it can't handle anything that wasn't planned for and implemented by the developers in advance; a player can't explore the inside of a building if it hasn't been created, for instance, or talk to people if the dialogue system was cut.
Further, the huge cost of creating systems and content for increasingly advanced game machines severely limits how much video games can provide players.
Sure, creating a building interior or dialogue system are perfectly solvable problems, but as any experienced developer knows, game development is a zero sum game; if someone wants more content or a new feature, something else has to give.
These problems -- the necessity of implementing features and content beforehand, and the huge cost involved in doing so -- limit what even open world video games can offer players. In contrast, D&D and other pen-and-paper RPGs don't have these restrictions, and thus offer massive potential for player freedom, consequence, and creativity.
Using a previous example, if the players try to enter a building the DM didn't anticipate, the DM can simply improvise whatever makes sense. Perhaps they're in a poor area of town and the building is a dingy tavern.
The DM could then populate it as appropriate, with broken bottles, drunkards, refuse and so on. That's the beauty of pen-and-paper simulations; they take place at such a high level that it's trivially easy to add or change content on the fly.
Player creativity and consequence are vastly increased for similar reasons. People have a common sense understanding of gravity, physics, sound, so if a player finds, say, a wine bottle, he can use that bottle in a myriad of different ways. He could use the bottle as a bludgeon, throw it to create a distraction, empty the bottle to store a different liquid, and so on.
Such freedom and consequence can act on a massive scale, not just on objects but also on the ongoing story itself. The fate of entire nations can hang in the balance based on player choices -- entire wars can begin or end. Because the simulation is so high-level, the story can branch in ways video games are only beginning to explore.
To be fair, D&D campaigns in practice can be as linear and confining as their digital counterparts, due to the DM's personal style, preferences, and level of creativity or inclination. But the richness of interaction, the potential for "open world" experiences is always there, and dwarfs what is possible in today's video games.
Thanks Gary, We Owe You One
Pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons was in some key ways a progenitor of the contemporary video game, and had a massive impact that goes far beyond the RPG genre. First, by allowing gamers to run the first robust interactive simulations, D&D was one of the first products that let gamers act within a virtual world.
By using that simulation to bind game elements and story elements together, D&D was also a pioneering game that did more than just gameplay, it told a story and offered players fantastic adventures. And with its class system and open player freedom, it even influenced fighting games, team-based FPSes, and open world games.
Game designers should be aware of such connections and should leverage, twist, or stretch them to create better games, ones that offer richer interaction, more compelling stories, and worlds as immersive as the ones in our imaginations.