[The 4th Edition of the seminal pen & paper RPG Dungeons & Dragons has just debuted - but why should game developers care? THQ veteran Tom Smith explains what video games can learn from D&D's evolution.]
A new edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) came out last Friday -- three books of great ideas that the video game industry can work with. Taking ideas from pen and paper games, and D&D in particular, is a proud tradition that has served video games well over the years.
Hit points? 'Borrowed'. Character classes? Gygax and Arneson were there first. Gaining power through Experience Points and levels? Ruthlessly swiped. This article provides suggestions for inspiration game developers can take from the series - or, if you're being cute, 'epic thievery'. Oh, and the term "epic"? D&D used it first.
So what is the 4th Edition? Basically, it takes the D&D ruleset further down the road of standardization and simplification that began with 3rd edition. D&D's first two editions were teeming with different rules and charts and systems, so that no one part of the game integrated easily with any other. The 3rd tried to turn these micro-systems and exceptions into a true systems design, with coherent themes and structures. The 4th continues this trend.
For example, both player and monster stats are now standardized. Regardless of what class or creature, its core numbers (HP, attack, damage, etc.) progress in a regular way as it gains power.
There are plenty of exceptions to these rules, but for the first time, there is a clear baseline from which all the exceptions deviate. And that baseline is designed with some thought behind the numbers, to keep the die rolls interesting at all levels of player power. And all of this math is exposed to the player, making it easy for D&D's vibrant mod community (i.e., every Dungeon Master, or DM) to create new monsters or powers and trust that they'll fit the overall game balance.
All classes have a simple fixed list of powers that they can use over and over again, giving each class a similar range of abilities even if the abilities themselves are diverse and flavorful. Wizards don't memorize spells from a big list any more, and fighters can do more than "attack with the same weapon again".
Much of this standardization is probably familiar to video game designers -- MMOs like World of Warcraft have provided plenty of examples of this sort of standardized system before, where fighter sword swings and wizard spells are both treated as a button click followed by an animation and damage.
The D&D designers did a good job of taking ideas from video games that help their game work better without overly diluting the unique feel of their game. Hopefully we can prove as competent at returning those influences as they were.
Deriving ideas is an important skill that game developers need to develop. There are no new ideas, so all creativity comes down to creative and judicious taking. Often, it's tempting to just take the outer expression of an idea. But copying a single interesting enemy or character concept by itself without incorporating the underlying ideas can wreak havoc on a design.
That enemy may only work in conjunction with that game's style of player attacks, or spawn strategy, or AI. To take well, it is necessary to truly understand the thing to be stolen. Once understood, it's possible to derive the idea rather than just the implementation. Take the soul, not the shell. Then twist the soul to subvert it to the game's vision.
As such, the remainder of this article covers some of the core ideas of 4th edition D&D that are potentially applicable to video games. Some reinforce known best practices, while some point to new design space that could prove fertile for new game ideas.
Either way, borrow carefully. Make sure these ideas fit the game's vision. Play D&D a bit to see how they actually work in practice instead of just taking my word for it. Play some other RPGs to see if they have better ideas to derive form. Don't just grab the outer shell and forsake the rich intellectual goodness inside.