[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.]
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.
You Have Your Math,
D&D Has The Math
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.
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.
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
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
The Value of Taking
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.
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