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The Adventurer's Guide to Thievery

June 12, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

[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.

You Have Your Math, D&D Has The Math

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.

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.

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

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Trace o'Connor
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Great article! I enjoyed this commentary on gaming in general; I sent links to this article to friends and forums covering games in several different media - vidego games, table-top RPGs and even LARP. Well put together and very inspirational, thanks! -- I'm also laughing wondering how many random dragon people and devil people we'll see in different forms next year.

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Grassroots, you've again missed the point of the article. It's not saying there are no new ideas and we "must" use this. The article is pointing out how well thought out the new 4ed rules for DnD are and how we can take from these ideas they've used to improve our own.

For instance earlier when it mentioned about how the system simplified the use of skills. The point here isn't that you're meant to simply any skill system you have. The point is that a heavily abstract list like what they had in 3ed is counter productive to a smooth running game and it made values that were 0s nearly useless to the player. They took a cumbersome system and made it more streamlined and fitting to the feel they wanted. Which has nothing to do with there being "no new ideas".

As to my feelings on this, I love the article, very informative and I have to say some very good points. I have noticed as a designer I have a tendancy to make systems more complex than they really have to be.

Shaun Huang
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IMO, this article is a great (albeit a bit lengthy) explanation of why people interested in game design should check out D&D if they never bothered before. However, in terms of grasping the “soul” of 4th edition, I think you’re missing a few core concepts of the revolution that the 4th Ed. Teams tried to make, such as the jump from rule-centric to role-centric design philosophies when approaching the entire game. I recommend listening to their podcasts on and reading their developer’s blogs to help expertise your way to getting the complete picture of 4th ED. They’re your behind-the-scene DVD to the development of 4th Edition.

I absolutely hated the random and inappropriate shout out to Miyamoto in the end. He abandoned the core audience to cater to casuals, so he definitely does not belong in an article about D&D 4th edition, a game that proves that you don't have to sacrifice the core to reach out to the casuals. You should’ve mentioned Will Wright or at the very least, Blizzard/Harmonix for creating great games that take creativity from everyday people and everyday life but truly translating them into great games, not half-baked attempts. :p

Extra tidbit on Miyamoto: When asked if Mario Galaxy drew any inspirations from Rachet and Clank with the spherical level designs, he said "Rachet and Clank? I've never heard of that game. Is it a PC game?” I’ve never personally played R&C but how can anyone serious about game design and “innovation” not know R&C? Plus, what kind of response was “Is it a pc game?” Any game he never heard of must be on PC?

Tom Smith
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Hi. Thanks for the responses, everyone.

Shaun, great point about the D&D blogs and podcasts - lots of good design philosophy there. And many of their core design tips apply to video games as well as RPGs. The Magic the Gathering ones are worth checking out, too.

I'm sorry if the Miyamoto thing didn't work for you. I've always drawn inspiration from his talks on how gardening influenced the design of Pikmin, which I consider to be a great example of seeing game design in the world around you. Which is what I was trying to get to, as plucking design secrets from everyday things is the ultimate expression of thievery. But I may have rushed that point a bit.

Anne Toole
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Great thieving in this article ;) Since D&D has been such a big influence on me, I noted this week on my blog a lot of the overlap between how DMs are encourage to view their players (Power Gamer, Instigator) with the player types for MMOs. Maybe D&D can steal a bit from that world as well?

The DM Guide, among other things, points out that you can create a game with more moral ambiguity rather than being strictly heroic. While we've seen some video games with ambiguity, heroic definitely wins out in most cases. Maybe video games still have a lot to learn from D&D?

Billy Bissette
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It is interesting that you've written an article on stealing the changes in 4th edition for videogames when people have described 4th edition development as trying to turn D&D into an MMORPG.

"Published modules can define discrete skill challenges as a way to structure to that annoying time between combats." is also an interesting comment. I haven't played D&D for many years, but I remember when the time between combat was meant to be interesting in its own right without being boiled down to discrete skill challenges. Your comment makes it sound like if you aren't rolling dice, then you can't be having fun. (Which seems at times to be a theme behind 4th edition's design as well.)

And while you call "health packs" a stolen version of D&D's "healing potions," to me "healing surges" seem similar to the "quick recovery when resting" trend that blazed across FPS and even some third-person shooters. They certainly seem grounded in the same logic, of only needing a moment to freely get yourself immediately back into the battle rather than having to squander resources spend precious time being cautious while in search of an external means of healing.

Tom Smith
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Billy, you're right - I should know better than to try to use sarcasm in a digitial medium. 'that annoying time between combats' is normally the focus of the game when I play RPGs, since I'm a story-based role-playing (100% on the Robin Laws scale). So partially I was just exaggerating other people's views to make a point - it's a bad habit of mine.

But I was also trying to indicate that the time between combats has historically been a difficult time for designers to deal with. Both electronic and role-playing games have their roots in combat-heavy scenarios, so stretching the design outside of combat space has traditionally been an after-thought for the big releases. Of course, there are plenty of other, smaller games (both digital and paper) that explore those spaces in interesting ways, but I'm honestly happy to see the granddaddy of them all - D&D - explore that space a little more than previous editions.

And on the broader issue of D&D and MMORPG similarities, I tried to address that a touch in the text by pointing out how well D&D has managed to take good ideas from other sources without diluting their own feel. I don't think D&D is just mindlessly copying MMOs - I think they're doing a very clever job of stealing the right ideas and applying them well. But it doesn't mean that D&D is no longer D&D, at least to me.