Sid Meier, D&D, and Why TRPGs Are All About Fighting Monsters

Ever since video games got really big, turning into a media industry comparable to literature or theater and rivaling even cinema in its pop culture clout[1], game design has been a popular topic on the Internet. The most notable content creators in the discourse are probably Extra Credits, but there are dozens of other video game fans discussing game design, as well as some industry insiders weighing in (ranging from the GDC vault to Ask A Game Dev on Tumblr). And yet, I’ve never found anyone applying game design to traditional or tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, or Shadowrun. So I decided that I’d fill the void[2] myself.

To begin with, let’s start by explaining what a game is—or, at least, what makes a game engaging as a game rather than an experience[3]. I’ve always been fond of Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a series of interesting decisions. Those choices might be carefully-calculated maneuvers as in Sid Meier’s games, choices based on emotion and gut instinct as in Telltale’s games, semi-reflexive interactions as in rhythm games, or a mixture of two or more as seen in the likes of Dark Souls and Fire Emblem[4]. How well do TRPGs fit this definition?

 

That’s a tough question to answer. The experience that someone has playing, say, Breath of the Wild or Daikatana is going to be very similar to the experience everyone else playing those games has.[5] Every jot of the games’ design was all done before a single copy shipped, every asset finalized, and the hardware running it all runs much the same virtual environment. But TRPGs don’t work like that. Even if one sticks closely to a published adventure, many of the design details are left up to the GM[6], the “assets” (such as descriptive details and maps) will vary, and the hardware is a bunch of unpredictable human brains and their unreliable polyhedral helpers. And if the GM deviates from the book, or writes his own adventure, the designers have as much influence over the end results as they would if they were designing a level editor or game engine.

I am forced to draw upon two sources for my understanding of what TRPGs are generally like. The first is published adventures; perhaps only a fraction of games actually use them, but they are the foundation for a GM’s understanding of what adventures are appropriate for that game, and an expression of what the designers intend adventures to be like. The second is my own experiences, which provide deeper explanations but are (obviously) much more subjective. Still, I intend to analyze the adventures I have access to, and the analysis does not speak well of the subject.

 

First, published adventures. I’ve read an immense variety of adventures, most for various editions of D&D, but I’ve also read adventures for Pathfinder, Shadowrun, the World of Darkness, and more. There are a few consistent threads between these; most notable and most damning is their single-minded focus on combat.[7] Nearly every adventure has some scenes which focused on roleplaying (at least enough to push the characters into the plot), which usually has some brief challenges the players can choose to take (such as asking for a raise). Many have scenes of investigation or exploration, trying to find the Big Bad or MacGuffin or whatever. They might even have something unique, like learning to operate a massive machine (with no instruction manual) or a big puzzle the entire dungeon is built around.

But none of these ever make up the bulk of the gameplay, or take up the bulk of the text, and they certainly never act as a climax. That honor goes to the obstacles which must be eliminated violently. Details and backstory for the villains who must be fought, statistics and descriptions and maps full of the rooms and arenas where these villains are fought, leading up to a grand climax where the Big Bad or the MacGuffin’s final guardian is defeated, often with minions or lieutenants assisting, often with some kind of lair gimmick or special powers to make it unique. Adventures which have the players wandering across a large area might have a special “final dungeon,” with several elite mooks before the Big Bad himself. But there is never a climactic debate where the players try to convince the king that they’re right and the evil vizier is wrong, or a climactic puzzle or riddle the players need to wrack their brains to solve, or anything. You can’t persuade or befriend the villain to stop their evil plans, the way you can with Saren Arterias or the God of Hyperdeath. It’s kill or be killed.

Choice in general is rare in published adventures; they are very linear. The “Storm King’s Thunder” adventure path for D&D Next is a rare exception, letting the players go to multiple towns after the initial encounters in Nightstone, take one of several sidequests from them, stumble upon the true conflict in one of a few ways, seek various kinds of help, kill one of a handful of giant chiefs, etc. But all of these are just “beads on a string”—a series of specific types of scenes in a preset order, with a choice of a few branches that effectively meet up a little down the line.[8] But even this level of choice, which is seen as a bare minimum in many video RPGs, is exceptional among published adventures. There may be a brief sandbox section or two for setting the tone or establishing the setting (especially in Shadowrun adventures, for some reason), but aside from those sections it’s linearity all the way. Here’s the plot hook, here’s how the players can find the truth, here’s a dungeon/research lab/ruin/secret lair/haunted mansion/whatever or a few for the PCs to tromp through.

My personal experience with Storm King’s Thunder hasn’t been all that bad; my DM for that campaign makes sure to give ample opportunities for interesting decisions to be made that don’t involve the blade of a sword. Random encounters with wilderness monsters are replaced by quirky NPCs, entire sessions are devoted to messing around and roleplaying in the big cities we go to, and we even wound up fighting one of the giant chiefs a good while before we realized why the adventure path wanted to.[9]

But even that campaign wound up devolving into the same typical TRPG combat-centered gameplay almost any time we get around to the main plot. Sure, there’s fun roleplaying and a little exploration in between, but the driving force of the game is fundamentally connected to the combat. And most TRPG campaigns I’ve played didn’t even go that far. Most were linear and primarily focused on the violent aspects of the plot, spending as little time as possible on the parts of the story which didn’t directly relate to killing monsters; I’ve also played one which was (mostly) open-ended and focused on the violent aspects of those tasks the players chose.

 

TRPGs are nearly always focused on combat. They might talk about the importance of roleplaying or exploration or what-have-you, but combat is always of utmost importance. A glance at the rules makes this obvious, even without any premade adventures or personal experience. A majority (or at least a plurality) of most RPGs’ core rulebooks are devoted to combat, to the rules for combat and the weapons or spells used for fighting and the special abilities the characters have, with the lists of spells and other special abilities typically focused primarily on spells which affect the combat.

Combat is also where most of the interesting mechanical choices come in. In D&D and most other RPGs, non-combat challenges resolve to one or more die rolls. Maybe it’s a simple matter of rolling your Disable Device skill against the device’s DC, maybe there is some kind of extra mechanic added on (like needing to succeed on your roll X times before your opponent succeeds Y times), but it all amounts to rolling dice. When you’re rolling dice, you’re not making decisions. Sure, with the right GM you might be able to make choices ahead of time for some circumstance modifiers, but that’s reliant on the GM and the situation, and it may or may not be worth the effort.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as combat involves enough interesting decisions[10], a TRPG can be an engaging game. But there’s this disconnect between what TRPGs are, and what they try to be. They clearly want to be grand adventures, open-ended stories controlled by the players as much as the adventure designers, with a blend of both combat and non-combat challenges. You can see a drive for this in the changes between D&D 3.5 and D&D Next. The introduction and discussions of how to play emphasize roleplaying and exploration more, and the mechanics which encourage a player to describe their character are expanded from just an alignment to a background, with flaws and ties to the game world thrown into the mix. And yet…the adventures are still centered around slaying monsters and executing villains, the rules for noncombat challenges are still mere dice rolls, the spell lists and class abilities continue to focus on whatever’s useful in a fight.

 

This is, I feel, the greatest flaw in modern gaming. Oh, sure, shooters are brown and samey, and strategy games suffer from chronic unstable equilibrium, and PVP games usually have crummy metagames, but there are plenty of titles to choose from, some of which minimize or eliminate these problems. Tabletop RPGs are numerous, but are dominated by a handful of big titles making the same mistakes. D&D (and Pathfinder, its pseudo-spinoff) make up an enormous part of the market; most of the rest is eaten up by big second-tier games like GURPS and Shadowrun. Indie TRPGs exist, but there isn’t really an indie TRPG community the same way there are communities for, say, indie shooters or indie platformers. There are some TRPGs, like New Gods of Mankind, which really do push the medium forward and focus on making narratives and gameplay you can’t get in your typical D&D-esque TRPG, but hardly anyone even knows they exist.

Part of the problem is a different set of expectations. When I try to get a game of New Gods of Mankind started among my friends, they’re reluctant. The idea of playing a god in a TRPG is alien to them; wouldn’t they have enough power to render any challenges moot? That’s what would happen if I played a god in any typical TRPG. They basically just want to play D&D or other games in that combat-focused vein, much as they have for all the years or decades that they’ve been playing those games. That’s what they expect TRPGs to be. So that’s what gaming companies provide.

But this could change. Once upon a time, video games had equally-low expectations. Move a semi-abstract clump of pixels around a level, complete challenges, have fun. Shallow. But people realized that the medium could do more, game developers provided more, and audiences decided to be pickier. They began to expect full narratives, deep mechanics, and that the games generally treat themselves with the self-respect seen in almost every other medium. With these changing expectations, games grew from homogeneous affairs, their narrative and meaning as flat as their graphics, to true stories told in ways no stories could be told before.

And I do believe that TRPGs can provide an experience distinct from any other medium—even video games, their close cousin. Sure, video games might be able to run on silicon chips instead of gray matter and dice, and a team of professional writers will outdo one guy’s hobby any day, but having that one guy know his audience intimately and being able to improvise in ways no modern computers can must be good for something. The medium just needs something to push it in the right direction.

That’s why I’m analyzing TRPG design. If I can get even a few people thinking and talking about it, maybe they’ll get other people to think and talk about it. Maybe, just maybe, I can be part of a slow process that lets TRPGs reach the same heights of innovation and brilliance that the best video games do. It might be a small chance of something frivolous, it might even be something already started that would go on without me, but I still think it’s worth talking about.

 

[1] Though not its ability to assume a dignified name without sounding pretentious.

[2] Well, It‘s probably not an empty void, but I’m going to fill it anyways. 

[3] That is, the difference between something like Super Hexagon (pure mechanical engagement) and something like What Remains of Edith Finch (pure narrative engagement). The two aren’t entirely distinct, of course, with most games using some of both, but this distinction lets us focus on one half without implying the other half is unimportant. 

[4] Which I view as being a mixture of careful maneuvers and (respectively) semi-reflexive interactions or emotional choices. If anyone knows a game which combines reflex and emotion into the same decisions (as opposed to different mechanical systems), I’d love to hear it. 

[5] Barring hardware issues, ports, tweaks made in remakes, and so on. Or possibly not barring those, depending on how similar different versions of a game are. 

[6] Game Master. Many games use specific versions of the title (most notably D&D’s Dungeon Master), but when talking about TRPGs in general I prefer the general term. 

[7] The main exceptions I’ve found are comedic RPGs like Toon and Paranoia. I’ve read a Toon sample adventure, which was more focused on fighting various enemies than most cartoons I’ve seen but still had similar focus on other potentially-comedic situations.  Paranoia is somewhat combat-focused, but its black comedy is tied so closely to the violence inherent in its system that deciding which is the “real” focus is virtually impossible. So it’s not completely homogeneous…just mostly homogeneous. 

[8] My analysis might not be perfectly accurate; I’m currently in what feels like the late second act of the adventure path, and haven’t looked up spoilers. 

[9] We didn’t end up getting her MacGuffin, though, so we still have to circle back to that plot point…

[10] Which it may or may not, depending on the system, the situation, and your characters. And personal taste, of course!

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