(Don't Just) Let the Computer Do It

Posted by on Dec 19, 2007 in RPGs, Story, Video Games | 11 Comments

You’ve read the same kinds of opinions that I have regarding RPGs, especially D&D, versus MMORPGs. Specifically, I’m thinking about the opinions that say, “If all I wanted to do was walk a bunch of miniature figures through a dungeon, fighting and looting, I’d rather do it with a videogame and not worry about knowing all those rules. Let the computer do it.”

It’s a fair point, and you can imagine that I like it because it says people want to play paper RPGs because they get a degree of freedom out of them that CRPGs can’t match. (Yet.) That’s great. I want people to keep being attracted to RPGs, and the best way to do that is to attract attention to the thing do well and other games do not, as several commentators have said in the last couple of days.

But one of those things that RPGs should do well, they often don’t.

I think one of the too-often-overlooked things an RPG can also do well — and this is a kind of roleplaying, but also a metagame — is tied into the MMO experience in a big way: Let the GM play the role of the game designer. That’s a roleplaying niche that a lot of RPGs don’t do very well or, at least, don’t supply much support for.

I think a lot of MMO players are like me: They’re battling trolls in the Misty Mountains (or whatever) and they’re thinking about how they’d have designed this quest or this encounter. They’re analyzing the game design as much as, or more than, the fictional actions going on in the imaginary world of the game. They’re not thinking about their warrior’s reckless battle in freezing rain against a drooling, screaming monster. They’re thinking about whether or not it was fair game to place super-tough monsters in this stretch of road, or if the cool-down on the Radiant Death-Blade power is too long (or too fast), or whether a troll should be taller and hairier. They’re not experiencing the imaginary thrills of the fictional world. They’re thinking about content.

If MMO players are anything like me, they’re also imagining how they’d describe this battle or what where they’d set it for maximum peril and drama. But are they like me? I really don’t know.

After the thirtieth battle with a troll, and all the time an MMO player must spend calculating the right place and time to grind for Pristine Troll Toes (or whatever), it’s easy for the patina to wear off the experience. The trolls stop looking quite so much like trolls and start looking more like dressed-up XP or hulking one-shot slot machines. (“Come on, baby, just one more troll toe!”)

Every difficult quest, every trip back to the same field of giant rats for yet more grinding, every moment spent pixel hunting in the wilderness has the chance to evoke a powerful phrase: “If I was designing this game…”

D&D’s third edition did a great job at not only facilitating but adding structure to the player-niche of the DM. Cross your fingers that D&D4 will do something similar — and better. It’s much-talked-about-behind-its-back quest mechanics (about which I’ll write more later) may serve to amplify the visible role of the DM-as-game-developer and a player’s ability (and desire?) to slip into that role.

More than any other RPG, D&D has the opportunity to attract MMORPG players by opening up the role of the table-top DM (more powerful and prestigious than the MMO customer-service-style position of GM). It can’t stop with D&D, though. Every RPG is only as good as the GM or Narrator or Storyteller who’s actively running the game session. For a lot of people, Blizzard is probably the best DM they’ve ever had, what with the animations and the voices and the graphics.

The position of GM must be made more fun and more prestigious, or we’ll have no good reason not to just let the computers do it.


  1. Mike Mearls
    December 20, 2007

    Things like character roles, monster roles, magic items with levels, all of these things we’ve added to 4e tie back into giving the DM more power, better clarity, and more usable options than in 3e.

    3e says, “Monster X has A, B, and C because the game’s content generation algorithms say it should.” The rules told you what you could do.

    4e says, “Monster X has A, B, and C because the designer/DM thinks those are cool, fun abilities. The game’s content algorithms gave him the numbers that A, B, and C need to function.” The rules tell you how to do what you want to do.

    It’s a subtle but powerful shift. The potential danger is that we’re clearly moving away from sim and toward game as justification for design, and the gamble is that players and DMs are fine with that.

  2. Cam Banks
    December 20, 2007

    I think giving the DM more power and better clarity is potentially another form of thinking about content and not story. The shift toward game is noticeable. It’s cool, no doubt, and there are so many clever elements already being revealed slowly as 4e approaches, but at the end of the day I am getting the distinct impression that 4e is a game, not a tool for telling stories.

    The storytelling tool may be a side-effect of the game, of course, but more and more it seems to be “how can I put together a cool board, with some cool pieces on it, with cool things that they can do, and cool events that take place to affect/influence/hinder the pieces?” And this, I believe, may be what gives it more of that videogame feeling – since this is just what they do to make a videogame interesting.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    December 20, 2007

    I think highlighting the DM’s role as DM is about content, absolutely. My point is that players are thinking about content as content because they’re eager and ready to take on the role of content creator. They want to not just be players, but DMs, too. That’s a great way to bring them into paper RPGs, where the role of content creator is open to them in a way it is not with MMOs.

    The question you’ve got me wondering about, now, is this: How do you define “cool things [the pieces and board] can do?” How do you identify “cool events that take place?”

    Narrative sensibilities are how I define it, at least in part. If D&D4 doesn’t get in the way of storytelling, I’ll be happy. If it actively supports it, I’ll be surprised. But I think any DM (and players) can import the storytelling-game aspects into D&D regardless of what it’s meant to look like when it’s published.

  4. Will Hindmarch
    December 20, 2007

    “The potential danger is that we’re clearly moving away from sim and toward game as justification for design, and the gamble is that players and DMs are fine with that.”

    This DM and player is fine with that, Mike. The DM tools I’m hearing about in D&D4 (though I’m not hearing that much) sound good to me, so far. I think D&D’s always been a better game than sim, anyway. So subtle is fine, good even, as long as the powerful part is there.

  5. Hal Mangold
    December 20, 2007

    Anything D&D does to make it easier to model what the GM wants to create for his players, and does NOT leave him open to cries of “but that’s not how that works!” is a good thing. You know what takes away from storytelling? Arguing about rules constantly. Since D&D has taken the path of “there must be a system underlying all characters and monsters that makes mathematical sense”, if 4e can make it more possible for a GM to generate the content that the story he wants to create requires without generating a bunch of game-busting rules lawyering, I am all for it.

  6. theliel
    December 20, 2007

    Count me as one of the DMs that put down his stylus after runnign 3.5 for a year and writing and RPGA mod. Just oo many fiddly details to ‘get right’ that basically sour’d me on running and playing 3.5. Hoping 4 is better, and that my local groups continue to get refugees from MMO’s.

  7. gameplaywright.net // story, games, together
    December 21, 2007

    […] shrink, but they can also gain new visibility from people who start playing MMOs and then discover they’d like to design their own adventures. They can coexist. I play both, and expect to continue doing so. (I play a lot more RPGs than […]

  8. Levi Kornelsen
    December 24, 2007


    Your statements about allowing the GM to reconstruct play and create content seem very accurate to me. The way that you use D&D as an example of this displays the thing, but not the whole of the thing.

    There exist games like Fudge and Wushu that have an entire micro-culture running partly off the principle of making the game your own; a culture that in many cases overshadows any actual products. I think that’s significant. I suspect there’s a thing there that hasn’t been fully tapped, and room for more fairly-gamelike “tinkertoy” RPGs, ones where adaptation is overtly and explicitly expected and assumed right from the word “go!”.

  9. John Arcadian
    December 26, 2007

    I haven’t looked a lot into 4E, never having been a huge fan of D&D after having found out about other RPGs, but I like where they are taking it. The thing that turns me off to MMORPG’s is just what Will says, it all gets repetitive, and doesn’t help me with the story that I’m building in my head. That is the thing that turned me off of other editions of D&D. It all seems fairly repetitive with rules hedging you in. I don’t know how many times I’ve been enticed into a 3E game and heard “Sorry, D&D just doesn’t work that way.” I’d love to see 4E trend away from that.

  10. Jeff Tidball
    January 8, 2008

    I think a lot of MMO players are like me: They’re battling trolls in the Misty Mountains (or whatever) and they’re thinking about how they’d have designed this quest or this encounter.

    A few nights ago I was watching an episode of Homicide and thinking about it from a structural and writing standpoint, and how I might have structured and written it slightly differently.

    When I realized that’s how I happened to be approaching the show at that moment, it made me think of this post. But I’m pretty sure that most television viewers don’t watch a TV show that way, which led me to question the suggestion that it’s common for MMO players think from a designer’s standpoint as they play. I honestly have no idea.

    I get the sense that “designer-think” is probably more common in traditional RPGs, but I’m also very aware of the fact that since those are the games I design, I’m more likely to assume that those players are like me.

  11. buzz
    January 8, 2008

    “…but at the end of the day I am getting the distinct impression that 4e is a game, not a tool for telling stories.”

    Novels, TV, and film are tools for telling stories. D&D is a game, as it has always been. It is at it’s best when it embraces this (3e, red box), and at it’s worst when it forgets this (2e).


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