Sandbox #2 – From Tabletop to Desktop

I never cease to be amazed by the timeless quality of pencil and paper role playing games.  Just when I start to ease myself back into my oversized old man armchair, telling tales of the “good old days” of gaming, I am shocked to discover how many people still play Dungeons and Dragons, or Shadowrun, or the White Wolf: The Whatevering du jour.

I mean, it really doesn’t get any more low-def than a blunt pencil and a paper character sheet riddled with erase marks and Mountain Dew stains.  Forget high-poly counts, there are no polygons at all.  No tessellation, no supersampling, no high dynamic range rendering, no slick user interface, and no high dollar celebrity voiceover work (though my friend Jimmy has a great nasal RP accent which alone made any game he DMed worthwhile).  So how is it possible that a game whose engine is built around a series of plastic polyhedral dice can still somehow hold our attention?

As it turns out, tabletop games still own the one critical aspect of immersion that video games haven’t been able to fully duplicate: the gravity of choice.

For those who are unfamiliar with tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), the idea is that you create a character according to a predetermined set of rules, and maneuver that character through a world created by a Dungeon Master (or DM).  This is accomplished primarily through voicing the actions of your character in a distinctive first person simple present narrative tense, as in:

  • I enter the cave.
  • I unsheathe my axe.
  • I cast magic missile… at the darkness!!!
  • I weep at the life choices which have led to yet another dateless night in my buddy’s mom’s basement.
  • And so forth…

The actions of the character are free and pretty much unrestrained, unless they violate some kind of game rule.  “I fly to the next town over,” for example, probably won’t work unless your character has wings, or at least have a flying spell handy.  Otherwise, you are free to behave in whatever way you see fit.  One challenge is obvious: stay alive from the pointy things trying to kill you.

Another challenge is much more subtle, and deals more with the continuity (or lack thereof) between the character you originally create and how you end up playing them.  How does your character respond to a changing game world?  When stressed with crazy situations, does your character stay true to the back story you so carefully constructed for them during the creation process?  Or do they begin to change and evolve into something else entirely?

But perhaps the single greatest challenge (and reward) of a TRPG system is the ephemeral, ever-shifting nature of the game world itself.  As these settings are often generated on the fly by human DMs (other systems more accurately call this person the “storyteller), players don’t just react to the environment – the environment can react to the player.  This means that the decisions made by players can actually change the narrative of the game.

To put it another way, the choices you make as a player have gravity.

It is this interplay between character and environment that is able to single-handedly hold the attention and imagination of tabletop gamers.  It is the reason why games based on this system (Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, Temple of Elemental Evil to name a few) have a certain timeless quality, and continue to be playable despite painfully dated graphics engines.

Nevertheless, gravity of choice is something that is lacking from all but a tiny handful of video games, and even then, it simply can’t compare to a game world masterminded by another human.  True interactivity between player and environment is just not possible in current video game platforms because each response from the environment is carefully coded.  At some level, even the best role playing games boil down to a series of flow charts.  Give player a choice between A, B, and C.  If they pick “A,” they then chose between another set of choices, which may or may not be meaningfully different than if they had chosen “B.”

While these decision trees can be intricately woven and incredibly deep, immersion is broken the instant a player would choose “D” and cannot perform that in the game world.  This is particularly true if the choice is obvious, or realistically should be an option to the player.

But what is a developer to do?  Every option added to the choice tree dramatically increases the development and maintenance costs of producing the game.  At some point, even the strongest financial and manpower assets cannot keep pace with the sheer array of choices a player might make.

So how do you produce a game that sates the voracious appetite gamers have for choice?  We’ll take a look at some sandbox design elements in next month’s column, and answer the question, “what does the end-game of sandbox gameplay look like?”

Until then, keep your d20s cooked, PHB handy, and weekend activities secret.



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