By Nelson Schneider - 10/21/12 at 04:42 PM CT
Way back in 1999, I got my first real taste of what Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to be like. Despite the fact that I had been playing the tabletop RPG (or some conglomeration of D&D mythology slapped onto another game, like HeroQuest) since 1991, the overwhelming rules system and library of rulebooks involved always bogged things down. Back in the AD&D 2nd Edition era, despite all the rules, there was no codified set of rules relating to character balance, which lead every game run by an inexperienced Dungeon Master for inexperienced players down the path of Munchkinism or Monty Haul. It was only by pushing all of the rules into the background and forcing the story campaign into a solid framework with balanced distribution of experience and treasure that the game was really able to come to life. And while there had been myriad D&D-based videogames prior to 1999, like the horrendous Gold Box Series, none of them were able to successfully bridge the gulf between videogame RPGs and pen & paper RPGs like “Baldur’s Gate.”
“Baldur’s Gate” captured the mythos, the combat, the loot min/maxing, and party-based strategy of D&D in the Forgotten Realms perfectly. It was like playing a campaign run by the most perfectly-prepared and capable Dungeon Master ever. The game never got sidetracked. Characters didn’t become overpowered. It provided the model upon which I have tried to base all of the games I have Dungeon Mastered since.
Yet “Baldur’s Gate” and the other Infinity Engine games were lacking something that real D&D possessed. Characters were never allowed to get creative in their class builds. The exploration was limited in scope to areas and encounters that were relevant to the story. The dice rolls were always accepted without question, even if it meant the entire party getting wiped out due to bad luck. What was missing from these games was the flexible human mind of a Dungeon Master, which became more and more evident to me as I ran tabletop games. The wide-open unruliness and flexibility of the game was what made it so great: Instead of a game of tactical battles and dialog trees, real D&D is collaborative storytelling with a mix of tactical and abstract combat.
Seemingly, BioWare realized the need for a human mind behind the game as well, because in 2002 they released “Neverwinter Nights.” While “Neverwinter Nights” was still basically the same thing as “Baldur’s Gate” as a single-player experience, the multi-player experience allowed for one player to take on the role of an active Dungeon Master to adjust enemy encounters, treasure, and other game variables on-the-fly. Regrettably, I never had the chance to experience an actively-Dungeon-Mastered game of “Neverwinter Nights,” as I was in college at the time, I still had dial-up as my sole Internet option, and my old pen & paper group had disbanded. Thus I was left to experience the horror of automated custom adventure modules in “Neverwinter Nights.” Not only were custom modules incredibly frustrating and time consuming to create, they were prone to be buggy and nearly as unbalanced as the tabletop games I experienced as a beginner.
Of course, “Neverwinter Nights” was just an attempt to add a graphical user interface and computer-automated rules to something that had been going on for years before: long-distance D&D. While I first read about it on an ancient website called WebRPG, apparently groups of people had been playing D&D by mail, e-mail, message board post, and instant message for as long as the game and those technologies had co-existed. But I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing: I get frustrated in my current D&D campaign when a single battle takes two hours. I can’t imagine a single combat taking two months, especially without any kind of visual representation or instant feedback from fellow players… And THAT is the crux of the failure of any D&D game to truly represent real D&D: It is a social game. It revolves around everyone visualizing the same thing based on a description by the Dungeon Master and a layout of tokens, miniatures, etc. on the table. It feeds on instant feedback and the ability of the Dungeon Master to wing it when the situation requires it, fudge dice rolls when the situation requires it, and to hand-wave things that would bog-down an AI Dungeon Master.
The solution D&D players are looking for is a way to make tabletop D&D more like a videogame as well as a way to make D&D videogames more like a tabletop experience. We don’t need Wizards of the Coast to change the rules to make the game more like “World of Warcraft,” as the open-source D20 System is incredibly flexible and easy to tweak. What we need is for some game developer to create an asynchronous multi-player framework that allows for easy creation of environments and encounters, easy customization, and rules consolidation/lookup. When Microsoft first announced the Surface Coffee Table (not the Surface Tablet), D&D nerds were excited by the potential of the table to dynamically show environments, player characters, enemies, etc. while automating the combat rules in the style of a videogame. Of course, even the wealthiest D&D nerds balked at the idea of spending over $10,000 on hardware without even the promise of such a game framework being developed. Now that the magic coffee table has been redubbed PixelSense and is being made by Samsung for a mere $7,600, there is still no hint of game-changing software in sight. Indeed, Microsoft, and everyone else for that matter, seem to be obsessed with portable tablet PCs, leaving our coffee table dreams in the dust.
But wait! Tablets… asynchronous local multi-player… where have we seen those buzzwords recently… How about the WiiU? With a tablety controller in hand, it would be simple for someone to act as a Dungeon Master for a group of one-to-four others controlling their characters on a shared screen via Wiimotes. Dragging and dropping pre-created environmental tiles to create the game world, populating it with enemies (that could be customized and saved as user-modified objects), and handing out loot would be simple. The game would keep track of all the modifiers and dice rolls (though the Dungeon Master player would always have the final say), eliminating much of the need for a shelf of rulebooks with disparate tidbits of information scattered throughout. While, ultimately, this system would work better if the WiiU supported 5 tablety controllers, thus allowing each player to constantly view their character sheet, the prospect of any kind of WiiU-enhanced D&D is thrilling.
Eliminating the rules burden while simultaneously eliminating the inflexibility of AI would create a D&D experience that would be the best of both the pen & paper and videogame worlds. Yet, sadly, I haven’t seen nor heard anything official from anyone affiliated with the D&D license. Hasbro, after buying Wizards of the Coast, never really seemed to have any idea what to do with the D&D franchise. Now that they have taken the videogame rights back from Atari (delenda est), I don’t expect any new D&D games to appear anytime soon. Wizards of the Coast, after selling themselves like a brothel of cheap whores to Hasbro, has worked hard to mess everything up. Currently, Wizards is trying to save face after the D&D 4th Edition fiasco by making something called ‘D&D Next.’ It could be good, it could end in tears, but it won’t be a videogame. Paizo, the inheritors of the D20 System, have rejuvenated 3.5rd Edition into the spectacular (and backwards compatible) Pathfinder tabletop game, and are currently working on a thing called “Paizo Game Space,” which is a step in the right direction, but only includes the mapping portion of my proposed WiiU game, leaving the rules to be hashed-out old-school-style by thumbing through hundreds of pages (it’s also browser-based and free to play… which is dubious). While it looks like Paizo is the only one of these companies facing the right direction with regard to videogames (much like they are the only company facing the right direction with the tabletop rules), the fact that they only have access to the open source content means that, even if they took my idea and made “Pathfinder WiiU,” they could only include the nuts and bolts of the game mechanics, leaving out all of the great classic TSR D&D settings in favor of Pathfinder’s world of Golarion (or, hopefully, just generic Fantasy).
At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I started playing D&D before it was cool. Now that it is cool, there’s no excuse for companies to continually half-ass the videogame license for this venerable franchise. BioWare had the right idea back in 2002, but the technology wasn’t there. Now that we have the gadgets to make a stellar single/multi/asynchronous D&D videogame, the only thing blocking the path is licensing issues.