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Video Game RPGs Should Start Borrowing From Tabletop's Creative Renaissance

Early games borrowed wholecloth systems from tabletop RPGs, but now they should borrow from the design principles guiding the current vibrant TTRPG scene.

by Ricardo Contreras
Nov 5 2019, 9:48pm

Image courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment

For as long as both existed, tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs have been in a cycle of borrowing from each other. From early games like Wizardy, to the more recent Pillars of Eternity, computer RPGs have followed a design ethos that closely followed the systems of Dungeons and Dragons. This ethos is simple: the more choices, and as such more systems, you give a player, the more immersed they will be. Even now, games with RPG elements like the Fallout series and The Outer Worlds still fall into this design, even if they're much simpler when compared to some of the foundational games in the genre.

However, the tabletop gaming space currently finds itself in a moment where new games are being made that eschew a tradition where a myriad of systems is the ultimate driver of design, to one where storytelling and less structured modes of play take center stage. Now, there is an ever widening variety from tabletop games, some with highly detailed systems that border on simulation and games with rules that fill a single page.

Maybe it's time computer RPGs and video games in general take another page from tabletop games? We discuss this and much more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.

Rob: I was getting into the conversation with Emanuel the other day, about encumbrance and how games deploy it. Why sometimes it feels totally pointless, and other times the game wouldn't be the same without it. But it got me thinking about how so much of what informs your bog-standard RPG goes back to RPG systems like Dungeons and Dragons, or GURPS, or stuff that had really familiar language and mechanics and ideas that we return to again and again. In D&D, one of the first things you do, as part of specing out your character, you have your first hypothetical shopping run. Where [you figure out] "what my character has to begin the game." And you go and you look up the cost of different goods and you complete your character's kit and you're done.

And there's this idea that the merchant will continue to be a thing in D&D, but in practice every D&D campaign rapidly begins to render all that shopping basically moot, unless you have a DM who's really being a stickler and wants to run a survival-sim D&D campaign. But nobody that I've ever played with, and no game I've ever run, has really followed that rule. Your party generally has what it needs, it has the food, it has a camping equipment, you can travel. These are not interesting obstacles for your party to solve unless for some story reason it needs to be there.

I feel like so much of computer game RPG design is badly in need of some of the revolutions we've seen in tabletop RPG design. Where you start with thinking "what's the type of story I want to tell?" Is it psychological horror like Dread? Do I want to create a system that creates a situation where the dilemma has now become psychological? What your character ate for dinner—who gives a shit? What weapon you're kitted out with? That's not really useful. What you're fighting you can't just shoot right? That's not the interesting dilemma here.

We now have a tabletop space where all these different RPG systems that, to greater or lesser extent, succeed in trying to mechanize different types of conflict and storytelling and different sorts of trials that a party or character can face. If you go to the computer RPG section, everything is still very much in that D&D model of, whether or not it's material to the point, there's gonna be a fucking shop. And if there's gonna be a shop there's going to be a currency, and there's going to be loot.

And even if the campaign structured so that you never need the shop, and Outer Worlds I argue is structured that way—if you do the quest you will have the weapons you need, you will have whatever food and health items, you will get everything you need just by going on the critical path. Nevertheless, there's all these systems dangling off that feel vestigial.

Austin: It's so funny, because on one hand I want to be the person who advocates for, or who says the thing that fits me best is the almost excessive amount of side systems in the Elder Scrolls and the Bethesda Fallout games because they produce a certain sort of effect. That effect is effective, it's just about a feeling deep deep in me. Like it's not even like a thing I want to put in an argument and say is good game design.

But it is about like "wow, there's a whole system for crafting spells in in Morrowind" I can like become a person who does that or I can be over here and be someone who does this completely other thing with Alchemy, and that stuff does produce a certain effect. And that is also coming out of that same heritage and same legacy, Rob. Of tabletop game design that is just like "got to write a new spellbook, got to write a hundred and twenty page book of new mechanics so that we can keep moving product before we release the new full edition of the game. We want some way to spice up stuff at the table!" And it comes out of that stuff. So it's on one hand, I'm like countering that and saying "no, I want more excessive shit. I want to feel like I could take any one of these different character paths."

But on the other hand I think you're exactly right in terms of what should be happening in the video game RPG space, but also in video games in general. The tabletop game scene, the RPG space especially, is so vibrant right now in exactly the way you talked about. In looking at what is it we want players to do. What is the primary verb we want players to do, what is the type of experience we want to give them. Dread is a fantastic example of a way to play a horror game where you don't look down at your sheet and go "well, how many points do I have in science, while I'm doing this science check."

Rob: How many dream bullets?

Austin: Exactly. And let me tell you, if you want to play the dream bullets game there are games out there that have been better for that. If you want to play the encumbrance game you can go play Torchbearer, a game I've talked about before. Disclosure: the writer of Torchbearer and I are extremely close friends and roommates. This is not a shill for that and and also disclosure that front. But Torchbearer is like an inheritor of that style of D&D encumbrance focused stuff, that actually encourages you in and enables you to play a game in which that stuff is handled not just well, but like as a source of drama and and as a source of interesting dynamic play at the actual table.

The tabletop space is filled with people who are making stuff that starts at "let me make a game about blank," instead of "where is a market white space." Let me really sit down and craft stuff. And to be clear, we could make a tabletop role-playing game today, on this call, it will be something functional maybe not something someone wants to spend 30, 40, 50, 60 bucks on. But we could come up with an interesting mechanic about something and prototype it very cheaply. I think that's part of why there is so much interesting development in that space.

But I would love to see more of that filter into the world of game video games. Obviously, I will say again, Disco Elysium is something is very clearly inspired by the tabletop role-playing game space, down to the dice showing up on screen, down to them explain their dice mechanic in blogs and blah blah blah. And in enabling the sort of interactions and I'm talking about around different ways of placing yourself in the world and having your background open up possibilities. Instead of it all basically coming down to "did you get the headshot or not?"

Or again, in Outer Worlds it's not even did you get the headshot or not, it's like "did you have either intimidate, lie, or persuade?" They all get you to the same place. And if not, do you have a gun equipped? Cause if you do you're going to be fine.

Rob: Right, and I think the other thing that makes it tough to be a game like Outer Worlds, and maybe this is not a thing I should be taking with me into the experience of playing it, nevertheless it's there, [but] a lot of immersive sims also began to blur the lines with RPGs, right? Now one of thing one of the reasons Prey ends up falling apart a little bit is because it is such an RPG that you basically become so systematically overpowered by the end of it that the tension steadily drips out of the experience.

But nevertheless we've played a lot of different versions of games that do stealth well, games that deploy RPG type mechanics to do stealth well. And this is not a new development. If you go back to one of the most famous levels in games, The Liberty Island mission from Deus Ex, [it] sort of begins with that "here are multiple approaches to solving this problem." There's a really elaborate stealth path you can take, there's direct assault.

And to then play a game like The Outer Worlds, where stealth exists as a boring option, right? You will just be less observable to guards who already really have his narrow cone of awareness. You can basically brush past them even without good stealth stats. And your reward for being good and stealthy is basically just being able to walk past this guard who's completely oblivious, go to the door that has the high lockpick check, open the door go get the thing. And that's your reward, that's how that system works.

Patrick: And you get less experience for it. You might as well actually just kill all the guards because–

Austin: That's what I'm saying.

Rob: What you really end up doing is you kill the guards, you unlock the lock you steal all the shit, you talk to whoever is left talk to, that's how it ends up working. But I think where the where The Outer Worlds is at its best, it's a game about coming into a series of conflicts and trying to both figure out what does conflicts are actually about, and then trying to figure out some kind of resolution and figure out how each resolution is going to harm people. That's where the game is at it's best, that's where it's at its most interesting, and everything else is cruft.

And I think I would feel very differently about The Outer Worlds if, to take the Edgewater zone as an example, there were way less killing Marauders—"They're not even people"—if there were way less of killing Marauders and there were way more of "Why does Reed seem guilty and ashamed when he talks about the breakaway faction?" That's where the game sings, but then it's like "I guess we got to have a stealth path, so put a back door on everything." And I think that's why so much of the experience falls flat.

Austin: I think it had to double commit in one of those two directions, right? Either be the excessive janky thing that has systems bolted on to create the sense of Immersion that is like almost overwhelming with with like what you can do, the Fallout 4 system of like hey, maybe you know what? Maybe you're not going to want to engage with building a farm but someone out there was going to and that's going to mean the world to them. Or continue to cut down into what like the most interesting stuff is.

Also I wish there were more quests that were fundamentally like "hey, here is an actually novel decision to make that is not just between mustache-twirling bad and the lesser of two evils good." You know, give me RPG that have questions that are between things that both of which seem like they have their place. Not just like "got to hear both sides." And the game does this in a few key places. I'm not saying it never does it at all. I think it does do it here and there and when it does it is it's most successful.


Discussed: Ring Fit Adventure 15:05, Final Fantasy XIV 33:07, Nier: Automata 52:06, The Outer Worlds 56:24, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat 1:21:01, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order 1:29:42, Blizzcon 1:47:45

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