Designing for the party

(This is the first of what may be a series of highly speculative posts about the future of D&D.)

If you don’t read Mike Mearls’ LiveJournal, you have lately been missing some fascinating debate on the future of D&D. Basically, the elephant in D&D’s living room – World of WarCraft – is being directly addressed by Mearls, Ryan Dancey, and other folks whose attention means, well, rather more than ours does.

We’ve been saying for a while on the podcast that we’re starting to get the fear about a D&D 4th-edition announcement, maybe as soon as next year. So I’d like to toss out an assertion (possibly a false one) and a question.

Assertion: D&D does not have, and has never had, rules that actually use the fact that other people are in the room with you. “You do it with friends” is one of the first things people say when you ask them what tabletop RPGs have over online ones, but let’s think about it: is there anything fundamentally different about the game when it’s just one player and one GM? I mean, when you have a whole party of PCs they can take on bigger challenges and work together tactically, but you can say that about, say, multiplayer cooperative Halo. And I wouldn’t say that multiplayer coop through the same game levels you play in the single-player campaign is a fundamentally different game. Other people are playing alongside you, and it makes a difference, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.

And once you accept that, it’s only a short hop before you ask what the fundamental difference is from the player’s perspective between one-player-one-GM tabletop game and playing a console RPG. Consoles get you combat, although with less flexibility and a totally different UI. They get you story, with not much more railroading than many (perhaps most) GM’ed tabletop campaigns; the better ones even get you diplomacy, but my point is not about quality. You might get a much better experience of a certain kind by playing tabletop, but for a certain very popular set of player desires, the experience is the same kind.

So here’s the question: if having other real live in-the-flesh people at the table with you is a competitive advantage over WoW – and I think it is – how can the next version of the D&D rules take advantage of it instead of just falling back on it as granted? How can tabletop RPG rules actually make the fact of tabletop-ness part of the game itself? How can we ?

(And, of course, those linked entries of Mearls’ have a lot of other great material in them, plus some highly entertaining monkey knife fights in the comments. But let’s please keep this comment thread for discussion of the question above, ‘kay?)


  1. On your most recent Podcast (unless I’m confusing your Podcast with another one) you mentioned “Attack Tiles”, but I cannot find any information on these anywhere. Where can I get more info on them?

  2. Now that’s an interesting question. My take it’s that the inherent difference between TRPG and MMORPG it’s in the fact that, being humans capable of improvising and adapting, TRPG gameplay can be adapted on the fly to the tastes of the group, via interaction between players and GM. 3E ushered a resurgence of “crunch”, and “crunch” can be a good thing, when it’s made to give more power to the players ([i]Spycraft 2.0[/i] springs to mind). To complete the interaction toolbox, I’d say that 4E need to codify the “fudging” it normally occurs at the gaming table – “crunch the fudge”, if you want. 🙂

  3. To me, the fundamental difference between on-line games and face-to-face RPGs is that while on-line allows for much faster, pick-up-and-go games, I do have to suffer through an endless swamp of foul-mouthed, racist, assholes (most of whom appear to be teenagers, but I single out no particular demographic).

    To be fair, I usually play shooters and not full-tilt RPGs like WoW, but I understand that the situation is only marginally better.

    Even playing a game co-op or competitively with people in the room with you produces a better experience because you won’t be an annoymous jerk to someone who’s sitting right there with you (and who is presumably a friend of some kind).

    There are a lot of hassles to having a sit down game with friends, but the quality of play is usually so much better.

  4. Dungeons don’t reset.

    One thing that a MMORPG can’t offer over a tabletop version is that feeling that your actions have meaningful and long lasting consequences.

    Something that is not possible when, in order to accomodate the next group of players, the entire setting resets itself to default every five minutes or so.

  5. Novembre: Improvisability is another key advantage that D&D takes for granted, when it could purposefully exploit it to much greater effect. That’s next in the series. STAY WITH THE TOUR GROUP DAMMIT 😉

    Tom: Trolls are a solvable problem, given good blocking software and the will to deal with it on the part of developers. In fact, online games arguably deal with racists and griefers better than tabletop RPGers deal with our own forms of grief players.

    AllanS: let me ask you this. When you play D&D, how do the other players at the table affect your sense of making a change in the imagined world? Would you still have that sense if it was just you and the DM?

  6. Some of us want less “crunch” and like the “fudging” especially when all the crunch gets in the way of telling a story or actualizing your concepts that happen to not be “rules-kosher.”

  7. Please correct me if I am wrong, cause I have a tendency to skim when comments get super deep, but one of the things I feel like I am missing in Mearle’s post is the “endgame” aspect (no pun intended) of the MMORPG. I was _deep_ into WoW, like real deep, Playing 3+ hours a night, and more like 5+ if I could get away with it. I love the game. It really fills that need in me to collect stuff, cause I really feel thats all the game is about in the end. Many of you are going to dismiss that…but sorry, in the end, that’s what it is all about. I would raid Strat (an instance dungeon) that my guild could do in about 45 mins, up to 3 or 4 times a night to get the pants for my armor set. It wasn’t about role-playing, and it did not fill my cup full of creative juice…but damn it if I wasn’t going to get those pants. So, back to the endgame. Where I feel a lot of these arguments fall apart is when you get past level 60 in the game (maybe level 70 here soon enough). I really started running out of things I could do unless I was lucky enough to find the right people who had the same thing they needed to collect. At times that was guild members showing pity on the poor Warlock, other times I was in that position of blowing 3 hours trying to get someone that cool hat. I think there is a big myth that there is someone always out there to play with, cause I can tell you right here and now, I went several days not being able to work an instance because there was a general lack of interest by those in the guild and/or those on the server. The endgame on WoW is perhaps it’s biggest detractor…you just run out of stuff to do. Blizzard knows that, and hence the lvl 60 cap may be a lvl 70 cap here…but in the end, you are driving towards the same eventuality. Capped out, and hunting for more items in multi-person instances that may or may not drop “your” prize. So, when you think about it, while Pen and Paper has their own draw backs, and interpersonal drama…MMORPGs do as well, but just of a different nature.

  8. Of course I forgot to mention this: MMORPG alone is perhaps an incorrect title. While it is certainly Massive, multiplayer, and online..I am still not certain if I would consider it a Role-playing game. Maybe it’s my bias towards believeing role-playing involves you taking the role of a character, and then acting it out…stretching yourself beyond how you would react to something, and taking it to the next step of how your CHARACTER would react. These games don’t really encourage or foster that. Unless of course you count the 3 million time you hear “Alliance is TEH SUCK!” on the shout channel…

  9. I’m gonna leave this thread open for general MMORPG vs. TRPG discussion, and open a new thread for my specific question.

  10. “AllanS: let me ask you this. When you play D&D, how do the other players at the table affect your sense of making a change in the imagined world? Would you still have that sense if it was just you and the DM?”

    Well – for one thing, the idea of a game with just me and the GM … kinda gives me the willies. 🙂

    In terms of group play – the strongest advantage is of course the cameraderie. But in terms of impacting the game world, the group is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The group dynamic can feed off of each other’s ideas and take things in a whole new direction.

    While this may happen in a MMORPG, this can only really pay out unlimited potential of a human run game – where the GM can react to something not pre-programmed.

  11. I think it all comes down to communication.

    When I play WoW or GuildWars I can hardly ever type fast enough to get what I want across to the party. Even with a voice chat program you lose lots of layers of communication. And /emotes don’t count.

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