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Q&A: Wickerman explores what tabletop games can teach video game devs

'We think video game developers certainly can learn a lot from tabletop,' say Chris Hardwick and Dan Cordell. They love the 'gray areas' in paper and pencil games that give a DM leeway to improvise.

Chris Hardwick and Dan Cordell met while working on The Witcher 3, and decided to start their own game design studio. The two UK devs launched Wickerman Games with the promise of capturing the sprit of paper and pencil tabletop games they love, like D&D and Shadow. They promise a commitment to explore player freedom, dynamic storytelling, and a transparent design process.

Hardwick and Cordell were nice enough to answer some questions about their new endeavor.

How did you get into tabletop roleplaying and how did that lead you to work on videogames?

Dan: I first got into tabletop games a while back. At first, it was a skirmish game called Mordheim which itself has some RPG-like elements where your characters gain experience between matches. Eventually that lead me onto other Games Workshop games such as 40k and Warhammer itself. I really loved the whole modeling and painting part, and eventually that lead me to become a 3D artist.

When I was around 14 or 15 years old, a friend of mine who I met through this hobby gave me the opportunity to play a game of AD&D. The whole idea was so novel to me that I’ve been playing and running various pen and paper games since. Eventually, with my slowly developing 3D art skills, I worked on a few mods for various games with some friends before I realized that it might be fun to actually do this as a full-time job and in many ways I guess I am where I am thanks to that.

Chris: I had a kind of backwards route into tabletop gaming, I got into playing tabletop because of the video games I played when I was younger. Shining in the Darkness on the Megadrive/Genesis, was the first CRPG I ever played. Then eventually I played numerous other titles on the Amiga and PC. Eye of the Beholder, Megatraveller, and Ultima Underworld soaked up hundreds of hours of my formative years.

"I had a kind of backwards route into tabletop gaming. Shining in the Darkness on the Megadrive was the first CRPG I ever played. "

I was making computer games long before I’d even played a tabletop RPG. Oddly enough, I’d been aware of Dungeons & Dragons since I was a teenager, and I’d soaked up the rules from the Eye of Beholder instruction manual. It was Baldur’s Gate, though, that changed my entire perspective on what role-playing games could be. I’m not ashamed to say that if it hadn’t been for the first Baldur’s Gate game, along with the subsequent Infinity Engine titles that I was playing 16 years ago that completely dragged me back into the world of gaming, I probably wouldn’t be here now. It was that game specifically that inspired me to get back into video games - I’d stopped playing anything at all from the age of about 15 - 18, I was off making music and trying to be “cool.”

It wasn’t until I spent some time in the USA when I was 19 that I actually started getting into pen and paper. A then-girlfriend's stepfather ran an AD&D session, and I started to collect 3rd edition D&D books, which I read obsessively. So at the age of 21, I decided to do a computer science course, as I’d been programming since I was 6, I simply went from there. I ran some sessions when I was at University, and from that point I simply continued to run or play sessions as I was able to.

Tabletop and videogames have a lot in common. Why are they treated as separate entities?

Chris and Dan: We wouldn't say that all genres of videogames were inspired by tabletop games. Certainly RPGs, MUDs [Multi-User Dungeons], text adventures and even point and click games probably were to some degree.

The biggest thing that tabletop and videogames share is that they’re an abstraction of reality, in a pen and paper game you can get relatively close, things just have to make sense in the real world. But teaching that to a computer is a lot harder. We get a lot of the very “videogamey” mechanics being born from that difficulty.

There are a lot of video games designers that have never had any experience with pen and paper games - at least that’s what our experience tell us; there are obviously plenty that have.

Using the infamous “door” example, it's very rare in a videogame that you are able to do much more than pick a lock on a door to bypass it or, more commonly, you need some sort of key. In a pen and paper game, you could do a whole multitude of things ranging from kicking down a door to pouring acid in the lock to even driving a semi-truck through the wall next to it to make another hole. The point being that a game is limited by the mechanics that the designer envisions coupled with the time to implement such a feature, and the fact that natural language processing is incredibly difficult.

In a pen and paper game, you have all the flexibility of what you can imagine and what makes sense from your experience in the real world to draw upon, along with what the game's ruleset allows you to do.

What can videogame developers learn from tabletop? And what are you bringing to the table with Wickerman that we should be excited by? Are you hoping to bridge the gap between the two communities?

Chris and Dan: We think video game developers certainly can learn a lot from tabletop games. They’re often just mathematical abstractions of reality, a certain element of chance is introduced via the die rolls, and usually in a pen and paper game the result of that die roll determines how well the task went. For example, if I rolled a natural 20, the lock basically fell apart in front of me. Perhaps I rolled one less than the target number, but the GM has decided to allow me to open the lock, at the expense of losing my lock picks because they’re now broken.

We’d like to bring this sort of fuzziness into a video game. Typically, when you attempt a skill challenge like this, you either succeed or fail without any of those grey areas in between. What we’d do is take the character's skill into account and generate a minigame based off of that when compared to the target lock, the minigame would introduce player skill, based off the performance of the player in that mini-game, the result would be generated from that. For example, if the player partially succeeds then we’d allow the lock to open, but at the expense of a lock pick, or perhaps some at the loss of some hit-points, indicating the player injured themselves while attempting the lock.

In many ways these are the sorts of things we want to try and bring from tabletop games to videogames, the idea is to layer a lot of these small changes on top of each other across many mechanics.

One mechanic, which has puzzled us for some time, is that an antagonist is usually seeking some sort of implied goal, usually this is just scripted in a way that the “big bad” achieves all of their goals only to be thwarted by the player at the very end. We feel that the Antagonist would be bound by the same rules as the player and should seek a specific goal; it's then down to the player to attempt to intercede. This is the one thing we’re attempting to bring to the table that is new and exciting - you can lose, and not die, and thus have to deal with the consequences.

Ultimately we may or may not manage to bridge the gap between the two communities, that's really for the players to decide. We will never be able to have the flexibility of a pen and paper game, but we can bring a few things over from them that we like, hopefully making a better experience overall.

In your sort-of manifesto for Wickerman you emphasize a "warts and all" approach to transparency during development. It actually puts me in the mind of the sometimes-messy way that a pen and paper roleplaying session unfolds; you stammer, you make mistakes, you burst out laughing, you have to bend the rules or create house rules on the fly in order to make everything work. It seems like a lot of fun; why do you think this is a good way to develop a videogame and how will that affect the role of, say, any community managers you hire?

Chris and Dan: We aren’t really trying to develop the game to be played in the same way a pen and paper game would be played. In our experience, to do so would be to invite madness and the gnashing of teeth usually seen only in a horror flick. But what we do want to do is make a game where these sorts of chaotic things can happen and be considered part of the experience.

When it comes down to it, making games is a really messy process. What we are attempting to show with our “warts and all” development is exactly this. The general public has what we feel is a pretty poor idea of how games are actually developed. In some ways, that's our fault as developers and this is our attempt to redress this.

Sometimes crazy bugs happen during development. In a few of the companies we have worked at, there would be a folder on the network drive with videos and screenshots of all of these bugs - things like buildings having rigid body physics applied to them and character skeletons imploding or using the wrong animation set. Ever seen a person walking like a horse? In many ways we want to show this off because in all honesty, it's pretty funny. But on a practical level we feel it's a good way to keep us honest and allows people, and us to learn from our mistakes which when it comes down to it is the best way to learn anything.

We think that it's certainly possible that this might make a community manager's life difficult by giving the public the wrong impression. But we feel that really it's probably just better to be honest anyway, it helps us sleep at night.

And finally, for fun, name a time when a tabletop gaming session taught you something important about life, the universe, and everything.

Dan: There was a game of Traveller that Chris ran during our time at CDPR, and he had so many people wanting to play that we had to introduce a permadeath hardcore mode to an already notoriously difficult game. If your character died, you sat out the next few sessions until enough people on the list had died and you could come back. There are unspeakable things that happened in that game when people realized it would take several months for them to come back and be able to play. It really invoked a sense of self-preservation above all, and demonstrated to me how far some people were willing to go in character to make sure they would stay alive.

I still have nightmares about what happened.

Chris: Tabletop gaming sessions have taught me a lot about people, and the consequences of their actions when a person is playing with their imagination.

They’ll commit acts that are hideous and unthinkable. I mean, genuinely dark horrible things, mostly - it’s because it’s understood as people playing make believe, and there are no real world consequences. The introduction of a perma-death element to our pen and paper game turned this on its head.

There was genuine upset when people lost their characters because they’d made poor decisions. The amount of distrust that was had towards NPCs often resulted in murder being a viable option, and there was one case of a chainsaw and an alien that still to this day leaves me shocked, appalled and deeply disturbed.

They know who they are; they will never live it down. Oddly I never looked at them the same way afterwards. It really made me think about what could potentially happen if society fell apart, and the extreme lengths that people would go to in order to survive.

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