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The 4th Edition of the seminal pen & paper RPG Dungeons & Dragons has just debuted - but why should game developers care? THQ veteran Tom Smith explains what video games can learn - or even 'borrow' - from D&D's evolution.

Tom Smith, Blogger

June 12, 2008

22 Min Read

[The 4th Edition of the seminal pen & paper RPG Dungeons & Dragons has just debuted - but why should game developers care? THQ veteran Tom Smith explains what video games can learn from D&D's evolution.]

A new edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) came out last Friday -- three books of great ideas that the video game industry can work with. Taking ideas from pen and paper games, and D&D in particular, is a proud tradition that has served video games well over the years.

Hit points? 'Borrowed'. Character classes? Gygax and Arneson were there first. Gaining power through Experience Points and levels? Ruthlessly swiped. This article provides suggestions for inspiration game developers can take from the series - or, if you're being cute, 'epic thievery'. Oh, and the term "epic"? D&D used it first.

You Have Your Math, D&D Has The Math

So what is the 4th Edition? Basically, it takes the D&D ruleset further down the road of standardization and simplification that began with 3rd edition. D&D's first two editions were teeming with different rules and charts and systems, so that no one part of the game integrated easily with any other. The 3rd tried to turn these micro-systems and exceptions into a true systems design, with coherent themes and structures. The 4th continues this trend.

For example, both player and monster stats are now standardized. Regardless of what class or creature, its core numbers (HP, attack, damage, etc.) progress in a regular way as it gains power.

There are plenty of exceptions to these rules, but for the first time, there is a clear baseline from which all the exceptions deviate. And that baseline is designed with some thought behind the numbers, to keep the die rolls interesting at all levels of player power. And all of this math is exposed to the player, making it easy for D&D's vibrant mod community (i.e., every Dungeon Master, or DM) to create new monsters or powers and trust that they'll fit the overall game balance.

All classes have a simple fixed list of powers that they can use over and over again, giving each class a similar range of abilities even if the abilities themselves are diverse and flavorful. Wizards don't memorize spells from a big list any more, and fighters can do more than "attack with the same weapon again".

Much of this standardization is probably familiar to video game designers -- MMOs like World of Warcraft have provided plenty of examples of this sort of standardized system before, where fighter sword swings and wizard spells are both treated as a button click followed by an animation and damage.

The D&D designers did a good job of taking ideas from video games that help their game work better without overly diluting the unique feel of their game. Hopefully we can prove as competent at returning those influences as they were.

The Value of Taking

Deriving ideas is an important skill that game developers need to develop. There are no new ideas, so all creativity comes down to creative and judicious taking. Often, it's tempting to just take the outer expression of an idea. But copying a single interesting enemy or character concept by itself without incorporating the underlying ideas can wreak havoc on a design.

That enemy may only work in conjunction with that game's style of player attacks, or spawn strategy, or AI. To take well, it is necessary to truly understand the thing to be stolen. Once understood, it's possible to derive the idea rather than just the implementation. Take the soul, not the shell. Then twist the soul to subvert it to the game's vision.

As such, the remainder of this article covers some of the core ideas of 4th edition D&D that are potentially applicable to video games. Some reinforce known best practices, while some point to new design space that could prove fertile for new game ideas.

Either way, borrow carefully. Make sure these ideas fit the game's vision. Play D&D a bit to see how they actually work in practice instead of just taking my word for it. Play some other RPGs to see if they have better ideas to derive form. Don't just grab the outer shell and forsake the rich intellectual goodness inside.

Non-Combat Fun

One of the inspiration-worthy new ideas in 4E is the skill challenge. Technically it's not very new, since clever DMs have been doing similar things for years, but this time it's clearly defined and encouraged in the main rule set.

Basically, a skill challenge is a defined moment when players need to succeed in a series of skill checks to achieve a result. Certain types of skills are encouraged, but players can come up with creative ways to use any of the 17 core skills.

So if the main challenge is escaping from the city guards, players are encouraged to use Athletics to run or Perception to find a shortcut, but if a player with the History skill wants to try to remember a story from their books about how the king escaped 100 years ago, the DM is encouraged to let him roll for it.

This may sound like the same skill checks that RPG games have encouraged for years, but there are some subtle differences that make this iteration feel natural.

How does it work? First, the skill challenge defines a clear moment in time in which skills matter. When the DM tells the players that a skill challenge has begun, they know what to do.

They don't have to wander around the world talking to all the NPCs or trying to manipulate every object the DM mentions -- the moment is presented to them, and they can be creative within that box.

Published modules can define discrete skill challenges as a way to structure to that annoying time between combats.

When the moment starts, every player is involved in an easy-to-understand way. Every player can check their character sheet to see which skills are likely to apply. Skill challenges generally incorporate familiar activities (talking, climbing, escaping, etc.) so players can make educated guesses on which skills to use.

Even if they don't have any obvious skills, they can start brainstorming creative uses for their other skills. And the DM is encouraged to reward creativity by allowing outside-of-the-box ideas to roll for success.

The math helps here, too, as all players get flat bonuses to all skills as they gain levels, so everyone is at least vaguely competitive in all skills, unlike previous editions where rolling an untrained skill was a guaranteed failure.

This structure doesn't adapt perfectly to video games. Creativity is hard to code for, so allowing players to make up solutions on the spot is not really possible when code takes the place of a DM.

On the other hand, this structure takes the infinite expanse of non-combat interactions and boils them all down to 17 skills. Seventeen is easier to code than infinity.

A video game could recreate the basic concept by having skill actions which are used in certain situations, and giving each one a positive, neutral, or negative effect based on each challenge situation.

But that's borrowing the shell, not the soul, and still means up to 17 times the content. Taking the soul in this case means setting up clear non-combat moments when the player has a set of tools he knows how to use, and giving each of those tools a meaningful result.

A good non-combat design should provide a clear context in which it encourages the use of certain tools, but rewards use of non-suggested tools in some cases. If players are in a climbing moment, but try to use their attack to destroy a wall instead of climbing over it, it shouldn't work every time, but it should work occasionally.

Sure, this may require building content that players might never see, but the players who do see that content will appreciate the game for it. And if done carefully, interesting non-combat encounters can be built out of the same tools as normal play, making the cost much lower. Careful construction of non-combat moments can make them as fun and interesting as combat.

Player-Driven Recovery

Healing in 4E is handled very differently than previous editions. The old system required players to either use magic items to heal, or rely on the priest to spent his actions casting spells. This meant that the cleric spent most of their time healing others rather than directly affecting things.

The new system gives all players "healing surges" that they can use once per encounter to regain one quarter of their health.

And the healing classes (there are now two: cleric and warlord) can heal and attack on the same turn or even as part of the same action, so they can provide a meaningful attack presence while also helping others.

One of the nice results of this system is that all players have a hand in healing. Using a Healing Surge is a conscious decision the player makes that aids his character. Everyone feels involved, and healing is something the players do, not something others do to them.

This also has the side benefit of making it feel like the player's fault when it goes wrong: "I should have used a healing surge" rather than "How come the game didn't heal me faster?" The lesson here is that healing doesn't have to be a background passive action. Give the player inputs, and he becomes more involved.

For most video games, directly adapting healing surges wouldn't be the best idea. Variants of this have worked in some cases: health packs in many games were basically a stolen version of healing potions.

But as health packs show, it can be difficult to manage health as a resource while worrying about five other thing in real-time.

That's where the healing classes can provide some additional inspiration -- having player attacks that alter healing rates as a side effect could be interesting in a variety of games, especially cooperative ones.

Give the player ways to alter his healing, but without adding new actions that could overload the process.

Location-Based Combat

D&D has always been about the monsters. But there's a dungeon in there with the dragons, which often gets neglected. And while the sense of place depends highly on the individual DMs setting up interesting encounters, the new edition provides tools to make it easier to craft unique encounters that are more than just monsters.

Terrain rules are clear and simple, and include many examples of interesting magical terrain with solid gameplay effects. But traps are where the DM has the most control of the combat space.

Traps get more attention in 4E, with the intent of integrating traps within a combat encounter. The character doesn't disable the poison darts in one room and fight the kobolds in the next -- they're all in the same room.

Traps are designed to be recurring dangers that threaten players and monsters with a variety of effects during combat.

And many of the new special powers, for player characters and monsters both, involve pushing each other around the room, giving all those traps and other danger zones interesting strategic roles. A good DM can quickly set up different rooms that create dramatically different combat experiences.

For video game designers who want to derive from this feature, be careful. Throwing in a river of lava or two alone isn't going to cut it. The player needs meaningful ways to interact with space and move both himself and others around if the terrain is really going to matter.

If the player can't push orcs into the lava, the lava isn't going to add much fun. Even then, just adding in some physics motion is not enough -- it needs to have recognized and easily understandable gameplay effects.

If pushing follows actual physics, it's going to be hard for the player to know how it works -- instead, make pushing a gameplay system so the player always knows he can push small enemies a certain distance, and larger enemies a different distance. D&D powers are all universal, even when they don't make sense.

For example, a rules question on a forum asked if Gelatinous Cubes could be knocked prone, and what that would look like. The answer: just treat them the same as anyone else who is prone, even if the character can't see a difference -- gameplay system trumps reality.

Even with intuitive player inputs into the system, the system can become tedious if all the player can do is knock things into lava. Just like with monsters, there must be enough depth in the trap/hazard system to populate multiple encounters. Movement mechanics should be as varied and well paced as combat mechanics, giving players multiple different ways to use these new abilities.

Allow allies to knock each other out of the way of incoming boulders. Set up enemy abilities that buff each other within a limited range so the player is rewarded if he can separate them. Have the combat system provide an interesting response to prone enemies, and double reward knocking enemies into each other. Fit everything together into a clear systems design, then build enough content to support it from start to finish.

Team Builds

Synergy is not a new idea, but it's well executed in 4E. Rogues like to position themselves around enemies, and Warlords and other classes like to move allies around. Multiple classes (Warlord, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin) have multiple powers that directly aid and abet their allies.

Many class powers react to states that other classes are good at creating. Already, people are not only posting character builds on the forums, but also posting team builds, utilizing synergies from multiple characters working together.

One key concept that 4E uses to make this work is setting up most team abilities so that they do more than just help others. Players like to do things. Helping others works better as a side effect of an attack than its own action. I enjoy playing a healer in an MMO, and spending all my time concentrating on the micro-spreadsheet of allies' health, but I'm the exception rather than the rule.

Adapting this rule from a turn-based pen-and-paper game to a real-time electronic game requires some simplification -- picking an ally to target in the middle of an attack isn't exactly streamlined. But that's may have a simple fix -- target the nearest ally or build the game around a limited number of wingmen, for example.

And don't forget to carefully parcel out the abilities so that each class provides something that the other classes can't get by themselves. If the Rogue could position himself perfectly by himself, he wouldn't need the Warlord's help.

Hold off on some good abilities to make allies really matter. Single-player games get less benefit from this, but even single-player games often include support NPCs. And for MMOs or cooperative gameplay, anything that encourages players to support each other is critical.

Warlords and Dragons and Devils, Oh My!

Beyond the core changes, every edition has its quirks, the changes to basic options that define the feel of that edition. These are important to recognize, as they are likely to shift the baseline perception of fantasy gaming for this generation of gamers.

Warlords are a new class that focus on bringing out the best from other characters. Dragonkin are a new core race that puts the dragons back in Dungeons & Dragons. Tieflings are another new core race with demonic origins.

To make room for these additions, druids, monks, gnomes and a few other classes and races from previous editions are out. At least for now -- D&D makes its money on putting out new books, so expect all the old content to be back soon.

The core books are not set in a particular setting like previous books have with Greyhawk, but instead are in a generic "points of light" setting. The basic structure is defined -- a few small civilized clusters surrounded by danger on all sides -- but the DM is intended to fill in the details and make the world his own. This is a good example of a simplified game world built to serve the needs of the player. The story is in the service of the gameplay.

The setting and the core content are good to know, but aren't really suggested topics for thievery. Deriving content without understanding the underlying logic is too easy. And coming up with new settings is generally well worth the effort. But keep an eye out for games with an abundance of dragon-people and devil-people for no good reason, as it's a good sign that they might be jumping on the newest fantasy bandwagons.

Focused Content

The previous edition of D&D approached many problems from a simulationist perspective. It tried to come up with coherent rules for the game universe and apply them consistently. So if players gained class levels, then monsters and NPCs should do the same.

This can create interesting situations, but at the cost of added complexity. Creating an interesting encounter in 3rd edition can take hours, as the DM has to choose creatures, adjust their level and class, and research different spell-like abilities spread across multiple books, with no guarantee of ending up with something fun. Simulation gets in the way of gameplay.

So 4E throws the simulation idea out the window -- to create a new type of monster, just set the base values as determined by the math, and create a few unique powers. Or even better, take those powers from other monsters and reskin them with a new appearance. Don't worry about non-combat abilities for most monsters -- only design the parts of the monsters and NPCs that matter.

Since most monsters are on-screen only long enough to take a few swings at the players and then die, that's what they should be designed to do. Unless it's the big boss, just give each monster two or three interesting attacks at most. Leave the non-combat design to the individual DM's world.

Fourth edition really focuses on designing content to do what it needs to, and nothing else. Develop a clear vision for each piece of content, then cut away everything that doesn't serve that goal.

The same simulation urge runs in many game developers. Fight this urge. Some artists want their models to be perfect, adding finger joints even when the character will never be close enough to the camera to see his hands, much less fingers.

Some programmers like to model physics when simple rules are more fun. And designers may find detailed character backstories interesting, but that doesn't mean the backstory needs to be explained in a massive cutscene.

In each of these cases, the urge for simulation is at odds with the player's needs. And with game development, anything that is not directly serving the player is just wasted development effort.

Detail is only useful when it aids the game. As with D&D, most enemies are only on the screen for a few seconds. They only need enough actions to support that brief time, and nothing else.

Instead of adding detailed situational AI or extra animations that the player won't notice, focus on the one or two unique things that make that enemy stand out. And make those few things shine for the time the enemy is actually on screen.

What concepts does this enemy teach the player? What will the player remember later? Design around that. If the enemy appears over and over again throughout the game, make sure they do something different every now and then for variety, but don't add details just for detail's sake. Design for fun rather than simulation.

Flexible Systems

One of the bigger mechanical changes in 4E is Saving Throws. Rather than treat it as a unique mechanic onto itself as previous editions did, it's been combined into the standard defense mechanism. So Reflex, Fortitude and Will are just different flavors of Armor Class, providing four different defense stats that all work the same way.

Whenever a character does anything attack-like, whether swinging a sword, breathing fire, or subverting someone's mind, the player rolls an attack against one of these defense stats. And these numbers scale up like everything else.

This is a good example of a standardized system that allows easy adaptability. If the DM wants to invent a new monster attack, or a new trap, or even improvise a new action in the middle of a game, it's fairly easy to determine how to resolve it. Generally, roll an attack or ability and compare it to one of these defenses.

Having four defense stats means it's easy to generate attacks that feel unique and different but operate on the same basis mechanically. And by exposing the underlying math, a good DM knows how to generate unique content for each encounter and to adjudicate when something strange comes up, which it usually does.

This doesn't all translate directly to video games, since we lack a DM at the table to interpret these rules real-time, but it does give some good guidelines for feature and content design. Create systems with enough flexibility to cover a wide range of real situations.

Make sure the mechanics emphasize the differences between situations rather than flattening them all out to be the same -- in this example, every player has different values for each of the four defenses, so an easy way to vary encounters is to focus on different defenses.

And finally, set up content to take advantage of those mechanics. The published 4E monsters seem to do a good job of this -- there are a range of basic abilities, and a range of exceptions built around the framework of these base mechanics. And the one published adventure does a decent job of mixing things up at the encounter level.

The Dungeon Master's Guide has a section on "Actions the Rules Don't Cover". One example there is a player who wants to swing from a chandelier to push an ogre into a fire. It's a fitting and interesting idea, perfect for the cinematic action style of most D&D games. But there are no core rules for it.

The book encourages the DM to improvise, giving a skill check (Acrobatics against the standard Easy Difficulty Check, provided in a chart) for grabbing on and swinging, and an attack (Strength versus Fortitude) to knock him back. The systems that are already set up make it easy to see what numbers to use for each of these.

Let's transpose this example into a game space. Let's say you're working on an action game and you're about halfway done. You've already got a location built, and someone on the team notices the chandelier and asks if the player can swing from it.

Can the game adapt easily to this idea? How difficult would it be to throw together a rough implementation of chandelier-swinging? If the character already has a diverse suite of abilities that include a jump and an action button (which works mid-air), it might be feasible.

But behind the scenes, you also need to know how generous that window of activation would be, how much effect a push has on different enemies (hopefully the "Giant Rock Monster" doesn't get pushed as much as the "Wimpy Spell Caster"), how that chandelier moves through the air, and many other things.

If these systems are set up ahead of time, you're poised for success. If you're really good, you might even be able to standardize this, so other chandeliers and even other swinging things can be used for similar dramatic effect. Flexible systems give game developers the hooks needed to add fun even in the middle of development. This is where the real polish happens.

Keep on Borrowing

Being inspired by concepts is not just a good idea. When your skill reaches a high enough level, it becomes a state of mind. Start by analyzing games in similar genres for good ideas. Dissect those ideas and learn from them. Then jump to similar games in different genres. Pen and paper role playing games and board games are a great next step.

A true epic-level master of concept-yoinking like Shigeru Miyamoto can take gameplay features from abstract activities like gardening. Pay attention to everything you see, from movies to conversations with friends to patterns in the ceiling tiles. Where do designers get the inspiration for new games? It's all thievery.

To level up in thievery, dig a little deeper. This article just scratches the surface of 4E D&D. The books have just come out. As players spend more time with the rules, they are bound to notice more interesting things. And the D&D designers aren't going to stop -- everything is set up to be infinitely expandable, as long as players keep buying new books with new rules.

I'm going to keep reading and playing to keep the inspiration flowing. I hope to see you out there slaying dragons and stealing their treasures with me.

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About the Author(s)

Tom Smith


Tom Smith is a Creative Manager at THQ, assisting external developers with design and quality issues. He spent many years in various design roles at High Voltage Software. And before that he worked on board, card, and role-playing games at Mayfair Games, including working on the first English version of Settlers of Catan.

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