A History of Mutual Looting, and What Videogames Can Learn From Non-D&D Tabletop RPGs
The historical relationship between videogames and tabletop RPGs is not hard to spot, and they work together very naturally (1): computers present the opportunity to automate the underlying mechanics of game play. Although the majority of games based on tabletop systems have related to the Dungeons and Dragons franchise in some way, and the systems that underlie it in different eras, it’s not the sole contributor. Fallout was originally going to use GURPS, the Generic Universal RolePlaying System as its mechanical core, except that was stripped out and replaced with the SPECIAL system designed for the game. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was grounded in White Wolf’s “Storyteller” system for the tabletop games belonging to their World of Darkness stable.
However, in recent times the relationship between the two forms has been largely one-way: tabletop RPGs have taken inspiration from videogame mechanics more often than videogames have borrowed from the opportunities presented by tabletop gaming. This statement is in itself controversial: wander into any forum devoted to tabletop RPGs and voice the opinion that the 4th Edition of D&D has taken mechanical inspiration from videogames and there’ll be a flamewar or bannings within minutes, since people have taken this to be a value-judgement. From my perspective, it’s much more neutral: the mechanical substrate of the game and the way players engage with it feels like something inspired by the systems of World of Warcraft and League of Legends, to name but two, where the timing of abilities and attendant team-work are vitally important. It’s a conceptual shift in the mechanics, not a dumbing-down.
The concepts that videogames have started to incorporate are mechanics inspired by collectible card games (CCGs) like Magic: The Gathering: in Asia, there is a subset of arcade games which are designed to read decks of cards constructed by players out of randomized packs, and where the game reacts in response to the deployment and movement of the cards (2). The variant of this kind of play which seems to have taken more of a hold in western countries is associated with buying toys that on the one hand you can play with as toys, and on the other you can upload them into a virtual space and play with them there. Skylanders seems to be one of the higher profile examples of this kind of game (3).
If there are conceptual elements of playing CCGs that can usefully cross-pollinate into videogames by providing new possibilities for gameplay, then there are certainly options presented by modern tabletop RPGs that might equally contribute to something new.
Some possibilities are open purely because of the capabilities of computers for handling mechanical complexities. Shadowrun is a tabletop RPG of cyberpunk shenanigans in a dystopian melting-pot that combines totalitarian megacorporations and the social shifts that happen when magic returns to the world. There was a videogame adaptation, but it focused solely on multiplayer combat and was a shallow mess as a result. One option would be to use the context of running the game on a computerised platform to correct an issue that can unfold in the tabletop variant: because different character types have entirely different maps and possibilities, such as astral space, the Matrix and the normal world at the same time, the game can bog down due to the complexities of resolution. Instead, we might wind up with something akin to Frozen Synapse, except along with the basic tactical considerations of where the enemy is placed and where they might be moving, there’s the question of how you as a unit deal with the possibilities of invisible enemies, summoned spirits, cybernetic enhancements, enemy mages, or hackers turning the environment against you or spying on your movements. A game where players need to be aware that physical barriers/cover might not exist for magic users, where there are magical barriers/cover that don’t exist for people in the physical world would make for an interesting environment for Tactical Shenanigans.
(EDIT 04/04/12: A Kickstarter project for Shadowrun Returns was announced as of the 4th of March 2012, and is being helmed by Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman. This is, obviously, absolutely fascinating and everyone should send them money. Hell, just look at the video! The plan is for it to be a 2d, turn-based tactical adventure, with a great deal of contextual tactical depth given the different ‘worlds’ characters can access that occupy the same space, and it will be released for tablets and PCs. Considering what I wrote a week ago in the original article, this sounds to me like sex on toast, except it’s a magical kind of toast where crumbs in weird places are considered a good thing. In any case, I’ll be following this with a great deal of interest.)
Moving away from the kind of possibilities opened up by simply adopting particular tabletop games into a digital platform, we can consider different ways of conceptualising characters and character development that might be useful to fold into videogames. Sanity systems in videogames are always interesting things to explore, because in almost all cases they don’t affect the character at all, and focus on freaking out or unsettling the person playing the game instead. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem has a collection of tricks to play when the sanity of different characters gets low, including dripping blood or crawling flies meandering across the inside of the screen. It also applies phantom phone calls, images of suicide, or faked technical glitches during moments of high tension: it’s a legitimately heart-stopping moment when the game fakes a Blue Screen of Death despite being on a Gamecube, or asks if you want to delete your save games before pretending to do so anyway. However, as startling or creepy as these might be, they don’t alter the experience of play, except by displaying the occasional semi-cutscene hallucination designed to shock or startle (4). The videogame Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth presents visual effects akin to dizzying vertigo when encountering mind-bending information or threats. However, while this makes it far more likely that the player will wind up dead when running across catwalks and being shot at, it doesn’t otherwise limit what they are mechanically capable of within the game.
In tabletop roleplaying games, the iconic Call of Cthulhu RPG that CoC:DCotE is based on presents sanity as an alternative collection of Hit Points, damaged as and when the characters encounter otherworldly threats, instead of being abstract and focusing only on the player. This is essentially akin to the framework used by Eternal Darkness, except the person running the game supplies the creepy things that happen in response, and there is a mechanical consequence to running out: going irretrievably mad. One of the alternative approaches to sanity in tabletop games is supplied by Unknown Armies from Atlas Games. Here, the characters have four separate gauges attuned to different forms of mental stress, such as Violence and The Unnatural. Whenever the character encounters something that would trigger a madness check, they make a dice roll – and no matter what the result is, it changes them from the status quo. If they fail the roll, they have an intense fight or flight response, and once that is passed, remain shaken and traumatised by events. If they succeed, then they remain in control and become much more ‘hardened’ to those kind of stresses. In the context of the tabletop RPG, having someone shoot at you is traumatic enough for the average person to need to roll. Where this gets interesting is that becoming ‘hardened’ causes as much trouble as it solves: sure, you’re not freaking out anymore and can retain control, except that other people are increasingly aware that you can witness or potentially cause atrocities without flinching. This is unlikely to make you friends.
UA’s form of sanity mechanic would make an interesting inclusion to something like the Mass Effect series, where interaction with other characters is a core to the experience, and where it might add more teeth to the entire dynamic: what if you were incapable of making certain decisions or sacrifices unless you were appropriately ‘hardened,’ at which point there would be ongoing consequences for the responses and opportunities you get from NPCs. An example for this might be the Bastard of the Old Republic articles by John Walker on Eurogamer (5), where he details his experiences in trying to embrace every evil option possible in Knights of the Old Republic. What Walker’s experience shows is that many of those decisions, which don’t play a significant role in the overall story, can have a huge personal impact on the person playing through it. If a game like the Mass Effect series was framed so that some plot-relevant actions were locked away without appropriate mental callouses, it would mean that players would need to gradually work up the scar-tissue necessary for their ruthlessness ahead of time through smaller decisions. If John Walker’s experience is anything to go by, those seemingly-smaller decisions are the ones you can feel really bad about.
However, by far the most unusual direction I think that videogames could borrow from tabletop RPGs would be from games where players have ways of engaging with the ‘meta’ level of play during the game, such as those presented by the stable of tabletop games using the FATE system (6), along with the other stables of games that allow the players ‘narrative control.’ The basic gist of these games is that who the characters are and what is important to them is as important, if not more so, than what they can do. In other words, there are mechanics which mean you’re likely to be better in a fight against the person who murdered your parents than you are against a random mook.
I think this would be an opportunity to allow for a different angle on investment in videogame characters: the FATE framework in the tabletop format involves deciding on ideas that are important to who the character is. These are called Aspects, which can be short sentences or phrases that do anything from connecting to ideas or interpersonal relationships, or details of who they are. When Aspects are useful, they aid the player’s roll, and they spend what’s termed a FATE point. When these same Aspects might be inconvenient, the player is tempted with a FATE point, and if they accept it then Inconvenience Happens. Being an ‘Alcoholic’ might help with winning a drinking contest, but it’s also a good reason to get tempted to take ‘just a few minutes’ out of a stakeout to get a beer. I don’t think this precise framework would work in the context of games, because although Daniel Benmergui’s Storyteller looks hugely impressive, I don’t think the contextual comprehension of game systems is good enough to let people write their own Aspects yet. The other problem would be in figuring out a system of in-game ‘points’ of some form that the player actually finds useful enough for them to be tempting when they’re offered. In the tabletop games, having points allows players to tap into the positive-sides of their characters’ aspects; in a videogame example where we can’t make up our own aspects, it’s up for debate how attached we’d feel to being presented with a list of character traits, which had associated pros and cons.
Despite the fact that the exact details of how to implement the idea aren’t nailed down yet, I think this kind of approach would be useful for deepening the ability of videogame RPGs to allow the player to gradually define who the character they’re playing is through choice. Coming back to Mass Effect (chosen because I’ve been replaying it recently, so it’s fresh in my mind), the game could apply systems from all the way back in Planescape: Torment in 1999, and keep track of the decisions you make to a deep level, and then refer back to it when generating new choices. If a particular player has leaned in the direction of the Paragon path and finds a situation where it’s actively inconvenient to take that approach, it’d be interesting if the game specifically tempted you to go in the Paragon direction despite the negative consequences. Likewise, if the player has been leaning towards being a Renegade, I think the experience of the game tempting you to be a human-supremacist ass to your teammates because they’re aliens would also be a good outcome – having to deal with the bad of the characterisation along with the good. No matter what the player chooses, it emphasises the decision: giving in to the temptation that goes along with playing the character in a particular mode leads to dealing with the complications that goes along with it. Equally, responding to the temptation to shut down Tali because “She’s just an alien,” with a refusal of the offered rewards because of the internal logic “She may be an alien but she’s on my crew,” would mean that the player was invested in the outcome, and helped define their own experience of the character. This would be true even if that logic isn’t something the game provided, and came entirely from their own understanding of play. No matter what happens, they own that decision.
It seems to be a way back to a kind of engagement I last remember from games like Planescape: Torment, except without trying to exactly duplicate the vast amount of (glorious) written content featured in that game. I remember a moment in Torment where you need to get information from a demon, and in exchange for each answer it gives you, you have to sacrifice something to it. This is big-deal stuff, like a permanent loss of HP or your most powerful items. Or, you can sacrifice one of your NPC party members to eternal suffering. Realising that I’d rather permanently weaken myself or lose treasured gear than condemn one of my friends to, well, torment is one of the more striking memories of playing the game.
If recreating the the phenomenally ambitious amount of writing that went into Planescape: Torment isn’t a viable option, I think that introducing a mechanical framework designed to highlight the consequences of player choice without multiplying the options available would be an interesting alternative. The framework would take note of how players are developing their characters along particular directions (Paragon/Renegade dynamic being an obvious example) and then tempt them to deal with the negative consequences of that characterisation as well as the benefits. One benefit of doing so is that you let the players into the work of deciding what they invest in themselves, since they’re more likely to feel they ‘own’ outcomes to their decisions because their motivations can matter, even in situations where those outcomes don’t hugely differ. The Mass Effect series and the current debate about the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 are useful examples here, since one of the major complaints hasn’t been that the ending is mostly an unhappy one, but that it’s one the players feel entirely disconnected from.
Even leaving aside that specific kind of application, I think that providing players with extra levers that they can use so that characterisation and who they are choosing to play matters as much was what they are capable of would be an interesting direction for videogames to explore – and there are plenty of possible toolsets in modern tabletop gaming lying around, waiting to be tried out in this new context.
(1) It’s certainly been picked up by popular culture, such as this comic from The Punchline is Machismo by Kelly Turnbull, and in the opening image in the article, which is from the cameo contest on Overboard: The Board Game Webcomic by Author M and Artist J.