In the old, ancient, black-and-white days, my Dungeons & Dragons habit existed happily inside its own space, separate from the zero-bit video game options like Cloudy Mountain (Intellivision) or Temple of Apshai (Commodore 64). These could never compete with the high-definition, dual-layered, widescreen, 1080p, surround sound, 3-D settings of my imagination, where using only pencil and paper and dice and dungeons, I was petrified by the scantily-clad medusa in Keep on the Borderlands, added to the ghostly feast after drinking the brandy in Castle Amber, blown up inside the malfunctioning power armor in Expedition to Barrier Peaks, and torn apart by the 4-armed gargoyle monstrosity in Tomb of Horrors.
Of course, gaming system and computer technology evolved and improved over the years, but the video games continued to take their cues and inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons, their RPG Adam, incorporating experience points and leveling, ability scores and bonuses, coin accumulation and optimization. There was even some effort to incorporate roleplaying, starting with the binary or ternary approach of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and building to a faux sandbox environment where you could go anywhere, explore everything, and interact with everybody.
As more and more players come to Dungeons & Dragons from a video game background (and, not coincidentally, were born after I graduated high school), they bring with them a very specific sensibility. The result is that the teacher becomes the student, and D&D players begin to integrate certain aspects that had previously only lived inside video games. For example, video games tend to deal in something I’d call “sense language,” where a scene is set by describing (or displaying) what you see and what you hear. In the same way, dungeon masters don’t talk about the three kobolds, but rather the “three emaciated lizard creatures with fanged dragon heads, hissing at each other in their horrid tongue, turning jagged blades in their clawed hands.” This is immersive, and that’s unquestionably a good thing. Unfortunately, not all of the adoptions are.
This is not merely the “I don’t have a quest for you” NPC conversations, but also the supposed in-character discussions between the players themselves. Way back when, entire adventures were built on the first level assembly of the PCs, in the tavern, at the bar, exchanging probing questions and wary looks. Sitting around the table in Mom’s kitchen, we all instantly knew who were PCs and who were NPCs, but we still played it out with an adorable degree of verisimilitude. “And you are?” “I’m Rathren, dwarven myrmidon from the Icepeak Mountains.” “Uh huh. And is that blood I see on your axe?” “Of course it is. Orcish blood. And it may be yours if you keep questioning me, half-breed.”
There’s nothing in the current rules to prevent these sorts of interactions, but it just feels a little silly to drag out introductions when our meta-brains are screaming, “There’s an adventure to get to!” In my recent games, when afforded the opportunity for non-adventure roleplaying, we instead reached a nonverbal agreement, through nervous smiles and nods, just to skip it all. That’s to our detriment.
There is something wonderful about setting the scene, about taking the time to give everyone a proper introduction. Distrust is easy and evocative, especially if it’s based on prejudices. In an old-time game I played, the party’s dwarf took an instant dislike to my half-ogre, which was fairly easy, since we two players didn’t really know each other. We were able to spend most of the sessions growling and grousing at each other, right up until that desperate battle where we were the only two left standing, back-to-back, fighting for our lives. After our victory, the dwarf and half-ogre became friends, just as we players did.
Assuming all games can be boiled down to moving from Point A to Point ZZZ, each subsequent challenge must be more harrowing, lethal, and devastating than the last. The challenge has to ramp up, since as we all know, the fun comes from playing the bloodied staggering victim. But not really. Video game cheat codes must be a direct response to this, a desire to feel like a conquering hero instead of a punching bag. I know I’ve used them in games, after getting flayed by the seven goblins in the first room, mashed by the two ogres and 11 orcs in the second room, and annihilated by the two glabrezu, five hill giants, and 18 bugbears in the third room.
I’ve yapped about this before, and I’m not going to stop until the message gets through my own thick skull. After a tough battle, there’s nothing wrong with an easy one (or two). Let’s make with the minions, and build encounters that are levels below the party. Trust me, the players will feel great, and probably won’t even pause a moment to wonder about your masculinity (assuming you’re male).
Maybe I’m alone is this, but I just don’t like boss battles. After slogging through all of that progressive difficulty while burning through your resources and consumables, the level culminates in the melee with the big boss, who is shower fresh and full of deadly. Usually the boss also happens to be wreathed in arrogance, taking every opportunity to deride and humiliate the characters. You pour every remaining power and ability over that boss, who probably avoids or resists most of it because–get this–he’s a boss, and then the battle shifts into a grim and gruesome grind.
Instead of a final toe-to-toe boss battle, I’ve found the highly mobile, multi-combatant skirmishes much more exciting. If there is all sorts of interesting terrain (bridges across rushing water, piles of rocks, gaping pits full of jagged spikes), you will have characters rushing all over the place, regrouping at a rally point, combining attacks for apocalyptic synergy. The defenders lock down the most dangerous opponents, the strikers flash across the battlefield like cobras, the controllers clear out the raging crowds, and the leaders call down support from above. Everyone is useful, active, engaged. This is cooperative gaming.
The drama builds and the climax nears, and when you open that final door, when you reach your goal and finally see what you must do… PAUSE. The game simply stops, spinning away from you while it plays a pretty little movie inside frozen time, which you can only watch. There is a certain helplessness here, an impotence, when you the player are transformed into a passive audience. This is a chance for the video game to show off its cinematic aspirations and to take advantage of all that processing power on the system.
In Dungeons & Dragons, it’s a chance for the DM to demonstrate writing, reading, and performance ability, as the big bad (see above) lectures the PCs on just how evil, mean, vicious, and puppy-kicking he really is. Any attempts to interrupt this presentation will be met with furious vengeance: “By Sidney Miller’s left incisor, I WILL finish reading this. Shut up your mouths, and tremble before my glorious text.”
However, the best moments are rarely planned, and are almost always the most memorable. When the DM does start speechifying for the villain, and one of the players interrupts with, “I’m going to bury an arrow in his forehead,” that’s great stuff. Especially if it’s a critical hit… or miss. On a miss, the player might clear her throat and mutter, “Um… never mind. You were saying?” Of course, unplanned, improvised moments like this are only possible when the DM allows it. So to the DMs I say this: allow it.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with finding inspiration in the video games that you love, but I’d encourage you to remember that these are two different forums, and what works well inside one may not work at all inside the other.