The Lion, The Witch, and the Progressive Enhancement: CRAZY DELICIOUS

If you don't want to read the whole article, consider this image the digest version.

When I am not being angry at BioWare or working feverishly into the night coming up with Star Wars-themed sexual innuendo, I sometimes show up to my day job as a web developer. One concept that we frequently use at work to make websites usable and friendly to everyone is called progressive enhancement. Put simply, it is the practice of making a website fully usable no matter what browser and settings the user shows up with. This is fantastic for visually-impaired people using screen readers, people with old browsers, and people who have new browsers and are convinced Javascript and Flash are vectors for the government’s mind control beams and have them turned off. Progressively enhanced sites try to load their various bells and whistles, and if they don’t work, then you’re left with something less pretty that still works. TA DAA! Neat, huh?

What does this have to do with gaming or anything else this site is usually about? Well, it’s a little-known fact that I moonlight on occasion as a blogger, and a frequent technique many bloggers rely on when they query their brain-computer for article ideas and come up empty is to rely heavily on metaphor.

If you are still reading this, you are my special friend.

It occurred to me today that progressive enhancement has been around for quite some time in video games. No big surprise there, it is not a web-only idea. It has been a good usability practice since there have been user interfaces and non-identical computers. You can see a form of it when you select “use optimal settings” in the graphics settings for some games. You can wish it was there on some games that were clearly designed for HD televisions. (Ever try Dead Rising or Every Extend Extra Extreme on a standard definition TV? It’s like an illiteracy simulator.) I suppose if you really wanted to reach a little bit, you could make a case that skill settings in games are a form of progressive enhancement. You have a core game that anyone can play (like Rock Band 2’s no-fail mode), and if the player has the ability to try the harder modes, then they can. Of course, this made me wonder if a skilled hardcore gamer basically has a “mad skills” graphics card installed OH GOD CATASTROPHIC METAPHOR FAILURE EJECT EJECT EJECT.

After the smoke cleared and I came back online, I started to think (marginally) more useful thoughts. Thoughts like “if I glued all of my spare WoWTCG and M:tG commons together, could I make a throne for myself, and would it have adequate lumbar support?”. Also, I started to wonder if progressive enhancement could be leveraged when planning one’s tabletop roleplaying game.

At first, I decided to approach this idea as if combat and other “crunch” mechanics were the base functionality of the game. It did not seem an unreasonable assumption at first blush. D&D’s roots do involve a lot of tromping around a dungeon, no questions asked, with very little regard for the devastating effects the party’s actions will have on the dungeon’s delicate ecosystem. If you have these things, then surely you can layer some “fluff” atop them and every conceivable player will have an optimal gaming experience. Right? RIGHT?!!

It is a rare occasion that I realize that I am full of crap before anyone else does. This was one such occasion, triggered by the realization that I personally prefer my roleplaying experience to be about 90% storytelling and 10% senseless violence. My algorithm was flawed, like Achilles’ decision to wear sandals to battle, and my own decision to use that as an example without checking to make sure Achilles was aware of his only weakness before making footwear choices. So, what could I do? Scrapping the idea completely would be boring. So I flipped it on its head. Storytelling was now the core functionality of the game, and game mechanics were now features that could be disabled if the players weren’t compatible with them. This, unfortunately, made sense too. So many times we have seen “the rules are just a guideline”. So many times have we seen house rules implemented to suit a particular group of players. But this too didn’t work out. What if you have a group that doesn’t much care for story and just likes the stabbing and the immolating? Besides, I just scientifically proved not one paragraph ago that you could base a game off of crunchy mechanical stuff. What gives?

Those of you smarter (and less long-winded) than myself have no doubt come to the conclusion at which I eventually arrived: crunch and fluff are not the core of the game. A bunch of people sitting around the table having fun is the core of the game. (It also helps if you are all pretending as a team, but if you’ve figured out some way around that, please let me know.) The crunch and the fluff are the features that don’t show up if your players aren’t compatible with them. You figure out what works best and what causes everyone to have the most fun, and you do that. It might not be the textbook example of progressive enhancement, but if everybody is having a good time, I suppose that’s OK. Here I was, thinking that I was going to revolutionize gaming, and I just wind up with the same old stupid advice we always give out. Ugh. How frustrating.

I have to salvage this somehow, or at the very least cause you all enough brain damage to forget any of this ever happened. Let’s see, how about this: I’m going to write a book to help the self-esteem of PC’s who get level drained. After all, their core functionality always exists even at level 1, and all the abilities they accumulate over time by levelling are just superfluous. Therefore, when a wight gives them a hug, it really doesn’t mean anything at all. Heck, it just means that monsters above that character’s level don’t really exist because they’re not compatible. Or is it that the player isn’t compatible. Or the adventure OH GOD I’M LOSING THEM QUICK THINK OF SOMETHING!!!!

Wait! I have it! Anybody else want to level a Progressive Enhancement spec Shaman with me with Cataclysm drops? Anyone?

Thank you, thank you. I’m here all night.


  1. Great article! I’m a new DM and tabletop gamer and I sometimes obsess over if I’m ‘doing it right’. Sometimes I get too focused on an new idea/concept I just learned and my fellow players suffer. Thanks for the reminder that fun is the real name of the game.

  2. What can I say?

    I like the digest version!

  3. ironregime says:

    My version of progressive enhancement in RPGs is to offer a rules-lite version that is fully compatible with the full version. Those players who don’t like the fiddly bits can have their character stats fit on an index card, while crunch-hungry players can spaz out to their hearts delight with the full rules set if they want.

  4. That’s one of the things I love about 4e (although it could have been in earlier editions and I just don’t know it). Most of the rules are separated out to where they are used, so I don’t need to know them. On top of it, I can just ignore whatever I don’t like, because, as you said, the important thing is the table and what is fun for them. Want lots of fiddly bits? Add them in. Don’t like skill challenges? Ignore the heck out of them. 🙂

    I was hoping that essentials could be a bit more like progressive enhancement, but I’m not sure it is.

  5. This could also be called, “progressively enhancing writer’s block under a deadline” 🙂

  6. Eh, some of the crunch and fluff while hardly being the ‘core’ of a game also determines how the game plays in terms of lethality and heroic/realistic, and so forth. It something that should be play tested for and tuned in before it even starts. Some for instance have skills that are more or less “auto fail” at first level even if you’re skilled at whatever is in question. Very irritating, and you have to more or less slop the rules to not kill everyone. “Ok, you didn’t fail bad enough to die! so you somehow succeed despite x”

    Everyone is going to tune no matter what, but the less of that you have to do the more time you can spend playing instead of how to make a broke system useable.

    When you went into video games, I thought you were going straight for the fact that nearly everything now is easy mode. Hahah! Thats a rant in itself, I’m glad you diverted into revese compatability with the older CRT’V’s