Zhu has written an absolutely cracking post. I thoroughly recommend you head over to his blog and give it a read, as his erudite and well-researched musings are far more intellectually rigorous than my own half-baked ramblings on the subject.
Seriously, there’s so much to unpack. The part where he mentions “dungeon-as-code” was a lightbulb moment for me. I’ve already said I’m fascinated by the space where paper, digital, and physical intersect, and the idea of “dungeon-as-code” seems like it belongs in a similar kind of transitional space; a halfway house between boardgame, wargame, and our contemporary notions of tabletop RPGs.
I’m glad he’s adopted the term “ludological”. I was using it in a deliberately wanky way to be pretentious (without really knowing if it’s appropriate), so I’m happy to see it may actually have legs. I’m going to be even wankier and suggest a second form of ludological influence. As well as “positive ludological influence” (i.e. borrowing bits from other games) can I propose “negative ludological influence” (i.e. the struggle to distinguish and define a type of game by what it is *not*).
As CRPGs have advanced, tabletop RPGs have struggled to justify their existence. This has, I think, led pen and paper gamers to emphasise the qualities of tabletop RPGs that are difficult to simulate with a computer. Early CRPGs like Wizardry, Might & Magic, Ultima, etc., basically nailed the concept of “dungeon-as-code”. Collaborative storytelling, meanwhile, has traditionally been seen as a unique (and difficult to replicate) strength of TTRPGs.
Negative ludological influence from computer games (i.e. the desire to define and distinguish TTRPGs as a medium offering an experience computer games cannot replicate) was conceivably partly responsible for pushing TTRPGs away from “dungeon-as-code” and towards “we are telling a story”. I’m not saying it was the main influence (I have no idea), but it seems entirely possible it was a significant factor.
I haven’t done enough (any) research to back up this hypothesis, but it seems plausible. Anyway, my main point is that types of games can influence the evolution of other types of games not just through cross-pollination of ideas and concepts, but also through competition and a desire to speciate as a matter of survival. TTRPGs (particularly commercial TTRPGs) had to distinguish themselves from CRPGs in order to attract and retain gamers / customers.
To be clear: this is all just speculation. It’s just me rambling. I haven’t researched this methodically (unlike Zhu, so go read his blog).
Some other random thoughts provoked by reading Zhu’s blogpost:
1. It is possible to “win” D&D. If we adopt the “dungeon-as-code” approach, then it is possible to “solve” dungeons in the same way it’s possible to “solve” a challenging and carefully constructed combat encounter. To “win” D&D, you solve enough dungeons to advance in level until you reach maximum level. Or, more likely, you solve levels in the campaign megadungeon (e.g. Castle Greyhawk, Castle Blackmoor, Tar Norgard in Rythlondar, etc.) until you reach and complete the lowest level of the dungeon. At this point, you have “won” D&D.
2. Adversarial DMs are not automatically bad. The DM has two hats. The first is as coder (i.e. dungeon designer) actually coding the “dungeon-as-code”. As coder, the DM is adversarial. They are trying to prevent the PCs from solving their dungeon. They are the opposing player. They do not necessarily need to take a “balanced” approach when coding the dungeon and, in fact, can be quite cruel and devious (though there should at least be consistent rules that they follow). The second hat (during play) is as judge or referee, running the “dungeon-as-code” and interpreting it for the PCs to interact with. Here they are essentially a “human computer”, a neutral arbiter of the “dungeon-as-code”.
3. D&D is not about telling a story. The DM should not be corrupting the “dungeon-as-code” in order to fit narrative or genre expectations. They should be interpreting it faithfully and neutrally. Story might emerge naturally from player interactions with the code, but it is not the DM’s role to support that story by editing the code on the fly.
The above aren’t really supposed to be hard rules or axioms. They’re just a set of observations that occurred to me while ruminating on Zhu’s post, and I’m not confident they necessarily stand up to scrutiny. I will ruminate further…
Image from Dungeon, The Code Works, 1979.