I’ve been having a lovely old chat with Anne and Gus L. over at the DIY & Dungeons blog. We’ve been talking about the similarities and differences between RPG computer games (particularly roguelikes) versus gaming with a group of friends around a table in real life. Is it possible to learn lessons from one that can be usefully applied to the other?
Anne’s most recent comment linked to a series of posts she’s been publishing on resource management in tabletop RPGs. I absolutely LOVE this stuff. For me, D&D is most interesting as a low-level, exploration and resource management game, rather than a tactical combat game (or a vehicle for telling stories).
Resource management creates all these really interesting emergent events and dilemmas (e.g. do I press on, even though we might not have enough food or torches? Do I take this treasure, even though it will slow us down?). From what I understand, resource management was much more important in early D&D (and was definitely something that’s been transmitted into roguelikes).
Personally, I’ve had the most success with resource management when I’ve designed my dungeons around it. So, for example, Anne was been trying to figure out how encumbrance should work given that most dungeons are so compact that travel speed between rooms never really becomes an issue. My solution was simply to make all corridors longer. It takes an unencumbered party one turn to travel a corridor, two or more if they’re encumbered.
I also really, really connect with what Anne says when she writes:
“One thing I like about procedural generation as a GM is that it puts me in the same head-space as my players, and all of us are focusing our attention on the sense of wonder and mystery of finding out what comes next together.”
For me, that is absolutely how RPGs could learn from roguelikes. Create a procedurally generated experience for both players and DM, where a focus on resource management encourages emergent gameplay decisions that surprise even the DM. I have run games like this, and they’ve been among the most fun I’ve had at the table (one particular game in which an army of 300 gnomes turned up out of nowhere springs to mind).
On the other hand, Gus L. makes some excellent points about the differences between the two mediums. Indeed, Anne argued that maybe too much of a focus on procedural generation and resource management might turn D&D into more of a boardgame.
Early computer RPGs tried to emulate the experience of playing D&D in real life. Very quickly, however, it became clear that computers were much better at some things than human DMs (such as presenting a multimedia experience, or processing data and rules quickly). In order to differentiate themselves from computer RPGs, I think a lot of DMs now highlight the things human DMs do better (such as social interaction, talking with monsters, faction play, flexibility with the rules or making up new rules on the spot, creative responses to player choices, etc.).
However, early RPGs (and this only a suspicion, because I wasn’t there) didn’t have that hang-up. They didn’t really care if something could be done better by a boardgame or a computer. They just did it. That’s why I want to push past this impulse that CRPGs should stick to what they do best, and TTRPGs should stick to what they do best. I think there might fun to be had by cross-pollinating a bit.