RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Influence of Video Games

BardThe Video Game Influence

Plenty of words have been written about the influence of pen-and-paper RPGs on video games. But what about the other way around? Even if you’re still playing 2nd Edition or some such, your GM’s style has had influence from video games in some small way, and if you’re playing a more recently released game then the influence is more pronounced. Even if you deplore video games for some reason, don’t be afraid to take good ideas and use them. A good GM never lets a good idea go to waste.

The central similarity of video games and traditional RPGs is clear: they are both interactive storytelling. There are advantages and disadvantages to both media, but we’re more interested in the cross-pollination. So, you should ask yourself, what can we learn? What pitfalls can we avoid?

Positive Factor: Encounter Design. There may be as many encounter styles as there are people who play games. Everyone likes things a little bit different. That said, there are some broad trends we can identify and use. The encounters you might term “video-gamey” can be extremely fun. This kind of encounter design entails highly pre-planned encounters, with special rules or specific events that the players have to figure out how to trigger. A couple examples might include deadly mushrooms in an underground lair that can be attacked from range to explode, or magical standing runestones with various helpful auras placed around the battlefield.

The point is to have clearly defined, exciting events in the encounter that the players can enjoy figuring out without being too creative themselves, and thus focus more on the tactical fun. This can be a really fun, memorable encounter, although it’s perhaps not the best idea for a truly climactic, story-ending battle; the story part of the encounter tends to feel a bit thin, because the strategy comes from the GM, not organically from the players. That’s more than fine for less story-critical encounters, however, and can be a really fun thing to design!

Pathfinder AlchemistNegative Factor: Calcification. One of the most amazing things about playing Pathfinder or D&D occurs when you realize that anything can happen, and any player can interact with any object or person in any way. Yes, it’s probably not going to be very good for the game if your character paints themselves pink and jumps off the nearest cliff or attempts to murder all the other party members at the start of every game session, but the possibility that your character could do that brings an incredibly powerful aura of realism and engagement in a character or story that no video game can ever quite replicate–although video games have their own amazing qualities and advantages. By their very nature, video games cannot do everything that pen-and-paper RPGs do. A preset game needs to have a limited number of outcomes to any story or battle or any interaction, whereas a human GM can allow anything to happen. Video games are therefore designed with an “intentional” way for the players to interact with everything in the world–even if the players discover other options, there’s definitely a way that things are “supposed” to work, because there has to be. 

The negative influence of video games on pen-and-paper games is that they make players calcify their thinking. Because people are becoming used to the idea that interactive stories have a way they’re “supposed” to play out, GMs tend to think in those terms, and players tend to either “game” an encounter by manipulating a rule to their advantage or brute force their way through. It’s not that simplicity is a bad thing–many adventures are the better for being simple–but it’s not good to be simplistic. Not every story point or adventure decision should come wrapped up in a nice, neat little package (or be aimlessly nasty). Leave room for players or GMs to breathe by looking for creative possibilities in every aspect of the game. Keep in mind the mantra that anything can happen. And sometimes, events venture into unexpected territory.

-Max Porter Zasada

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