Dice, Meet Screen: Tabletop RPG Video Games


There’s a video game that I’ve been cautiously checking on – not constantly, but I still look for news on it every now and then: Sword Coast Legends. It’s not that I have been looking forward to the next big Dungeons & Dragons game, nor am I huge fan of their Forgotten Realms setting. The site mentions a lot of nice blurbs about deep narrative and industry vets and blah-de-blah – no. I don’t care about any of that. What I care about is DM Mode, and the idea behind it really, really excites me.

For as long as we’ve been able to, gamers have been adjusting games to suit their needs. We do hacks to change the story or difficulty, we make maps with world editors in games like Neverwinter Nights and Hammerwatch, and we mod in our quests and stories with things like The Elder Scrolls. No creator has ever been able to adjust things in the middle of a game, however, the way a game master can adapt to players in a Tabletop RPG. Perhaps with this new game and DM mode, we’ll have an actual Tabletop RPG video game where we can get the experience of both.

A Tabletop RPG works by using an agreed upon system, like Dungeons & Dragons or the World of Darkness games, and having one person there who isn’t a player. This person is a game master, and it is his or her job to run the game for the players by responding to their actions and questions, and ruling on what things work and doesn’t work. Sometimes maps or miniatures are involved; sometimes it’s just a lot of role-playing. What a tabletop RPG lacks in graphics and accessibility however, is made up for with on-the-fly adaptability by having someone who can react when players want to go off the rails.

Try as we might, there’s certain things we can’t do in the games that we love. I can murder shopkeepers and guards, but I can’t burn down the city of Solitude in Skyrim. I can control all the crime in Grand Theft Auto, but I can’t decide to up and leave the city (or cities, depending on your game) to see somewhere else. Yes, a major answer to that is just to go play another game, but sometimes it’s much smaller things. Maybe there’s a choice where I don’t like any of the outcomes, or I’m tired of the same annoying banter or comments from someone, or I just really really really want Maven Black-Briar to die and stay dead without deleting her with console commands. Maybe I want to play a game like that with my friends.

Tabletop RPGs have taken more and more cues from video games in how they’re explained and played. What occurred in basements or at hobby stores with paper maps and painted miniatures now can be done with a map, tokens, and spell effects through a website like Roll 20. They’ve crossed the divide with Tabletop RPG video games¬† like Baldur’s Gate and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The cooperative nature of these pen & paper games can be felt in our multiplayer dungeon crawl games like Diablo, and Borderlands. We separate them because one has a controller and the other uses a die, but they’re far more similar than not.

I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I think Sword Coast Legends and its DM Mode could be another step in bridging that gap – moving from the 4v1 genre with games like Damned to a 4-with-1 style. Having an additional presense that can adapt the game on the fly is something of a dream: think of it as instant patches. Difficulty not right? Fix it. Want a new storyline option? Done. I hope that this mode will bring more of that tabletop feeling to things, where you can allow players to do as many things as they want and the DM can respond as he or she sees fit: Discounted item for being flirty, snake in the tall grass, rocks fall and everyone dies-

Not that last one, I guess. The point however, is that I’m a gamer of all shapes. I enjoy slaying enemies with my keyboard and mouse, but I also indulge in a little dice-throwery. Anything that helps us bridge these gaps and allow games to be more reactive to players, even if it is through another human instead of code, is a fantastic idea, and I’m all for it. I don’t want to get my hopes up…but they’re up, and I really hope that Sword Coast Legends will finally let everyone who has worked on a game story enjoy a moment that has been reserved for the dice-rolling crowd:

Heh, that was really easy.”
“Oh yeah? And then the
dragon appeared on the horizon. Get ready to fight.”

About David A. Reeves

David is a 25 year old graduate with a BA in English, and he's wondering how all of this adult stuff crept up on him. He has a large love of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy, a lack of budget sense during Steam sales, and is involved in an abusive relationship with the MMO genre. Outside of gaming, David can be found reading books with swords and magic, suffering from writer's block on that story he said he'd write, enjoying a hookah or a beer with friends, and trying not to say anything inappropriate despite the overwhelming urge. He's an odd fellow.

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