What We Can Learn From Computer Games
A long time ago, I wrote an essay about computer games, and how there were things that tabletop game players could learn from them by doing the opposite: boring towns, lots of travel time, repetitive dungeons, and so on. Now I find myself thinking about the things that tabletop gamers can learn from emulating computer games.
Specifically, I am going to focus on the game that has occupied much of my screen time for the last few months: Skyrim. Which means, of course, that most of the advice applies to fantasy games. But the lessons are broader than that, if you think about it.
In playing Skyrim, I found myself saying things like, “I really like Whiterun,” or “Crap, I have to go back to Markath. I hate that place.” Each town has a unique character of its own, and you typically find out what that is the very first time you walk through the gates. In the town run by corrupt nobles, the guards try to shake you down. In the town filled with danger and murder, you witness a fight even as you walk in. In the town where things are pretty laid back, the townspeople welcome you and smile.
• Don’t just have your PCs “go to town.” Take the extra 15 seconds of game time to establish the identity of the town, and make it different from the last town.
• Have actual encounters in town. It’s not just a place to visit the tavern and buy gear. Interesting things can happen there.
• For everyone in a town who wants the PCs to go off and accomplish some task, there’s someone who doesn’t want them to do it. How does that play out?
• What if the NPC sending the PCson their next mission is doing so for all the wrong reasons (intentionally or not)?
The dungeons in Skyrim are, to be blunt, amazing. There are places that would challenge even the best tabletop DM to describe adequately to the players. The layouts and design are varied and interesting.
• Caves lead to open-air calderas that can only be reached via the tunnels, like an isolated, forested glen in the middle of the “dungeon.” (That’s not magic–it’s creative geography.)
• Corridors wind. Passage width varies dramatically. Movement is vertical as well as horizontal.
• Lots of large, open caverns and chambers give a sense of grandeur.
• Buried buildings within caverns create strange environments from familiar ones. A set of towers inside a huge cave.
• Lots of dungeons have multiple inhabitant layers. A dwarven mine now inhabited by bandits. An ancient elvish ruin excavated by archaeologists and historians. A sorcerer’s tower now filled with evil cultists.
• While not every 10′x10′ chamber needs to be touched by Michelangelo, a bit of artistic detail–carved stone archways, tiled patterns on the floor, iron braziers in the shape of beasts–adds a lot of flavor.
• Crumbling architecture, collapsed passages, and cracked, uneven floors should be the standard in ancient dungeons.
• Doors more interesting than the standard wooden variety are always more interesting–valves opened with levers, a heavy portcullis, rotating stone mechanisms and iron hatchways in the floor are all inherently more intriguing, even if they’re just dungeon dressing.
• Multiple entrances and exits, some only discovered once inside the dungeon, make the flow of play more dynamic.
I know that random encounters are pooh-poohed by a lot of people, usually those focused on story or a mathematical encounter-to-character-level-ratio. But in a game like Skyrim, running into someone on the road can be the start of a whole new story or set of encounters. It can just be a fight with a sabre cat, but even then, the nearby lair of that beast might contain an old map to an ancient treasure. The lone, random encounter (whether actually “random” or not) doesn’t have to be an interruption to the flow of things–it can be, in fact, an important part of the flow of things.
• The creature met on the journey seems like a simple enough encounter to handle, but then you discover that in fact it was a creature favored (and protected by) something far more powerful–like a giant.
• An individual runs up to the PCs and asks for help. Says he’s being chased. But is he a victim, or a fugitive from the law?
• A merchant on the road can be the source for some special object for sale that isn’t otherwise available, or a good way to sell off some recently acquired treasure.
• An old ruin lies just off the road. What mysteries does it hold? What are those odd lights? Can it entice the traveling PCs to put their current mission on hold just for a bit?
• A simple crossroads village might be just a place to stay on the journey, or the people there might be in great and immediate need of heroes. Perhaps it was fate that brought the PCs there–and can anyone really ignore fate?
Computer games have come a long way in my lifetime. Some of the designers behind them are as talented and capable at telling stories, creating settings, and detailing characters as tabletop designer. It’s worth some thought the next time you’re at the keyboard or hold the controller in your hand.