D&D and Technology

I just finished watching Erik Mona’s Keynote from the 2009 GamesU on youtube.  He has some interesting things to say about the future of pen and paper gaming, some of which I think are fairly apt, especially when he talks about PDF publishing.  On the other hand, in certain areas regarding technology’s influence on gaming I think he actually goes so far as to directly contradict himself.

Specifically, he mentioned the promise of things like the D&D Microsoft Surface demo and augmented reality games.  If you don’t know what those are, check out the linked videos, which unlike Mona’s keynote are pretty short.  Anyway, he’s quick to see huge gains from things like this and other virtual table-top systems.  On the other hand, he says that one of the big reasons pen and paper game will continue to survive is because video games continue to not be as adaptable and open as pen and paper.

Can he not see the obvious corollary?  I think stuff like the microsoft surface demo are doomed to fail just as badly as stuff like running DMed games of Neverwinter Nights.  The barrier of entry for creation is simply too high.  If I want to introduce a new monster or a new location I must now be a pretty good graphical artist, or spend time searching the internet for someone else’s work to use.  Even if I have that talent, I still must predict everything I’ll need well in advance, because we’re certainly not going to stop the game while the DM creates custom animations for the NPC he just invented.

And NPCs and locations are just the simple stuff.  With pen and paper, you can truly do anything.  As DM at a pen and paper game I can describe a harrying chase across windswept cliffs as easily I can a massive war with hundreds on a side or a tense conversation in a formal ballroom where each sentence spoken is rich with subtext.  How do we do these things in a computer rendered system that’s optimized for grid based combat between a handful of opponents?  Why should I shackle my games, once only limited by the players’ collective imaginations, with the slim selection of options predicted by some programmer or artist?

I’m not saying technology has no role to play in the future of roleplaying games.  In fact, I think the real gain will be when virtual communications become as good as live interaction.  If me and a group of friends could each sit at home and put on a pair of glasses and a set of head phones and then look around and it really looks like we’re all sitting at the same table, well that will certainly blow the door wide open for RPGs.  But until there’s a holodeck, I don’t really see a need for anything interrupting the connection between the words I speak and the imaginings of my players.

4 thoughts on “D&D and Technology

  1. Thanks for the comments on the speech! I appreciate you taking the time to watch it and respond.

    I do agree that, at least at present, things like the Surface are too limited to create the open-ended nature of the pen and paper tabletop experience. But I don’t think this will always be so.

    Say, for example, you could purchase animated 3D models of all the monsters in the game. It would be on the game publisher to create this content for you. Right now companies like WotC and Paizo sell a variety of printed terrain tiles and similar map products. What if a variety of these came with the game, or could be downloaded for free from fan sites? A “well stocked” GM (the kind that currently has a closet-full of miniatures, for example) could be fairly well covered in terms of “playing pieces” to run a sandboxy, relatively open-ended game.

    I think this is probably 10 years away, but it’s clearly where Wizards of the Coast was headed with their aborted Digital Initiative, and it’s analogous to what programs like Fantasy Grounds already do in the desktop environment.

    Right now it is far, far too expensive to contemplate the widespread penetration of this technology, but something like the iPhone would have been unthinkably expensive 10 years ago, and is now increasingly commonplace. Laptop computers are no longer luxury goods reserved for rich people and oft-traveling professionals, but are a standard part of the nerdly equipment package.

    I think if you look at technology not in the sense of it creating whole games that allow us to replace the sorts of free-thinking creative games we play around tables today but in the sense of it improving or facilitating that style of play, you’re on the track of what I’m talking about.

    Your last paragraph is basically what I was saying in the lecture. It’s going to happen a lot sooner than a lot of us think, I suspect.

    Anyway, thanks for thinking about the speech and taking the time to post your thoughts on your blog. I appreciate it.


  2. Wow, the man himself. Thank you sir for taking the time to come on over and read my ramblings.

    Of course you’re correct that trying to predict things 10 years out in the realm of technology is almost a fool’s errand, heck even five years could change everything. Despite their best efforts, even the producers of the technologies themselves can’t predict what’s going to hit it big next. Yet the next big thing will hit, and some lucky company will cash in.

    Personally, I think that’s how we’ll see big leaps, in the adaptation of the next big thing rather than someone actively trying to build a roleplaying game application or gizmo. It seems to me far more likely that some business application will come along trying to solve an entirely different problem, and a gamer somewhere will say “Hay, I could play D&D on that!” Which is why my predictions lie more in the direction of general telecommunication expansion rather than some advance of the current swath of RPG gizmos like the Surface or Fantasy Grounds.

    My fear is that we will be so awed by the technology that we will allow ourselves to take on new limitations to our game because of how cool the tech is. I love miniatures. I love to paint them. I love to build scenery. The proliferation of stuff like pre-painted minis or your flip-mats makes them even more attractive to use. However, I took a step back recently, and really thought about it, and realized that ultimately they only slow down my game. Sure, they look awesome, but ultimately they actually make my game run slower and I think perhaps make it just a little bit less enjoyable. The descriptions I give now of combat I think have vastly improved as I am forced to pull on my imagination rather than look at a diagram on a wet-erase mat and the position of some painted plastic.

    But as everyone got so used to using minis that the recent editions of the game made them pretty much mandatory. Can you even play the latest version without them? Heck, I’d have trouble running a 3e game without them.

    Anyway, perhaps my original post may seem a bit bombastic, and I may take for granted that somehow my own opinions and preferences in this hobby are somehow the norm. I went to a convention recently, and I know for a fact that my preferences are actually fairly niche. But I can also recall back in 2002 when Bioware announced the GM features for their new game Neverwinter Nights and I was sure this was going to be the next major evolution of our hobby. Finally we would see a real computer enabled version of pen and paper play. In reality, my experience was much more like this guy’s.

    Sure, the tools were there, but the speed wasn’t. When my players went “off script”, there was no ability for me to improv. And working as a video game programmer myself, I can tell you it’s going to be a very long time before these machines can change the entire scene, all the actors, etc. as fast as I can say “OK, now you’re in a cave, and there’s a group of six orcs in front of you.”

  3. I hear what you are saying. I think a lot of people are trying to use Google Wave to play D&D, which is what you’re saying about adapting a business application for gaming use. It wasn’t designed for that, but gamers found a way to use it to enhance their games.

    And I DEFINITELY hear what you’re saying about technology. I think a worst-case scenario would be something like “Well, the virtual tabletop does not have a flying capability built into it, so we’re going to have to remove flying from the game.”

    Technology should be used to make it easier to play the games we want to play, not force us to limit our creativity.

    That’s why I’m not concerned at all about computer games like WoW or Dragon Age killing off tabletop RPGs, but I’m really excited about tools that enhance a traditional tabletop gaming experience.


  4. Yeah, clearly we’re quibbling a minor point of your talk here. I think we agree in essence, that pen and paper clearly has something to offer that is unique and thus makes the MMOs not really as big a threat as some people seem to think they are. Technology will alter the way we play our game, but I don’t think it will completely replace it. At least not until they get that holodeck going…

    Also, I find it very encouraging to see publishers like yourself embracing that attitude. The last thing we need is pen and paper games that try to fight off the MMOs by emulating them. They should instead accentuate what makes them unique. You won’t get the kiddies away from the video games by saying you can sort of do the same things in pen and paper, but much slower. Perhaps instead point out “Sure, those orc guards look great in WoW, but how do you talk your way past them without fighting?”

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