Dungeons and Dragons is always the ultimate role playing experience. And recently with the rise of TTRPG virtual tools like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, it's probably at it's peak of popularity. But still, some of us would love to experience the same freedom, immersion and roleplaying in a video game.
And we have tried it all: franchises like Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, Dragon Age, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity, and Baldur's Gate, they all come pretty close, but still, for regular D&D players, there's something missing. Is it even possible to create a perfect Dungeons and Dragons experience in a video game? Well, we're at least gonna talk about what it should look like.
I got the idea for writing this article after playing through the Baldur's Gate 3 Early Access with multiple characters. It looks great, and I'm excited about the final version of the game. Baldur's Gate 3 does a really good job of implementing the D&D experience, even with the same mechanics and combat system, and canon lore of the Forgotten Realms, but it still feels a little ways from what the perfect D&D video game should be. The following are the main features that such a game should consider.
D&D is basically playing make believe with your friends, and a good D&D video game should stay true to this fact. While a single player experience can still be amazing (looking back at the hours I have spent playing Skyrim), and I believe we can't take away the single player option from such a game, you also can't take the social aspect of D&D away from it's video game version either.
Many years ago we thought that MMORPGs were the solution to this aspect of role playing experience, but we were proven wrong as they evolved as a genre. You can still play make believe in Black Desert: Online, or sign up in the popular RP servers on World of Warcraft, but it doesn't even come close to the fun of roleplaying with your friends, around a table or even in voice chat.
MMO is not the way to go for a D&D video game. It should offer some form of co-op multiplayer, where we are not just teaming up for dungeons and quests, but also explore the story and the world together. Baldur's Gate 3 actually does a really good job of creating this co-op experience, and with a little bit of polish, I think we have a good example of what the social aspect of a D&D video game should look like.
There are two main approaches to combat in role playing video games; real time, and turn based. And while most TTRPGs use a turn based system for combat, I think both systems will be viable for a great D&D inspired video game. The turn based approach, will better simulate the D&D experience. It also allows the close implementation of the familiar D&D system into the video game version. While the real time approach creates a more traditional video game experience, and if handled correctly, can lead to better immersion and role playing as well.
Another aspect to consider here is the element of chance and dice rolling. Turn based combat can easily follow the same mechanics of D&D and introduce the dice system to the game, while a real time combat usually relies more on player skill. The ideal way in my opinion, is having a real time combat that still implements the dice system into its mechanics. While a complicated task, I think this can take the best of both worlds, and offer a better gameplay experience in the end.
You walk into a tavern, go up to the bar, and the barkeep asks you "what's ailing you today?". In a D&D game you have the freedom to do whatever you want in this situation. You can tell them about your day, order something and ignore the question, or stab them in the neck. Although I did suggest some options, you are only limited by your imagination. However what we are used to in RPG video games are a handful of dialogue options, all scripted and pre-written, that force us into a few set paths for how we can play our character. We have seen how our choices matter in these games, but we still can't deny that it doesn't provide the same freedom of choice. The advantage of TTRPGs in this aspect is obvious. There is a reactive and conscious game master who interpret your words and actions, and rationalize how the world and NPCs react to you. But, are video game really unable to offer the same freedom?
I refuse to believe that. In 1977, before all the advancements of the game industry, the interactive text adventure Zork offered more freedom than most modern RPG video games. And considering how far the technologies of AI has come over these years, it's not a lot to expect the same freedom of player input and choice from a modern video game.
Another way to approach this issue, would be allowing players to be the DM in the video game. This would push the game more in the direction of a sandbox-like TTRPG simulator, and might not be what we're ultimately looking for.
This question about the story is not whether the game should tell a story from canon D&D lore, or another franchise, or even a new original setting. The question is what type of story the game should explore. There are multiple story types in D&D campaigns. The most popular among them being epic campaigns and player based campaigns.
Epic campaigns are what we are used to seeing in most fantasy media and video games. There is a big bad evil guy, they are present throughout the whole story, and the goal of the main characters are to defeat this villain. On the other hand, player based campaigns are about exploring the personal stories of the player characters. A type of story that has been proven to be popular with D&D internet shows such as Critical Role.
Both of these options can lead to great stories, and even a combination of the two, since player based campaign often do have a lot of epic elements as well. But the dilemma here again, is whether a video game can tell a player based story or not. This goes back to what we talked about in role playing; more player input. Can the player create the character or backstory that they want, instead of choosing one of a few preset options? And can the game tailor the story around the the player's imagination? This is what a good DM will do, and hopefully video games can offer a portion of this freedom and immersion someday.
What do you think a Dungeons and Dragons Video game should look like? Do you agree with what we discussed, or is there an aspect that we missed? Let us know in the comments!