The Cycle of D&D and Video Games
Old timers and grognards alike in the RPG hobby like to complain. “Things were better back in…”, “We didn’t have or need that when we played in…”, and so on and so forth. But one of the oddest complaints I hear is about how games today, and specifically, D&D, are too much like video games. So let’s take a look at a very interesting cycle of mutual influence, and see what we can learn from it. For ease of bracketing years, I’m going to use console generations for this.
The Early Days (Gen 2 & 3 Era)
Like so many other things, D&D was a profound influence on video games more or less right off the hop. Many of the earliest RPGs on computer were at least in part inspired by D&D, if not using it as a direct template. This really fired up in what was the Gen 2 and Gen 3 eras of console gaming; broadly speaking, the 8bit Era of consoles, and the 8bit to 32bit era of home computers.
For many of us growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, our first exposure to RPGs of any sort came via video games; specifically Phantasy Star, Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in N. America), and Final Fantasy on the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment Systems respectively. These games were deeply and profoundly influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, to the point were the original NES Final Fantasy even used spell slots and a variant of the Vancian magic system.
In addition to inspiring the JRPG genre’s creation, D&D would also spawn its own branded games in its various campaign settings at the same time. Released for home computers and on the NES, these along the previous examples and systems, became an entry point for many of us into the hobby. How? It was familiarizing us with not only D&D and D&D properties, but in “how” to play these games on a broader scale. That being “get quest, find dungeon, clear dungeon, fight boss, get prize”.
So I think it’s fair to say D&D immediately made an imprint on video games, and for simple reasons.
- Its wargame roots made its rules programming friendly
- It didn’t need to be graphically intensive (ever notice all that black space around dungeons?)
- People played them a lot and they gained followings very quickly
What can we learn from this era?
Things were simple back then… This era of gaming is a strong show that simple can work. A dungeon crawl or hex crawl using a simple plotline with player characters and NPCs that have little background can work, and worked, and can still work, amazingly well. This is borne out in that games from this era have been repeatedly re-released, often only with a few updates (graphics, better translations, maybe an extra dungeon or three), and have continued to find new audiences.
It also teaches us that a lot of the core assumptions in D&D, like how players should be restricted from purchasing magic items, or that access to things like airships can ruin a campaign (I have literally heard/read these ideas still being rehashed in the last year as of this writing) among other ones, are demonstrably false. These were the result of how Gygax envisioned play, and, in my opinion, have acted as an artificially imposed creative limitation on the genre of D&D.
Was D&D Like a video game at this point?
Technically, no. I think a better description at this point would be that video games were like 1e AD&D, OD&D, or BECMI D&D. This marks the start point of the cycle, where D&D influences video games.
The Golden Era of JRPGs (Gen 4 & 5 & 6)
At this point, we see a sharp divergence between 2e AD&D and video games. While 2e AD&D continued to be a more polished version of 1e AD&D, and continued to produce video games, other game makers went in other directions. This is, to me, the golden era of the JRPG, as seen on the SNES, Sega Genesis, PSOne, and the various handheld systems of the same timeframe.
Now, D&D’s mechanics port well to video games, but, as in the tabletop industry, the weaknesses in the system had been noted and the ecosystem developed into something that we’d recognize today. This process had begun in the previous generations, but truly took root in these ones as technological advancements increased the capability of consoles and home computers alike. Skills were added, class abilities got some variance and nuance, story development kicked into gear, and more. Very quickly, many games came to only retain vestigial aspects of their ultimate source material. But it’s effects wouldn’t be felt for some time. In the meantime however, while it lost much of its hold on the console market, 2e AD&D experienced a renaissance on computers, ironically towards the end of its lifespan. Bioware and Black Isle Studios’ games remain classics to this day, the Baldur’s Gate series especially.
Of particular note here though is that the quality of storytelling, and specifically, story construction, in videogame RPGs of all types in this era, made sudden leaps and bounds forwards. Sega made a multi-generational epic in its Phantasy Star series, with I, II, III, and IV all being linked; and broke ground in terms of events in games and consequences later. Final Fantasy hit the throttle hard, leaping from a relatively simple plot in Final Fantasy IV to the much more complex one of Final Fantasy VI. Then, in a category all its own, is Chrono Trigger, a game still referred back to for its design.
What can we learn from this era?
A lot. In addition to reinforcing the lessons of the previous eras, this era goes deeper into story development than D&D did then or does today. The Squaresoft (now Square Enix) games, Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, do this in spades. How good are they? Reversing Design did a breakdown of them that, when combined with the Dungeon design analysis from The Alexandrian, makes for reading that any DM or GM should absolutely do. In so far as building an adventure or campaign, these are the definitive building blocks of “how to do it”.
Was D&D like a video game at this point?
Only if you look in the right places. The biggest influence of video games for 2e AD&D, in my opinion, came in the Options series of books, and in the Arcane Age Netheril Boxed Set. The Options series was like a toolbox for modifying characters, and I have distinct memories of people at the time complaining it was “too much like [fill in CPRG or JRPG here]”. More notably, the venerable Vancian magic system was taking a beating in comparison to the more free range, player agency increasing point based systems that had become the standard in video games. The Arcane Age Netheril Boxed Set was one of the few legit attempts to introduce this as an optional system in a big named product.
3e D&D, which released in the same era, is harder to pin down. The reason being that many aspects of it were simply catching up to other pen and paper RPGs, and not strictly representative of influence from video games. There are two parts of the game that I’m comfortable attributing to possible influence. One is the Job System like aspects of its Multi-Classing mechanics. Unlocking a prestige class like new class by hitting specific milestones dates back to Final Fantasy, and has appeared in numerous games since; for the era, in N. America, Final Fantasy Tactics is a great example. The other is this edition’s embrace of low level magical items, alchemical items, and special material items being available for purchase by player characters. Kind-of magic shops became a thing, and, in honesty, I really liked it.
The Modern Age (Gen 7+)
This era sees the greatest, then least, influence that video games would exercise over D&D. A key shift in this era is the loss of influence by console based games that dominated the previous eras. Instead, this era sees the rise of the MMORPG, and it changes everything. The MMORPG scene got started in the late 1990’s, but truly hits its stride in the Gen 7 era. World of Warcraft is the biggest player in the pool. This model of gaming becomes so popular, so fast, that it actually succeeds in influencing the development of 4e D&D. 
This ear also sees the development of story based games that build on the foundations of the previous generation. Not specifically RPGs, and often in the horror genre, these games present complex settings and stories with many moving parts and consequences, both good and bad, for choices made in game. This refinement of the last generation’s pioneering is fantastic, and adds a lot to the stories of the games that use this.
What can we learn from this era?
That ultimately, video games have an inherent limitation that they cannot at this time overcome. That being the limitations of player agency. video games can generally only be played in ways they were intended to be played, and have little flexibility in them for deviance from that. For example, I can play Minecraft, add mods, and never even try to face the Ender Dragon, but I’ll still be playing the game more or less as it was designed to be played. This MMORPG dominated era contributed greatly to the mainstreaming of fantasy in many ways, but in many ways are very conserative, conventional constructs.
In many ways, this is a return to D&D influencing video games. MMORPGs easily dominate the RPG videogame scene, and feature D&D level storylines, world events, and so on. That means that they keep things simple and relatively straight forward; not because they want to allow for player or DM/GM agency, but because they hae to owing to their huge audiences and the technological limitations they face.
One large thing to take away from this era is the refinement and expansion in the use of branching stories with consequences and differing results that aren’t pinned to one or a few major points or characters in the story. Drawing on this, and building on the Reverse Design and Alexandrian articles, gives a great standard to look at trying to build into your own campaigns and games. It may seem daunting, but it’s a smooth operation to introduce and use.
Is D&D like a video game in this era?
Sort of, and it breaks along editions.
4e D&D is the edition most influenced by video games. I know this is contentious, but it’s a fact. It comes out in interviews about 4e with the designers, and in the recent Art and Arcana book. The edition deeply embraced a raid party style of play, formalized and mechanized the roles of classes, adopted a cooldown mechanic for powers, used a branching railroad system for character development, and to be fair, did a great job at what it set out to be and do. The problem being that in this shift, it lost what D&D had become in an effort to try to capture a segment of the MMORPG crowd. Of the post OD&D editions, 4e had the shortest lifespan, with only four years between release and announcement of its replacement. This marks the end of the cycle, with video games exerting maximum influence before the cycle is reset and ended.
5e D&D on the other hand, is a rejection of many aspects of videogame influence, and returns to a pre-3e mode of operation. In part, I think, this is because of the mass playtesting that it underwent. The end result being a very neutral edition in many ways. Gone are almost all aspects of videogame influence seen in 3e and 4e, and back is a very 2e-ish vibe, albeit one with an expanded class selections, a re-invented kit system, and 100% less level caps and class restrictions. 5e represents the end point in the cycle, where influence from video games is reset. Whether D&D will directly influence video games again is unknown, but the potential remains for a new cycle to begin.
D&D and video games have some deep history, and have mutually influenced one-another over the decades that they have grown as a medium together. They each do things well, and, in my opinion, I think there are many lessons we can take away from video games to make our D&D and RPG games in general better.
- Simple can work. The classics of the RPG genre in video games have been graphically updated and released time and time again. Why? They’re good games. The same can apply to you RPG of choice, whether it be D&D or Savage Worlds or FATE. A basic scenario, some challenges, and an end reward work equally well in a dungeon crawl, hex crawl, or slice of life game where your players are trying to assemble the ingredients for the perfect cake.
- Video games are limited by hardware in what they can allow a player to do; tabletop gaming is less constrained. Unless you’re specifically trying to emulate a videogame, give some flex in you adventure and campaign designs to give yourself space as the DM/GM for dealing with player agency.
- Stories in video games have become more complex, nuanced, and developed than in most RPGs, which tend to stick to very simple, linear story lines. There’s no reason to do this in our campaigns. Have multiple possible endings. Let things branch. Have consequences for actions taken and not taken, good and bad. Think of it as the other end of the spectrum from the Simple can work.
- Open creativity. This wasn’t mentioned explicitly, but video games have led, along with manga and anime, a shift in what’s “acceptable” for play in games. So follow that lead, and don’t hesitate to let players try new player races, or to build them into your settings. It’s a nice break from the usual mix and makes for a memorable experience.
- The “traditional” assumptions that magic shops, airships, and so on can and will “ruin” a game are nonsense. There’s 30+ years now of that not being the case all in video games, and tabletop RPGs can easily sustain them as well; don’t let TSR era ideas about game play dominate your game. Unless you want that, then fill your boots.