RPG mechanics on table and screen

Running my current D&D campaign, I’ve been thinking about mechanics a lot. I want to make the game mechanically interesting: it should be a good game, any other qualities notwithstanding. As the play has become more regimented, I don’t feel that we’ve lost any of the freeform creative air of a tabletop RPG, paradoxic as that may sound. But that leads to another question: could a digital game ever recreate both the situations and their solutions that come up in playing with humans, in a human designed and run game?

There are seven levels of mechanical interaction in-game as far as I can tell: personal/emotional, tactical, resource, extended tactical, abstract, micro and arbitrary systems.


The “personal/emotional” level is unsurprisingly what human-run roleplaying games do the best. As you’re interacting with other people and adapting to their play on the fly, even somewhat lacking roleplaying and acting is in practice pretty good. You get insights and experiences in-character that would be very hard to achieve in a digital fashion. But this only happens because the digital games tend to make one big mistake.

In digital games “emotional” tends to mean literal and canned. Someone has written a story you’re supposed to care about, happening to characters they’ve written. For emotion to happen in an interactive experience, that should all be flipped around: characters you’ve envisioned, with their personal motivations, are doing interesting things. This is not the same as having a blank canvas of a character (which, naturally, nobody cares about), but rather giving the player enough room to project their own ideas into. As a crude example, a player being forced to kill someone in-game is only marginally better (in terms of impact) than having that happen in a non-interactive cutscene. That could be elevated very simply by giving the player actual choice.

While counter-intuitive, this level of interaction is often elevated by having fewer words and visible emotions. When you’re free to imagine things, they magically become better, as long as you don’t contradict it elsewhere. For good examples, see Fable II, The Sims and FTL. You can build emotion out of very simple, visible, free to interpret interaction. For extra points, tie it all into game mechanics.


“Micro” means the stuff that happens between the lines of the written rules. Because the Otyugh is so big and the roof so low, it crushes the roof as it walks underneath it, eating it, denying that top floor to everybody and turning the area around it into difficult terrain due to the rubble. Magic missiles can be used to bring down sections of the roof as well as targeting enemies. This can be reached, to a point, by simulating a hell of a lot more than we’ve used to. Dwarf Fortress does a good job of this. A computer would be in theory good in following up any sort of simulation, but in practice a human editor is vastly superior, as a human is good in judging intent and drama.

Do we need to concern ourselves with the finest detail of physics in this particular chase? Most often the answer is “no”. It’s just that sometimes it becomes crucial to the quality of the game. My belief is that adding as many often-seen, relevant micro-level simulations as possible would add to the likelihood of neat, memorable, emergent things happening during play. You could do a lot just with accurate physics and material properties. It wouldn’t be the same thing, as the computer would be bad at making value calls, but it could very well be good enough. Thus, more physics simulation would be a good step in the right direction.

Arbitrary systems

“Arbitrary systems” means rules that exist to make sense of the game world or to add interesting interaction on top of the basic framework of the game. Think locked doors and lockpick skills and single-use automatic lockpicks, as you might see in a Deus Ex game.

As a tabletop example, Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition, has an oft-derided mechanic that I like a lot: the skill challenges. The basic idea is that the players are presented with an objective and asked to reach it using a combination of their skills, with some limits based on what’s applicable. What makes this interesting is that everybody in the party must take part, even though they often do not have any obviously suitable skills to contribute. This leads to situations where, for example, the fighter is helping out by carrying people around the library on her shoulders, or the druid figures out where the bad guys are hiding from the way insects are behaving. It’s really all up to the players’ imagination – as a game master I typically have no idea how they might reach their objectives, yet they always do.

This is not quite the same as just imagining the world as a sandbox with a “do anything” motto. The game is doing its best to present interesting objectives and giving you enough tools to make it happen. The Deus Ex games are trying to do this, but they stumble in their artificiality. The systems should mix more. We need systems that welcome messing about, producing surprising offspring. The way to make arbitrary systems work is to encourage them breeding.


“Tactical” is easy – that’s the basic combat scenarios you’re likely to find in most old-school RPGs and all digital RPGs. Computers are very good in this stuff, eliminating book keeping and providing AI opposition for solo players, and the only worthwhile tabletop advantages are evident in the other categories I outlined above – micro and arbitrary systems. XCOM is a lot of fun, and probably more fun digitally than it would be on tabletop.

Extended tactical

However, the “extended tactical” level is where the tabletop wins out every time. If you would run the XCOM scenarios on tabletop, they would become dull very soon. There’s not enough variety. In our bi-weekly D&D games we fight a lot of tactical battles, but I spend a lot of time making sure there’s some new element in play every single time. It could be an enemy with a unique ability or a feature of the environment the players haven’t met before. There could be timed events. Any of these elements would be easy enough to replicate in a digital game, but the problem is that you need so many of them. I want something new for every single fight.

If you were to analyze these unique elements, you’d find that they do follow patterns. Most of them are variants of the same basic components, just put together or simply presented in new ways. There’s timed events, traps, NPCs that need protection, the elements imposing a negative quality on everyone, parts of the environment being hazardous, moving environments, multiple waves of enemies, template enemy formations, and so forth. If you were to design your attributes carefully enough, there is no reason why you couldn’t put together compelling, interesting and even unique combat scenarios for every single fight. The automatic response in videogames is either “the design will become messy” or “it’s too expensive”, but anybody saying those things needs to play more tabletop games.


“Abstract” mechanics sit right at home in digital games and are rarely found in tabletop games. I’ve been introducing them into my pen and paper campaigns a lot lately. As an example, instead of a straight roleplaying scene where the heroes accompany the king on a night ride through a city in civil war, I crafted a simple board game scenario out of it. The players had to choose which of their allies to use against which threat, and then deal with the outcome in person. This elevated something that could’ve been a very brief roleplaying moment into a more tangible situation with interesting decisions and thus more dramatic weight to it.

Digital games are very good in this sort of thing. They almost always have these abstract systems in place on the meta level. As an example take Alpha Protocol’s mission preparation and choosing or XCOM’s base building and planetary surveillance. That gives the games overarching structure and purpose. The same holds true in a tabletop game, and could be more commonly used in long-term games. As a good example, in a game I played our character sheets became this sort of abstract meta system with their own mysteries, only revealed under certain in-game circumstances. We also had a deck of tarot cards shared by all the groups playing the game (there were a lot of players). Over the duration of the very long campaign, some players claimed certain cards of the tarot as their own, and the groups started to affect each other.


Finally, the “resource” level is about giving players the option of using or withholding something they’ve been given. Both tabletop and digital games very typically have the problem that the mere pursuit of more stuff is not very compelling, and players are really bad in actually ever using everything that’s been given to them – case in point, health potions. In most cases this is simply a case of the game’s overall math and power economy needing more attention. In my D&D campaign I’ve slowly turned up the difficulty until the players have started to run out of potions and other assets. This keeps the game tense. Game designers and game masters often miss the fact that the players actually enjoy being in a bind!

Something often found in tabletop games is that players have less obvious resources: influence, contacts, allies, knowledge, history and so forth. Many of these would be tricky to represent properly in a digital game because they’re so open-ended, but a good case could be made for a lot of them. Alpha Protocol tries some of this in an intriguing way – letting you choose your allies and how much you invest in them, being rewarded both on a personal and a tangible level, with also some nasty surprises in wait – and I only wish it did more. The key is tying these resources to some of the other systems in play, for example limited use abilities on the battlefield. Even if you think that the tabletop possibilities are too unlimited for a digital game, a lot of the dramatic possibilities with non-item resources actually fall into just a few categories, which could very well be represented in a digital game, too. In this way David Braben’s Outsider was a very interesting project and I hope we get to hear more of it one day.


In conclusion, game designers should play a lot of games of both the digital and tabletop variety and pay attention to the mechanics, especially when they’re not readily apparent “rules”. A lot of the hard to define stuff in a tabletop game actually does follow rules when you think about it a little harder and most of it would do a world of good to digital games.

Leave a Reply