The Red Box Diaries

The Red Box Diaries
On the Origin of Games

Adam Niese | 14 Sep 2010 12:31
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In practice, this means that some traits can express with the same fitness in both ecosystems. Baldur's Gate demonstrated that the D&D game mechanics can work in videogames with virtually no concessions. Much later on, MMOs like Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited brought voice communication to the videogame representations of D&D.


The same convergence is happening in tabletop games; tabletop games like D&D adopted qualities previously unique to videogames. Probably the biggest shift was the adoption of the d20 Open Games License. The OGL was essentially a game engine: a set of basic rules and tools distinct to D&D that could be adapted to any game setting. Like the Unreal engine created by Epic and used by a number of videogames, the d20 OGL offered tabletop designers a toolset to allow them to create their product.

As with biological evolution, the acquisition of traits isn't uniformly positive. The OGL's successor, the Game System License, has incorporated the restrictive characteristics of intellectual property in videogames. The new Game System License adds uncomfortable strictures to the license, like mandatory permission requests and limited scope of modification. It fills the same niche as digital rights management in videogames, limiting the liability of the company through oversight and keeping the licensors in the loop about how their product is used.

You can even see the effects of differentiation in the places where the two media fail to effectively adopt each others' traits. Neverwinter Nights tried to tackle the tremendously attractive tabletop feature of creating user-customizable campaigns in a shared social space. The implementation, the Aurora Toolset, accommodated a wide range of possible roleplaying scenarios. However, to accomplish this in a videogaming context, the Aurora Toolset required a degree of scripting complexity you'd expect of a fully-featured programming environment. This crippled the toolset's accessibility, allowing only individuals who were well-versed in both creative and technical pursuits the full ability to appreciate Neverwinter Nights. (Many gamers still enjoyed the single-player campaign's more typical CRPG experience.)

The parade of parallels between D&D and videogames is not romance; it is survival. The similarities between the two formats rise from common ancestry, and their differences rise from unique ecology. Understanding that, it may be possible to anticipate whether what is good for the woodpecker finch is also good for the warbler finch. It requires identifying the pressures that produced the idea on one island and understanding the resources that will limit the same idea across the water. Perhaps as computer technology advances and video communication becomes ubiquitous, we will see more cross-pollination between what are two very distinct eco-systems. For now, the sea that divides videogames and tabletop games is passable, allowing species to co-mingle, but it will be interesting to see what happens when that divide narrows to imperceptibility. What new games will evolve?

Adam Niese is making the obvious career change from research psychology to games journalism at

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