The Circle Is Now Complete

"This isn't D&D!"


While paging through the interesting but overpriced "30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons and Dragons," I came across a passage written by Ed Stark regarding the adaptation of the Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition ruleset to a computer game.  An early draft of the rules was sent to Bioware, and Bioware was to develop a game to roughly coincide with the official release of the rules by the new owners of the property, Wizards of the Coast.  
 
When Bioware finished their design and sent it to Wizards for approval, the game had changed so much in the hands of Bioware that Ed Stark said, "This isn't D&D!" 
Wizards rejected much of Bioware's design and sent a couple of guys up to Bioware headquarters, where they rewrote Bioware's interpretation of the rules right in front of them.
 
What's missing is Bioware's perspective on this.  I doubt they'd likely go public with their feelings about this late-stage rewrite of the development they'd worked hard to adapt to the computer screen, but I have my suspicions. 
 

License to Sit Still

 
Given the development of Dragon Age Origins, where they specifically set out to create their OWN RPG engine rather than cater to an outside license, to me it's fairly clear that the hassle with dealing with a licensee was hindering their ability to make the game they wanted. Not to mention having to pay others for the privelege of working within their system and riding upon the fame of the license.
 
Not only that, but as someone who's both played pen-and-paper RPGs and the computer variety, I know that those two forms are entirely different beasts when it comes to how a game plays out.  Expecting a pen-and-paper ruleset to be mirrored by the computer game is a tall order.  Of course there were changes every time Bioware, Black Isle, SSI, whomever, put out a licensed game.  Things changed slightly or drastically, many were dropped, some were expanded.  Things that were math-intensive or required the player to be unaware of what was going on was easy to do for a computer RPG, while the pen-and-paper game's strengths, improvisation, peeking behind an unexpected door, and creative use of resources, were huge development obstacles that would take a pen-and-paper group a few seconds to resolve. 
 

I Was Once but the Learner...

 
With that strange relationship between Bioware and Wizards in the back of my mind, I stumble upon this article:
 
Designing the Dragon Age Tabletop RPG
 
and I can't help but grin.  What sparked this blog entry was this passage:
 
The Escapist's Alexander Macris:   Speaking of opportunity, tell us a bit about how you secured the Dragon Age RPG license and what we can expect from the game.
 

Chris Pramas (of Green Ronin Publishing): It was pretty simple. BioWare came to us and said, "How'd you like to do a tabletop RPG based on our upcoming Dragon Age: Origins game?" I had enjoyed the hell out of games like Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, so of course we said yes. 


It appears Bioware isn't doing what Wizards did, trying to dictate the system to them in the final hour; they worked with Green Ronin from the get-go, making it a tandem project, and stating explicitly that the video game and the pen-and-paper version should probably NOT be the same.  I'm not a big Bioware fan and I don't abjectly hate Wizards of the Coast, but to me this mirror-image event is really cool.  D&D, the game that started the entire hobby, helped build Bioware's success-- and now that Bioware is a huge name in RPGs, they're getting people to do versions of THEIR games. 

 

A Postscript for Those Interested in the Pen-and-Paper Side of Things


It looks to me as if Green Ronin's approach to their design for their game is a fun one, in that it's a bit of a hearkening back to the old designs of early RPGs, with less complicated rules and more flexibility, while getting rid of the anachronistic approaches which don't fit into the hobby anymore.  Pramas says later in the interview how he looked to the original D&D boxed sets as direct inspiration for how to tackle it, a sort of game in a box rather than stringing out consumers through a chain of supplements all necessary for the basic game.  (Their version of hooking consumers is that each boxed set has a level cap, where you buy each set when your characters are ready to get upgraded.  I think that's reasonable; if you like the game, you'll buy more.  If you don't, it was pretty cheap, especially considering what most SINGLE pen and paper books go for).
 
The current edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the 4th, is considered by some to be fairly unrecognizable when compared to the older Dungeons and Dragons rules, although I'd argue there are some lines of similarity.  What's remarkable is that during the concept phase, Wizards of the Coast designers talked about taking a cue from video games, like MMORPGs, for some of their mechanics.  Players of World of Warcraft will recognize some of the mechanics of D&D 4E, as will players of tactical battle games (as it's moved pretty much inexorably to miniatures on a battle map now).   As to whether or not this was the right choice is up to the individual, but computer games were an influence nonetheless. 
 
Again, a circle.
 
I think pen and paper games are stronger when they do their own thing, so I'm hoping Green Ronin's Dragon Age delivers on those design promises and gets the attention it deserves.  Heck, I hope the hobby itself gets more in the bargain too, but that's me :) 


A Post-postscript for Anyone Interested in the Actual Mechanics of the Dragon Age Pen-and-Paper RPG

 
Chris Pramas talked with co-workers on the Green Ronin website about the project, including hints about the actual mechanics the game is using.  As a bit of a RPG vet, at least relatively speaking, it sounded neat, so I thought I'd share for any fellow RPG geeks out there.
 
All tests of ability are resolved by rolling three six-sided dice, two of a neutral color and one of a different color (red, I imagine).  You have a difficulty level that you have to meet or beat by totaling up the roll and adding the appropriate attribute rating (say it's a contest of strength.  You roll 3d6 and add whatever your strength happens to be, and then compare that result to the difficulty the game master has set). The reason the dice are different colors is that the off-color die tells you how successful you were, if you met the difficulty level of the roll.  6 means you did really well, 1 means you just barely scraped by.  
 
In addition, if you roll doubles in any combination of the three dice, the off-color die acts as a sort of customizable critical success.  The off-color die counts as points you must immediately spend to add an effect to the thing you just did.  In a twist, you are the one who chooses what the result will be, by purchasing it from a list using the die's point value.  So you get to make something grand happen fitting the context of the situation (the different tables for each class further differentiate rogues and warriors, which some have said are rather similar in the computer version of the game).   Mages also have access to their own tables, which allow for special effects when casting a spell.
 
Given that most games dictate what a critical successes does for you, I think that sounds pretty fun :)

9 Comments
10 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

"This isn't D&D!"


While paging through the interesting but overpriced "30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons and Dragons," I came across a passage written by Ed Stark regarding the adaptation of the Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition ruleset to a computer game.  An early draft of the rules was sent to Bioware, and Bioware was to develop a game to roughly coincide with the official release of the rules by the new owners of the property, Wizards of the Coast.  
 
When Bioware finished their design and sent it to Wizards for approval, the game had changed so much in the hands of Bioware that Ed Stark said, "This isn't D&D!" 
Wizards rejected much of Bioware's design and sent a couple of guys up to Bioware headquarters, where they rewrote Bioware's interpretation of the rules right in front of them.
 
What's missing is Bioware's perspective on this.  I doubt they'd likely go public with their feelings about this late-stage rewrite of the development they'd worked hard to adapt to the computer screen, but I have my suspicions. 
 

License to Sit Still

 
Given the development of Dragon Age Origins, where they specifically set out to create their OWN RPG engine rather than cater to an outside license, to me it's fairly clear that the hassle with dealing with a licensee was hindering their ability to make the game they wanted. Not to mention having to pay others for the privelege of working within their system and riding upon the fame of the license.
 
Not only that, but as someone who's both played pen-and-paper RPGs and the computer variety, I know that those two forms are entirely different beasts when it comes to how a game plays out.  Expecting a pen-and-paper ruleset to be mirrored by the computer game is a tall order.  Of course there were changes every time Bioware, Black Isle, SSI, whomever, put out a licensed game.  Things changed slightly or drastically, many were dropped, some were expanded.  Things that were math-intensive or required the player to be unaware of what was going on was easy to do for a computer RPG, while the pen-and-paper game's strengths, improvisation, peeking behind an unexpected door, and creative use of resources, were huge development obstacles that would take a pen-and-paper group a few seconds to resolve. 
 

I Was Once but the Learner...

 
With that strange relationship between Bioware and Wizards in the back of my mind, I stumble upon this article:
 
Designing the Dragon Age Tabletop RPG
 
and I can't help but grin.  What sparked this blog entry was this passage:
 
The Escapist's Alexander Macris:   Speaking of opportunity, tell us a bit about how you secured the Dragon Age RPG license and what we can expect from the game.
 

Chris Pramas (of Green Ronin Publishing): It was pretty simple. BioWare came to us and said, "How'd you like to do a tabletop RPG based on our upcoming Dragon Age: Origins game?" I had enjoyed the hell out of games like Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, so of course we said yes. 


It appears Bioware isn't doing what Wizards did, trying to dictate the system to them in the final hour; they worked with Green Ronin from the get-go, making it a tandem project, and stating explicitly that the video game and the pen-and-paper version should probably NOT be the same.  I'm not a big Bioware fan and I don't abjectly hate Wizards of the Coast, but to me this mirror-image event is really cool.  D&D, the game that started the entire hobby, helped build Bioware's success-- and now that Bioware is a huge name in RPGs, they're getting people to do versions of THEIR games. 

 

A Postscript for Those Interested in the Pen-and-Paper Side of Things


It looks to me as if Green Ronin's approach to their design for their game is a fun one, in that it's a bit of a hearkening back to the old designs of early RPGs, with less complicated rules and more flexibility, while getting rid of the anachronistic approaches which don't fit into the hobby anymore.  Pramas says later in the interview how he looked to the original D&D boxed sets as direct inspiration for how to tackle it, a sort of game in a box rather than stringing out consumers through a chain of supplements all necessary for the basic game.  (Their version of hooking consumers is that each boxed set has a level cap, where you buy each set when your characters are ready to get upgraded.  I think that's reasonable; if you like the game, you'll buy more.  If you don't, it was pretty cheap, especially considering what most SINGLE pen and paper books go for).
 
The current edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the 4th, is considered by some to be fairly unrecognizable when compared to the older Dungeons and Dragons rules, although I'd argue there are some lines of similarity.  What's remarkable is that during the concept phase, Wizards of the Coast designers talked about taking a cue from video games, like MMORPGs, for some of their mechanics.  Players of World of Warcraft will recognize some of the mechanics of D&D 4E, as will players of tactical battle games (as it's moved pretty much inexorably to miniatures on a battle map now).   As to whether or not this was the right choice is up to the individual, but computer games were an influence nonetheless. 
 
Again, a circle.
 
I think pen and paper games are stronger when they do their own thing, so I'm hoping Green Ronin's Dragon Age delivers on those design promises and gets the attention it deserves.  Heck, I hope the hobby itself gets more in the bargain too, but that's me :) 


A Post-postscript for Anyone Interested in the Actual Mechanics of the Dragon Age Pen-and-Paper RPG

 
Chris Pramas talked with co-workers on the Green Ronin website about the project, including hints about the actual mechanics the game is using.  As a bit of a RPG vet, at least relatively speaking, it sounded neat, so I thought I'd share for any fellow RPG geeks out there.
 
All tests of ability are resolved by rolling three six-sided dice, two of a neutral color and one of a different color (red, I imagine).  You have a difficulty level that you have to meet or beat by totaling up the roll and adding the appropriate attribute rating (say it's a contest of strength.  You roll 3d6 and add whatever your strength happens to be, and then compare that result to the difficulty the game master has set). The reason the dice are different colors is that the off-color die tells you how successful you were, if you met the difficulty level of the roll.  6 means you did really well, 1 means you just barely scraped by.  
 
In addition, if you roll doubles in any combination of the three dice, the off-color die acts as a sort of customizable critical success.  The off-color die counts as points you must immediately spend to add an effect to the thing you just did.  In a twist, you are the one who chooses what the result will be, by purchasing it from a list using the die's point value.  So you get to make something grand happen fitting the context of the situation (the different tables for each class further differentiate rogues and warriors, which some have said are rather similar in the computer version of the game).   Mages also have access to their own tables, which allow for special effects when casting a spell.
 
Given that most games dictate what a critical successes does for you, I think that sounds pretty fun :)

Posted by juice8367

Nice write up. Pretty good read.

Posted by PureRok

That's pretty interesting, and being into P&P games myself I may pick up Dragon Age.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

Yeah, if I had to pick out the major flaw in both Baldur's Gate games (which is quite hard to do, because those games are awesome) it would probably be the actual AD&D 2nd Ed. Ruleset. There are so many pointless options (classes, spells, skills) that, while certainly useful in a Pen and Paper setting, become useless in the context of a video game (See: 90% of the spell list, Charisma)
 
Maybe that's why all the party members in BGII have the best kits without all the crappy baggage (Note for example, that you only get one pure Thief, and the one Bard that you get is a combat-focused Blade) as opposed to BG1, which has a more "anything goes" approach to party member selection.
 
Dragon Age on the other hand, doesn't suffer from this. I'm sure that by the end I will find something lame and worthless, but as for now I am enjoying the streamlined approach.

Posted by Claude

Whenever I read something about D&D, I hearken back to my youth, not smart enough to play with the D&D crowd and not athletic enough to hang with the jocks. There I stood, in the middle, running from the bullies and jocks and shying away from conversations with the D&D crowd. Old habits die hard.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@juice8367:   Thanks :)

@PureRok:   Cool.  Be sure to write about your impressions should you get it.  I think it goes for 30 bucks, runs for 5 levels, comes with two 64 page books, one for players and one for the game master, a map, and the dice you need to play.

@ArbitraryWater:   My favorite spells in the pen-and-paper game tended not to be good choices in Baldur's Gate.  Like, you were pretty much pressured to pick up combat spells.  In a way this mirrors what wizards were originally for, which is to be the artillery.  All the cool, weird, puzzle-solving spells couldn't be depended upon for a computer game because you couldn't punish players for not thinking to find that particular spell.  
 
Though...  Charisma has always been a bit of dump stat ;)
 
The kits in BG 2 are great.  I really like the choices for paladins.  The mechanics also seem to be better optimized, you're right.
 
Let us know about your further impressions of DAO.

@Claude: Well, I dunno man.  You seem smart enough.  You act in frigging plays, which I could barely handle back when I was a spirited youth, so I think you're well equipped.  The games can sometimes be complex, but it depends on the group.  I tend to like rules light stuff where we get to be more imaginative.  Some of my best game sessions have been loose and informal.  Just depends on who's running it.
Posted by Siris

Interesting read, thanks for sharing this. Pen and paper RPGs and computer game RPGs are very different kinds of games.. so it makes sense that rules of one kind of game would not apply well in another. I'm sure there could be a case where a game translated very well between both mediums. Actually, that kind of sounds like fun.. I wouldn't mind having a game where you could advance your character in a PC video game, and then when you felt like it.. transfer it over to a type of pen and paper game. That could be fun, but it would have to work just right..

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Siris: Thanks for commenting!
 
They actually sort of let you do that with the Baldur's Gate series.  Even if you didn't think the game was directly compatible with the pen-and-paper version, you could print out your character's stats at any time, and I think for the most part the character on paper could be played without trouble in the 2nd edition ruleset.  The problem would come in when you didn't have rules for a particular spell, item, or character class, but I think if you had access to those things in the game, you should be able to recreate the rules pretty well, given that most of the descriptions in Baldur's Gate tended to be pretty open about the rules behind them.
Posted by pureguava

 <Bioware fanboi> Great read! The idea that the creativity from pen/paper -> CRPG is now being reversed should produce exciting results. This also indicates to me, even more, Bioware's intention to craft a jewel of not just a game, but a solid franchise that we can all enjoy for years and years to come.
 
I have my suspicions, that way back when, Dragon Age is what both Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk set out to accomplish in many ways. It is a part of their passion more than any other work they have orchestrated, and it shows. This is becoming clear the more I play it, and  the more I see how much this seed they have planted is growing within the community.</Bioware fanboi>

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@pureguava: While I think video games get a bit closer than they used to in some respects, I think it would take a huge revolution in AI to match the computing power of even the crappiest of game masters.  Like, if you use a spell in a way that the people who made the pen and paper game didn't count on, a GM will take a few seconds to make it work in-game.  Do that in a computer game and you're SOL.  Use your magical knife to stop a boulder from rolling down and crushing your party in a pen and paper and the GM says "OK, but you may never get it back" and you just shrug.  Whereas programmers need to think of every creative use ahead of time.  So...  not so much, yet.
 
It's more about the people behind the games that I'm talking about.  Bioware has made its own games, but it made a permanent impact on the gaming world with its Baldur's Gate series.  Now it has made its own game, and their popularity, building in part on the popularity of BG, has become such that other role-playing game designers and publishers are eager to publish their work.  :)
 
I guess it would be just as valid to talk about Bioware being just another pen-and-paper game maker, that once they worked in other people's universes, and now others work in Bioware's universes.  That's more what I meant.
 
As far as sophistication, I'm not sure computer RPGs have advanced so much that I'd say they were comperable to pen and paper, and of course pen and paper can't unless everyone around the table is a computer, or it's augmented somehow with computers doing all the calculations. Online gatherings may be a sort of hybrid, but I'm not sure they're popular enough to be a solid phenomenon yet (although I'd love for someone involved in, say, Neverwinter Nights campaigns online with other players to prove me wrong).
 
As far as Bioware itself, it's hard for me to get too romantic.  Those guys are straight businessmen who have a good idea what they can do to up the ante in this comfortable niche.  Their name is synonymous with big CRPGs.  I'd say their design advancements feel incremental more than revolutionary, but their designers put enough love into their games that I tend to enjoy them.  I'd say it IS more down to the individual designers at this point, though.  A lot of what makes these games shine are the little touches, and those come from the underlings whose names we don't necessarily remember easily.
 
Wow, this got long.