Late last year, I finally sated years of curiosity and began my very first Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I’ve played videogames regularly for about as long as I can remember, and over the last few years have begun to dip my toes in the deep end of the board game world, but pencil ‘n’ paper games had always eluded me. Whether it was growing up in the UK, or simply being a decade or two too late, I just never knew anyone who played them, meaning my exposure was limited to ‘80s movies and that one brilliant episode of Freaks and Geeks.
Still, I was confident that I had what it takes to roleplay with the best of ‘em. I was raised on a steady diet of digital roleplaying games (RPGs). How different could it be? You build a character, explore the world, interact with NPCs, and fight off all manner of nasties using some combination of weapons and magic. I’d played games like that countless times before my tenth birthday. I had this in the bag.
There was only one problem: decades of videogames have trained me to be a really bad D&D player.
In D&D, and other similar pencil ‘n’ paper systems, you’re faced with a pretty expansive game world, and you’re free to act in just about any way you can imagine. Let’s say you find yourself entering one of those oh-so-famous dungeons. You could march straight in and head for the first door. You could try and magically open the door from afar in case it’s booby-trapped. Or you could roll a die to try and inspect the room for traps before you set foot in it. Or cast a spell designed to detect traps. Or use your knowledge of history to find out how old the room is. Or your perceptive skills to check for hidden passageways or compartments. Or listen out for enemies in the next room. Or… you get the idea. You’ve got options.
“This isn’t to diss videogames, of course – they’re great!”
And that’s just a single empty room. Throw in complex dungeons with multiple paths through them. Throw in enemy encounters. Throw in NPCs where the conversation tree includes literally all the things you could ever possible think of to say to them. Then throw in the other three or four people you’re playing with, and the whole thing quickly spirals out of control. This, for reference, is where the Dungeon Master steps in – aside from any fetish-y connotations, they’re the player who essentially runs the game, speaking for the NPCs, controlling enemies, and generally making sure the main players don’t break the game too badly.
Compare that to even a fairly open-ended videogame RPG. Conversations will likely be limited to a few pre-selected lines of dialogue, with a vague morality structure built in if you’re lucky. Combat will likely be limited to three or four styles – maybe just one in some games. Dungeons will have prescribed paths, and you’ll only be able to check for traps or listen for enemies if the devs programmed that option in. This isn’t to diss videogames, of course – they’re great! – but just to highlight their limitations. You can only do something if the devs thought of it first, decided it was worth the effort, and designed, programmed, and tested it. In practice, this has so far meant that most RPGs boil down to three things: fighting, talking, and crafting. That’s about it.
After enough time, this ingrains a certain playstyle in most people. For any given encounter with an NPC you explore the finite conversation options and either get something from them, do something for them (so that you can get something from them), or kill them to death. You explore, you talk, you kill. You can only resolve a conflict peacefully if the designers decide to give you the option, and otherwise you have no choice but to fall back on a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence.
“It’s difficult to wrap your head around being able to interact with literally any object in any way, just like, I dunno, the real world?”
It’s… daunting… approaching a truly open world like Dungeons & Dragons with that gaming mindset deeply entrenched. Rather than talk to NPCs normally, I’ve found myself trying to imagine – even visualise – the possible conversation tree, the paths that might lead me to specific resolutions, in an almost-conscious effort to pare down the options in front of me.
That inability to take such an expansive world on its own terms extends beyond chatting to NPCs. In dungeons, I frequently forget the myriad ways I’m able to explore and investigate, instead just taking the descriptions of rooms at face value and barging through to the next event. When you’ve been raised with games that not only limit your types of input but also use a whole array of notifications and visual cues to draw your attention to interactable elements, it’s difficult to wrap your head around being able to interact with literally any object in any way, just like, I dunno, the real world?
One recent encounter highlighted just how much videogames have put blinders on me. My normally honourable character had just committed a crime, and been caught in the act by two town guards. I tried to talk them out of a fight, but it quickly became clear they weren’t having any of it. So, reluctantly, I killed them both right there, despite a pang of guilt. It was only hours later I realised that I had one simple, obvious option I ignored: I could have just knocked them out or otherwise incapacitated them. I even had a rope with me, so I could have tied them up. But that’s not the kind of option that videogames tend to give us, where it’s always kill or be killed, and so that’s not something my gamer-trained brain ever considered.
There’s been no shortage of hot takes written in the past about how many mainstream games are still limited to violence as a core interaction mechanic, but I’d never really worried too hard that it was affecting the way I see the world. I’ve never been the violent sort – in fact I’m probably non-confrontational to a fault – and a lifetime playing games hadn’t seemed to change that. Now I’m not so sure.
“It’s daunting approaching a truly open world like Dungeons & Dragons with that gaming mindset deeply entrenched.”
If gaming habits have made me approach D&D – in theory an almost entirely open game environment – through a metaphorical crosshair, is it really such a leap to imagine they might impact the way I deal with the real world? I’m currently sort of clinging to the hope that the knowledge that in D&D I’m interacting with a game system is what throws me into that videogame frame of mind where a bullet to the head is the default problem-solving method, because I don’t really want to think too hard about the alternative.
That’s hardly the pressing issue though, so let’s get back to what really matters: my bad gaming habits forced my Lawful Good cleric into an alignment change because apparently murdering everyone you have an argument with is neither lawful nor good. Thanks a lot, videogames.