Tuesday, July 20, 2010

No Need for Speed

The five adventurers were attacked by kobolds almost as soon as they entered the room: four kobold "grunts," and two sergeants riding on dire weasels. The kids rolled initiative to determine the order of combat, and the fight was underway. The battle was pretty much decided in just four rounds and wrapped up in five. This is equivalent to 30 seconds of in-game time.

This sequence took 35 minutes to play.

"This game is slow," said one of the kids, a boy who normally plays video games. He's right, of course: the same sequence would have taken less than a minute to play out in a video game. For a brief moment I thought, that's it, I've lost him. Video games have spoiled him. But that turned out not to be the case. He wasn't complaining, he was just making an observation. This battle took place near the beginning of a marathon six-hour session during which he repeatedly commented about how cool he thought the game was and how much fun he was having.

One of the biggest complaints you hear about D&D is how slow it is, especially compared to video games. This session, and how the kids responded, got me wondering about what's going on, and why the slow pace of D&D (or any other RPG for that matter) doesn't appear to be as much of an impediment to having fun as one might think it would be.

For starters, I think kids like the suspense. They sit on the edge of their seats, waiting for their turns to come around, thinking about what they want to do next, and wondering if they're going to succeed at doing something heroic. When a monster takes aim at their characters, the tension gets even more exquisite: will it hit them? How much damage will it do? Will they survive?

Multiply this effect by the amount of time it took them to roll up their characters and you start to see the power of this suspense (for those of you not familiar with D&D, rolling up a character is a non-trivial exercise and often requires a separate session). It's not like a video game where you just get another life and you're back in the same battle 10 seconds later. There are no resets, and the D&D world is internally consistent: if the characters die and the players roll up new ones to return to the same spot, they'll find the remains of their old characters there - assuming the monsters haven't eaten them! By then, maybe the treasure is gone, and maybe the monsters are on high alert for more intruders.

Video games, like so much else today, give you instant gratification. So something that makes you wait for the payload is really going to stand out by contrast. Like Christmas. Having to wait for it is a big part of what makes that day so much more special for the kids.

Another reason the speed isn't a big deal is that the kids are aware of the slowness of the game, and that knowledge adds weight to the decisions they have to make. For example, I'm sure that part of what went through their minds when they came to the four-way intersection (described in my last entry) was worry about choosing the wrong path and getting stuck wandering around that dungeon for hours on end. If we go this way we'll find what we're looking for, but if we go that way we'll get sidetracked. No wonder they were practically at each others' throats trying to decide! (in a fun way)

So I guess what I'm saying is this: the snail's pace of D&D is not its greatest weakness, but rather its greatest strength. Wizards of The Coast (WoTC), who owns the Dungeons and Dragons brand, has with its 4th edition* attempted to grab the attention of a younger crowd by making their game more similar to video games. Most of their changes have to do with balance between character classes and nothing at all to do with the speed of the game, but a few do. Only time will tell if this was a good business decision for them. I'm not so sure it is, because I don't think WoTC has a clear understanding of what it is exactly that makes the game so fun. Besides, they'll never beat video games at their own, er, game.

The more D&D distances itself from video games, the better off it will be.

*I'm actually running the Pathfinder system, from a company called Paizo Publishing. The Pathfinder RPG is more like D&D 3.5 edition than WoTC's 4th edition is. So from a brand perspective, I'm not playing D&D at all: I'm playing Pathfinder. But Pathfinder is basically built on the d20 system which was the foundation for D&D 3e and 3.5. I still say, "Hey kids, let's play D&D." I'm LOVING Pathfinder, by the way.

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