I got into Dungeons and Dragons a few months ago, after a lifetime of playing almost nothing but video games. It was quite a transition. I took for granted all the things that computers would do for you in games like these; roll the dice for surprise round, roll again for initiative, roll for hit chance, roll for attack damage, add up the modifiers, count out the movement and sight ranges, roll for death saves; over and over again for everything. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a ton of fun, but as I played I couldn’t help but think of all the ways that video games have streamlined the old table-tops into the more convenient and user-friendly adventures we enjoy today.
That is, until I discovered the one game mechanic that computers can’t do better than people:
Inspiration, with a capital I. For those unfamiliar, let me explain: Inspiration is a mechanic where the Dungeon Master (the guy running the game and telling the story) can decide to reward players for doing cool stuff in the game with an Inspiration token. Whatever “cool stuff” means is entirely up to the DM: playing out your character in a compelling way, contributing memorably to the story, or simply pulling off something awesome or heroic, are all good ways of earning Inspiration. That Inspiration token can be used as a one-time boost to a dice roll, like if you’re about to miss a sword swing and need more accuracy, or if you need help making an impossible leap across a canyon.
Here’s how I earned my first Inspiration the other night:
My party and I were trapped on a tiny rocky island in the middle of an underground lake, under attack by a mind flayer arcanist. The mind flayer was beating the tar out our level 11 half-elf Paladin, tentacles wrapped around his head and about to eat his brains. He sent out a telepathic warning to the party: I will devour the mind of this one. If you flee now, I will spare the rest of you. Then it was my character’s turn, a mere level 2 Cleric with nothing but a rusted mace and small shield. But my Cleric had the heart of a holy warrior, and would do anything to save those in danger regardless of the risk. So I grinned at the six other guys sitting around the table (and at the DM in particular) and while shaking the 20-sided die in my hand I pretend-shouted, “You shall not have him, FOUL BEAST!” I prepared to charge the mind flayer and take a mighty baseball swing at its face.
I completely whiffed it. It was pretty embarrassing. But it didn’t matter: the DM (and the guy I helped save) both agreed that my foolhardy bum-rush of a monster far mightier than I deserved some Inspiration. I walked away from the table that night feeling really proud of myself.
There are those who hate the new Inspiration mechanic, but I adore it and here’s why: to me, Inspiration represents a kind of human element that makes D&D so great, even after all these years; that element that loves a good story and characters who make that story. It encourages players to go beyond the statistics and number-crunching minutiae of the metagame and create an experience.
It’s this element that video games inevitably but sorely lack.
Take a standard CRPG, Skyrim for example. I think it’s great. My greatest experience in that game was when I was fighting a frost dragon one-on-one on top of a mountain. The main theme song kicked in as the fearsome wyrm roared and blasted me with his icy breath. My mighty orc warrior shrugged off the attack and charged forward with his giant obsidian battle axe. After relentlessly hacking at his scaly flesh, the killing blow animation activated and my orc leapt into the air, swinging his axe down and burying it in his loathsome horny skull. As the slain beast melted away, I absorbed its soul and gained tons of experience. The loot in the treasure chest behind him wasn’t bad either.
I thought that was pretty awesome at the time. But as I look back on it now in the context of my D&D experience, I see it as an example of the shortcomings of a role-playing game without the human element. My Xbox did not and could not care that I slayed the dragon in so heroic a manner, and in such perfect alignment with my character. I could have glitched it out on a building or something and peppered it with fireballs until it croaked, and the result would have been exactly the same.
Or take Fable 2, another pretty great game. For the Crucible section (an arena quest), I decided to go through it with no shirt on, because I was playing a beefy dude with mutton chops and a giant axe and I thought that would be something he would do. The game did not give a crap. It just spat out gold and experience like an old gumball machine, exactly as calculated, exactly as it was programmed to do.
A computer doesn’t understand style, or creativity, or anything that makes good role-playing. It’s understanding, and everything else, is all binary: either you beat the dragon or you don’t. Victory or defeat. Success or failure. One or zero. Yes or no. Yoda-style.
It’s this inflexibility that prevents even the greatest video game RPGs from being all they could be. A video game will only reward you for doing some kick-ass roleplaying if it’s programmed to do so (like the multiple speech options in the Dragon Age games, or the Karma meter in the Infamous series), and even then your options are inherently limited. A machine cannot change the story on the fly; all contingencies must be predicted and written in beforehand. And as no one can predict everything you want to do, role playing games made in this way will never have the freedom of a game like D&D
Now of course, we could split hairs on these things: yes, the Dungeon Master has to write out the story and predict stuff too. Yes, most encounters in D&D are also won by beating up monsters in whatever way works. And yes, when you get down to it, D&D mechanics too are determined by simple “yes or no” binary outcomes.
But the difference—the main, gigantic difference— is that the DM, and not the machine, takes the method and motivation of the player into account. Both a DM and a computer have to determine whether or not your Halfling Ranger successfully leaps over a cavernous pit, but only the DM can change the whole story based on how and why you do it. Suppose this Halfling had a village dying of a cursed plague, and his friends and family are counting on him to bring them back the cure. He was considered the town good-for-nothing until fate called on him and gave him a second chance. The DM could move heaven and earth to see where the character goes; a computer will not. Or suppose this Halfling had an Explorer’s pack with him, which includes a rope, and chose a Criminal background, which comes with a crowbar, and decided to tie the rope around the crowbar and make a makeshift grappling hook. The player may ask the DM if he can swing over the pit with his McGyvered grappling hook, and the DM might think that’s so ingenious that he/she could make room for that possibility even if he/she hadn’t thought of it before; a computer will not.
That is the difference. A human can adapt. A human be amazed, amused, angered, saddened, moved, or empowered. A machine is bound by rules, whereas in a game run by a human, the rules are not paramount; the story is paramount. The experience is paramount. The adventure is paramount. Both the Master and Delver’s common desire to create an epic quest is that human element that makes old-school role-playing superior to any machine’s attempt to copy it. I’m not saying that pen and paper is better than video games—video games were, are, probably will always be my first love, and my top 3 favorite games are all RPGs—but when it comes to playing out the role you want, nothing beats a little human Inspiration.