While many RPGs, particularly Japanese RPGs, create their own rulesets, a lot borrow from commonly used tabletop RPG systems. The most common of these that we see in video games is Dungeons and Dragons (henceforth referred to as D&D). This isn't really surprising since D&D is undoubtedly the most famous and popular RPG ruleset available and it was a natural evolution to move this system into the video game medium. In fact, D&D first transitioned to video games all the way back on the Intellivision in 1982, one of the earliest RPGs made for consoles (earlier titles existed on computers but they were unlicensed). But does the system really belong in games? Do games need to rely on D&D principles at all or does it simply hold them back?
First, it's helpful to understand the basics of how D&D works to see how the games handle the system. D&D, if you don't know, is a set of game rules meant to be used over the top of a collaborative story, controlled by a Dungeon Master or Game Master with the details filled in by the players. The game uses campaign guides in order to help move the story along as well as rules for how to determine the outcomes of the player's actions. Every outcome in the game is determined by rolling dice. The amount of dice rolled, the type of dice rolled and the amount needed are determined by character statistics. The highest level of statistics will seem familiar to anyone who's played an RPG in the last 30 years: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. There are many lower level statistics too, determined by the items equipped and the base stats of the player. Things like will saves, reflex saves and others help determine how your character responds to specific actions like dodging arrows or blades all the way to how NPCs will respond to your character. The complexity of D&D has made it so popular as a tabletop system because it allows flexibility in storytelling without needing to worry that the game won't be able to account for player's actions.
A system that allows stories to be told and uses something as simple as dice to determine success or failure in actions? Sounds perfect for a video game, right? Well, yeah, it was. It allowed complex games like RPGs to exist on consoles like the Intellivision which never would have been able to handle RPGs like we have today, even disregarding the graphical quality. Not only that but it gave a standard that allowed players to jump in and immediately understand the basics.
So what's the problem with D&D in video games? Well, there are a few. The first and most glaringly obvious is that it's simply too complicated. Many people, especially D&D mainstays, will cry foul at this stating that they learned it so others can too but the issue is that most won't. Let's look at one of the most popular D&D RPG's: Baldur's Gate.
Some of this is simple. Down in the bottom left, we have hit points. The current hit points versus the maximum hit points. Hit points equals health so that's how much health you have. Simple. Up in the top right, we get some character information. This is one of those games where you keep adding to your experience and you have to hit a new goal to get the next level up. This character has 513 experience so far and needs 2250 to reach the next level. Sounds good. Most anyone who's played an RPG can get behind that. Just below that they seem to have some immunities. Protection from Poison, self explanatory. Mind Shield, some type of resistance to magic attacks, perhaps? Still, that's not too unusual and the game probably teaches you as you go. Resist Fear, fear must be some status effect. Fatigue, maybe that's a status effect on them now? So we have a bit of potential confusion but nothing that wouldn't be solved simply by understanding status effects, something that often changes from game to game. From here, things aren't necessarily as they seem.
The top left has the character's stats, as I mentioned above. It looks normal except for one thing, strength. 18/35? What on Earth does that mean? Maybe there are two strength stats? Perhaps one for melee or ranged? Nope. You see, in AD&D 2nd Edition, which is what Baldur's Gate is based on, once a character's stats hit 18, they start to go up in increments so instead of just jumping to 19 when you put another point in strength, they get to go through fractions. So the 35 is actually saying you're 35% of the way to 19. Let's jump down to the armor section. Now the most common mode of thinking for most people would be the higher the number in armor, the better, but that's not how 2nd edition works. We'll explain in a bit why that is but for now, just know that you want a lower armor class which is why it has the bonuses under it for Medium Shield -1 and Dexterity -2. Bouncing over to the bottom right, we see the weapon statistics. Throwing Axe which does a damage of... 1d6 +1? What? And what are those numbers underneath it? Number of attacks 3/2? To understand this, you have to remember that on the tabletop, attacks are determined by rolling dice. 1d6 represents the number and type of dice rolled to make your attack. The first number is the amount of dice, in this case just 1, and the second number is the maximum number that die can have. So 1d6 means roll 1 6-sided die and the number you get there is your damage. The +1 modifier is then added to whatever number you just rolled so if you roll a 5, you do 6 damage, ignoring the enemies armor.
Moving up one cell we finally make it to the granddaddy of all nonsense, THAC0. This is actually an acronym that you will thankfully never see anywhere else other than D&D games. It stands for To Hit Armor Class 0. You know how in almost every RPG, you can miss an attack or get critical hits right? Well, in 2nd edition AD&D, you have to make a roll before dealing damage that determines whether or not you even hit. To do this, you roll one 20-sided die. So check out that character stat, Base THAC0: 20. That means you have to roll a 20 just to hit an enemy with an armor class of 0. Not great odds, huh? Thankfully, there are modifiers. Throwing Axe stats and Dexterity stats give a -3 meaning you subtract 3 from 20 to get your actual THAC0, 17. This means you have to roll 17 or higher to hit an enemy that has an armor class of 0. Better but still not great. Now, remember that I told you before, you want a lower armor class number, right? This is because the hit calculation is THAC0 - Armor Class = X, with X being the number you need to roll. So if this character fights an enemy with an armor class of 10, that would be 17 - 10 = 7, and they'd only have to roll a 7 or higher to hit the enemy. You can also go below armor class 0, though so some enemies may have a -2. That would mean you'd have to roll a 19 or higher, even with a THAC0 of 17.
Congratulations! You understand the basics of D&D (or at least 2nd edition). Now, all of this may be a bit convoluted but it at least makes sense from a pen and paper standpoint. The problem is that this is COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY for video games. The Throwing Axe has a damage of 1d6 +1 which is necessary to specify for a die but in a game, why not just say 2-7? We don't need to know why it's 2-7 from the number generator's perspective, just that it is. As for armor class, any logical person would think that more armor is better from a defensive point of view. That's all we need to know, so why not invert the numbers and make it make sense?
Another important statistic we didn't go over are saving rolls. These are broken up into millions of little granular statistics like fire saving throws and reflex saving throws and all sorts of other saving throws. These are your ability to dodge whatever types of attacks come at you, be they fire spells, arrows or whatever else. This isn't even a bad concept for a video game but there isn't any need to refer to them as saving throws. That's just confusing for a gamer that may not be thinking about their video game from the perspective of rolling dice. Why not just Fire Dodge or Arrow Dodge. It's granular and unnecessary for most games but if a game wants to use it, they can and this way, it's apparent to the gamer what that skill is for and what it does.
As we progress forward, the industry seems to feel similarly about this as even the D&D labelled games tend to throw all of this information under the hood in favor of simple gameplay. However, they're commonly throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they've decided that what people really want are action RPGs like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerdale but this isn't true! We still love complex RPG's, we just don't want to have to leap over unnecessary hurdles like are present in the famous Infinity Engine games. They don't make them bad games, quite the contrary. Baldur's Gate is still one of the best RPGs, even holding up in modern day playthroughs, as the Enhanced Editions prove. It's just ridiculous that we have to learn about THAC0 to enjoy them.
Seriously, though, D&D rules can be a slog to learn but if you like RPGs, it's worth it to play Baldur's Gate and the other Infinity Engine/Aurora Engine games out there. Specifically in regards to Beamdog's Enhanced Edition games, don't believe the review scores! Many people give it bad scores because they essentially just modded the original games to make them look more modernized (things like increase the supported resolutions and make it widescreen). If you aren't willing to go through modding the original titles, however, definitely look into these games, they are well worth the 20 bucks each as they offer easily over 60 hours of great RPG content. If you are willing to experiment a bit to get it working, GOG.com has the original titles available for much cheaper and their forums have some easy to find, useful guides for modding the games to get them working on modern computers. I recently got them both working wonderfully on my Windows 8 machine so I can happily confirm it is doable.
Along with Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, here are some other great D&D RPGs you can use your newfound THAC0 knowledge to delve into:
- Planescape: Torment
- Icewind Dale
- Icewind Dale II
- The Temple of Elemental Evil
- Neverwinter Nights
- Neverwinter Nights II