Every month or so some friends and I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons, a role-playing game which turns out to be as complicated as modern finance, a religious text, and an assemble-it-yourself furniture order.
With a large variety of spells, abilities, gear, character types, etc, this game requires trained narrators and decent-sized player handbooks of 300+ pages. These make up what must be a thousand variables, and therefore hundreds of thousands of gameplay possibilities.
You’d think this would be frustrating. Instead, it’s fascinating. The game – like real life – becomes complex, strategic, and rich with different possibility paths.
All of this got me thinking about what makes great gameplay (of the analog or digital variety). My theory is that it takes three elements – all elements I see in Dungeons and Dragons.
1. Complex Rules
As already mentioned, complex rules create complex possibilities. By introducing new limitations and constraints, these rules force players down new and interesting paths to overcome (and use) those limitations.
With a game like checkers, there are several constraints: don’t jump backward if you’re not a king, stay on the diagonal, etc. These rules are enough to make a fair number of people want to play. But checkers is far from an imitation of life and far from capable of mesmerizing people.
With RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons (and all that have come after), gameplay has evolved hundreds and possibly thousands of rules which operate in the background and come to the fore at interesting moments. You find out your character can’t make that jump, must fight that type of dragon, and always carries that magical item – and that makes for a story almost as complex as life.
2. Significant Context
Like life itself, a good game must have history and place and characterization bigger than the players themselves. That context should be significant to the gameplay and (ideally) changing and growing.
Dungeons and Dragons has context in spades, making up a good chunk of what you find in the player’s handbook. Rather than just assigning arbitrary rules, D&D provides backstory and motivation and evaluation. There are all kinds of magical creatures to learn about: elves and gnomes and halflings and men and dragon-born and orcs. There are religions, weapons, and magic spells.
In yet another powerful imitation of life, these complex setting pieces all work together to create an environment for the player that requires constant curiosity, imagination, and exploration.
If everything happens only according to rules (if A then B) in a game – or in life – there can be little story and little engagement. It’s the unexpected that makes life good and difficult.
The use of multiple die (and therefore different probabilities) in Dungeons and Dragons is another part of what makes games like this one interesting. Die introduce that necessary element of randomness alongside the more predictable rules and known factors of your character and setting. In the end success in gameplay becomes a mix of luck and skill.