D&D as Text Adventure Game

I thought of this earlier but Brendan’s comment to my Identify post brought it back to mind. If you run D&D as a descriptive game rather than dice-roll-heavy, it might help to take inspiration from text adventure games (many of which themselves are modeled after D&D, so beware idea stagnation).

For those not in the know, text adventure games look like this. Simply, you are a person in a place. You have an inventory. Your current location is a place with exits, and you can go somewhere by giving a command like “go north”. When you enter a place, or you “look”, the game gives you a description of your place and lists any loose objects in it.

You can do actions to anything in your area or inventory. For example, in the game I linked, you can “open mailbox” because the mailbox is listed as an item nearby when you “look”. You can also “look at the house” to examine the house more carefully. Note that the house isn’t an item exactly, it’s scenery, but you can still do things with it. The player is the D&D player, and the computer is the DM.

Here’s where our descriptive D&D comes into play. I could say “I want to open the door” and the DM will say “the door is boarded up, you can’t open it”. I might think there’s something under the welcome mat, but the game doesn’t recognize the verb for “flip over the mat” so the next best thing is to “look under the mat” or “take mat”. You can see how having a living DM can really help! One big problem with text adventure games is figuring out the right words to use so it understands.

Anyway, there is a natural back-and-forth in information. The player looks at the house, so the DM explains it’s a white colonial house that’s all boarded up. Really the DM should have said that in the first place, but oh well. The point is that the player doesn’t get anything for free: if he wants to explore the building, it’s not enough to just say “I go in and explore the place”. He has to figure out how to get in, and then explore by going from one room to the next poking and prodding.

In some text games, if you revisit a place, it will just give you a basic description of the room, possibly just the room’s name. A DM can do this too, bringing up the verbose description if someone says they’re looking around in general or if it’s been a while since anyone’s been there.

If you get into the house, you’re probably in the kitchen. Here the game gets downright pedantic, and you can’t “look in the sack” until you first “open the sack”. That’s just petty. I take everything and ask about “exits”. The game gives me a list, and I go somewhere. By the way, mapping is worthwhile but some text adventure games are a little loose with distances and a big piece of white paper can be more helpful than a grid.

If you go west into the front room of the house there’s a big sword and a lamp, and a rug. If you don’t think to move the rug, there’s no way to notice the trapdoor hidden underneath. How is the player supposed to know to move the rug? Because there are only so many interesting things to poke at, and after you develop player skill you start to notice which ones look suspicious right away. I tried looking behind the trophy case, but it didn’t understand what I wanted to do.

There are plenty of ways in which we can improve the text adventure experience in tabletop D&D. For one, we can dispense with silly intermediary steps like having to open the bag before looking in it. We can use complex verbs like “I’ll swap the chainmail with my leather and just leave the leather on the floor” which a text interpreter might have trouble with. We can skip over things like making your way through the forest (unless something interesting is going on).

But the basis is the same for both games: here is a world, there is your character, DM describes the world and you describe what you want your character to try to do.

To create rich descriptions you’ll need to spend lots of time on it beforehand and write up tables of stuff you can pick from on the fly. Like a list of secret door triggers, various trap types with triggers, where hidden treasure might be located.

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