My D&D group, now in its fourth year, is closing in on level 11. This campaign finds them at the Half League House, in our world a combination Prancing Pony and the roadhouse in From Dusk Till Dawn. The colorful retinue of Synergistic Enterprises LLC. includes a pyromaniac warlord, a Githyanki stat whore, and a particularly virile minotaur. In the past few encounters they’ve punched a pet pig, foiled an assassination attempt on a lesbian dwarf, and leapt down a well after a shapeshifter only to be attacked by a gelatinous scab. In December they’ll defend their impromptu stronghold from a siege by war trolls in a hex-based mini-game. Truth be told, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in D&D before. The reason is that after many years I’m truly beginning to trust my players.
After a dozen hours inside Skyrim’s town of Whiterun, I can see signs of Bethesda trusting me in much the same way. But do I trust them back?
Earlier this year I turned over a new leaf as a game master. Instead of carefully scripting encounters, instead of running with my own elaborate stories and pushing them down the player’s throat, I went freeform. I’ve begun showing up with a location or two, a handful of randomized NPC templates, and a conflict in mind. When I sit down at the head of the table I’m not reading from my own hackneyed script, I’m just letting my players play with the baubles I’ve brought with. The feedback, and the direction they’ve taken our game, has surprised me. They’re picking up on what I’m laying down atmospherically. What initially seemed a rough, seedy border town is really the pet project of a soft-hearted woman trying to create a safe haven for a populace she loves. What began as a sales expedition, a chance to sell their security services in a larger marketplace, is now a desperate mission of mercy. Our ruthless band of looters masquerading as security consultants has turned into blue-helmeted peace keepers, and I can tell they’re having a blast. I can see echoes of this same kind of atmospheric pacing in the town of Whiterun.
(What follows is spoilery for those who’ve not spent at least ten hours in the game. If you are so inclined stop reading here and skip down to the third paragraph from the end.)
An early quest takes you to the jarl's dungeon, surreptitiously hidden below the palace, to interrogate a prisoner. The way I got to this point was not by clicking a stoic NPC who had a gleaming explanation point propped above their head, nor was it by navigating dozens of textual options. I got here by overhearing a conversation that was happening at the town gate, by stopping, and asking questions. Things were happening around me as I entered Whiterun, they were not happening to me. The quest writer in this instance was showing rather than telling, and I the player was able to pick up the hook they left me or press on toward my meeting with the jarl.
But here in this dungeon I was presented with a different problem. The man I needed information from was behind bars, and the only way to get him to talk was to pay his fine. I could have broken him out, but he told me that only after I paid his fine would be talk. He wanted a clean record, a fresh start, and making him a fugitive would not have given him that chance. I ambled over to the guard and ponied up the cash, the prisoner’s lips loosened, and I received the information I needed to proceed with the quest.
But as I turned to leave another side conversation began, this time between the guard and the Redguard prisoner.
“Guard, let me out of here. My fine has been paid!” yelled the prisoner. “Let me see where I put that key,” mocked the guard. “Oh no! Seems I misplaced it. I’ll keep looking. Perhaps I'll find it eventually.”
Again, I could just walk away and leave this man to rot, but the other hints that Bethesda had been dropping since the beginning of the game suddenly coalesced for me. I had started my life in this world much like this Redguard, a prisoner kept against my will. As I walked through town my own character, an Argonian, was called out for being non-human and epithets were casually tossed his way by the town guards. Their armor itself made them faceless, dark orbs where their eyes belonged made them seem like jack-booted storm troopers in short pants. These bastards were racists, and they had it out for me just the same as they had it out for this hapless black man. I could do something about it, or I could just walk away.
And so here I am sitting at work contemplating my next move. In previous Bethesda games I might simply gut these guards, release this man, and together we would fight out way out of the city. But I’m part of this community now. I have a home, and a position in the jarl’s court. I can’t tear the place up and expect there to be no repercussions. I could sneak in, unlock the door, but more than likely this Redguard would die as he made a run for it. Perhaps after unlocking the door I can use my position to influence the guards and strong arm them into letting the man go, or maybe I’ll go speak to the jarl himself and negotiate safe passage out of the city. Maybe there’s a secret entrance somewhere nearby that will allow me to smuggle him out in the dead of night.
The simple fact is that Bethesda has trusted me at this point to come to my own conclusions about the plight of this man and my relationship with him. They’ve given me the atmospheric hooks to put together a truth, of a kind, inside my own head as to what the intentions are of each of the players in this little tableau. What remains to be seen, however, is how their system holds together. When I get home I’ll save my game and try a few different things until I get a feel, not for the situation, but for how the game will react to my actions. Bethesda trusts me to put two and two together, but I don’t quite trust them yet to make logical sense of my actions.
When I’m playing D&D I can save a situation gone awry, stop the players from killing an innocent or steer them away from disrupting something special I have planned for them. I’m there as a safety mechanism, a spotter for a high-wire act set inside their imagination. In a computer game there is no such insurance against failure. You save your game, you hope for the best, and you put aside your doubts about the reality of this world for the sake of trying to get yourself a little further down the rabbit hole that someone built for you to find. A good GM will see trouble coming and guide the group back to safety. A good group of players will trust the GM to do so.
In a way, Bethesda and I have come to trust each other more and more since Morrowind. With luck we’ll develop a rapport, if not as rich as the one I share with my D&D group, perhaps somewhere near as trusting.