TTRPGs were the inspiration for many of the first role playing video games. The D&D manual guided programmers as they brought adventures to our consoles. As a baby of the 90s, video games were much more readily available to me than D&D. So, I learned a lot about being a dungeon master from my consoles. Here are five video games that led me to Dungeons and Dragons, and the lessons I learned from each:
WWF No Mercy (2000)
Don’t “wait, what” me, BROTHERRRR!
It’s worth noting that I was a little late to video games. My parents never bought me a system as a kid because they worried I’d never see the light of day again. They were probably right. But there was always my cousin’s house! And that’s where I found the cutting edge thrills that the N64 had to offer. More than anything, I found myself enthralled by the character creation system on this masterpiece. I’d stay up all night customizing a brand new addition to the WWF roster complete with a costume and - shockingly - a completely customizable move-set. And then I took my character into story mode and played the first game where I’d ever experienced failing forward… The game was hard, okay? But when you lost a match, you’d move on to a cutscene where your character meets a new ally, hatches schemes for the title, or gets his nose rubbed in it by the eeeeevil cocky villain (Triple H obviously). This effectively makes you want to kick his ass even more with your customizable move-set.
This was a priceless lesson in my future D&D sessions. Failure does not mean the end of the campaign. If anything, it should heighten the stakes and make things more exciting than ever. Always prepare alternate routes to the heavyweight championship. Of course, you shouldn’t force your players to fail, but you should definitely allow them to.
Red Alert 2 (2000)
Maybe war with Soviet Russia doesn’t sound very appealing at the moment… But I promise you this game was a blast. The realtime base-building strategy game to rule them all. But apart from the well-balanced and challenging gameplay - the real draw of Red Alert 2 was the cast of goofy colorful characters and the quality and comedy of the live-action cutscenes. The game felt like a parody of classic 80’s and 90’s action tropes and featured (somewhat) recognizable actors speaking as seriously as possible about time travel, mind control, and all out nuclear war.
This is perhaps the least D&D-like game on my list. But I loved it. And believe it or not - I found it helpful in my D&D campaigns. Key NPC’s, villains and heroes alike, can be goofy and still be good. They can be overtly cheesy, and still be wise. They can fall into obvious tropes, but still be entertaining and meaningful pieces of the larger story. In Red Alert 2, the Allies literally go back in time to recruit Einstein to develop weapons to fight the Soviets. AND IT WORKED. I’m not saying you have to do that in your campaign… but you could.
Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes (2003)
Not sure if this one’s relevant… Heh. I played this game with no concept whatsoever of what D&D actually was. I didn’t need to know. This game is amazing.
One of the best nights of my life was when 5 or 6 of us got together in my parents’ basement, squeezed onto the couches and played through the entire campaign. It’s a 4 player game so we had to take shifts. Each of us had our favorite character. Each of us knew when to call for heals from the cleric, or a poison arrow from the rogue. We fought over rare treasures. We lost ourselves in the action - most memorably when my cousin triggered a holy hailstorm and literally screamed out “RAIN DOWN UPON THEE!” as it crushed our enemies. He later claimed to have no memory of yelling.
The beauty of this game was the camaraderie. Modern video games do their best to provide that same sense of togetherness in co-op games without actually including couch-play options. Those of us who manage to get a couple friends over for D&D once in a while should count ourselves lucky to get to spend time among friends above all else.
I guess the main thing I learned here was this… Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Hang out with your friends. (And also play D&D if you can.)
Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004)
Pirates was the first game I owned where I felt completely and utterly free. Free to sink or steal whatever ship I wanted. Free to marry the Governor of Tortuga’s beautiful daughter. Free to forget about the main quest for a while and then realize that my character is actually aging, and now I literally move too slowly to defeat the campaign villain so I have to retire unavenged…
It was a blast.
The entire goal of this game is “kill the bad guy”, but doing so meant dueling, dancing, breaking out of prison, following treasure maps, trading spices, getting marooned, leading troops to sack Spanish stronghold, and more! The sea was mine.
For my campaigns, there may be a super scary villain hanging out near the end, but there is also an extremely important element that can only be brought by the players: the desire to do whatever they want. Get married? That’s an adventure. Run for mayor? Make it interesting. Open a tavern and find the best ales on the continent to serve to their growing patronage? Why the hell not. Give your players the sea.
The Elder Scrolls V - Skyrim (2011)
Who didn’t love Skyrim? Exactly. Nobody.
In one sentence - Skyrim is a game where you play the chosen one (Dragonborn), and use any combination of spells and medieval weaponry to slay bandits, monsters, dragons, etc… Of course, like Pirates, there are about a million other things to do along the way.
It’s one of the best and most obvious D&D-ish games that has ever been made. There are endless lessons we can learn from it to try and emulate into our D&D campaigns. Most impressive to me was always the impossible amount of detail in the lore - found in every journal, tome, or bloody note that you collect. All of this is thanks to 1000’s of hours of work from the creatives at Bethesda, but for a Dungeon Master it comes down to knowing your world.
NPC’s should have lives. Simple at first, but more fleshed out if the PC’s take an interest.
Factions and nations should be strange and exciting with alliances and rivalries - but they should also make a bit of sense.
And bookshelves should have books on them! I like to use a generator to find some titles, then try to improvise a little bit at a time as your characters read.
I know you don’t have 1000’s of hours to spare… but the internet does! If you need to, borrow some lore from our beloved community of like-minded D&D nerds.
Those are the probably the 5 most influential video games of my childhood and adolescence that led me to Dungeons and Dragons. For me, D&D will never replace video games and vice versa. Instead, my two loves will inspire greatness in each other for the decades to come - in perfect harmony. Did that sound dramatic? Good.