Spring Thing 2022: 5e Arena

This is essentially a proof-of-concept for a somewhat novel approach to computerizing a solo Dungeons & Dragons adventure. The player is expected to provide their own character, between levels 1 and 4. (Options for characters up to level 7 are purportedly going to be added in later versions.) The player is also expected to come furnished with an understanding of the rules of 5th edition D&D: much of the game is executed by hand, and, although the game gives you some assistance in tracking positions and HP, most of the relevant state is external to the game, in the player’s head.

In that regard, it has much in common with certain gamebooks I’ve seen, some of them specifically D&D-based. Occasionally such books get ported to computers, and it’s always an open question just how much the computer will automate and how much will be executed by the player. Does the computer roll dice for you? Make combat decisions for enemies? The guiding principle behind 5e Arena is to make the player do anything that the player, rather than the DM, would do in a tabletop D&D session. Thus, you roll the dice for your own attacks and skill checks, but the enemy’s attacks are automated. But even the automated rolls are interpreted by the player. You decide whether it hit. Just like a solo adventure in print, it all runs on the honor system, and you can just decide to tell it that you’ve won (or lost) a fight if you want. (The whole thing is even written in Twine Harlowe, which means there’s a “go back” button on each page. The author is clearly not concerned about cheating.) Furthermore, it trusts you to handle enemy movement, which would normally be done by the DM — after all, for all it knows, you might be casting spells that affect it. It’s placing no limits on what you can do. It even incorporates rules for rolling dice to simulate DM judgment about questionable effects.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, yes, if you want to handle the full range of possible player actions, including improvised ones, there’s only so much structure you can put into the system. But I’m not entirely convinced that this system hits the best compromise between structure and freedom. Perhaps it would be better if the system provided overridable defaults for NPC movement — or maybe that would just complicate the UI to no good purpose. It’s positioned as a solo D&D adventure, after all, not as a CRPG.

The story is basically just “Challenge a sequence of three opponents in gladiatorial combat”, with a choice of different levels of enemies. I played through honestly with a level 2 character that I just happened to have been playing recently with my regular D&D group, who lost in round 3 due to his slow speed and lack of ranged attacks, then simply browsed the rest of the scenarios. It actually stretches the minimal plot pretty far, throwing in twists like “Your opponent isn’t what it seems” and “Someone offers you money to take a dive, but you have to make Performance checks to sell it”. There’s enough material around the edges of the barely-a-combat-system to make it clear that the format would be viable for a fuller adventure.

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