I still remember the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons, in the late 80's. I loved the game since the first moment I played it, and to this day I continue to be extremely excited with everything released with the D&D stamp.
During the last weeks I have been playtesting the next version of D&D, D&D Next (5th Edition). I am absolutely loving it. It's a major, bold step on a new direction, after the controversial 4th Edition. Going through the D&D Next playtest materials, I started envisioning several campaigns to be used on future play sessions. While I was crafting those campaigns, what made me more excited is the sense of exploration they provided. Fortune or death can be right on the next corner, but if you venture into the wilderness, you will always be recompensated.
As a video Game Designer, I started thinking on modern RPG's that provided me with that exact same feeling. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any. I wanted a game where as soon as I set foot outside of the village I would not know what to find. What kind of mysteries could the forest hide? What creatures lurk in the darkness? This reminded me of an article I read a long time ago entitled What an Old RPG Can Teach Today's Designers. And that article is tremendously spot on! The game design elements of old RPG's have been forgotten by modern RPG game designers, and we all lost with that.
And for me, exploration is the design element that suffered the most. I don't get a sense of wonder on modern RPG video games, because there is none. The games and all the quest givers tell me exactly what I need to do, where I need to go and with whom I need to talk. I want to be able to roam free, and discover all the secrets that no one told me about before. A mysterious cave with suspicious smoke coming from the inside... A shrine in ruins... A magnificent dragon hoard that seems to be forgotten for longer than it deserves...
Of major importance regarding modern RPG video games, it's how shallow the exploration is. We need simple things like rewarding the player for exploration and for his accomplishments. Encounter difficulty on battles during exploration should match the player level, but he should be extremelly challenged in boss fights.
When you're playing a modern RPG, whether you follow strictly the main quest or the several side quests, you're still following a linear railroading path. You are following the story created by the designers. And on an RPG, the designer's role should be giving the player the tools for him to live and create his own story. A designer's work is to build the setting (world building), and define the game systems rules that will support all gameplay mechanics. The designer must be the Game Master, and not someone who bombards players with glorified task lists: Do this, do that, talk with him, battle this... It's time to give back to the players the sense of wonder that can be found in exploration and let him forge his own path. Let him discover all the great world elements you spread through the game world.
When everything feels very mechanical, then you can be sure it will be very boring, very quickly. Players being teleported from one location to the other without having time to become fully immersed in the world, it's not the best approach for an RPG.
And this is why to this date, for me there is nothing that beats a D&D play session. The sense of wonder continues in tabletop RPG's, and D&D Next will prove that is as healthy as ever. I long for the day when video game RPG game designers will start paying more attention to what an RPG really is.