Since then, the relationship between D&D and computer RPGs has been one in which D&D mostly went its own way and computer RPGs swiped bits that fit their medium. Attempts to program various iterations of D&D into CRPGs have done a lot to draw the two communities closer together. That said, from the beginning, D&D held at its core aspects that computer RPGs just couldn't touch. Advances in computing power and algorithm design have still not given us anything close to what a live and creative DM can deliver. But there have been some advances that have narrowed the gap somewhat. The sandboxy aspects of the Elder Scrolls games (and the Ultima games before them) were an early example. More recently, BioWare has been pushing a design ethos heavily based on consequences for player choices and a plot structure that looks very much like an adventure path.
Guild Wars 2. As usual, they're crowing about unique design, how their game is going to be different from the competition. Also as usual, you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt; there's usually something of a gap between what the game promises during development and what it delivers in actual play. They’re pushing a "not your father's MMOG" look and feel. Clearly, they want to stand out as not just another WoW clone. Still, and despite their protestations that their game will not include the traditional class triad, we're clearly looking at another fantasy-themed combat-focused game.
There is some interesting stuff in the design manifesto published last April:
Let’s say a village is being terrorized by bandits. You don’t want to find out about that because there’s a villager standing there motionless with an exclamation mark over his head who says when you click on him, “Help, we’re being terrorized by bandits.” You want to find out like you would in GW2: because the bandits are attacking, chasing villagers through the streets, slaying them and setting their houses on fire. You can stand up for the villagers, or you can watch their village burn to the ground and then deal with the consequences.
This is your classic "show, don't tell" writer's advice. And it is very, very good advice. The mysterious cloaked stranger in the tavern is still something of a classic in tabletop RPGs, but you don't see him much in actual published material. I suspect you don't see him much outside of tournament play and other one-shots. Since at least the early 90s, you're far more likely to start an adventure by visiting a local village during market day and then suddenly finding yourself up to your Helm of Brilliance in hill giant marauders intent on stealing the prize-winning largest pumpkin.
There is also new fun to be found some of the oldest tricks:
We think of GW2 as the first MMO that actually has a cooperative PvE experience. When I’m out hunting and suddenly there’s a huge explosion over the next hill – the ground is shaking and smoke is pouring into the sky – I’m going to want to investigate, and most other players in the area will too. Or if the sky darkens on a sunny day, and I look up and see a dragon circling overhead preparing to attack, I know I’d better fight or flee, and everyone around me knows that too.
Yep, it's the good old wondering monster with a bit of a twist. Granted, part of how they make this work is by giving everybody who takes part a full share of the loot, which pokes as many holes in my sense of verisimilitude as does 4e’s insistence that defeated drow cannot be plundered for their equipment.
Still, I'm heartened to see the industry still pushing gameplay envelopes and not relying on graphics alone to draw traffic. I'm still not likely to pick an evening of Guild Wars 2 (sorry, Jesse ;) ) over any of my Labyrinth Lord games, but the computer world is inching closer, bit by bit, to the sort of play I think I would enjoy.