Among all the different genres of video games, one of the most diverse is the role-playing game (RPG). It has always been hard to define what an RPG actually is, which has given rise to subcategories like action-RPG, tactical-RPG, dungeon-crawler, and JRPG. The Mass Effect games are often referred to as RPGs, but they play like third-person shooters, while Dark Souls is often called an RPG, but it plays like an action game with a strong emphasis on the player’s reflexes. Many elements commonly associated with RPGs, like experience, levels, attributes, or skills, have infiltrated every other genre, making it even harder to pinpoint unique features. A look at the pen-and-paper origins of the genre can help us understand what made it so compelling as it evolved: an amount of freedom that isn’t found in other games.
When the original Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was released in 1974, the term RPG wasn’t coined yet; instead it was described as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” and a direct descendant to tabletop war games. Many of the mechanics found in these earlier tactical games were later widely associated with RPGs. The original campaign suggestions included with the core rules of D&D had a similar flavor: combat-heavy dungeoneering with wilderness encounters as a side-dish. This is essentially the basic concept that would later inspire early video games like Wizardry, in which dungeon exploration and tactical combat took center stage, with the outside world only represented by a hub town.
When the second edition of D&D was released as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), the mechanics became much more comprehensive, covering a wider array of interactions and reducing the reliance on miniatures. While helpful as a visualization aid, miniatures can also restrict imagination, since players are often prone to not noticing environment that isn’t physically represented on the board. As an example, players storm a bandit hideout and enter a room filled with enemies sitting on a large table. If the table is represented on the board, the players may get the idea to interact with it (e.g. flip it over); if it isn’t physically represented or just an element on a drawn map like any other obstacle, players may just treat it as such. Furthermore, their use can limit the Dungeon Master (“referee” in the 1st Edition), since battles need to be planned ahead and map layouts need to be created in advance, making it much harder to react to the players’ actions swiftly and spontaneously. The lack of miniatures, combined with the general feature that the Dungeon Master could simply design the necessary dice rolls for every possible action (however improbable), allowed for an incredible amount of freedom within the game.
Giving the Dungeon Master the tools to design and adapt the rules provided the flexibility needed to improvise, which always happened sooner or later, even when sticking to well-plotted, pre-made adventures. These adventures are usually modular: players arrive at a location and have options for how to explore, consisting of paths leading to different places containing objects, events, traps, or encounters. Once a goal is reached, the players move on to the next location, often by traveling through the wilderness and facing potential encounters. Of course these events are framed by a surrounding narrative structure to provide meaning to the players’ actions. This may sound like the most archetypical description of how RPGs play out as video games. Indeed, the closest approximations to these pre-made adventures were the Gold Box games, a series of AD&D-based games released by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) starting in 1988 with Pool of Radiance, which shared the design structure as well as the style of descriptive writing.
If there is one thing that can be learned by being a Dungeon Master, it is that if you plan three possible solutions for a problem, the players will most likely opt for a fifth. In the early years, I usually tried to push the players back to the planned-out track; however, I began to see the benefits of giving them as much freedom as possible. I started to design adventures with a non-linear structure in which the directions changed depending on key decisions. I eventually got frustrated, since I essentially planned multiple different variants of which the players never got to see more than one, rendering the others useless and a waste of effort. Eventually, I began improvising a lot to adapt to the players’ decisions, often getting called out for plotting their death at each opportunity. In a way, they were correct: whenever they were discussing their next steps, I was plotting. In one case, the players were tasked to enter a cave in the forest, only to discover an encampment of gnolls at the entrance. My original plan was to have the players attempt to sneak past them or scout the environment for a second, less-guarded, entrance. Suddenly, the players were considering a plan to set a forest fire to solve the problem. My mind started racing as I went through all the possible consequences this might have, from short-term effects like the gnolls fleeing into the cave (the last place the players would want them) or the turning of the wind putting the players in peril, to long-term effects like dealing with an enraged druid or the families of hunters who burned in the fire.
Adapting to the players’ choices and improvising accordingly became my standard style. Eventually I created an adventure that was at its core a murder mystery. I designed the town setting, the people involved, and most of all the villain. I wrote his entire biography, designed his ambitions based on it, and determined every resource at his disposal (funds, objects, henchmen). Then I wrote down his master plan and how it would unfold if the players didn’t intervene, followed by an initial trigger event to get the players involved. The result was an adventure designed for maximum flexibility, in which I spent a lot of time taking the perspective of the antagonist and plotting how he would deal with the meddling heroes, constantly adapting the plan to the present situation until the players would eventually confront him. The resulting game session was one of the best I’ve ever had.
While many video game designers concentrated on adapting the mechanics of pen-and-paper systems, some also tried to recreate the freedom granted by them. Early RPGs like Ultima (1981) offered an open world to explore, yet specific tasks were required for progress within the game. The open world of Darklands (1992) wasn’t bound by a fixed goal outside of finding adventure and provides an early example of the now popular “sandbox” design. In Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000), dialog choices affect the relationships between the party members, while Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995) offers harsh choices that alter the progression of the story and determine which allies and foes will be encountered. The Fallout series offers multiple solutions to most problems, often connected to specific skills of the player character, which even enable players to avoid fighting bosses simply by talking them into submission.
These games provide players with a degree of freedom above and beyond the growth, equipment, or combat systems that are now prevalent in every genre, but this freedom is limited. Even if players get to choose between different options (for example, within a dialog tree), they are not independently coming up with a solution. They just pick one of the predetermined options. This inherent limitation is probably the key difference between pen-and-paper and video games.
Eventually, one can ask if the term “RPG” is meaningful or relevant as a video game genre. In the beginning, it defined games designed based on pen-and-paper systems; however, game design has always thrived on combining game mechanics in a variety of ways. As a result, the term “RPG” has become hardly more than a statement of intent, rather than a definite, coherent design philosophy. Of course this doesn’t change the fact that these games can be fun, independent of definitions or level of freedom, but it sets the video game adaptations apart from the pen-and-paper originals. The freedom to choose my own actions in a fictional world without predetermined paths or limitations is what causes me to still get out my dice, even as the digital age progresses.
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Gygax, Gary and Dave Arneson. Dungeons & Dragons. Lake Geneva: Tactical Studies
Rules, 1974. Print.