Learning Computer Role-Playing Games
Note: This was written as a draft of The Roots of Computer Roleplaying which appeared on Gamers.com
The Roots of Computer Roleplaying
In the beginning, there were Pens and Paper
With a computer, you don't need friends to play role-playing games. This was big news in the late 1970s. Many early video game programmers who were fans of Dungeons & Dragons realized they could replace their fellow adventurers and the Dungeon Master with computer rule-keeping, storytelling software. Twenty years later, now that the tools and toys are more titillating, computer role-playing games are headed back to their human relationship roots.
Tile by Tile
Akalabeth is among the oldest computer role-playing games. Programmed in 1979 by the young Richard Garriot, Akalabeth was a role-playing computer game when computer games were sold in plastic baggies. Alkabeth offered a combination of overhead adventuring in a far-away, distant land, and the chance to go through some very sparsely decorated dungeons to face a few "hi-res" monsters with either spells or weapons.
The response to Akalabeth was enthusiastic enough to warrant a follow-up; code from that game laid the groundwork for Ultima I, first in a series of computer role-playing games that's still popular today. The early games featured large landscapes you wandered through with a bird's eye view, and dungeons in first-person 3D. Ultima IV evolved the "kill and get cool stuff" paradigm of fantasy roleplay to include morality -- and even different views of morality. Throughout it's long history, the Ultima series is one of the most venerable series of games for daring to ask us, "What does it mean to be virtuous?"
I'm Gonna Crawl
Published in 1981 on the Apple II, Wizardry was the first popular "dungeon crawl" where you walk your party of six adventurers through lengthy dungeon hallways. The corridors in the first Wizardry were bare-naked outlines, with plain-text signs scattered few and far between. Visually it was the bare minimum, but the structure of the game held a good load of fantasy -- dozens of monsters and over forty spells you had to conjure by typing them in letter by letter. Wizardry definitely borrowed much from the structure of D&D, using Armor Class to determine how tough a creature was to hit, simulated die rolls to determine damage and character resistances and abilities. There were many other games in the Wizardry series; the eighth should be released soon.
Bard's Tale added texture to the blank walls of Wizardry, giving players the chance to adventure indoors or outside in the city of Skara Brae (and there was a difference!). The familiar ditty from the first game is still instantly recognizable to many a player. Three games emerged from the Bard's Tale series, as well as a Bard's Tale Construction Set. Twelve years after the last Bard's Tale game came out, there is an online petition today pushing for a fourth game in the series.
Emerging later in the 1980s, the Might and Magic series served up thick fantasy hack-and-slash. Might and Magic consistently featured a first-person perspective and cartoon-like graphics that were combined with an offbeat sense of humor (evident in enemies like whip-wielding dominatrix Witches and blade-twirling "Cuisinarts") in boilerplate fantasy plots and puzzles spiced up by an occasional interstellar invasion or bizarre cult.
These popular franchises and many other early computer roleplaying games shared a fantasy setting; kings decreeing quests for wizards and warriors to solve to save a kingdom, parties of adventurers voyaging into caves, abandoned cities, dank dungeons, fighting the undead and dragons and evil warlords. The monsters, the spells, the statistics, the character classes and combat all closely resemble the system of roleplaying established by Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. But the official Dungeons & Dragons rules didn't appear in a popular computer role-playing game until SSI began a collaboration with TSR that resulted in the "Gold Box" series of games.
The first official D&D "gold box" game was Pool of Radiance, and there were at least ten others made with this game engine. Pool of Radiance was designed to support computer players familiar with the D&D system; you could fully customize your party to match your favorite pen and paper characters. Tapping SSI's roots making wargames, the combat in the Gold Box games was more strategic than it had been in previous fantasy role-playing games. Battlefields could be outdoors between trees or indoors between walls. Much like roleplaying with miniatures, your characters were each represented as a little figure that you could color and accessorize. Your characters could crowd into a hallway or be surrounded by creatures from all sides. Range was important, and casting "Stinking Cloud" meant there would be a large puff of foul air surrounding your foes for a few turns. Fantasy role-playing combat all of a sudden became a whole lot more than "Fight Fight Fight, Parry Parry Parry."
Still these games were not what you would call "immersive." While SSI was having their run of popular fantasy role-playing games, a largely unknown developer created a game that would alter the face of computer fantasy role-playing forever. FTL's Dungeon Master, first on the Atari ST and the Amiga in 1987, introduced a deeper intensity to the 3D dungeon crawl. Creatures would fly, creep and crawl towards you through the dungeon and you could see them coming at you before you could hit them with a sword. And you could definitely hear them groaning or dragging chains, even if you didn't know where they were. There were no more turns, walking and then fighting -- everything happened in real time. If you wanted to shoot a blob with an arrow, you selected a bow and clicked on the blob. Hopefully you would hit it before it could slime you! If there was a hidden switch in the wall, you would click on it to open a secret door. But only if you could find it yourself!
Other game makers responded by making their products more vivid, in the model established by Dungeon Master. Designers from Westwood Studios working for SSI took that model of play and added the popular AD&D set of rules to create three Eye of the Beholder games. Later, Origin would take the Ultima franchise and publish two Ultima Underworld games, using a first-person perspective like Dungeon Master, and adding fluid motion, finally breaking the computer fantasy dungeon crawl free from tile-based movement.
The Future of Fantasy is Friendship
In 1979 it was natural for Richard Garriot to build a program that would allow you to play role-playing games without any friends or a Dungeon Master. Many computer fantasy role-playing games are among the most long-standing and beloved titles in electronic gaming. But to call those games "role-playing games" might be a misnomer; if there's not really people around, it's as Gary Gygax (coinventor of D&D) asked, "To whom are you playing a role?"
Fortunately we won't be playing only with ourselves for long; these single player games are becoming multiplayer; roleplaying is headed back to its roots. The product-by-product improvements made over the last twenty-plus years; first person, graphical detail, strategic combat, atmospheric intensity -- these have been complemented by a recent multiplayer revolution. From Diablo 2 and Everquest to countless MUDs, many of the most popular new role-playing adventures you can have with a computer are played online with other people.
The people making games in the tradition of Akalabeth have adapted their single-player adventures as well. You can play Baldur's Gate 2 in a group of six, solving the single player adventure together over the internet. Pools of Radiance 2 will support multiplayer adventures in randomly generated dungeons. The eagerly anticipated Neverwinter Nights features both a single-player D&D campaign and the capacity to use the game engine as a tool to build your own computer D&D adventures. This heralds a return to the roots of roleplaying, where the story is shaped in real time by another human being in response to the adventuring of a small group of friends. Finally the computer will be able to offer some deep roleplaying almost as good as the real thing!