A history of RPGs

The roots of the modern RPG videogame can be traced back to the earliest tabletop games and beyond. Here, Phil charts the RPG’s evolution from paper to pixels…

It is a mark of how far role playing games have come when you’re sat on a bus and can overhear a group of teenagers openly and unashamedly discussing the trials and tribulations they’re currently undergoing in Final Fantasy XIII.

When I was at school, any admission that you were the sort of kid who indulged in role playing games would have led to you receiving an extremely dead arm and a severe case of ‘the grundies’ (comparable to a wedgie, but a variation whereby the assailant also attempts to dangle the victim over his shoulder, a bit like Santa carrying his sack).

Back then, RPGs had barely begun to emerge on computers, and the tabletop originals were unfairly thought of as the pastime of nerdy sorts with a fear of girls, or beardy fantasy obsessives who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the mythologies of Middle Earth itself.

The exact moment when the RPG was born is debatable, particularly as the hobby of wargaming, which was a big influence on early role players, had been around in some form or another for hundreds of years. However, the first instance of what people today would recognise as a modern RPG came into being with the development of the tabletop game, Dungeons & Dragons in 1974.

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Created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax and published by their company Tactical Studies Rules, it was a game that popularised many of the RPG conventions that are still being used today, such as character classes and abilities, races, experience and hit points (EXP and HP), levelling up, and turn-based combat.

To play it, you needed a character sheet on which to record your stats, books containing the rules, monsters and scenarios, seven multi-sided dice, and ideally, a good imagination. Tackling a quest described in the scenarios, players would collectively decide how to deal with situations as they arose, with dice being rolled to determine things like combat, trap evasion and lock picking. It’s a template that has continued to serve the tabletop RPG ever since.

However, such a seemingly simple setup belied the game’s complexity, as the rulebook contained a wealth of detail that, if you were to enjoy the game to its fullest, had to be mastered by at least one of the players.

This player was invariably the Dungeon Master, the one in charge of describing what the others could see and hear, as well as enforcing the rules of the game. In many ways, the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons stood or fell on the abilities of the Dungeon Master.

As well as having a solid grasp of the rules, they also had to be able to convincingly conjure up a fantastical land of sword and sorcery.A land where danger and excitement were ever-present and where death’s chill breath whispered amongst the leaves of trees in dark, forbidding forests, forever stirring the cobwebs in a multitude of dank and abandoned tunnels. (You see you blinkered fools of yesteryear?! I’d have made a bloody great Dungeon Master if you’d have just let me get my hands on the sodding rule book!)

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With all of this in place, sitting down with a group of friends to embark on a quest that would lead to who knows where, soon became an exciting and compelling experience for millions.

As the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons grew, it led to the emergence of several distinct but related gaming cultures. The first of these was the sudden growth of the tabletop RPG industry. New publishers began to take advantage of this burgeoning subculture and its appetite for adventure, with some early notable examples being Tunnels And Trolls (the second RPG to appear on the market after D&D), Traveller (an early science fiction-based RPG) and Runequest (a game that introduced a more realistic combat simulation system by making it possible for powerful characters to be killed by weaker ones with a lucky throw of the dice).

A market also soon developed for the more casual gamer, those who had always secretly fancied the idea of being a Wood Elf but couldn’t be arsed putting in the time needed to master the intricacies of many of the established RPGs. Such gamers would find a home in the worlds of boardgames such as Hero Quest, Space Crusade and the Warhammer series.

All hailing from the UK based company Games Workshop, these titles had more accessible game mechanics and rules, as well as visually appealing game boards, accessories and figures that players could paint and customise to their own liking (I still have a blue bearded dwarf somewhere that looks like the bastard child of Dame Edna Everage and Timmy Mallet).

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Other noteworthy developments that occurred in the early 1980s were interactive fiction, play-by-mail RPGs and card games such as Magic: The Gathering. The Fighting Fantasy series of books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were ideal bedtime material for many a fantasy obsessed adolescent, including yours truly. But it says much about my fear of being outed as a role player by my sister that titles such as City Of Thieves, Island Of The Lizard King, and Talisman Of Death, were all hidden underneath copies of Razzle and Mayfair lest my secret shame be discovered.

In these stories (the FF books, not the girly mags), you assigned your character basic attributes such as skill, stamina and luck, and then progressed through the story by choosing which page to go to when presented with a choice. There were frequent battles which were decided by the roll of a dice and, of course, you could create your own save point with liberal use of a book mark. In truth, they were the most basic of RPGs, but hugely popular, and are still published today.

All of these developments were heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons and all, to a greater or lesser degree, brought the experience of role playing to new audiences. But it is in the world of videogames that some of the biggest influences have been felt since the 1970s. Some of the first appeared on mainframe computer systems pioneered by American universities, making them the first examples of worldwide networked multi-player RPGing.

They also incorporated many of the D&D role-playing features that we’re familiar with today, such as multiple characters, equipping items, and assigning points to various character attributes. Technically, they were rather accomplished, but graphically they were extremely primitive, with text characters sometimes used to represent the monsters you would encounter within. Permission is therefore granted to readers to look back at such titles as Dungeon, Rogue and Moria from the smug confines of 2011 and point and laugh.

Such games paved the way for the first commercially successful series of computer RPGs, in particular the Ultima and Wizardry series. Beginning in 1980 and heavily influenced by Wizardry, the Ultima games spanned a period of almost 20 years, and soon became renowned for establishing what gamers came to think of as an RPG (not least in terms of what one looked like with their distinctive use of tiled graphics). Permission to point and laugh NOT granted.

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One of the most memorable innovations came in 1985’s Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar, a game I would have happily eloped with at the time. Usually when establishing characters, you would assign points to various attributes and skill sets etc. However, what Ultima IV did was ask you a series of questions and subsequently shape your character according to the moral leanings of your responses. This could make all the difference between starting the game as a shepherd or a druid, for example. It was a revelation.

A further leap came that same year with the release of The Bard’s Tale, a hugely popular RPG that also bore a couple of sequels. Visually, it was a step up, with its animated colour graphics, but was also comparatively simpler to get to grips with than earlier titles – its pick up and playability enhanced by a game world with towns that you could explore, serving as more than just places to buy equipment (So the next time you’re casually sauntering around places like Ferelden in Dragon Age: Origins, spare a thought for The Bard’s Tale).

Throughout the next decade, party-based RPGs such as Phantasie, Questron and Rings Of Zilfin incorporated fresh elements such as cut scenes, mini games and an increased number of combat commands. All released as part of the Gold Box series of RPGs from Strategic Simulations Inc (the BioWare of the 80s), they were notable for their wonderful ‘It’s all kicking off’ approach to combat, with the sheer variety of attacking options, as well as the length of some of the encounters, all meaning players had to be on their toes or they were going down.

By now, all games were beginning to make significant leaps in their presentation, but the Debbie Gibson of RPGs burst onto the scene in 1987 in the form of Dungeon Master.

Unlike Debbie Gibson herself (cue Google image search), Dungeon Master’s charms have faded with time, but in the late 1980s, they were both responsible for many an outbreak of teenage excitability and more than the odd sleepless night. Its combination of 3D graphics with a first person perspective was gob smacking, and its influence can clearly be seen on titles such as Eye Of The Beholder, The Elder Scrolls series and the more recent Fallout titles.

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The mid-1990s saw the arrival of Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, two franchises that were largely responsible for reviving a genre that had begun to stagnate somewhat (at least in the Western market). Diablo is especially significant for its support of multiplayer, both on local area networks and over the internet, a factor that helped to ensure the series’ longevity.

Baldur’s Gate, meanwhile, was arguably even more popular – a sleek, sexy, head turner of a game that is the direct ancestor of Dragon Age: Origins.

Like the latter, it played out in real time, featured fast-paced battles and outcomes that depended hugely on which players you recruited to your party, as the potential for betrayal and skulduggery was ever present. It also featured a deeply involving and nuanced storyline, something that the Final Fantasy series had been instrumental in introducing to the Western RPG culture.

In fact, for many console owners, Final fantasy VII will loom large in their experience of RPGs, as it was responsible for opening the eyes of many console gamers to a genre that had enjoyed a devoted fan base among PC owners for years. And thanks to developments in optical disk storage for console games, these gaming worlds would soon provide environments that were comparable to the size of those found on PCs, worlds that could offer not just the original storyline but additional ones courtesy of expansion packs and downloadable content.

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But as RPGs moved into a new century, it is worth remembering that, despite advances in gameplay, presentation and size, the rule systems of many computer RPGs were built on those devised and developed for tabletop games. Neverwinter Nights (another predecessor of Dragon Age), for instance, was one of many to be based on the d20 (third edition) system of rules for Dungeons & Dragons.

Today, the definition of what constitutes an RPG has never been more fluid. Online MMORPGs such as World Of Warcraft are styled very much in the original D&D tradition, although they’re played less for the purpose of accomplishing specific storylines and more for the interaction players can have with others online.

Console RPGs, such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3, continue to find an audience, and have combined traditional RPG ingredients with more visceral gaming elements such as those found in the first-person shooter.

The original Dungeons & Dragons, now in its fourth edition, continues to find an audience worldwide. And, perhaps, thanks to some of the changes that have taken place over the last 30 years, the role players of today feel just that little bit more secure in professing their love for these wonderful worlds of escape, without fear of ridicule or falling prey to a sudden attack of the grundies.

Dragon Age II is released on March 11th 2011, on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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