The exchange between video games and tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) is a rich and storied one. Thoroughly understanding the history of game development requires an understanding of this cross cultural exchange.
American tabletop RPGs began as an offshoot of miniature wargaming, starting when Gary Gygax wrote Chainmail in 1971. This game dealt specifically with fantasy wargaming, and included elements of leveling and armor class that remain mainstays of tabletop RPGs today. Chainmail evolved into Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in 1974, which itself inspired a wide array of tabletop RPGs from White Wolf’s gothic horror RPG Vampire: The Masquerade to Bully Pulpit’s free-wheeling Coen Brothers film simulator Fiasco.
Do you like games, like… at all? Then pour one out for this little black and white booklet.
Modern video gaming owes a great deal to D&D and its offshoots. For those of you who haven’t played TTRPGs, they’re collective storytelling experiences. The Dungeon Master (DM) controls the game world and its inhabitants, setting up monsters, traps, and other obstacles for the players to overcome, while players control their individual characters. (The terms “player character” and “non-player character”, which have become common video game parlance, were invented by the D&D writers to delineate between characters controlled by the players and those controlled by the Dungeon Master.) If you’re having trouble conceptualizing, modern RPGs like Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity are essentially D&D simulators. The players control the party while the DM controls everything else.
Game developers tried to mimic the TTRPG experience decades ago. Inspired by his childhood sessions of D&D, Richard Garriott, AKA Lord British, created Akalabeth: World of Doom, considered the first computer RPG, in 1979. This was followed by games like Ultima and Wizardry. Many early JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were attempts at innovating on this formula. These grew into the modern video game RPGs we know today, but many of the games of all genres that we love have borrowed liberally from the RPG genre.
The early video games with the best and deepest stories were RPGs. While gamers raised in the age of Bioshock Infinite, Life Is Strange, and God of War might scoff at the original Ultima’s thin story, it’s important to note that its contemporaries were about dudes with lances knocking each other off of ostrich mounts – there was no story at all, just (amazing, ostrich-oriented) action.
This has continued throughout the history of games. When Wolfenstein and Doom gave birth to the FPS genre, Baldur’s Gate was redefining what choice and consequences looked like in an RPG. It’s not a coincidence that it uses the extremely popular at the time (though hilariously convoluted by today’s standards) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition ruleset.
Almost all of the storytelling was achieved via text, which makes sense, as literature is a truly underrated story vector in gaming. You don’t need to see or hear Jay Gatsby pine for Daisy when you read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal classic. You read the words, imagine the scene, and hear the characters in your head. And what you see in your head is custom tailored just for you. That’s the most powerful graphical rendering engine that’s ever existed (and may ever exist).
The influence of this kind of storytelling is what has driven and continues to drive the isometric RPG resurgence. While the combat and advancement systems are terrific, it’s the world and story that keeps me glued to games like Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, and Shadowrun: Dragonfall, while all the gorgeous graphics in the world only succeeded in plunging Detroit: Become Human into the darkest shadows of the uncanny valley.
Player Character Stats and Persistent Inventory
The idea that playable characters could perform and grow differently originated in the RPG genre. Your player character was not a static thing, occasionally affected by power ups, but otherwise unchanging. Your character was meant to advance, develop, and grow in power. I can’t even imagine where video games would even be without stats and advancement.
Persistent inventory has been a part of video games for so long that you don’t even think about it. But while early video games allowed you to acquire things – think Mario and his mushrooms – they didn’t allow you to hold them and save them for later. Adding a persistent inventory to video games allows for resource management – a huge aspect of gameplay across the board. Together, these two aspects define two key aspects of reality that create design space and verisimilitude in games: who you are and what you’ve got.
Class and race
Class and race are two innovations from TTRPGs that have been a part of video games pretty much forever. TTRPGs were themselves trying to emulate elves, dwarves, and hobbits from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Originally, “elf” and “dwarf” were actual classes, but later editions of D&D innovated on that and turned race and class into dual axes.
Elaborate and beautiful world maps started as a key component of campaign setting boxed sets. This was the original overworld, full of mystery and adventure waiting to happen. You could adventure in worlds lovingly crafted by game writers or create your own. You can see maps like the one above in games from Final Fantasy to Dragon Age.
Faerun, where I spent most of my childhood.
More than mere set dressing, maps themselves can serve as inspiration. When the universe becomes larger than what’s currently displayed on-screen, dramatic and narrative opportunities appear. What happens when a giant inland desert starts to spread outwards into fertile farmlands? How does the march of the Army of the Dark Overlord across the world threaten your kingdom?
Binary morality system
While I have many angry words for the simplistic black and white morality systems that dominate video games, we can trace this element back to D&D’s alignment system. In D&D, morality functioned along two axesgood and evil, and law and chaos.
Thus a chaotic good character believes in freedom and doing the right thing even if, maybe especially if, it tweaks the nose of those in power (think Robin Hood). Meanwhile, a lawful evil character believes in twisting law and order such that it benefits them (think King John). Things got even funkier with alignments like lawful neutral characters, who held law and order above all other concerns. Did you steal an apple because you were starving? That guy will cut your hand off if the law says that’s the punishment.
While nine potential alignments make for pretty funny memes, they aren’t great tools for storytelling purposes. We’re all sick of the paragon/renegade dichotomy, aren’t we?
Leveling and experience points
I remember video gaming before leveling and XP had started appearing in games like Gran Turismo and Call of Duty. Folks referred to progression systems as “RPG elements” because they had heretofore had only appeared in games that could be easily classified as RPGs. Now, they’re so common that they’ve shed the RPG moniker and are just considered part of gaming.
On the one hand, I’m glad that these elements have bled into other game genres. It provides a sense of pride and accomplishment, and if you can spend your XP how you choose, it allows you to tailor the game to how you want to play. The new God of War is a great example of this. The skills you acquire first are the stuff that most fits your playstyle, and makes this sometimes-challenging game a bit easier for you. Gran Turismo Sport’s car purchasing system has a sense of achievement and progression that Project Cars 2 lacks because it gives you all the cars up front.
Simultaneously, progressions systems have become the skinnerbox fig leaf that can disguise weak game design decisions. How much Call of Duty’s mediocre sameness hides behind its infinite leveling and prestiging?
The square and hex maps that we all know so well were mainstays of TTRPGs before they became the basis for so many beloved digital worlds. Turns, initiative – all of that started on the tabletop.
While you could argue that tabletop wargaming created this game element (and you’d be right), I would argue that TTRPGs perfected it. There’s a reason why many modern turn-based strategy games like Battletech give your characters names, advancement options, and personality.
One of the greatest beauties of the RPG genre, whether it’s played on a table or a computer, is how attached you get to your character. And calling someone Moira “Mad Dog” Gallagher, the assault soldier from Ireland (an actual character from my original X-Com: Enemy Unknown playthrough), instead of “soldier 3” helps build that attachment and the player engagement that comes along with it.
The original procedurally generated world consisted of a bunch of charts in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide hardback rulebook that allowed you to build an entire adventure by repeatedly rolling a 100-sided die (usually accomplished by rolling two ten sided dice, one die for each digit) to generate random encounters, monsters, loot, and environments. Sequence it all together and boom, you have a ready-made adventure. You could sling dice for a few hours and come up with whole nations if you wanted to. If you enjoy random loot drops in games like Destiny and Borderlands, you have TTRPGs to thank. Games like Spore and No Man’s Sky also owe the old DMG a drink or two as well. While procedural generation often leaves something to be desired, I’m hoping that more powerful machine learning will help fill in these gaps in future games.
Mechanical innovations & the future
I’m talking about D&D a lot in this article, and that’s because it’s the progenitor and big daddy of TTRPGs. But gaming hasn’t stood still since its inception. Heck, D&D itself hasn’t stood still.
Earlier incarnations of the venerable franchise included infinite arithmetically scaling skill ratings and attributes. To challenge a high level party, a DM had to throw increasingly difficult obstacles and opponents at them. However, this had the negative side effect of enforcing extreme niches for each character. The rogue, who has been specializing in moving silently since level one, now has a +30 bonus to that roll, whereas the paladin only has his base +1 bonus derived from his stats. This created a situation where suitably challenging stealth obstacles for the rogue would devastate the paladin – he might as well not even roll or be involved in these challenges.The fifth and latest edition of D&D replaces these infinitely scaling skill points with advantage and disadvantage. When you’re attempting a roll at an advantage, you roll two dice and take the higher result. If you’re at a disadvantage, you roll two dice and take the lower result. This creates a situation where specialization isn’t required to handle level-appropriate challenges, and the whole party can get involved, whether it’s inside their specialization niche or not.
I saw a hint of this in Sea of Thieves. While you could level up and gain loot, you never become stronger or tougher in combat. Newbies are no stronger than an early adopter. I’d love to see more of this. How can we create gameplay environments that are welcoming to new players but also provide enough depth to keep veteran gamers occupied for hours? (The second part is where Sea of Thieves failed.)
Can I? vs. should I?
Morality has gotten grayer in tabletop RPGs and video games have begun to follow suit. Games like Vampire: The Masquerade (which was itself twice adopted into video game format) explore the shadowy gray moral ground you walk as an undead, bloodthirsty creature of the night, prone to outbursts of violence. It lets you play the bad guy, but also feel sympathy for said bad guy.
If you wantonly kill, your human mind will succumb to your bestial nature, and you’ll lose control of your character and become a monstrous NPC. If you refuse to hunt and feed, you’ll eventually become so hungry that you’ll probably kill someone accidentally in a hunger frenzy. Players had to walk the dangerous line between these two extremes: the central paradox of Vampire was “A Beast I am, lest a Beast I become” – you must commit smaller sins to avoid committing larger ones.
Even starting characters wildly outpaced most normal human beings in terms of sheer power. Given such a wild power differential between you and the rest of the world, your central conundrums were not “Can I accomplish this?” but rather “Should I undertake this morally questionable activity?”While I believe that there is a place for skill-based challenges in video games (Hello, my name is Justin Woo, and I’m addicted to Heroes of the Storm.), I also believe it is more dramatic and thus more interesting to ask a player what they feel morally compelled to do, rather what they can accomplish with the appropriately timed series of button presses.
Minor spoilers ahead for the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: When you lose a safe haven in the first episode, you have a choice between saving your technically competent buddy Doug or your gun-toting perhaps-love interest Carly. You don’t have time to save both. The choice about who lives and dies ultimately lies with you. You only have moments to decide. While the outcome of this decision doesn’t impact the rest of the game the way I wish it would, the tension and drama of the moment of choice is undeniable.
I believe that these are the sorts of choices that lie at the heart of gaming’s future as an artistic medium. Game designers can create difficult choices and design consequences that address and explore what we value as a society. Games, like any art form, have a potential to speak to who we are and the world we want to see.
One of the most interesting recent innovations in indie TTRPGs is the option to “fail forward”. Doing so meant choosing to fail a roll in order to gain a future advantage or to undertake intentionally risky or tactically unsound actions because they’re far more exciting than the safe option. In games like this, there is often an explicit agreement between the DM and the players to not kill player characters for doing fun, interesting, dangerous stuff.
In most video games, failure means that you die and must restart the failed section from a checkpoint. Failure is punishment, which requires repetition. This is a relic from the age of coin-op arcades. Challenge existed to siphon quarters out of your pocket. While there’s a place for punishment in competitive games, I would argue that narrative games would be better served by more interesting alternative consequences sans punishment. How can we make failure interesting?
The Mass Effect series attempted to do this by providing alternate story paths when you don’t have enough renegade or paragon juice to make the “right” choices. However, these are universally viewed as “bad” endings and thus undesirable, and thus many players avoid them if possible. The standard game design response to failure is all stick and no carrot.
I’m hoping that game designers will find a way to creatively engage with failure, and even encourage it. The excellent TTRPG Monsterhearts encourages failure by providing experience points for failing rolls, but not for succeeding at them.
What if choosing to fail a social interaction provided some future bonus to combat, or vice versa? What if you can choose to fail a riddle in order to gain the trait “thick-headed” which might make it harder for someone to assault you with mental magic later on? Gamers are trained to feel that failure is inherently incorrect or will cause us some pain later on, and thus avoid it. If a game designer wanted to undertake this route, they would need to advise the player that failure will actually provide a bonus down the line.
Consider the story of most video games. The failures are often erased from history, replaced by your do-over, until you eventually succeed. Thus most video game protagonists are actually the perfect, platonic ideal of a hero – they have never failed once. But in reality, don’t we learn more from our failures, painful though they are, than we do from our successes? What if failure is actually required to advance the plot? You aren’t allowed to choose NOT to fail, but you are allowed to choose when and where it happens, and that choice shapes your story and your experience?
The marriage of TTRPG and games
Starting an RPG group is as simple and affordable as buying a book, some blank paper, and some dice, and then setting free your imagination. My $70 investment of allowance money in AD&D 2nd Edition core books has netted me thousands of hours of memorable adventures. Compare this to the enormous financial undertaking involved in developing and publishing even a simple video game.
TTRPG innovation is cheap. Even forty years after their creation, they’re still largely a niche hobby, with small financial incentives. But small incentives mean that there are few corporate overlords gazing angrily over your shoulder, muttering about how your next game had better be a hit or your studio’s getting the axe.
Indeed, most indie developers are tiny teams writing, playtesting, and editing their creation over the course of several years. Errata is a simple as updating your website, and doesn’t require a massive patch or long download times. Folks who don’t like your changes can continue playing without them. Thus rapid iteration is possible, and homebrews are as simple as ignoring the rules you don’t like or inventing new ones you do. I believe that the innovations created in the TTRPG field today will reflect what video games look like in the future. Video game designers would do well to harvest these innovations (as they have for years) to create the next generation of electronic entertainment.