A brief history

The German Kriegspiel, derived from the game of Chess, was the predecessor of the modern tabletop wargame, while the contemporary fantasy genre streams mainly from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which are heavily inspired by ancient mythological and religious texts, epic poems, chivalric romance, and 19th-century opera music. The entertainment industry of the 20th century is characterized by the constant attempt to leverage such elements in order to create more appealing products. The history of these inventions is intricate and difficult to summarize.

Suffice it to say that 1974’s Dungeon and Dragons captured the imagination of thousands through a combination of tabletop gameplay and a Tolkienian fantasy setting, becoming the most prominent addition to the genre. It allowed for groups of players to take part in a sword and sorcery adventure in the role of a character of their own creation, facing perils and adventures conjured within the mind of the Game Master. The actions of both the adventures and the GM have a certain degree of liberty but are also limited by an extensive set of rules, features, and guidelines contained within the D&D manuals. The cooperation between the players and the game, a sort of reciprocal limitation and influence, is a key element to the comprehension of the genre.

Shortly after, young programmers made use of university virtual mainframe networks in order to give a virtual multiplayer shell to the D&D experience. Such experiments, although largely forgotten, are the precursors to both virtual RPGs and to gaming in general. With the rising availability of the home computers, the 80s saw the first role-playing video games, most prominent of which the Ultima and Wizardry series. The eastern companies were quick to answer with a series of commercially successful titles, among which Dragon WarriorFinal Fantasy and Pokémon.

It was these first games that established the genre’s core elements, without ever straining too far from their D&D origins, paving the way for today’s amazingly crafted titles, such as Fallout, Icewind Dale, Elder Scrolls, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights etc. An honorable mention goes to Obsidian Entertainment and their unrelenting endeavor to uphold the RPG standard with games like Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity, as well as to Warhorse Studios and their breathtaking Kingdome Come: Deliverance.

The Definition

A strict dictionary definition of an RPG sees it as “a game in which players take control of fictional characters“, while Oxford’s dictionary adds that such characters “engage in adventures, typically in a particular fantasy setting overseen by a referee“.

This definition is useful as long as we analyze pen-and-paper games. Employing it, in fact, we can clearly distinguish between Chess, card games, trading card games, strategy fantasy wargames, and D&D. Only the latter fits the definition. Furthermore, even a game like Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles doesn’t fit the definition, in spite of the aesthetic similarities.

With video games, it’s just not that simple, because of two main reasons. The referee (Game Master) that controls the environment and the set of rules that determine the game mechanics (game manual) are both embedded in the game via programming. Furthermore, unlike in the case of tabletop gaming, most video games put you in control of a fictional character that engages in an adventure. Does that make Tomb Raider or Super Mario RPG games?

In order to grasp the distinguishing features of video game RPGs, we must take into consideration a list of fundamental elements.

1. Character Creation and Building

Character creation, often taking place in a pre-game menu, is the process through which the player fashions his imaginary hero or heroine, via the choice of aesthetics, attributes, and, more rarely, personal traits.

Character building, on the other hand, is set of player-controlled advancements that occur in your character during gameplay. These changes may involve powers and abilities, items, stats, companions, etc. and usually strengthen the character by augmenting their power or making them more proficient at a specific task. This process (theory crafting) is fundamental in endless games, such as ARPGs or MMORPGs, where such builds and configurations are often the core of the experience, but plays certainly an important part in all games of the genre.

2. Interaction: Choice and Consequence

RPGs simulate a fictional environment and allow the players to exist within it. The technological capabilities of gaming devices enable the creation of persistent worlds featuring NPCs (non-player characters) and surroundings that respond coherently to the player’s actions, triggering a mechanism of choice and consequence. Whether implicit (you chose to enter in a cave) or explicit (you chose to accept a quest offered to you by an NPC) such choices trigger a set of reactions that permanently alter the world and you’re character’s existence within it.

This is still part of the genetic code of D&D because it establishes a constant cooperation between the player and the game.

Well implemented features of this kind convey a stronger suspension of disbelief and better realism.

3. Storyline, Storytelling, and Ludonarrative

A role is defined through interaction with the environment, while every environment (every world) has a storyline in some sense, even the most abstract ones.

These elements may be explicitly narrated, hidden in some fashion, or even implicitly embedded in the gameplay itself, depending on the storytelling technique.

The ludonarrative, a combination of Latin terms meaning “game” and “narration”, is the interaction between gameplay elements with the story that is being told. If there is a certain level of coherence, both faces of the game acquire a stronger appeal. The ludonarrative is one of the most precise tools when trying to evaluate the quality of an RPG.

4. Open-ended design

Obviously, a relative lack of restrictions is more common for the last generations of RPGs because earlier titles didn’t have the technological capabilities needed in order to enable a variety of options. Nonetheless, with the technological improvements of the last decade, open worlds, which place the player’s motivations and personal goals at the core of the experience, have become the selling point of the genre. The Elder Scrolls‘ influence is certainly to blame. Do you want to complete the main questline or venture around aimlessly looking for interesting things to do? Do you want to be part of the struggle between powerful factions or would you like to enroll with The Dark Brotherhood? Would you like to mod the game infinitely, altering the experience to the point of creating another game?

This design style truly brings the dynamic of player-to-game cooperation to life by allowing the player to generate the experience through a constant interaction with the game’s systems. It somewhat brings video game RPGs back to their pen-and-paper roots.

An open-ended design is not a fundamental RPG characteristic only when Classic RPGs, such as Baldur’s Gate, or those directly inspired by them, such as Obsidian Entertainment’s games, are being considered because of the heavy hardware limitations of the past, but it’s worth noting how many of these games mimicked a certain semblance of openness by giving the illusion of a branching plotline or a variety of player-determined outcomes.

Singleplayer vs Online

Singleplayer RPGs allow for a player-environment interaction tipped heavily in favor of the player. The latter can destroy the gaming world or permanently alter, in a game-breaking way, its characteristics. They can possess insurmountable power (even by using cheat codes) because, at the end of the day, it’s their own playthrough, reflecting their desires and goals.

There is great development potential in singleplayer involving improvements in AI (artificial intelligence), procedurally generated content, more refined ludonarrative designs, and an increasingly more sophisticated means of interaction with the world.

Online gameplay, mostly in MMOs, cannot give the players the possibility to “break the game”, killing all the NPCs for instance, because the world is shared. It’s important to say, however, that Sandbox MMOs do allow for permanent changes to the gaming world, but are usually quite limited in scope and can have a greater impact only when achieved through community cooperation.

MMOs feature somewhat primitive gaming systems when compared to their singleplayer counterparts. The quests are more mundane, the AI is all but nonexistent, the choice-consequence dynamic is downgraded. The RP experience resides in player-to-player interaction and codependency. This allows MMOs to excel in game mechanics like crafting and trading, territorial control, political systems and so forth.

As my post about Classic World of Warcraft and its impact on the MMO genre states, MMOs are not doing well at all in terms of innovation and leveraging their specific advantages. Craftings and the markets are largely ignored, territorial control doesn’t exist, politics and even social interaction are all but absent. This issue is currently being addressed by a new generation of big and small MMORPGs which are shaking off WoW’s influence and developing more open, sandbox systems.

The future of RPGs is most certainly as interesting as their past.