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Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs

July 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 22 Next


1. Wizardry (series)

Designed by: Andrew C. Greenburg, Robert Woodhead (original designers, creators), others

Influenced by: D&D, PLATO RPGs

Series: Eight games, the last one a critically-acclaimed 3D extravaganza. In addition to these, a surprisingly large number more were made in Japan.

Legacy: The Bard's Tale series, Might & Magic, AD&D Gold Box games and more. Inspired an entire category of grid-based 3D RPGs, out of favor now but still, if you know where to look, around. The Etrian Odyssey games for the Nintendo DS owe a lot to Wizardry.

This article focuses on the early Wizardry games, which are distinctive enough to be the style of play most people think of today when they consider the series.

Wizardry is not the first CRPG; there were a number of earlier games. It isn't the first 3D-view, step-based dungeon crawl RPG either; there are older games for the PLATO multiuser system that look a fair bit like Wizardry. The game Oubliette is similar, down to sharing many of the same spell names.

The key unit of game content in Wizardry is the encounter, a scripted event that occurs when the player's party enters a particular square. Some encounters are monsters, which can be either friendly or hostile. Some are treasure chests. Some are deadly traps. Some are special devices that are manipulated through menus. Some are NPCs that provide information, or ask questions, or might attack.

Wizardry (Screenshot courtesy

There are set encounters, which occur when a specific spot is entered, and there are random encounters, which have a slim chance of occurring whenever the player enters a square within some region. Encounters, when they happen, may have a graphic tied to them but in nature are textual events, relayed to the player using narrative and asking him to make a menu choice in response.

Encounters are housed on a dungeon map, a region of maze laid out along the lines of a grid. The grid itself is not shown on-screen; instead, the player's perspective is shown as if standing in the maze, facing either north, south, east or west. A simple algorithm, much-used in RPGs of the time, is used to render the walls and corridors in the party's sight.

The grid-based layout of the dungeon and atomic, space-by-space nature of the party's movement combine to make rendering relatively easy to implement; this is how Wizardry was able to present a 3D world to players a decade before Wolfenstein 3D. It was much copied, to the extent that it shows up in some far-flung products: the original Phantasy Star uses a much more attractive implementation for its 3D dungeons; retro action games like Fester's Quest and Golgo 13 also implement their own takes.

The 3D effect makes mapping essential. The grid layout both makes mapping easier, by conforming it to a grid, and harder, by making it easier to trick the player using map gimmicks to fool him into mapping incorrectly. (Mapping tricks are explicitly mentioned on the OD&D books as a useful tool for the DM, so blame them.) One such type of trick, a particularly mean one, is the teleporter, which invisibly sends the player to another spot in the maze, sometimes one that looks similar, but not identical, to the previous one.

Another cruel gimmick is the spinner, which randomly flips the player's facing direction to a random direction upon entering. If the player didn't notice that his facing has changed, a spinner can easily mess up an entire map. Wizardry even has dark areas that provide no vision of the corridor ahead, requiring that the player deduce where the walls are solely though the "Ouch!" messages that appear when the party collides with one. These tricks make coming up with an accurate map one of the biggest challenges of the game, and as a result it's rather satisfying to finish out an entire level.

Of all the games listed here, none is as inseparable from the act of mapping as Wizardry. An automapping feature would arguably ruin the game, because it'd reveal information, such as having been teleported or spun around, that players are supposed to deduce for themselves. Many players now would view that as being screwed with and abandon the game, but it's important to remember that being screwed with, and overcoming it, is one of the great joys of classic Dungeons & Dragons.

Even though there are many scripted encounters, or "specials," a key difference between Wizardry and the D&D sessions it seeks to emulate is the absence of a flexible DM to allow the players to try things that aren't offered in the basic ruleset. There is no jumping up on tables, swinging from ropes, prodding with 10-foot poles, knocking on walls, or listening at doors or using them to block pursuers. Monsters don't exist until they have been triggered, and once a fight begins it takes place entirely in that square of dungeon map, and cannot sprawl out into the dungeon.

It is important to note that, in the 25-plus years since Wizardry was released, no CRPG has satisfactorily addressed this limitation, that of system inflexibilty. The lack of verisimilitude remains the most grievous difference between them and pen-and-paper games.

Wizardry's dungeons feel more in line with the D&D archetype than has been in vogue in more recent times. It casts the dungeon as bizarre magic place where things don't always make sense. The player has no way to determine what's in there before he enters it, unless told by another character. If the player explores every space of the dungeon but the one with the essential object in it, then he'll still have no hint that it exists. This is usually partly countered by dungeon design: a 3 x 3 room with a door will have its relevant encounter placed by the door so as to provide the illusion that it fills the space.

One thing about these early RPGs is that it's much easier to get them into an entirely unwinnable state than in more recent games. A dead low-level Wizardry character can only be revived by paying at the temple, and that costs good money. This is entirely in line with early D&D, where a hopeless case can be simply re-rolled, and indeed this can be done in Wizardry too, generating a new character to replace the dead old one. This idea is nearly alien in later games, but still shows up in weird places; one of the best Dragon Quest games is the third installment, which isn't so easy to make unwinnable -- but still has this sort of replaceable character system.

A consequence of the system is the failed game, a way that a game of Wizardry, and some Wizardry-like games, can actually be lost. It's possible for your whole party to die, and be so low on money that they cannot be revived. This state is most common at the beginning of games, and often it'll take a player several attempts before he is able to get a group of characters to a survivable level.

Wizardry is hard -- almost as hard as early OD&D and AD&D. Wizardry, however, provides the player with a way around this through its use of saved games. In D&D, players are not supposed to go back to prior states of the game. If everyone agreed to there's nothing to say they couldn't, but they don't. This aspect of simulationism has never left pen-and-paper RPGs, even those that don't try to simulate anything pose irreversible choices, primarily because, with multiple players involved, it's unfair to the other participants to back up for one's convenience. But the effect is more profound than you might suspect; the ability to save and load games makes CRPGs allows those games to subtly focus on exploring multiple branches of the game's probability-space, instead of going down a single path.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 22 Next

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