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[In the latest in his popular Game Design Essentials series, which has previously spanned subjects from Atari games through 'mysterious games', 'open world games', 'unusual control schemes' and 'difficult games', writer John Harris examines 10 games from the Western computer RPG (CRPG) tradition and 10 from the Japanese console RPG (JRPG) tradition, to figure out what exactly makes them tick -- and why you should care.]
Designed by: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson
Influenced by: Braunstein, a game that Dave Arneson is known to have played, predated D&D. There were also weird fiction and pulp fantasy stories and tabletop war games dating back to H.G. Wells' floor game Little Wars.
Series: No less than seven editions and many side-products. Not to mention all the CRPGs that claim to be derived from its rules. Also, those CRPGs that steal mechanics from it without attributing them.
Legacy: Nearly all RPGs.
Although it's not a CRPG, let's begin with a discussion of the original role-playing game, the edition of Dungeons & Dragons that started the role-playing game craze in 1974. It might not seem relevant to the discussion, but there are some things about the RPG genre that only really make sense when viewed in comparison with this particular game.
It may not actually have been the first role-playing game; word is that Dave Arneson participated in another game prior to its release. But D&D 1974, referred to among fans on the 'net as "OD&D," was the introduction of RPGs to practically everyone else.
First: the term "role-playing game," it seems, was not used in the original set. A search through the books and supplements of the OD&D game show a good number of uses of the word "role," as a general term for a character played by either a player or the referee, but none for "role-playing game." Neither is it used in any of the supplements.
The earliest published use seems to be either the Holmes version of the game, which slightly predates AD&D, or the last issue of TSR's early publication The Strategic Review, where it's used in describing their shiny upcoming magazine The Dragon. Until then, it seems there may have been no good name for what Dungeons & Dragons was.
This is important because "role-playing game" is one of those terms that is proscriptive in its use. It implies that players, to an extent, personify their characters. D&D arose out of a marriage between wargaming and fantasy fiction, so narrative is in its blood, but early on the most frequent type of adventure was a simple free-form dungeon crawl. If you count OD&D as a role-playing game, then you necessarily have to admit that RPGs don't have to be games of storytelling, or at least not games of "top-down," DM-driven storytelling. (RPGs have always been games of what we might call "storywriting".)
In this sense computer versions have more in common with early social roleplaying sessions than later ones. Few people play CRPGs with an eye towards acting out their characters' roles.
Second thing, the game was hard. Really hard! Characters dropped like flies! Only a small percentage of characters would ever reach level two. That might seem harsh, because it was, but it didn't chase players off because people didn't identify as strongly with characters. One tends not to get attached to characters who stand a good chance of not making it out of their first trip into the dungeon. Without storytelling, and with the game's much-simpler system -- compared, even, to AD&D 1st edition, which is not really all that dissimilar to OD&D with all the supplements applied.
This is important because many early CRPGs, and even some early JRPGs, took a similar attitude to character death. The Wizardry-influenced style of game makes death common, especially at low levels. Wizardry charges a good deal to revive a dead character, the process has a good chance of failing, and if it does it costs even more to try to revive the pile of ashes the corpse becomes. The roguelike genre continues to hold up the tradition to this day.
Third thing, the game had a strong setting and a reduced scope. OD&D is a game about exploring dungeons, and other dangerous places, and that's mostly it. High-level characters may get the opportunity to start their own little fortress or tower, but with level nine, "name level," so far away and the game so deadly, this isn't something a player can do more than hope to reach. Because dungeon exploring is ultimately a loot-harvesting game, and treasure can be obtained in ways other than fighting, characters gained one experience point per gold piece acquired. This knowledge can seem surprising to us computer gamers today, as nearly every CRPG that uses an experience system anymore doles it for fighting alone.
The XP-for-gold rule implies strongly that the DM must carefully guard his riches and not hand out gold on a whim. This need led, at times, to a kind of DM vs. players rivalry. If a DMs failed to realize this they could end up subtly nudged towards giving out extra wealth, leading to what became known as "Monty Haul" campaigns, with vast amounts of treasure distributed for little work. Second edition remedied this by switching to all combat-based experience, offering treasure XP as an option, as well as XP for completing quests.
Handing out experience points for collecting gold fits in with the '20s and '30s pulp fantasy works that inspired the game, which are fairly gritty tales with heroes are mostly in it for personal enrichment. Characters in pulp fantasy are, by D&D standards, fairly weak. Even the most powerful ones, like Conan, face significant danger from some angle or another, in his case from magic and gods. OD&D characters are never completely safe, at least not if the DM is competent.
So, why is this important? Because this attitude, that role playing is a game of loot acquisition first, is everywhere in early computer RPGs. Even those with strong save-the-world quests have a lot of loot gaining along the way. It also explains those "strange" games, like PLATO dnd, that allow characters experience, or even direct improvement, for the simple act of money-harvesting.
Fourth thing: OD&D did not include a mandatory combat system. The first books referred players to Chainmail, a prior game of Gygax's, for ideas for how to resolve battles. It had a section marked "Alternate Combat System" that would later become the standard combat mechanism D&D would use for years, but Chainmail was the official solution, and besides its use of armor class and hit points, its rules were quite different from what is now seen as standard D&D combat.
This is important because it shows is that combat play, ultimately, was not considered the defining aspect of the game. It was a replaceable system. When played with Chainmail, D&D looks a lot like a special form of wargame campaign. This may well be a contributing factor to the strong split between "exploration mode" and "combat mode" that many RPGs use to this day. OD&D didn't get the system that would ultimately become the combat method used in AD&D 1st edition, and later mutated into the "d20 System," until the first supplement, under the heading "ALTERNATIVE COMBAT SYSTEM."
Related to this is the fifth thing, and perhaps the most important of all: OD&D was poorly explained. It is impossible to play Original Dungeons & Dragons with just the first three rule books, and even the supplements left important things out. Gygax and Arneson wrote for a presumed audience of wargamers. It still managed to become popular because the game primarily spread by word-of-mouth. People didn't learn from reading the books; they learned from other people, and thus the rules of the game followed the principles of oral tradition, with the rules used as reference.
This is important because it let a hundred rulesets thrive. Different regions tended to play the game in different ways. When more rigorous rules were written, some people decided they liked their old system better and invented competing RPGs, codifying those rules, to compete with D&D. It is this very proliferation of rules that produced the wide variety of games and approaches among early CRPGs.
I am not trying to argue that the game was better or worse than present-day RPGs. It is not hard, really, to find people who would say otherwise; there is a burgeoning field of "retro-clone" RPGs out there whose purpose is to make games very much like those old systems. But the original game of Dungeons & Dragons was surprisingly different from what we remember today, and it turns out that many of the oddnesses of RPG gaming, some persisting right up to the present, have their roots in its evolution.
Some of the ideas for this introduction came from the following blogs: