Table­top games

The story of how a bunch of dice-rolling geeks shaped ev­ery­thing we love about videogames

Games Master - - Contents -

Dice to roll, strange lit­tle fig­ures to push around, reams of printed rules… and some peo­ple still play these strange an­ces­tors of videogames to­day. We ex­plore the con­nec­tion.

Videogames and table­top gam­ing are in­dis­putably in­ter­twined. The clas­sic pen-and­pa­per games’ idea that cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics can be rep­re­sented by num­bers is at the beat­ing heart of ev­ery­thing from the most clas­sic fan­tasy RPG, to sports and rac­ing sims. With­out those dice-lob­bing clas­sics like Warham­mer and D&D, this hobby of ours would never have ex­isted. Whether it’s your wiz­ard’s in­tel­li­gence de­ter­min­ing how much dam­age her spells do, or Lionel Messi’s shot ac­cu­racy en­abling him to take a long-range stab at goal, the prin­ci­ples (and her­itage) of table­top gam­ing are al­ways present.

To tell this story, we have to go back to the early ’70s, when a cou­ple of guys named Gary Gy­gax and Dave Ar­ne­son were be­gin­ning to tire of play­ing the same old me­dieval war games. They had al­ready pro­duced one such game, ti­tled Chain­mail, so they set to work adding new rules to it, throw­ing pow­er­ful sor­cer­ers, winged demons, and mag­i­cal beasts onto the bat­tle­field. It wasn’t long be­fore they trimmed down the num­bers in each fight and even­tu­ally the game be­came en­tirely about the he­roes and the mon­sters. By 1974, this game had a name, and Dun­geons & Drag­ons be­came an in­stant hit, es­pe­cially with mem­bers of the bur­geon­ing com­puter-gam­ing scene.

It was those tech en­thu­si­asts who, hav­ing played some ex­tremely ba­sic text-based ad­ven­tures, thought it might

“With­out those dice-lob­bing clas­sics like warham­mer and D&D, this hobby of ours would never have ex­isted”

be fun to try repli­cat­ing D&D on their com­put­ers. In the late ’70s a cou­ple of those guys, Michael Toy and Glenn Wich­man, were study­ing at the Univer­sity Of Cal­i­for­nia. They felt that both com­puter games and table­top ad­ven­tures suf­fered from the same is­sue: a lack of re­playa­bil­ity. They soon found a very el­e­gant so­lu­tion to this in the form of pro­ce­dural gen­er­a­tion, which en­abled the dun­geon to be com­pletely dif­fer­ent each time they played. They called their new game Rogue, and 40 years later we still re­fer to games fol­low­ing the for­mula it laid out as ‘rogue­likes’.

Ap­ple for the crea­ture

At around the same time, in the state of Texas, a young gamer named Richard Gar­riott had also been in­spired by pen-and-paper RPGs like D&D. How­ever, Gar­riott’s con­cern was less with re­playa­bil­ity and more with im­mer­sion. How could an elec­tronic RPG make the player feel like they were re­ally there, ex­plor­ing the depths of a dun­geon? The so­lu­tion was sim­ple: draw the graph­ics from the per­spec­tive of the player.

While there had been first-per­son games be­fore, this one made use of the shiny new colour mon­i­tors that came with the Ap­ple II and, con­se­quently, was in a league of its own. Ex­plor­ing the over­world map and then switch­ing to first-per­son view for a dun­geon delve was ut­terly rev­o­lu­tion­ary for the time, and set the stan­dard for RPGs for gen­er­a­tions to come. This game, ti­tled Akal­a­beth, would go on to be the open­ing chap­ter in Gar­riott’s highly in­flu­en­tial Ul­tima se­ries, with games like Ul­tima VII set­ting the stan­dard for mod­ern RPGs. Things that we con­sider ba­sic to­day, such as NPCs hav­ing a daily rou­tine, or your party mem­bers be­ing con­trolled by an AI, were all first seen in the Ul­tima games. But more im­por­tantly, they stemmed from the games of D&D be­ing played around Richard Gar­riott’s din­ing room ta­ble.

By the late ’80s many of the ideas from table­top gam­ing had be­come stan­dard for videogames. Ti­tles like Fi­nal Fan­tasy and Wiz­ardry were us­ing terms such as ‘hit points’ and ‘heal­ing po­tion’. Turn-based com­bat, with char­ac­ters of­ten go­ing in or­der of who had the high­est speed or agility, was the norm. In fact, back then many gamers didn’t re­ally draw much of a dis­tinc­tion be­tween table­top gam­ing and com­puter gam­ing. Dragon mag­a­zine, a pub­li­ca­tion cre­ated specif­i­cally for Dun­geons & Drag­ons fans, would reg­u­larly re­view and talk about com­puter games along­side fig­urines and man­u­als. How­ever, there was still one moun­tain that we had yet to con­quer. No­body had man­aged to take the core of the D&D rule­set and turn it into a com­puter game. But all that was about to change.

This might be hard to be­lieve in the age of Skyrim and The Last Of Us, but there was once a time when game de­sign­ers ba­si­cally had to choose be­tween me­chan­ics and story. In 1988 it was widely be­lieved that there sim­ply wasn’t enough space on a disc, or enough me­mory in a com­puter, to craft a de­cent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of D&D. The game’s ever-writhing mix­ture of com­plex nu­mer­i­cal me­chan­ics and emer­gent sto­ry­telling was seen as some­thing that only a hu­man could do. Well, while discs

and com­puter me­mory back then were mi­nus­cule com­pared to what we’re used to play­ing with to­day, Strate­gic Sim­u­la­tions Inc proved they could carry a full-blooded RPG by re­leas­ing Pool Of Ra­di­ance, a D&D ad­ven­ture set in the city of Ph­lan. There were some con­ces­sions made, such as the game prompt­ing you to read chunks of di­a­logue from spe­cific pages of the man­ual to con­serve space on the disc. Still, Pool Of Ra­di­ance was a true con­ver­sion of the D&D rules for home com­put­ers, and a hugely suc­cess­ful, land­mark ti­tle.

Also around this time, a new thing called the in­ter­net was mak­ing its way into homes, and once again it was a bunch dice-rolling gamers who found a way to in­te­grate it with the com­puter games they played. In 1991, SSI re­leased Nev­er­win­ter Nights, the world’s first-ever graph­i­cal MMORPG, also set in the D&D uni­verse. AOL charged its users the equiv­a­lent of £7.50 per hour to play Nev­er­win­ter Nights. To put that into per­spec­tive, the price of the new Spi­der-Man game would have got you seven hours of on­line gam­ing back in 1991. Nev­er­win­ter Nights proved that gamers were will­ing to pay a pre­mium for on­line ex­pe­ri­ences, cre­at­ing a model that ev­ery­thing from Xbox Live to World Of War­craft is still based around. Thank­fully, it’s a lit­tle less pricy in 2018!

Doc­tors and drag­ons

Mean­while, in the Cana­dian city of Ed­mon­ton, three doc­tors were get­ting tired of pro­gram­ming med­i­cal soft­ware. They’d spend their evenings play­ing table­top war games, and run­ning D&D cam­paigns. They felt their pro­gram­ming knowl­edge, com­bined with their love of gam­ing, made them ideal can­di­dates to cre­ate com­pelling RPGs for PC. By Fe­bru­ary 1995, they had de­cided to quit their jobs as doc­tors and set up a game de­vel­op­ment stu­dio. As a nod to their med­i­cal back­grounds, they called the firm Bioware. Its first ti­tle, Shat­tered Steel, was in­spired by the table­top wargame Bat­tleTech and achieved mod­est suc­cess, but it was Bioware’s sec­ond ti­tle, Bal­dur’s Gate, that re­ally broke new ground.

Once again based on the Dun­geons & Drag­ons rule­set, Bal­dur’s Gate is widely re­garded as be­ing re­spon­si­ble for re­viv­ing the stag­nant com­puter RPG. By 1998, when it was re­leased, the world had al­ready seen Fi­nal Fan­tasy VII, and we knew what kind of free-flow­ing, story-driven awe­some­ness an RPG was ca­pa­ble of. The first-per­son, turn-based drudgery of games like Pool Of Ra­di­ance was no longer cut­ting it.

Bal­dur’s Gate not only bragged amaz­ing 3D graph­ics, but it had some­thing to­tally new to RPGs in the form of choices and con­se­quences. Should you fight the drunk in the tav­ern, or should you try to un­der­stand why he’s up­set? Should you res­cue the mage who

“in 1991, aol charged its users the equiv­a­lent of £7.50 per hour to play nev­er­win­ter nights”

is un­der at­tack or let her as­sailants take her away? These were the kinds of moral co­nun­drums you’d of­ten be faced with in a pen-and-paper RPG, but videogames were lin­ear, they had a set path with a pre-de­ter­mined cast of char­ac­ters. The game’s en­gine was ap­pro­pri­ately called the In­fin­ity En­gine, and went on to be used for an in­sane num­ber of games. Parts of it were still be­ing used on ti­tles like The WItcher and Dragon Age II (al­beit in a heav­ily up­graded form).

Table­top’s turned

Over the fol­low­ing years, many no­table table­top-in­spired videogames would re­de­fine their var­i­ous gen­res. Relic En­ter­tain­ment’s ten­ure as de­vel­oper of Warham­mer 40K games springs in­stantly to mind. How­ever, it even­tu­ally be­gan to seem as though ev­ery­thing had RPG me­chan­ics. In some ways this was awe­some, with first-per­son shoot­ers like Over­watch and Team Fortress 2 push­ing the genre for­ward with classes and cooldown timers. Yet some of the less de­sir­able el­e­ments of mod­ern gam­ing, such as the ex­ces­sive use of loot­boxes, are a di­rect de­scen­dant of the loot drops of those early RPGs.

In an un­pre­dictable turn of events, RPG el­e­ments be­com­ing com­mon in many non-RPG videogames seems to have sparked a resur­gence of in­ter­est in table­top games. Last year, they were re­spon­si­ble for a quar­ter of all money made on Kick­starter. In fact, we’re now even see­ing board games sold within videogames, with ti­tles like 2015’s Table­top Sim­u­la­tor pro­vid­ing a dig­i­tal store for real-world prod­ucts, to be played on a vir­tual table­top.

The mas­sive suc­cess of re­cent videogame-to-table­top adap­ta­tions like the Dark Souls and Blood­borne card/ board games have proved that the fan bases for the two hob­bies are mov­ing ever closer to­gether. Other ti­tles are draw­ing more di­rectly on table­top games just like the ear­li­est videogame RPGs – the forth­com­ing Call Of Cthulhu’s me­chan­ics are taken from its table­top an­ces­tor. Once again, just like in those early days back in Dragon mag­a­zine, many gamers no longer draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween these two fan­tasy-filled hob­bies.

Re­gard­less of whether you grew up play­ing on a con­troller or with a set of dice, one thing’s for cer­tain: these two hob­bies have a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship and the fu­ture of that re­la­tion­ship will be filled with awe­some ideas and tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vels.

Even an FPS like Over­watch owes its ex­is­tence to early pen-and-paper ti­tles, es­pe­cially given the strong RPG me­chan­ics that drive its class-based game­play.

Table­top Sim­u­la­tor pro­vides a vir­tual space in which to play any­thing, from Bat­tletech to re­mote-con­trol car rac­ing.

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