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