Last week, I covered how Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a masterful title inspite of itself. Thinking about the old gem made me recall other classic RPGs of the time, and it began to dawn on me that a lot of those also used Pen and Paper RPG settings and rulesets, just like Bloodlines.
The influence of Pen and Paper RPGs – also known as Tabletop RPGs – starts a heck of a lot sooner than we might think. As far back as the late 70’s, soon after Dungeons and Dragons’ own hatching, infact.
Colossal Cave Adventure was created in 1975 by Will Crowther – one of the creators of the ARPANET, the Internet’s ancestor – as a means of bonding with his daughters. Once completed, the title was shown off at Crowther’s workplace, from which it began to spread. This title, aside from being the first text adventure, relied heavily on Crowther’s Dungeons and Dragons knowledge, and even narrated the tale via a Dungeon Master.
Colossal Cave Adventure became an early hit due to the ARPANET, and it went on to inspire the dungeon crawler genre, and MUDs – Multi-User Dungeons. A lot of these titles similarly used Dungeons and Dragons specifics in terms of lore and settings, using basic ‘if, then’ style logic, and simpler alternatives to tabletop RPG’s more complicated ruleset. A lot of programmers were intimidated by the idea of implementing something so complicated, so it wasn’t until an official Dungeons and Dragons product in 1988, Pool of Radiance, that the world saw a proper implementation of the ruleset.
Pool of Radiance was the first part of a series of titles from the late-80’s through mid-90’s that officially licensed Dungeons and Dragons settings and rulesets. This series was known as the Gold Box series, and was produced by Strategic Simulations, Inc. One Gold Box title, Neverwinter Nights, was an early MMORPG – the natural evolution, and supplanter, of the MUD. It was in Neverwinter Nights that the popular MMO concept of guilds really took root, inspiring future developers to implement guild systems into their own titles.
Other Pen and Paper RPG properties saw some success in the video game industry around this time as well. In the early 90’s, cyberpunk RPG Shadowrun saw three video game adaptations, one of which was Japan exclusive. Wasteland – a post-apocalyptic RPG – utilised different mechanics from the developer’s pen and paper creations, like Tunnels and Trolls.
Wasteland itself would go on to inspire the Fallout franchise, but Interplay desired a different rules system for the game. They originally arranged to use GURPs. GURPs, also known as the Generic Universal RolePlaying System, was, at its core, a system intentionally designed for adaptation to almost any sort of setting, and so was thus seen as a perfect fit for the unconventional Fallout setting. But GURPs creator, Steve Jackson, disliked the violence displayed in the title’s intro, and eventually the contract fell apart, leading to the development of the GURPs-inspired SPECIAL system the franchise uses to this day.
In the late 90’s and early 00’s, Dungeons and Dragons continued to dominate in terms of influencers, though. Wizards of the Coast, emboldened by the popularity of tabletop gaming post 80’s fear mongering and recent game releases, decided to license the ruleset to a young Bioware for use. After selecting the Forgotten Realms setting as the basis for their new title, the team delved into source books for all the information they could; founder Ray Muzyka even stated “Our head programmer has actually read every one of the [Forgotten Realms] books – everything, every single one of the short stories and the paperbacks. He made a point of it.”
Baldur’s Gate – with it’s pre-rendered backgrounds and open-ended quest solving – gained Bioware a lot of acclaim. It made pauseable, turn-based combat a mainstay for tabletop inspired titles, from Bioware’s other works like Icewind Dale, through to competitor’s like Troika’s Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura. Planescape: Torment, one such inspired title, is often considered to be the pinnacle of the era’s RPGs in general.
And yet, despite the popularity and sales, as the 00’s moved on, Pen and Paper influenced RPGs fell out of vogue: Whilst never the biggest thing in gaming, the influences became subtler, and the adaptations dried up. Aside from trickles like Neverwinter Nights 2 in 2006, the industry was largely satiated with their own settings. Nourished by the fertiliser of Pen and Paper RPGs, and with companies more willing to take the risk with original properties, the video game industry no longer needed Tabletop RPGs.
But as is the case with most trends, they return in time. Whilst the games industry has matured a great deal, the absence of Pen and Paper inspired titles left an unfulfilled need in some gamers. The popularity of crowdfunding platforms from the mid ’10’s onwards allowed many of these fans and nostalgic developers alike to invest in and realise projects independent of the industry at large. We began to see indie studios turn out titles like Shadowrun Returns, Pillars of Eternity and Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and to quite some acclaim too. Enhanced Editions of older classics also proved that even larger developers understood the desire was still there.
Now, in 2019, we live in a bit of a golden age of Pen and Paper RPG inspired titles. They’re still here, still made, and still loved, and even though they’ll never be as big as they once were, that early nourishment they provided the industry has allowed it to grow stronger, and with so many applications like Roll 20 and DnD Beyond about, the same muses that once inspired Will Crowther and Ray Muzyka back in the day are still alive and well, too. So who knows what the ‘stylus and tablet’ games of today will inspire for tomorrow?