Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs

In the latest in his popular Game Design Essentials series, 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.

[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.]

Introduction: (Original) Dungeons & Dragons

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:

- Delta's D&D Hotspot
- Jeff's Gameblog
- I Waste the Buddha With My Crossbow
- RetroRoleplaying
- Lamentations of the Flame Princess
- Grognardia
- Always Go Right


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.

2. Ultima (series)

Designed by: Richard Garriott (main designer, creator)

Influenced by: Difficult to say. Definitely D&D, but the dungeon exploration mode looks too much like the PLATO/Wizardry system to be accidental, although it's possible the algorithm was independently-derived.

Series: Nine "core" games were made by Origin, but Ultima VII had a couple of large expansions that are by all rights games in themselves, there's a still-extant MMORPG, and there are several other side-games made by them. Japan has a couple more games, the Runes of Virtue sub-series.

Legacy: The Ultima series is the forefather of the vast main category of CRPGs.

Wizardry didn't change much among the majority of its lifespan, but the Ultima games changed greatly during their early years. This article is mostly concerned with the earlier games, but the flow of its design can be traced up as far as Ultima VII, generally regarded as the zenith of the series' popularity and influence.

The first games (technically the first Ultima game was Akalabeth) were dungeon-crawly things, but without the benefit of Wizardry's many specials or mapping tricks. Dungeons were primarily just places with monsters, and the occasional important plot item. They tend to be less interesting places than Wizardry's treacherous dungeons.

That's okay however, for Ultima brought us what has become known as an "overworld," a tile-based world in which the dungeons are set as special locations. It also brought us real towns, and a routine for speaking with people (instead of treating them as another thing to handle with specials).

Later Ultimas would even allow for interactive conversations with characters. This was usually handled using keywords, where speaking with people would reveal some things that could be asked about, either with that character or others.

Ultima IV (Screenshot courtesy

Another difference between the two is that story is of much more import in Ultima, and ties more deeply into the play mechanics. One result of the difference in focus is that the original Wizardry holds up much better today than the first two Ultimas, whose story was rather slight, and even a bit goofy. Later Ultimas, however, have a world with nearly unequaled depth and complexity. The third installment has a whole hidden continent to explore, Ultima IV brings NPC relations to the true heart of the game in its virtue system and bossless design, and Ultima VII may have the most engaging RPG world ever devised.

Sadly, the last Ultima game was released over a decade ago now, and between Richard Gariott's exile from the company and Electronic Arts' decided lack of interest in their older properties, this state of affairs might never change. Ultima Online continues to cling to life, but the days of it being the MMORPG leader are long over. When it finally goes dark, it'll be the end of the greatest series of CRPGs ever known.

Further reading: Blogging Ultima

3. Wasteland

Designed by: Brian Fargo, Ken St. Andre, Alan Pavlish and Michael A. Stackpole

Influenced by: Post-apocalyptic pen-and-paper RPGs, with a bit of D&D wilderness exploration.

Series: Wasteland's sequel wasn't produced by the original developers and is widely regarded as inferior. The Fallout games, three of them as of this publication, are similar in many ways.

Legacy: The Fallout series. The Elder Scrolls series also seems to borrow from its wide-open design. Its implementation of multiple ways to solve some problems, is influential... but nowhere near as influential as it should have been.

In the early days of computer RPGs, there were a good number of games that were more wide-open in design than we know today. The lack of computer power, in a perverse sort of way, helped the cause of these games; because people didn't expect their eight-bit machines to be capable of realistic graphics and greatly-detailed world maps, developers didn't have to spend the manpower to provide them. Those days ended when games started showing that they were capable of providing a bit more meat on their grid-based worlds, and Wasteland, still fondly remembered by many, was one of the games that showed what those machines were capable of.

Wasteland has a weird position of being a kind of companion game to The Bard's Tale (a highly popular Wizardry-like game also made by developer Interplay). It contains a couple of sly references to that earlier game, and the screen has the same half messages/character roster, quarter character portrait, quarter display/battle messages system. Fights play out similarly too, down to using Bard's Tale's enemy groups and distance elements of combat.

And yet, behind the scenes, it appears that Wasteland is rather more ambitious than BT in its combat system; monsters exist as an entity on the tile-based map, and combat begins when the party enters their view.

Although the action of the fight, after actions are determined, is played as a stream of battle reports, as the monsters and the party close in for battle the player can check their locations on the area map at any time.

It's even possible to split the party up into multiple entities, each moving independently of the others in almost a roguelike fashion, and characters can even be in combat simultaneously in different areas, although as the developers note in the manual, playing the game this way is probably too annoying to be worth it.

Wasteland (Screenshot courtesy

One interesting thing about Wasteland is that, despite the harsh setting, the game is actually more forgiving than you might expect. Running out of health will often not spell doom for a character. This is particularly good because there is no way to revive a dead one. So long as a character remains no worse than Unconscious condition, he'll naturally regain hit points and wake up before too long.

Sometimes combat will reduce a character to Serious condition however, and that requires rather a bit more to overcome, including applications of another character's Medic skill. If not treated, Serious characters worsen over time and eventually die. There are also ailments characters can catch that can only be fixed by visiting a doctor.

The main reason Wasteland seems to be remembered today is the depth of its game world. It was one of the earliest games featuring quests to solve that offered multiple ways of carrying them out.

Some item-based goals had multiple copies of the needed object placed in the game world, allowing players to complete them from different places. The skill system aided in this; each of the player's four characters had skill ranks in a variety of skills, ranging from brawling to perception to lockpicking to more esoteric specialties.

Skills are quite expensive for a character to begin with. The first level in a skill costs one or two skill points, but each level beyond that doubles the cost of the previous one. Skills also increase with use, however.

There are too many skills for one character to know them all to any degree of quality, but by having them each specialize in some field, the player can cover most of the bases, and the holes in the party's skill set, once out in the world, help to distinguish each playthrough from each other -- and also, if one of the characters should happen to die, to make it easier to recover from the loss.

4. D&D Gold Box series

Designed by: Jim Ward, David Cook, Steve Winter, Mike Breault (Pool of Radiance), others

Influenced by: D&D, obviously. Also Wizardry, especially in its use of specials.

Series: SSI made many of these, at least seven. SSI also made a couple of Buck Rogers games using the Gold Box engine, and the original Neverwinter Nights (an early AOL offering) was essentially an MMORPG Gold Box game. There was even a publicly-released Gold Box AD&D construction kit in the form of the Unlimited Adventures tool.

Legacy: Probably every D&D-licensed RPG to come after owes a tremendous debt to the Gold Box line.

And so we return to Dungeons & Dragons for a moment. Let's first review the progress of the pen-and-paper game between OD&D and AD&D 2nd edition, which is the version that the Gold Box games utilize.

OD&D gave rise to two different, popular branches of the game, a version called just "Dungeons & Dragons" and was handed to TSR staffers to design, and "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," which was Gary Gygax's baby, and substantively looked like a version of OD&D with all the supplements rolled in, as well as some additions.

OD&D contained a good number of "rule hacks," weird little special cases introduced for one reason or another. For example, in the original books, elves were the only race with special status, able to play as either Fighting Men or Magic-Users, but only one at a time, per adventure. A supplement turned this into D&D's strange "multi-class" rules, giving them the ability to do both, splitting experience between their classes.

It also opened up the ability to pick different classes, and allow other races to multi-class. But since the purpose was to allow races to seem special compared to ordinary people, humans didn't get access to these rules. But then humans began to look like a fool's choice for race, so they introduced the "dual class" rules.

The result was that the rules became ever more complex, and only really understandable to people who had played from the start. Then 2nd edition came out (after Gygax had been forced out of the company), and the rules became simple in some ways, but combat became even more complicated. These are the rules upon which the AD&D Gold Box games are based.

Up until that point, TSR had viewed the burgeoning field of computer RPGs with suspicion. They had released a couple of tools for 1st edition DMs (shamefully, still the best such official tools ever produced), but nothing much in the way of games. This changed with the introduction of Pool of Radiance.

AD&D was not designed to become a computer game, and thus there are some unusual interface challenges at work here. A big advantage coming from its trying to replicate a official pen-and-paper RPG is that some aspects of the game world which almost invariably get simplified out of a concession to workability on a computer did not with the Gold Box games.

Take, for example, Vancian magic, the (in)famous aspect of D&D versions 0-3 that had wizard and cleric characters memorize spells at the beginning of an adventuring day. At "the beginning of a day," even in table sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, is a simplification; 2nd Edition established complex rules determining how many hours of preparation magic users had to undergo before beginning to memorize spells, then the actual amounts of time needed to commit them to retain them. In play sessions DMs usually, and rightly, glossed over this needless complication.

In most computer RPGs, something as weird and flavorful as Vancian magic (something that is only really effective for people who have read Jack Vance's fantasy work) would be considered too much of an interface hassle to make up for the fairly-minimal atmospheric effect from using it. The Gold Box games do include Vancian magic, even though it required a great deal of interface programming at the time to accommodate it -- the games even accurately tally up the hours spent in memorizing spells. They also track encumbrance, and even the funky multiple coin types D&D used at the time, with at least one inn even refusing payment in anything but platinum.

The games themselves are remembered fondly by many players, probably because of their strong non-linear nature and challenging play. Like a semi-directed tabletop campaign, players are given many different possible tasks to accomplish and can do them in the order the wish, or switch between them. Many of the obstacles have multiple ways of overcoming them.

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