It's been over 30 years since the release of Dragon Quest, one of the first, popular, Japanese-style computer role-playing games. Since then RPGs¹ have gone from a niche genre to mass market. From mobile, to web, to massively multiplayer; nearly all games use mechanics originally from role-playing games.
RPGs excel at telling story, character development, giving the player a feeling of progression and creating environments that are rewarding to explore. Learning how these games work and how to build one lets you not only create an awesome RPG experience but helps you when designing any game.
¹: RPG is the common abbreviation for "role-playing game." In this article RPG almost exclusively refers to "computer role-playing games" and commonly refers to "Japanese-style computer role-playing games."
In the mid 1800s, before Germany even existed, is the Kingdom of Prussia. At this time, like most other times, Prussia is at war; Prussia excels at war. One reason it's so good at war is its war games. Ancient kingdoms may have used chess to teach the art of war, but not Prussia; Prussia has Kriegsspiel². Kriegsspiel, like chess, is a game of miniatures and rules but it's much more elaborate; it's an attempt to simulate real warfare. These games would be quite familiar to a modern gamer. Counters represent units. They use dice, and the concept of game turns with time limits, and a games master. They use many of the features seen in modern tabletop games. Kriegsspiel games, like so many inventions of war, quickly found a way into civilian life.
²: Literally "war play."
Kriegsspiel, a very old-school D&D night
In 1911 England, H.G. Wells is a household name; the father of science fiction, eugenics supporter(!), utopian visionary, socialist, and he's just about to kick off recreational miniature wargaming. By this time Wells has already written "The Time Machine," "The Invisible Man" and "The War of the Worlds" as well as countless other science fiction and nonfiction books, but in 1911 he wrote something a little different; a book called "Floor Games." Floor Games was an early rulebook for a miniature war game, not a game to train Prussian generals, but a game to entertain. He followed up Floor Games with a book called "Little Wars," marking the beginning of tabletop gaming. Many people published their own takes on these games, drawing on the grim realities of the World Wars as well as famous battles from antiquity.
That's right children, it's time to learn war.
Let's leave war games spreading and evolving toward the modern day and jump to Cross Plains, Texas. Each year on the second weekend of June, you can see men parading around town, clad in furs and holding swords to celebrate the life of Robert E. Howard. In the 1920s, Howard started the Sword and Sorcery genre with pulp titles such as Conan the Barbarian as well as more eldritch works written with the encouragement of H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu mythos. Howard's influences came from British mythology, particularly the Picts (an Iron Age culture that lived in Scotland). Unfortunately his life ended tragically in 1936, at 30 years old; he shot himself. Around the same time in Oxford, England, J.R.R. Tolkien was circulating a manuscript for his book "The Hobbit or, There and Back Again." The Hobbit was published the following year and the fantasy genre went mainstream. In 1954, Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was published, further cementing high fantasy in the popular consciousness and inspiring generations of readers.
Robert E. Howard looking pretty dapper.
Two American readers and war game enthusiasts, inspired by Howard and Tolkien, were Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. In 1974 they created the tabletop roleplaying game "Dungeons and Dragons." Much like the Prussian Kriegsspiel, it had a game master, turns, dice and a rulebook. By 1981 there were more than three million players. Gygax loved reading pulp fantasy and science fiction, especially Howard's brand of sword and sorcery. Appendix N of the 1st edition of Dungeons and Dragons is titled "Inspirational and Educational Reading.” It is half a page of books including Howard, Lovecraft, Tolkien and many other fantasy authors.
Dungeons and Dragons was more narrative focused than the war games that came before it. Instead of simulating battles it focused on the adventures of a few characters directed by a Dungeon Master who devised each game's unique plot. It's hard to overstate the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on computer role-playing games; experience points, levels, numbers representing strength intelligence and speed, a party of players, spells, magic - these all come from D&D. Dungeons and Dragons also included iconic monsters, often sourced from fantasy books, such as dragons, goblins, orcs, jellies, skeletons, wights and zombies, to name but a few.
Dungeons and Dragons introduced cooperative storytelling and world building but it did something more subtle too; it took a fantasy world and represented parts of it with numbers. Every person in the world was a certain level, with certain stats; this imaginary world wasn't just literary, it was _quantified_, grounded in numbers, math and probabilities. Actions and events were represented by rules and dice. This idea of a quantified fantasy world resonated very strongly with a certain type of person; programmers.
Gygax a giant in the field of RPGs. Not a literal giant despite photograph.
In the 1970s, computing systems were starting to become a common sight at universities. At the University of Illinois, one such system was called Plato. Plato was a precursor to many of the systems and concepts we take for granted today. It had a graphical user interface, email, forums, chat rooms and multiplayer games. Plato was not built with games in mind and therefore the first two dungeon crawl games are lost to history, deleted by system administrators trying to conserve Plato's limited memory. The third dungeon crawl game, written by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood in 1975, did survive and it was simply called "dnd," It was one of the first computer RPGs. It was heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons but was a much simpler game; players battled their way through successive levels of a dungeon searching for two items: an orb and a grail. All the basic elements of modern computer RPGs were present; inventory, equipment, monsters (including "slimes"), a "boss" monster (in this case a Golden Dragon), treasure and treasure chests, experience points and levels, stats, a quest and even graphics. dnd was popular on Plato and helped influence many other Plato games including one called "Oubliette"³.
³: Oubliette, literally "forgotten place," is a reference to a type of dungeon.
A couple of Plato machines, just hanging out, running some of the first ever CRPG games.
Oubliette was released in 1977 and introduced its own battery of innovations; multiplayer, a party of adventurers, choosing a race and class for your party members and even 3d wireframe graphics to depict the dungeon. Oubliette and dnd were ground-breaking games but they were on the Plato system and few people had access - just students and university staff. To really take off, role-playing games needed to move to more mainstream platforms and go commercial. Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, inspired by playing Oubliette, created a game that did this called Wizardry.
Wizardry ran on the Apple II, one of the first and most popular mass-produced computers. Wizardry was a dungeon crawler similar to Oubliette but with a better name and better platform. Released in 1981, it proved immensely popular and generated numerous sequels.
This is Wizadry. It's high time for a dragon puppy comeback.
We're going to back up a bit now. As mentioned earlier, Plato was a wonderful system but not everyone had access to it and innovation happened in other places too. Nassau Bay, Texas, is where America's astronauts live, and not just astronauts but nearly everyone involved in the space industry. It's a pretty brainy place, a mix of scientists and adventurers. One of those astronauts is Owen K. Garriott who would travel into space in 1973. Thirty-five years later he was in the desert steppes of Kazakhstan, probably feeling quite nervous, as he watched his son, Richard Garriott, make his own journey into space.
When Richard was 13, a NASA doctor told him he'd never be an astronaut because of his poor eyesight, so he had to turn his mind to other endeavors. Six years later, Richard published his first game, Akalabeth. Akalabeth, like Wizardry, was developed for the Apple II and was a hit, selling over 30,000 copies. It was the first game to have a top-down overworld map with the view switching to first person on entering a dungeon.
Richard had been playing D&D with his friends for years, and he'd read the Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, all unknowing preparation to create one of the most important computer series ever, the Ultima Series. Ultima 1 was first released in 1981, and by the end of the series Richard was able to fund his own journey into space.
At the start of the 1980s, Wizardry and Ultima were the hottest games on the Apple II. Over in Japan, Koichi Nakamura and Yuri Horii played Ultima and Wizardry while working at Chunsoft. Chunsoft made games published by Enix. In 1986, together with Dragon Ball manga artist Akira Toriyama, they created one of the first console role-playing games, Dragon Quest. They wanted to make a game that was more accessible than Ultima or Wizardry. Dragon Quest took the overhead map of Ultima and combined it with the first-person combat and random battles of Wizardry. They stripped out classes, used a single character instead of a party, streamlined and simplified the inventory, and made the graphics more cartoonish and friendly. Dragon Quest is the most influential Japanese role-playing game. It created many of the conventions that persist today.
Considering this is the first JRPG, it had pretty strong start screen.
In the West, Dragon Quest didn't do well. It came over to North America toward the end of the NES era but failed to replicate the success it saw in Japan.
In 1987, a game that did manage to capture the attention of the West was released; Square's Final Fantasy. At the time, Square was a small studio and hadn't released many games. Final Fantasy was programmed by Nasir Gebelli, an American-educated Iranian, and was designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, who named the game after his own personal situation; Sakaguchi had decided that if this game did not sell well he'd quit the industry and return to university. These days Sakaguchi lives in Hawaii and spends a lot of his time surfing, so it's safe to say things worked out.
When taking into account all the various versions, Final Fantasy 1 alone has sold over 2 million copies. Final Fantasy tried to steer away from the cutesy style of Dragon Quest toward something more realistic (as realistic as one can get in 16x16 pixels). In Sakaguchi's own words:
"We made a concerted effort to be different. The graphics were part of that effort."
The basics of Final Fantasy were still very Dragon Quest - two scales, one for traveling on a overworld map and another for towns and dungeons; a battle mode; and menus for inventory and equipment. Final Fantasy gave the player control of a party of characters, like Wizardry, as opposed to the lone knight of Dragon Quest. The battle mode was a little different; instead of battling enemies head-on like Dragon Quest, it was side on - showing the player characters as well as the monsters.
From that time on, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy have released sequel after sequel, and many other companies have released games in the same mold.
JRPGs have quite a storied history. From ancient board games like chess we got the wargames of the Prussian generals. Dungeons and Dragons came from these wargames mixed with the fiction of H.G. Wells, Howard, Tolkien and Lovecraft. As computers became more widespread, the games became digital, the most notable games being Wizardry and Ultima. These games spread to Japan where they were refined, simplified and mixed with a little manga art to form the console RPG as we know it today.
[This is a lightly edited excerpt from the introduction of the book How to Make and RPG. If you're interested to learn more about making your own RPG, please check it out!]