My second favourite place to read articles about gaming (NoHighScores being the first, obviously) is Edge Online. And it was there that I learned the news that two well known names in video game design history, Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall, were joining forces on a kickstarter campaign to fund an “old school” RPG. The modern incarnations of the genre being apparently, in spite of being “epic” and “wonderful”, in need of some competition from the aged paradigm of stat-crunching. The article from which I learned this asked the pertinent question of what, exactly, the label meant. That pushed my nostalgia buttons sufficiently to make me want to try and answer the question for myself.
I grew up with both computers and with pen and paper role-playing games and I can’t recall a time when the link between the two was not obvious. Gathering other gamers together for role-playing sessions is hard and if you want the full effect of slowly developing a group of characters they suck in immense quantities of time. Computers promised a solution to both issues, allowing you to get your fix any time you wanted and speeding up the campaign arc.
The initial offerings I came across were interactive fiction games, which I found and still find charmless, frustrating things. They have all the book-like limitations of trapping you inside someone else’s imagination without the benefits of character development and absorbing narrative. And the experience of dealing with language parsers drives me to a level of incoherent fury unmatched by anything else in my gaming experience. These were not the things I wanted, where an inventory was a clumsy box of puzzle solving tools rather than a roster of legendary weapons and magical armour.
So the first time I got wind of something that smelled like my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, my delight was incandescent. It was original Bard’s Tale and I was ten. I had no idea how to play the game properly, and I didn’t care. I would carefully roll up a party, lovingly name them and clothe them in skins of iron and steel before setting out into the brutal dawn of Skara Brae where they would stumble into enemies and be torn apart like mewling babes. Whereupon I would go back to the inn and repeat the process over and over, ignoring homework, meals, bedtime, until I was dragged protesting from my dream world, eyes round and red from wonder and exhaustion.
This happened because I was expecting a replica of my childish D&D experience where the heroes went out and slaughtered monsters, collected the loot and went out to slaughter more powerful monsters. I think I solved exactly one of the horrible battery of puzzles the game slammed in front of the player like iron doors, which was how to get into the first dungeon. And once the euphoria of that discovery wore off and I realised that what I’d found was nothing more than a faster way to get my callow band of heroes slaughtered, my interest in the game began to wane.
But unbeknown to me, The Bard’s Tale was just the most popular and visible cap on a mushrooming world of computer role playing games. Ultima had been born five years before and, although I would not play a game in the series until the early 90’s, had set down many genre conventions. After The Bard’s Tale and the home computer revolution they began to sprout in earnest. And why not? On the limited hardware platforms of the time action games looked awful and played in a sticky, halting fashion compared to their arcade counterparts. Role-playing games offered the majestic worlds of wonder and the grand sagas that we craved from both pen and paper RPGs and computer games.
What all the early role-playing games had in common was an obsession with numbers. Character ability scores, experience levels, weapon bonuses, spell counts. That’s where the focus was, or at least the focus of most players. Sure some of those titles were filled with cleverly conceived plots and marvelously inventive settings but what the pen and paper role-playing crowd who lapped these things up really wanted was a computer simulation of their favourite games. And that meant stats and power curves, building up experience points and hoarding loot. It is, as we well know, an incredibly addictive model of game play so titles that stuck to the Dungeons and Dragons formula sold well, got well reviewed, and spawned copies until it became the dominant model in the genre.
Inevitably actual licensed Dungeons and Dragons games eventually began to appear, the first being Pool of Radiance in 1988. But what’s striking about this release is that came after the first video adventure game that struck new ground in the genre, Dungeon Master. With its real time play, peculiar repetition based experienced system and mix of tough puzzles and twitch combat it moved the focus sharply away from number crunching and toward action. The stats were still there of course, buried in the character screens, but for the first time the player didn’t really have a clue what the number represented, what they were for. So obsessively tweaking character builds for maximum power became futile.
Dungeon Master laid, arguably, the groundwork for the modern concept of the action RPG. But while people raved about it they kept on lapping up the stats based model. They did so because it was a better mimic for their other hobby and because that reward-response reinforcement is so amazingly powerful. So while technological developments allowed first map-based tactical combat and then real-time combat the numbers stayed totally in the heart of things.
What changed the game finally was Diablo. One hundred percent real time and a character stats system stripped back to its bare essentials, it arrived at a time when computer gaming was becoming increasingly seen as an ordinary everyday activity and not the preserve of Dungeon and Dragons nerds. And it proved that the reinforcement model was just as addictive for mainstream gamers as it had been for the pen and paper role-players before them. From there, slowly, the action RPG model took over as the dominant one and evolved toward pinnacles of near-perfection like Dark Souls and The Witcher, whose difficulty made them once again the playthings of hardcore hobbyists. Video role-playing had come full circle.
Until now, and the kickstarter calls for a new stats based role-playing game to challenge these behemoths of modern technology. It is, as others have observed, a little sad that kickstarter is so often used to stoke the dormant volcanos of nostalgia than to drive innovation. But what I find especially odd about this new project is that as far as I can see, what I consider as old-school role-playing never went away.
If you go trawling around the stony bottom of the internet you will find many, many stats-based role-playing games that will give you many hours of enjoyment without costing you a penny. Just like the arthropods you might find under the real stones of a real stream they’re often ugly and will bite you if you’re not careful, but they’re there. From fan freeware modelled on the console JRPGs of our teenage years to the untold legions of lovingly maintained Roguelikes they will satisfy your desire for stats-based, reinforcement model gameplay to the very brim.
So what does that leave us with from a kickstarter project? A new story, that’ll likely follow any number of tiresome fantasy conventions, perhaps. A graphical update that still won’t be able to match the best looking action RPGs on the market, certainly. But ultimately, and ironically quite unlike the trailblazing adventures its supposed to simulate, this seems doomed to re-tread some very well worn paths indeed. I’ll be sticking with Angband and my action RPGs.