Photo courtesy of stokfoto (Jeroen Thoolen).

Video Games and RPGs have shared a parallel evolution throughout their histories, going all the way back to the original such games (Colossal Cave Adventure in 1967 and [Original] D&D in 1974, which was based on 1971’s Chainmail rules for miniatures wargaming).

Throughout their histories, they have fed on each other, sometimes in a fairly conventional fashion (the various D&D computer games ranging from the D&D Computer Labyrinth Game of 1980 through to the better known Baldur’s Gate and more recent Daggerdale and the Legend Of Zelda RPG which took the complimentary evolutionary path, from computer game to tabletop), and sometimes in more indirect fashion.

The two have a lot in common insofar as the game mechanics of any RPG translate readily into computer code, they both have fundamentally similar storytelling techniques, and they both involve interaction with a narrator or GM who describes the action – in a computer RPG, that narrator is controlled by the machine, that’s all. They will often share fantasy elements and have other common elements. This commonality has existed throughout their history, but it is about to enter a new phase of development that merits a little scrutiny.

Initial Developments

Early developments in both types of gaming explored improvements in game play. The fundamentals of storytelling were being explored in both environments, while the human-game interfaces underwent considerable development. In the case of Tabletop RPGs this focused on exploration of the rules systems and examination of meta-issues and underlying design philosophies. Meanwhile, computer games developed from purely text-based to simple graphical games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and later, more sophisticated games like Defender.

Unfortunately, these games were unable to hide the basic inability of players to interact with the game plot and narrative, reducing the plot to a basic script. More sophisticated programming techniques would be required before game play could further advance.

Glossy & Verbose

The development paths of the two game styles then appeared to diverge for a period. Programmers concentrated on the things that computer games were inherently good at, like fancy graphics and basic gameplay. Increased memory, processing power, and graphics capabilities meant that the visuals of games were increasingly sophisticated. At the same time, random selection of a number of scenarios began to be integrated into a number of games of the era, restoring an at least superficial resemblance to a truly interactive game.

Roleplaying games also worked on the aspects of their games that they were inherently good at – interaction with plot, character development, and uniqueness of setting and narrative. Character development in particular was liberated from the tyranny of randomness with the advent of point-based construction systems. New approaches to interactivity with the passage of in-game time, new methods to the simulation of skill systems, and new techniques for simulating the learning and growth of individuals as experience was gained by characters, all extended the veracity of gaming systems.

Simulation meets Interaction

Eventually, the simulation techniques inherent to computer games grew sufficiently sophisticated that they could even mimic interaction with the narrative. The results were a series of landmark efforts in the sub-field of computer-based RPGs, as TSR released their AD&D games. While the choices available to players were still confined to those inherently coded into the system and plotline, it was not always easy to tell that the plots were pre-scripted, even when you knew better.

At much the same time, computer-based tools for pencil-and-paper RPGS were developing beyond basic character generators. Everything from simple map generators to combat simulators achieved new standards of performance over the next few years.

The 32-bit era

Home computers evolved from 16 to 32-bit technology, operating systems advanced, and what we now think of as the internet became more than isolated bulletin boards. RPG aids became more sophisticated, and many applications nominally intended for other purposes such as spreadsheets, databases, appointment calendars, and more, were adapted to assist GMs. At the same time, RPGs entered a phase in their development in which two simultaneous paths were being explored: simplicity and refinement on one branch, and increasing sophistication and complexity of options on the other. All these movements culminated in a number of computer-based RPGs that set new standards for interactivity, such as games like Baldur’s Gate; but there were a number of other games in this period that blurred the lines between simulated rpg and traditional computer game with complex branching narrative structures that furnished a sophisticated illusion of choice on the part of the player. But game development then got side-tracked into the 3D and Real-time movements and away from the turn-based elements that they had shared in common with RPGs.

Gaming aids appeared to hit a peak in their development in this period. Sophisticated tools such as the official D&D character generator and Redblade made the tedium of GMing far less strenuous. Increasingly, however, this aspect of computer software development would also be diverted into the portability of documentation and tools of collaboration, as wikis and blogs began to evolve.

It was not long after these trends commenced that RPG development also became sidetracked by the d20/OGL explosion. For several years, it seemed that no other core gamesystem could survive, so ubiquitous was the d20 approach, fuelled by the runaway success of D&D 3.0 and 3.5.

In their own ways, all three strands of this narrative found themselves exploring seductive cul-de-sacs. In time, each would escape these traps, but it would not be immediate.


MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, evolved from the same text-based origins as other computer games, but took a branching path instead of focusing on the graphical development of their more famous brethren. From time-to-time, the two strands of game software development converged, usually in the form of a multiplayer option attached to a traditional game. Beginning in 1997, the MUD assimilated a number of utility technologies such as chat software, added a reasonable standard of graphics similar to that of other computer games, perhaps five years behind those of the cutting-edge games of the time, and – beginning with Ultimata Online – emerged as the MMORPG. This, in effect, integrated and then supersized at least one traditional element of table-top RPGs, simultaneous multiplayer involvement. In 2004, the MMORPG exploded into popular consciousness with the massively successful World Of Warcraft. Some people were so alarmed by the success of this development that they prophesied the imminent death of RPGs as we knew them.

In part, this doomsaying was fueled by the edition war between D&D 3.x and 4e, which is still a divisive issue amongst the table-top gaming community. Guess what? It’s almost a decade later, and Tabletop RPGs are still around, and even looking more vigorous than they have in many years. The huge fanbase brought into the hobby by the success of 3.x fractured into support for a multitude of systems, harnessed the power of nostalgia to reinvent a number of classic games from the past, and hooked up with the online environment to fuel a massive wave of roleplaying blogs that continues to this day.

At the same time, computer gaming shifted from the personal computer to gaming consoles. The result was that the most interactive capability was lost – a hand controller simply doesn’t have the sophistication of a keyboard or the depth of the written word. Not being into console gaming myself, I could not even tell you whether or not these games have even achieved the limited interactivity of Baldur’s Gate, where your choices of action were limited to combinations of preselected options, and an overall fixed narrative.

The problem with WoW and other MMORPGs is that they are centralized, with a centralized structure, and the narrative is best described as “emergent” – it grows out of the actions and interactions of hundreds or thousands of players, each doing something “fun” – with that being defined largely in terms of older, more traditional computer games. It means that the game environment is constantly evolving, but in terms of an adventure with pacing and plot, it doesn’t go anywhere. Ultimately, I think it will be another in a long line of very successful evolutionary cul-de-sacs for computer gaming – though I might be wrong, and this wouldn’t be the first time, so don’t get upset if you disagree.

Online RPGs & The Modern Day

Recent years have seen genuine progress in the integration of computers and the tabletop RPG. It is now possible for players from many different geographic locations to play, across the internet, in a game with a genuine old-style GM. The first such software that I became aware of was Roll20, but I have since learned of others. The general classification of the software is “Virtual Tabletop” and it is so new than Wikipedia don’t even have a page for it yet! But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t resources and alternatives out there. Here’s just a handful:

  • Virtual Tabletop – a Wiki dedicated to telling you all you need to know about Virtual Tabletops, including a visual comparison chart. The number-one resource for the subject.
  • Guide to choosing a virtual tabletop program – a page from the above Wiki.
  • This page from Battlegrounds Links to Virtual Tabletop (VT) Programs suitable specifically for RPGs – a comprehensive list. As a bonus, if you scroll up to the top of the page, you’ll find an equally comprehensive list of Mapping Software, Sources of Free Art for RPGs, Roleplaying Aids, and Music & Sound Effects for RPGs.

An unusual engine for development

The big question is this: how to fund the future development of this software. If it takes off in popularity, becomes as big as DnD 3.x or WoW, there will be no problem – but I can’t see that happening. What we need is some well-funded sugar daddy to pay for the primary R&D for something we can adapt to become improvements in tabletop gaming software.

Believe it or not, there is such a creature.

Kids and teens have always been in the forefront of online gaming. Households are crammed with Xbox’s, Playstations, and Wii’s. But over the last half-decade, online gaming has taken off in a new direction for adults; everything from Online Poker Tournaments through to online Bingo, as offered by sites such as Costa Bingo, with innovative free-to-play games.

There’s money behind these games, money for R&D, and at the same time, they are closer in their software requirements to those of tabletop RPGs than might be expected. There is considerable overlap in the areas of the selective broadcasting to particular individuals of live transmissions, interactions between the central game and each player, and interactions and communications between players. How can you look for a “Tell” if your webcam view only updates once a second, and not in real time?

Gaming sites such as these will develop the necessary tools for their own use, tools which can be licensed and adapted to service other genres of gaming. In the years to come, simply because they can afford to fund the R&D, such sites will become a driving force for the advancement of Tabletop Gaming into the 21st century – the best friends we never knew we had. And that’s food for thought.

Update 9 Feb 2013: Play-by-Post gaming

Yesterday, Twitter user @StarArmy quite rightly took me to task for omitting a major subgenre of gaming from this article. He/She wrote,

“In your Campaign Mastery article about RPG evolution, why is there no mention of online text based RPGs such as forum RPGs? Since the mid 90s, hundreds of roleplaying games have been started on the web, played by forums and email lists. Check out Wikipedia’s article on Play-by-post gaming. I have spent much of my life GMing Star Army, [Sci-fi] a PbP community. Forum RPGs aren’t tabletop and we’re not video games, we’re roleplayers writing back and forth. Some have GMs, some not.”

The reason PbP gaming doesn’t get a mention in this article is because I’ve never played that way, and would rather send out an incomplete article than an inaccurate one. We then went on to compare the roles of the moderator of such a game (when there was not a GM) and a GM. StarArmy wrote, “A GM describes the setting and controls NPCs. A moderator is mainly there to enforce behavior guidelines.”

I have to admit that I found all this very interesting. What StarArmy was describing was, to my mind, very similar to an MMORPG, in which the story is an emergent property of the interaction of players. Strip an MMORPG of its graphical inheritance from traditional computer games, and what you are left with is a live action RPG operating in real time. An archive or transcript of such a game would look remarkably similar to the archive or transcript of a PbP game, though it would be sliced up into much smaller components due to the real-time interactivity of the MMORPG.

“Although text-based roleplaying has exploded in popularity on the web, in theory it could be played by snail mail too,” according to StarArmy. Twitter user @Canageek then added, “Keep in mind, that is also only one type of PbP. The other is just a traditional RPG played via typing on forum” – which, of course, would be a direct descendant of the PBEM (Play by E-mail) games of yesteryear.

PbP gaming would appear to be a crossover point, or perhaps an intersection point, between MMORPGs and traditional RPGs which evolved from PBEM origins. They may or may not have a directed narrative under the control of a GM; where they do, they resemble a traditional tabletop RPG played by some form of correspondence, and sped up via the speed of the modern internet. Where they don’t have a GM, the narrative is an emergent property of the chaotic system of individual actions within a common game world – all the players act simultaneously, and then react simultaneously to each other’s actions.

David Ball – Twitter user @ongoingworlds – pointed out that PbP games “are more like collaborative writing than tabletop [RPGs}”. That similarity, and in particular the resemblance to a shared-world anthology being crafted in parallel by each participant rather than sequentially, episode by episode, had also not escaped me. I had deliberately avoided clouding the subject by including the evolutionary interactions between various forms of gaming and “traditional” literary fantasy in my article – lack of time, if nothing else – but if I had done so, the resemblance to a PbP archive and a series like Thieves’ World would also have merited mention.

Text-based RPGs aren’t just a strange offshoot or hybrid of computer games, mass communications, forum technologies, and tabletop RPG elements. They are their own evolutionary path, which may have emerged from the same cultural niche as tabletop RPGs but have forged their own path. As someone who writes – both in the literary sense, and the RPG sense – the attraction of PbP gaming seems very obvious to me. I wish I had the time to investigate it more fully. But at the very least I’m glad to be able to acknowledge the gaming format of PbP here and rectify an obvious-in-hindsight deficiency. Thanks to @StarArmy, @Canageek, and @ongoingworlds for taking the time to talk to me about it – and for making the effort of bringing the oversight to my attention.

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