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An editorial on PCGamesN takes a look at the symbiotic relationship between the behemoth of tabletop roleplaying, Dungeons & Dragons, and PC games. It lists a number of influential examples, starting with Pool of Radiance and concluding with the recently announced Game Master Mode for Larian's Divinity: Original Sin II. Check it out:
Neverwinter Nights (1991)
Not to be confused with the 2002 CRPG of the same name, Neverwinter Nights broke new ground in the arena of multiplayer RPGs, effectively creating the MMO as we know it today.
By 1991, Dungeons & Dragons had amassed quite a collection of officially licensed PC games, spread across the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Savage Frontier settings. SSI wanted their next title to break new ground once again and chose the fertile ground of, what was at the time, a new thing called the internet in which to plant their latest digital seeds.
A genre known as MUDs (multi-user dungeons) had been developing almost parallel to that of the PC RPG, with the first, Colossal Cave Adventure, arriving in 1975 around the same time as Dungeon and pedit5. MUDs allowed players connected on a local network to explore a randomly generated dungeon together, often fighting and trading items in the process. But there was just one problem, these games were all text based, therefore limiting the levels of immersion players could experience whilst adventuring. That is, until Neverwinter Nights arrived on the scene.
While it may have been rudimentary, Neverwinter Nights proved that there was a market for subscription-based MMOs. In fact, it initially cost as much as $8 per hour to play which is about $14 when adjusted for today’s inflation. It played almost identically to Pool of Radiance, with the obvious addition of multiple simultaneous players. Other innovations included a leaderboard of the best fighters in the city as well as the PC’s introduction to the city of Neverwinter, which we would revisit many more times over the coming years. As the first graphical MMO, you can thank Neverwinter Nights for games like Everquest, WoW and Guild Wars. Without this coming together of D&D and AOL, an entire genre of games wouldn’t exist.
Baldur’s Gate (1998)
By 1995, the gaming world had experienced the 3D revolution. Players no longer wanted to explore worlds from a fixed, first-person perspective and D&D games were in desperate need of a re-design. At the same time, three Canadian doctors had just graduated from medical school in Alberta, Canada and set up a software development studio, with the intention of making medical programs for hospitals. Appropriately, they named their new studio Bioware. However, these three friends soon realised that they found their games of D&D much more stimulating than their medical doctorates and promptly set their sights on the PC games market. By 1996 they had acquired a license to develop D&D games and chose the city of Baldur’s Gate as the setting for their new RPG.
Put yourselves in the shoes of a brave, young adventurer. You have to get into a temple to retrieve a body for someone, but it’ll cost you 2,000 gold to bribe the guards. Fortunately, you’ve already buttered up one of the priestesses by returning a bowl that was stolen from her, so you can get in without a fight or a payout. Moments later, you’re watching a father resurrect his son and you’ve done a family a good turn. This is what Baldur’s Gate brought to the world of PC gaming, something which would later be termed ‘emergent narrative.’ The idea that your decisions matter, that your companions care about what you say and do and that you have to accept responsibility for how your character interacts with the world.
By striving to make a game that felt like a proper D&D experience, the guys at Bioware had inadvertently advanced PC gaming once more and games like Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic and Pillars of Eternity owe much of their existence to Baldur’s Gate. With its use of an isometric view, tight party mechanics and visible die rolls, it set both the visual and mechanical standards by which critically acclaimed RPGs still adhere today. Furthermore, the Infinity Engine is still being used to make PRGs now, albeit in a more modern form. Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate II and the incredible Planescape: Torment would soon follow, taking these ideas to their logical conclusions. The late ‘90s truly were a golden era for D&D games on PC.
Modern Tabletop Simulators (2009)
Sometime around the early ‘00s an attitude began to permeate the games industry. The original Xbox drew many PC enthusiasts towards a console for the first time and Sony’s PlayStation 2 enjoyed runaway success. To this day, it still holds the title of best-selling console of all time. Unfortunately, this spooked a lot of PC developers, many of whom declared the ‘inevitable’ death of PC gaming and switched focus to consoles. This period saw many D&D franchises making the leap over to the console arena. Most of these were mindless hack-and-slash titles such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes. Fun games in their own right, but far from the depth and complexity of the CRPGs that the late ‘90s had brought us.
It was in this drought that the tabletop gaming community began to enjoy a resurgence. Access to the internet slowly became the norm and YouTube rose to prominence as a cheap and easy way for anyone to make videos. This gave rise to many people learning about tabletop gaming for the first time and soon they started figuring out ways to play over the internet. Before long, numerous games and apps had begun popping up, each different, but all of them offering innovative new ways for people to play tabletop RPGs from the comfort of their own homes.
From the official launch of Fantasy Grounds in 2009, to the fully web-based app Roll20 in 2012, to the entirely 3D Tabletop Simulator in 2015, there are now more ways than ever to play actual Dungeons & Dragons on your PC. We no longer have to rely on developers to write pre-scripted stories with programmed AI, we can simply load up a web page and jump into a game of D&D with our best friends or a group of total strangers. Furthermore, with titles like Pillars of Eternity and the recent Torment: Tides of Numenera keeping the spirit of ‘90s D&D games alive, we now live in an age where we can choose to play however we like. There really has never been a better time to get rolling some dice, be they virtual or made of obsidian-coloured plastic. Long live Dungeons & Dragons!