Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 14, 2010

I have been reading Matt Barton’s excellent book, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games, which highlights the contributions and unique features of an impressively  comprehensive set of computer RPGs. It’s made me think a bit about the influence these games have had on my own thinking of what a CRPG should be. After all, I’ve been playing these games since I was  thirteen or something.

And they had an impact on me. Warped my brain. I’ve written a little bit about a few of the early CRPGs that I played. Here are a few of ’em and how I think they’ve affected my mindset as a gamer, and as an  indie RPG designer (wow, that kinda  sounds formal and pretentious…). Some I’ve already written about before, so I’ll just sum up some of the “design lessons” that they’ve taught me:

Dungeons of Magdarr was probably the first “true” RPG I ever bought for my computer. It was bargain-priced, mail-order only. And I discovered that you get what you pay for.  But more importantly, the game was written in BASIC, which meant I could look at the source code. And I realized that I could do better.  So I guess the Dungeons of Magdarr deserves some gratitude for helping convince me to keep learning how to program and to write my own games.

Telengard was another early game for my C-64 (my first computer actually capable of running a “serious” game… apparently my 1K Sinclair ZX80 couldn’t cut it for some reason…). This one was also written in BASIC, and after spending many happy hours delving through its procedurally generated dungeons I printed out the entire program and spent many more happy hours delving through its source code.  I learned a few tricks.  But it also helped solidify in my mind some staples of very “old-school” RPG-ing.  Mysterious floating cubes, teleport traps (ugh! Not my favorite), thrones with gems, lots of wild magic flung around, the occasional non-hostile creature in dungeons. And since the sheer randomness of results eliminated all concept of “right” or “wrong” decisions, it boiled everything down to a simple concept: Risk Management. You can’t know what sitting on the throne will do of the various random results, but you could know if you could afford the risk.

Colossal Cave Adventure – While not an RPG, this one preceded Dungeons & Dragons for me, and I cannot begin to understand how much this game screwed with my head. It was this game that taught me that there were worlds inside of computers ready to be explored.

Adventure (Atari) – Also not an RPG. But from this game, I was taught the basics of RPG design. See, there were these problems. And you had tools to solve them. The thing is, there was no EXACT way to solve them. You could fight the duck dragon with a sword. Or you could drop the sword on the ground and let the dragon impale itself on it. You could use the magnet to grab the key from across the river. Or use the magnet to get the bridge to cross the river and take the key. That kind of thing.  This is, IMO, how RPGs should work. They should be more about problem-solving, not so much about puzzle-solving (though a dash of that is often fine, too).

Wizardry I – I never played this game very much, as it didn’t become available for the Commodore 64 until very late. But I read a great deal about it, and eventually got the chance to play this masterpiece on other systems. I don’t think I ever got past level four or five of the dungeon. But while the title of the game was “Wizardry: The Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord“, the name of the game was Exploration and Resource Management. It was a true old-school D&D-style experience. It was the opposite of today’s Diablo-style action RPG hack-and-slashers. There was no rushing down through the levels half-cocked. You planned. You mapped. You measured. You turned back while the getting was good to return to town, knowing you’d have to fight your way back. You had to take your dungeon delving seriously in this game. And for many players, that was more compelling and immersive than any cool modern 3D graphics.

The Temple of Apshai – To be honest, I think my view through dim rose-colored glasses at this game is probably much, much better than actually playing it.  But – from my dim recollection – the cool thing here was that they attempted to marry the old-school “roguelike” (back before there was a Rogue to be like, I think) with the pen-and-paper RPG mentality using text in the manual. The dungeon was static, room-based, and treasure and rooms were numbered for look-up, and the prose resembled the boxed text found in (later) D&D modules. So, in a sense you were playing through a D&D module solo. The thing that stuck with me from that game is that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes those words in text descriptions can evoke thoughts, feelings, and understanding that a picture alone cannot convey – even with the best of modern graphics.

I will stop here, as the next game on my list would be Ultima III, and that game might be an entire article unto itself.


The rest of this series can be found here:

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 2

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 3

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 4

Filed Under: Design, General - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Adamantyr said,

    Tunnels of Doom was my first CRPG, not surprisingly, since our first computer was the TI-99/4a.

    Since I was 9 when we got it, I remember really feeling sorry for Mauve D’or-Mul, the rogue who my dad (who played the first “Quest of the King” game with us watching) had a lot of trouble keeping alive. Hearing the “duh duh DUH DUH!” every time we drank from a fountain only to see “Increases Player Damage” was brutal. Also, I kept thinking the Oozes were “Dozes” because the double-O looked more like a DO to me.

    Anyway, as far as design went, ToD was actually a very solid re-playable design. The configurable game options, randomly generated maps, and total control over party size and make-up were excellent options. The story was simple, but it fit right in with tabletop game design. “There’s a dungeon, and a king and his source of power to rescue. Have at it!”

  • WCG said,

    “This is, IMO, how RPGs should work. They should be more about problem-solving, not so much about puzzle-solving…”

    Absolutely! And not ALWAYS problem-solving with brute force, hacking your way through every enemy (although some of that is certainly fun).

  • Aelfric said,

    Out of curiosity, Mr. Coyote–did you play much of the AD&D “Gold Box” series on the C64? I know they were a bit later, but when I think back to my Commodore days, those titles really sort of dominated the world for me, especially “Pool of Radiance.” Thanks for another great post, and now I just might have to buy that book.

  • Chris S said,

    I was basically glued to my Apple IIe back in those days.

    I grew up with most of the classic series — Wizardry, Ultima, Bard’s Tale, AD&D gold box, Might & Magic, etc. I also started playing D&D in those years.

    My friends and I used to painstakingly map every dungeon and location in the world. Although I doubt I would go through that now, it did not seem tedious at the time.

    Great fun.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Aelfric – I didn’t play them at all on the C-64. I played them on a MacIntosh and on a PC. 🙂

    I played a little bit of all of them, but I don’t think I finished any of ’em. We still have them – picked up a bundle pack many, many years ago with the three Forgotten Realms games and three Dragonlance games. I’ve been tempted to go back and play through them again, though. The 2-hour long battles and all (kinda like Wizardry 8…)

  • Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 3 said,

    […] how they did damage to my head and influenced my feelings on games and game design (you can read part 1 here, and part 2 here). So here are a bunch more games, principally from the end of the 80’s and […]

  • Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part IV said,

    […] If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, you can click on these links to see  part 1, part 2, and part […]