Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition has seen a resurgence in popularity that surpasses any edition in its history, mainly due to the streamlining and effective revision of previous rulesets, and the increased exposure given to D&D through podcasts, streaming, and events such as PAX.  In fact, board games and non-computer games around the table have all seen a revival, as evidenced by PAX Unplugged — an expo dedicated exclusively to tabletop gaming.

The questions I wish to explore in this article are these: In an era of cutting edge graphics,more online connectivity and functionality, as well as funding for RPG video games than ever before, what explains the renewed popularity of these “unplugged” games, and D&D in particular?  What kind of RPG experience does D&D offer that sets it apart from and keeps it relevant in an era where there are more “RPG” video games than ever?

The foundation and defining of the RPG genre in games

Think of any classic video game you might call an “RPG,” or one that fit in that genre before 2010, and chances are, that game was inspired or influenced in some way by D&D.  D&D was one of the very first game systems to introduce the concept of “role playing” into gaming.  Indeed, from its original published incarnation back in 1974, D&D was described as a “Role-playing game” on its cover.  

In the original mechanics, as well as subsequent editions, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977), AD&D 2nd Edition (1989), Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition (2000), version 3.5 (2003) — which revised 3rd edition rules and served as a basis for the d20 System, 4th Edition (2008), and finally, the current 5th edition, released in 2014, there were character sheets, stats, leveling, experience points gained by killing monsters, classes, races, and special powers and spells unlocked by gaining levels.

Any video game utilizing these elements and mechanics knowingly or unknowingly has drawn inspiration for its design from D&D either directly or indirectly, and in many ways, the RPG genre in video games is defined by this common genetic makeup that they have inherited from D&D. Some titles have directly imported and utilized various editions of D&D rules and game mechanics, from Pool of Radiance (1988) to Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition (released on Steam in 2018) — the original version of which was developed by Bioware, a developer who built their reputation on their roleplaying video games.  However, nearly every single classic RPG game developed in the early days of PC gaming features D&D mechanics and characteristic elements like HP, AC, and classic class archetypes such as Fighters, Clerics, Rogues, and Wizards, including titles such as: Bard’s Tale (1985), Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992), Fallout (1997), Might & Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998), Final Fantasy VII (1998), Planescape: Torment (1999), Diablo II (2000), Wizardry 8 (2001), The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002).  This list is far from inclusive, and only contains a few of the brightest, earlier stars in a long line of RPG games that have clear evidence of D&D mechanics and elements in their design.  

Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

These games represent a mere handful of the early titles (many of them in the franchises of those aforementioned games) that have defined the “RPG” genre in video games all the way up to the 21st century.  If there is a legacy from which we might draw support to argue that D&D provides the foundation, structure, and design for many elements that make up a game in the “RPG” genre, these games are it.

How the RPG label has turned away from its traditional meaning in today’s video games

Today, more games than ever are gathered under the RPG tent.  Yet, it feels simultaneously like there are less true RPG’s than ever.  In fact, a number of subgenres have spawned to account for these games that differ from the classic RPG style games of old.  These subgenres currently include: Action RPG’s, MMORPGs, Roguelikes, and Tactical RPGs, among others. The games in each of these share elements with the classic RPG’s I’ve listed above, but they differ in a number of ways as well, begging the question of what truly makes an RPG a “true” RPG anymore.  Genre blurring is always going to occur, but the poignant decline and absence of “traditional” RPG games has been noticed enough to even crop up at e3.  Along with a decline in single player games such as Planescape:Torment, turn-based RPG’s, such as the classic Final Fantasy games, are increasingly missing from new game lineups.  However, given the growing number of games being called some form of “RPG” games, it’s worth considering what the current crop of “RPG” games typically bring to the table, and why they don’t feel like traditional RPG’s once did.  Below, I’m only going to dive into two of these subgenres — Action RPGs and MMORPGs — for the purpose of pointing out how they differ from traditional RPGs.  You are welcome to explore the other subgenres (including those I haven’t even mentioned) on your own to discover the characteristics that set them apart from a traditional role-playing game.

Action RPGs (2007-Present)

This is a label that is applied increasingly to a number of games that previously might’ve been safely called First Person Shooter or even some form of “Action” game.  I’m thinking of games like Bioshock, Borderlands, Resident Evil, and Assassin’s Creed for this category of games.  While on one hand there are elements of RPG-ness in these titles —  a plot with characters and story, for instance — there is also a heavy emphasis on reflexes and twitch-based behavior.  The Dark Souls titles could fit under this category as well.  There are monsters to fight, challenges to overcome, and a general progression of the player’s abilities towards ever greater health and power.  Another excellent example that provides a clear contrast between a traditional RPG and a modern action RPG from the same franchise is the original The Bard’s Tale (originally released in 1985) and the more modern release by the same name in 2004, as well as The Mage’s Tale (a VR Action RPG released in 2017).  The latter two games are definitively action RPGs, while the original title was a more traditional RPG.

In this type of game, dialogue is usually one way, or minimal in the kind of conversations and lore that the player might uncover about this world that isn’t directly pertinent to the mission they’re on, often in a very literal sense.  If you’re finding about about Big Daddy’s, Little Sisters, or Splicers in Bioshock, it’s because you have to directly fight or deal with these beings.  If you find out about ADAM and EVE, it’s because you use these to fuel your health and powers.  You may have cutscenes, but the vast majority of these are to provide just a touch of drama to move you right on to the next combat encounter.

Bioshock Adam
A Little Sister harvesting ADAM in Bioshock.

And that’s what you get with Action RPGs: Combat.  It’s almost ceaseless, relentless, and dominates the plot like an action movie.  You have almost no opportunity or time to explore that doesn’t involve direct conflict with something or other.   As such, the plot is unraveled and uncovered through a series of conflicts from one encounter to the next with the player controlling a particular character in the story who they may not need to know anything about, who serves primarily as a “neutral mask” — a vessel for you to slip into as a gamer without much trouble, in much the same way Keanu Reeves serves as this vessel in action movies he does.  It’s easy to imprint yourself onto this otherwise hollow shell of a character, allowing you to smoothly embody it as yourself.  This is key for the action movie because there’s no time for you to feel separated from the main character/hero(ine); the producers and director want you onboard from the word “go,” in the film and in the game, so that you can focus on shooting things or hacking them up.

This is the primary focus for an Action RPG, and it often sacrifices meaningful character development (both in the main character, but perhaps even more noticeably, in other characters), non-combat story development, options for multiple outcomes (beyond a shallow binary choice here and there), and most of the mechanics of tweaking and designing your character, selecting a backstory, developing their values, or any of the other elements we might find in a game like Dragon Age: Origins.  This is why Action RPGs don’t often feel like RPGs of a more “traditional” design like the aforementioned Dragon Age games.  

MMORPGs

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote in his book No Exit (1944), “Hell is other people.”  Anyone who has ever played a massively multiplayer online RPG knows that you can get about five seconds into the game before you encounter someone by the name of “WeedLazor420” that puts a nice baseball sized crack into the glass pane of immersion in whatever world you’re playing in.  Whether you are playing World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online, there is no escaping the prolific number of people who play these games who have no desire or care to actually role-play anything beyond the mechanics of the game.  

World of Warcraft

Add to that the “theme park” design of most MMORPGs, where you go to a place, complete quests there, and then complete them over and over again with your friends.  In a traditional RPG, doing a quest over and over as part of the game was unheard of. Yet, in an MMORPG, that’s a core mechanic of the design. And while there were and are “trash mobs” and random encounters in nearly every RPG, MMORPGs tend to break every single encounter down to what loot the mob/monster drops, and how much XP you’ll get from killing it.  Who knows what purpose this being served in the lore? Good luck finding anyone who knows more than a few major, widely-publicized details about this dragon or that king. Which quests do you need them for? That you can find pages and pages of material and threads on.  

Immersion, a desire to get to actually know the beings you encounter, the entire act of role-playing as your character might is almost entirely lost in these games, and has been from their first incarnation in Ultima Online and Everquest.  On Everquest, the devs attempted to set aside a few servers that served as distinctly role-playing servers, but they were always greatly outnumbered by the “regular” servers.  On these servers, naming conventions were observed, and certain mechanics were in place to encourage role-playing.  It was a welcome attempt to try to bring back the role-playing in an “RPG.”

What D&D brings to the table that video game RPGs do not or cannot

In a game of D&D, a lot depends on players and the DM, who officiates and runs the campaign adventures of the group.  There are a number of rulebooks and supplements that can direct players and DM’s on how to play the game, but in the words of Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, the rules are more like guidelines.  It’s in the freedom that DM’s find in treating those rules as guidelines that a D&D experience may truly flourish.  This is because one cannot, as an omniscient deity might, predict and account for all outcomes and choices a player(s) might make during an adventure—so a certain amount of creative improvisation and flexibility is called for in those situations that the rules don’t really explain clearly or the plot line the DM came up with doesn’t account for a clever or unpredictable action by the player(s).  

In addition, a flexible DM may allow players to make their characters up in a way that bends the rules a bit or colors outside the lines in service to the goal of role-playing and enjoyment.  For example, there might be an opportunity to create a subclass around a player’s desires for the way they want to play a paladin or druid; there might be a special ability or way to enhance weapons or armor, or allow for certain equipment that is not listed or allowed in the rules that makes it possible to adopt and play those modifications in an adventure, and the game system will be able to tolerate it.  

There are numerous opportunities for dialogue, decisions, and choices that the DM might never have foreseen, but they can work with the players and role-play them out in the moment, facilitating banter, dialogue, exposition, and freedom that if they were forced to stick to the script, they’d never be able to offer to the players.  A significant portion of an adventure might revolve around some interparty drama, or characters revealing something about themselves; there might be special moments where the players roleplay out something that the DM might never have been able to predict or account for, such as a particular reaction to an NPC, or a certain set of consequences, such as an NPC’s death, that a player might consider personally special to their character.

Programmers and developers of RPG’s are at a disadvantage in all of these ways.  They are tasked with hard-coding from the outset each character’s reaction; they’re tasked with defining the parameters within which a player might create a character; they’re tasked with structuring a set of rules and outcomes that are without an adjudicator like a DM who can bend and ply them to serve the adventurers and the experience.  They are gifted none of the flexibility to allow a player to design their race or class in the little ways that make them special, even if those little ways don’t provide any functional advantage in combat. Programmers of RPG games are without the ability to change an NPC’s destiny on the spot, to have them adopt a different course of action in true response to interactions with the player(s).

Since all of a video game RPG’s outcomes, character choices, and design elements are fully knowable from the outset, the gamers will always eventually find out all of the different ways an encounter can go, and they will game these encounters accordingly, breaking them down into the consequences and outcomes they want, which moves them further away from immersion, rather than more fully into it.  The mystery of what might have happened that always exists in a D&D tabletop adventure is utterly missing.  The feeling that you might choose to do or not do any number of things in an adventure, that you might be able to come up with a trick combat move, or a fancy solution that may serve more of an aesthetic appeal than a functional one is absent from a video game’s code that bars the way to anything beyond what the developers planned for.  Modding has opened up possibilities to allow players to recapture this capability to rework the game to allow for certain opportunities and actions that were formerly not permitted, but modding can only take you so far, and for many games, the option to install mods simply isn’t there.

The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

I mention all of these different aspects that deal with freedom, choice, unpredictability, outcomes, and mystery because all of these elements serve to bring the players into the story and atmosphere of a D&D role-playing adventure.  All of these elements help a player to make a character their own, in ways that often have little to do directly with the mechanics of the game.  It is entirely possible to run a D&D campaign without ever tallying a single XP point, in order to promote a sense of gameplay that doesn’t depend upon slaying hordes of monsters.  It’s very rare to see this kind of mechanic in an RPG. And yet, allowing players to become their characters, to engage each situation in any number of possible ways that may be unpredictable and unforeseeable to even the most prescient DM, is what makes the role-playing capability of a D&D game personalized to each group of players so much greater than that of a video game.  They are central figures in world and story that feels more pliable, more real, more personal both in their own characters, as well as the actions they take.  They are the co-authors of their own story, of their own destiny, in concert with a living, breathing DM who can dialogue with them in order to make those destinies and adventures possible.

As of right now, most video game RPG’s can’t come close to offering that kind of experience, for any number of good reasons.  Still, it bears saying that those video games that did try to approach a true D&D role-playing experience are in decline for now.  Maybe one day, like D&D itself, there will be a renaissance of these games that offer players a true, traditional RPG experience in a new kind of medium or perhaps a different kind of technology.  Until then, there’s D&D and other tabletop games.