What's a CRPG? Some Thoughts on CRPG Genres

Matt Barton's picture

As you well know, I've been doing quite a bit of research into the CRPG, particularly the early years of their development. I just finished my "Golden Age" article that covers the years between 1985 and 1993, and I've been thinking more about what makes a "CRPG" a "CRPG," and how different developers have modified the concept over the years. What I've noticed is that a few perennial questions really dominate the discussion, and even if I'm not sure where I come down on all of them, I think it's worthwhile to put them on the table. Without further adieu, then, let's get started!

What is unique about CRPGs?
There is always some degree of overlap between and among genres, and for good reason. Authors (and readers) tend to get tired of the stock cliches of a genres and desire to go beyond them, often by introducing conventions from related genres. For instance, what exactly is a "Western?" At what point does a "Western" become a romance? A thriller? A science fiction work in the "alternate history" tradition? What about movies like The Wild, Wild West? Could a movie that had no horses, no gunfights, no cattle, no desert, and no Indians still be a Western?

However, we all know what is meant when someone describes a film as a "Western." The way I've described it elsewhere is that there really is no perfect Western we could point to that really embodied all of the qualities we associate with the term. On the other hand, if you watched a hundred different Western films, you'd probably form a sort of general, spongy notion of "Western" that was actually a collection of memories and details absorbed from all that viewing. It works rather like Wittgenstein's "Family Resemblance" notion. For instance, a father and a daughter might "look like family" because they have very similar noses and ears. A son, though, might have the fiery red hair of the grandfather but a nose more like his mother, and so on. In short, there's no "perfect" family member that has all of these qualities, but rather they're distributed throughout the family, though each family member has at least one such quality. Nevertheless, there is still a family and a family resemblance, even if it's not as fixed and predictable as we'd like.

I see this same concept working out in games (and Wittgenstein used games as an example, too!). For instance, what are the similarities between Telengard, Beyond Zork, Rogue, Wizardry, Hero's Quest, Star Saga, Dungeon Master, Gauntlet and Wasteland? Does it really make sense to label all these games "CRPGs" since they inevitably have shared features? Gauntlet, for instance, has "character classes" similar to the ones found in most CRPGs, and many conventions of "fantasy" such as elves, wizards, and a quest for an orb. However, the actual gameplay has very little in common with any of the other games on this list--it was originally designed for arcade play, and thus intended either for a very brief or very expensive experience. Likewise, the "level up" opportunities are limited, even if we count the special abilities granted by the potions. Most people would consider Gauntlet a "shooter" game, though one with "CRPG" elements.

Likewise, how does Dungeon Master compare to the first Wizardry game? Clearly, they have much in common. They bother offer 3-D, first-person perspective, and are set entirely in dungeons. However, Dungeon Master is set in real-time, which makes a significant difference in gameplay (Wizardry is turn-based). Another difference is that Wizardry allows you to create your entire party from scratch, whereas Dungeon Master requires you to select pre-made characters from the Hall of Heroes. Nevertheless, Dungeon Master seems closer to the "CRPG" ideal than Gauntlet. But what exactly is this "ideal?"

It seems that there are two ways to go about answering this question. We can either try to find some quality (or qualities) that all CRPGs possess, or we can follow the "family resemblance" model and list a bunch of qualities that show up often enough among CRPGs to serve as an identifier.

Let's take three games: The Bard's Tale, Ultima, and Rogue. What's interesting about these three is how you can pair them off in terms of shared qualities. For instance, Ultima and Rogue only allow you to control a single character and feature a "top-down" view, whereas The Bard's Tale gives you an entire party and a first-person view. On the other hand, Ultima and The Bard's Tale are more linear and coherent than Rogue, which relies on random dungeons to extend playability. Bard's Tale and Ultima were also designed for home computers, whereas Rogue was built for powerful mainframes and only later ported to home computers. Nevertheless, anyone who has played all three has no doubt that they are all CRPGs, even if superficially they are quite distinct.

I could go on like this at length, and each time find new insights--and I encourage you to do the same. Even when the games seem to have a great deal in common--for instance, Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, or even two games in the same series like Ultima II and III, the differences have a huge impact on how the games are actually experienced.

Family Resemblances
So, what are the "family resemblances" that we spoke of earlier? Here is my list:

1. Emphasis on self-improvement. This is perhaps the single most important quality of CRPGs, and seems to be present to some extent in all of them. Whether we're talking about a numerical system of experience points and levels, a more intuitive "skills" system, ability scores, or some combination, there is some way for the player to improve the character/s. This feature seems to distinguish CRPGs from most other types of games, though it's not mutually exclusive. For instance, Metroid has a focus on self-improvement, since the player must work to help Samus gain new powers and abilities, which she needs in order to win the game. Likewise, Rock'n Roll Racing allows players to put the money they win into better equipment for their cars (rather like a CRPG named Auto Duel!)

2. A fantasy setting based loosely on the works of Tolkien. This is a feature that is definitely not shared by all CRPGs, though it's true for most of them. The only question is how closely they adhere to the conventions--does the world contain elves, dwarves, and hobbits (often renamed "halflings")? Though only a few games really make the relationship obvious (Oubliette, Phantasie), Tolkien's influence is widely felt all over the genre.

3. Sci-Fi/post-apocalyptic settings. These other settings are quite common in CRPGs, perhaps because of the similar "geeky" appeal of the genres. Science fiction purists typically scoff at "sci-fi," which they claim amounts to little more than fantasy or Western stories made up to look futuristic. In any case, even though these aren't "fantasy" settings in the same sense as the above, they are "fantastic" and out of the bounds of our normal experience. Tellingly, though, CRPG developers have often adapted the same game engine used in their fantasy games to cover sci-fi (i.e., SSI's Buck Rogers games), and some fantasy-based CRPGs (Ultima, Might and Magic) also contained sci-fi elements, to say nothing of games like Chrono Trigger.

4. Emphasis on strategic combat. Most CRPGs live or die by the sophistication of their combat system. Games like SSI's Wizard's Crown or Gold Box games triumph here, offering a fine degree of control over each character and "round." Other CRPGs are light on this, though--Hero's Quest, for instance, trades most of the strategy for an arcade-like setup, and many CRPGs force players to engage in hours and hours of tedious, repetitive combat that requires little to no strategy (just a bunch of clicking). Really, with #4 we start to get into some pretty fierce debate among CRPG fans, many of whom privilege #1 or a good story over combat. Other players privilege combat over all else. It's revealing to see which games a CRPG fan lists as the best. A Quest for Glory fan has different priorities than someone in love with Rogue, Wizardry, or Pool of Radiance.

5. Puzzles, Riddles, and Mazes. Like their cousin the adventure game, CRPGs often include puzzles or obstacles that must be overcome in order to win the game. Obviously, some games (Quest for Glory) depend much more on puzzles than more traditional "hack'n slash" games (Wizardry), but there are few CRPGs indeed that don't offer at least some alternatives to pure combat. However, the puzzles in CRPGs tend to be simpler and less creative than in adventure games, usually involving finding keys to unlock doors. The Krondor series is known for its many riddles, but they also appear in The Bard's Tale and countless other games. Mazes are by far the most popular type of "puzzle" in CRPGs, and much of the thrill of early games is map-making. Later games offered "auto-mapping," though even with this feature, mazes can be tricky.

6. Magic/Artillery/Medical system. Almost all CRPGs have some form of magic or artillery system. The bulk of this magic tends to focus on combat in some way (either by enhancing stats, healing, or direct damage). The goal here is to complicate combat by offering "supportive" units. Some games offer a "point-based" system for spells (Bard's Tale), whereas others have a slot-based system (Gold Box games). Several games require players to type in the names of spells from a printed manual, a crude form of copy protection. Of course, in non-fantasy games, this role is played by some type of artillery. Clerics in fantasy games become medics in sci-fi ones.

7. An evil wizard and an orb. There are countless variations on this theme, but from the very beginning we find games with this quest--find the orb, use it to destroy the evil wizard. Variations are magical weapons for orbs, demons for wizards, etc. Frequently the "orb" or whatever it is will be broken up into many pieces and scattered throughout the land. Surprisingly, this type of quest is much more common than the "rescue the princess" type, though those certainly exist as well, often in conjunction with some type of orb-fetch quest.

8. The General Store. There are few CRPGs indeed that don't have some type of blacksmith that sells arms, armor, and adventuring equipment. Often enough, these will be the only types of stores in the game, which makes one wonder how the various towns and villages of the world manage to get by! Usually, this is tied in with #1, so that the best equipment costs the most, and to get money, players have to loot the corpses of their fallen enemies. The stores also buy equipment no longer needed or desired by the characters, and can "identify" the occasional mystery item (for a fee, naturally).

9. Henchmen/Party Balance. Almost all CRPGs that limit the player to a single character make up for it by allowing him to recruit buddies to tag along. However, even party-based games frequently allow one or two "non-player characters" (NPC) to join the party. These characters are controlled by the computer, though the player usually has the option of removing them from the party or looting their corpse if they fall in battle. Most of the time these are pretty dull characters, but other games tie them in to the plot and thus boost the replay value of a game. Neverwinter Nights is a good example. A common motif is for a helpful NPC to betray the party. In games that don't offer henchmen, the emphasis is on creating a "balanced" party (fighter, mage, cleric, thief, etc.) of mixed races and of both sexes (when offered). Most games "punish" players who don't diversify their party (i.e., all human male knights). By far the most common arrangement is 2 fighters, 1 cleric, 1 thief, and 1 or 2 wizards depending on the maximum size of the party. Some games allow "hybridization," so that one character could be a thief/wizard or the like. However, the penalty for this is slower advancement or weaker abilities.

10. Food/Water/Sleep requirements. Many CRPGs add difficulty to the game by requiring players to secure the "necessities" for the characters. Handy examples include Dungeon Master and Ultima. Some games allow characters to feast on corpses, but others are stricter. A common enough motif here is alcohol or rotten food affecting the characters' abilities or movements.

11. Increasing difficulty/bigger monsters as players progress. Usually CRPGs don't just pile on more monsters to fight, but introduce new types of monsters with new abilities as the character/s grow stronger. Usually the monsters are arranged on different levels of a dungeon, or in some way so that new parties won't encounter them at first. Other games don't coddle the player at all, though, and it's quite easy for a new party to encounter a very powerful foe just by wandering into the wrong area. Some games actually inflate the monster's scores to offer a continual challenge, but this seldom works well (i.e., in Scavengers of the Mutant World, the player eventually has to create a new party because of this). #11 is closely related to #1, since only substantially "improved" characters stand a chance against the most powerful monsters.

12. Set/Random Encounters/Bosses. This is another important aspect of CRPGs. Since so many of them are focused on combat and "leveling up," there needs to be a steady supply of monsters to vanquish. Most games handle this via algorithm, so that the party will meet with "random encounters" on a fairly regular basis. The original Final Fantasy had so many random encounters that they dominated the game. Most games offer both random and "set" encounters," which are pre-arranged battles that take place at a certain point of the game. These are often in the form of "boss" battles, or fights against particularly tough foes that require far more strategy and tactical thinking than most battles. A good example of this is the battle with Tyranthraxus at the end of Pool of Radiance, or the awesome battle with Lavos at the end of Chrono Trigger. Thanks to much larger memories and storage capacity, many modern games avoid random encounters entirely, and place enemies in more logical locations.

I only listed 12, but I could easily go on. The point, though, is to start to try to find some common ground not among all CRPGs, but rather among different branches of the family. I can't think of any two CRPGs that don't at least share two of these items in common.

Key Contentions
I also wanted to briefly state what I think are the key bones of contention among CRPG fans. I'll just state them as questions:

1. Is it better to control a party or a single character? This is one of the "big ones" that has been with us from the very beginning. The usual argument for parties is that it's fun to take on more resource management, and having a large party to contend with makes for more involved logistics (equipment priorities, etc). Party-based games generally offer more nuanced combat possibilities as well. The argument for single characters is that it's closer to the spirit of "role-playing" and increases replay value (particularly in games like the Quest for Glory series). Another point in favor of the single character games is the addition of henchmen, and the narrative possibilities they bring to a game.

2. Is it better to create new characters or play pre-made ones? This is another big one. Some games cast you immediately into a pre-defined role and force you on a very linear quest, but others are wide open. Dungeon Master forced you to select from pre-made characters, but the variety was so large that it didn't feel restrictive. At any rate, some fans insist that creating their own party is vital for their enjoyment, whereas others find it a tedious process. No doubt, many would-be CRPG fans get intimidated by a complicated and involved character creation process (which is always at the very beginning of a game) and never get past it. I prefer a more dynamic system that lets players make these sorts of decisions as they go rather than all at once at the beginning.

3. What aspects, if any, should be randomized? This question ties into replay value. A game with randomized dungeons, monsters, and so on supposedly makes it more fun to keep playing the game, since the player never knows what to expect. On the other hand, an entirely randomized game doesn't offer much in the way of narrative possibilities, and randomized quests can get tedious and banal rather quickly. Some players prefer a high degree of randomness, whereas others want the developer to play a more direct role in the experience. At any rate, almost every CRPG offers some randomness in combat, such as whether an arrow will hit its target or how much damage a blow will deal.

4. What's the best way to handle magic? This is perhaps one of the most contentious of all issues. The early games had a simple point-based system; if you had 5 points, you could cast a magic missile. Other games introduced a "slot style" system, where you could cast 3 level 1 spells before resting, 2 level 2 spells, and so on (the numbers increased with leveling). The Gold Box games took the AD&D convention of "memorizing" spells, which added a nice bit of planning (i.e., if you knew you were about to face hordes of small creatures in a wide open space, you'd opt for fireballs, but lightning bolts if you would be in close quarters). Dungeon Master introduced a complex "rune-based" system that offered players fine control over the potency of a spell, though only a few combinations actually did anything. Finally, some games require "spell components," or ingredients to cast spells. Again, this introduces more planning requirements.

5. Should characters have to eat and sleep? Few games require this anymore, but it's common enough in Golden Age games. These requirements can make a game very difficult to play, since characters can easily get so far down a dungeon that they can starve before getting back to the top.

6. What role should morality or ethics play? The Ultima games really focused on the idea that players should think about the moral and ethical consequences of their actions in the game world, and punished those who ignored them. Other games have a simpler "alignment" system, such a "lawful good" or "chaotic evil." In some games, the choice of "alignment" makes little difference, though usually characters of one extreme can't join a party with others of the opposite (i.e., lawful good paladin and a chaotic evil wizard). Sometimes the party's alignment will determine what areas they can visit or which plot threads they'll encounter. Generally, though, CRPGs are biased in favor of "good" characters.

7. Should gender/race have concrete effects in the game? This is another "touchy" question. Some of the early Gold Box games actually had limits that some might consider "sexist." For example, males could reach higher levels of strength than females. Such schemes are very rare today, and both genders have equal abilities and potentials. Sometimes plot threads are influenced by the sexes of the party. An all-male party might not be able to access certain areas, and a non-player character will treat a male differently than a female, etc. Race is a different issue. In most CRPGs that offer a choice, the races have different abilities, advantages, and disadvantages. Humans are usually the best balanced. Elves are generally physically weaker but smarter and more dexterous, whereas dwarves are stronger but slower. Again, some games pay no attention to the races of the party, but others reward diversity or at least offer variations depending on it.

8. What's better--sandbox play or a tight narrative? Some games pay very little heed to stories or characters; the emphasis is on combat, exploration, and self-improvement. Other games are rigidly determined by a story, and players must follow a strict sequence to win the game. Many critics prefer more "open-ended" games that allow players more freedom (Rogue, Hack, Elder Scrolls), but others find more value in games with good narratives and character interaction (Quest for Glory, Krondor). Most games are somewhere in between.

9. Should characters age and eventually die? This is a pretty simple question with some profound consequences. This issue can become quite serious is the more open-ended games, but also in games in which the characters might be imprisoned for a long period or age as a consequence of magical side effects. In any case, games that do impose strict limits here, the effect is a race against the clock.

10. What restrictions (if any) should be placed on saving the game? Many CRPGs allow players to save the game anywhere at any time, but others are quite restricted, or punish the player for doing so. For instance, in Wizardry IV, saving the game resets all the monsters in the dungeon. Other CRPGs only allow players to save the game when exiting, and if their characters die; there is no way to restore them. Of course, this question is more complicated in the console world, where "saving games" often meant writing down a very long password or code. Not surprisingly, technologies like battery-backup quickly emerged to assist with this problem. This question is closely related to another--what should be the consequences of dying? It's particularly relevant when thinking about online CRPGs (MMORPGs).

An Invitation
Well, I hope that all of my questions and points will inspire some good discussion! Please feel free to add your own thoughts and these and other issues or points you can think of concerning CRPG. I realize I've only scratched the surface on a few of these, and you're bound to have great insights. Join the fun!


Joined: 11/17/2006
You got a nice mention today

You got a nice mention today about this article on http://www.gamesetwatch.com/ blog.

Joined: 11/17/2006
(No subject)
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Thanks for the head's up,

Thanks for the head's up, Cecil. I was expecting this post to launch a huge discussion, but I guess folks are "CRPGed" out! ;-)

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
I had some time to read your

I had some time to read your very thoughtful article with more attention today. Impressive stuff. For me, the "perfect" RPG is personified in my first true videogame RPG experience, that of my oft-mentioned "Phantasie" (C-64 version), published by SSI in 1985. It allowed the player to create their own characters from scratch to form parties of up to six from a diverse race and class pool. You could of course create more than six members though, and these would be kept in that particular town's character list. If you wanted to mix and match members in a particular town or for a particular reason, that character would take the requisite amount of time to reach you (say a few months of in-game time) if they were created in another town. Characters' aged, so you did have to be careful that after you did the random rolls for attributes you didn't end up with a character that was too old to start with. Luckily only when the character reached really old age (for humans I think it was the 80's) would you have to worry about the attributes being affected. Nevertheless, the younger, the better (youth had no effect on attributes). Sex was irrelevant and not even an option, but I took care of that by giving the character's male or female names (it wasn't that the game didn't acknowledge it, it just didn't factor directly into play - heck, there were mixed sexes on the awesome cover art).

Now I was coming from a pen and paper D&D (actually TSR, since we didn't just play D&D, there was also Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Top Secret, etc.) background, though of course I played videogames and computer games for many years prior to 1985, and dabbled in some computer and console RPG's and similar games (action adventures for instance) prior to Phantasie. Still, I was looking for that D&D experience on the computer since my friends and I really only got together all day on Saturdays. Phantasie delivered that. You didn't have to worry about food, just party management, combat and exploring. There were simple puzzles and mapping the overworld helped, but was not entirely necessary since the game did a type of auto-mapping by the nature of the game's display. The game was set up in a type of fog-of-war effect where you didn't see anything until your party entered the square, but once you explored a map tile, it didn't go away.

Everything was turn-based, not real-time, which to me is important when one is dealing with the concept of a party versus a single character, since stat and item management becomes much more important.

Anyway, to sum up, I think there are two keys one must keep in mind when discussing electronic RPG's with someone.

1 - What non-electronic RPG background do they have?
2 - What was the first electronic RPG they played?

Those two questions are extremely critical. If you're dealing with someone who has never played a pen and paper RPG, they may not be able to appreciate some of the dynamics and pleasures of more free-form or "sand box" gameplay. They may also not appreciate the concept of adventuring parties. Alternately, if you're dealing with someone whose first RPG was a Japanese videogame RPG, you may as well be talking a different language in my opinion. That's where your narrative becomes all the more important and one of the best starting points for distinction. Frankly if we could separate the distinct elements in Western RPG's from those in more modern Japanese RPG's (which were originally born from Western RPG's and driven on a distinct evolutionary path), I think we'd be much better off. I see two distinct branches of evolution because of that and obviously two very different types of games. Further, I think games like "Phantasie", "Wizard's Crown" and "Gold Box Pool of Radiance" eventually hit an evolutionary dead end and branched off themselves to an entirely different path. Yes, games like "Baldur's Gate" and "The Temple of Elemental Evil" have much in common with their predecessors, but I argue that they were very different games, not the least of which can be tied to their relative complexity. That's something I can certainly appreciate about the classic CRPG's of my youth - the fact that the relatively limited technology made the games more approachable without necessarily making the relative world sizes any smaller than they usually are today.

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)

Joined: 01/27/2007
some aspects of games, in no

some aspects of games, in no particular order
1) single vs. multiplayer
2) turn based vs. 'real time' (or game-time)
3) map based vs. non-map (or spatial-ness)
4) production value (complex vs. simple sound and graphics)
5) technology frame: player interface & controls & system specs (boardgame vs. internet vs. arcade vs. desktop, and if windows, what version...)
6) 'purpose' of game (eg save the princess, or get points, or get to the end)
7) things you can control in-game
a) I-thou vs. I-it
b) reflexive vs. not
8) playing cost ($, time, opportunity cost, transaction cost of aquisition...)
9) crime and punishment (game cheats, admin powers...)
10)role (what do you represent in the game?)
11)playing benefits ( fun, education, socialization, $)

Jonathan Moses Katcher

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
By the way, here's a scan of

By the way, here's a scan of a sealed copy of "Dandy" that I just unpacked for the Atari 8-bit line of computers. This is what "Gauntlet" was "copied" from, which made "Dandy" author, John Palevich, quite angry. He later created an improved clone of his own, called "Dark Chambers" (though down from a 4 player game to a 2), which appeared on the Atari 7800 and 2600. All of this drama of course revolved around Atari and its various divisions... "Dandy" was pretty good, but "Gauntlet" was certainly better, copy or no. "Dark Chambers" certainly didn't improve on "Gauntlet" either.

Dandy by John H. PalevichDandy by John H. Palevich

yakumo9275's picture
Joined: 12/26/2006
funny.. Most of your

funny.. Most of your contentious issues to me are non-starters. Contentious for CRPG to me are Japanese console games CRPG's? Is Diablo a roguelike or an arcade clickfest? (boy that comes up a lot on rec.games.roguelike.misc/developer)..
Is half-life a crpg just because it has some semblance of a story? Quest for Glory, is it an RPG or just a tarted up adventure game? My biggest contention is with useless things. If choosing to be female has no affect on the story or any change at all, why is it there... (ie: food in Ultima iii.. Whats the point??)

I'm not sure about comparing rogue to Ultima I and bards tale. Rogue defined/created an entire subgenre and none of which Id consider CRPG's (wait.. is that the point?)

I also agree with bill on the evolutionary dead end. Post dead end I didn't really like much crpg's. I loved fallout but its no Wasteland. I loved Baldurs Gate but its no Pool of Radiance, and I refuse to play these morrowind/oblivion garbage. It started to hit me when Lands of Lore had the built in automapper and when game play time suddenly decreased and games were dumbed down. (I still have my graph paper maps for bards tale and such). (comp.sys.ibmpc.games.rpg is full of old posts like "Why should I have to map the dungeon, its tedious and boring!" / "Why are you playing a dungeon exploration game to begin with!")

Im not sure why a lot of what you have listed in contentions are there at all. Whats contentious about the magic system? Its like saying Palladium rules are contentious because their magic system is not the same as the AD&D system or that Gurps is not the same as AD&D.

and single player vs party is again a non-starter. Questron ii was great and its single player.

The great definition for crpg is to me more its implementation. If half-life was done with a 2d topdown tile engine it would be a crpg. To me anything with a fps engine is an fps. (yes that includes morrow wind and oblivion and ultima underworld etc).

I think its a fine line and you need to determine on a game by game basis, hence why all the arguments that Diablo is nothing but a clickfest arcade game and that half-life is really just an FPS shooter... personal opinion is not going to be agreed by everyone. (Loved Dungeon master + EOB but thought lands of lore was crap).

Another big issue for me with crpg's is sticking with the story. For me, Wizardry seriously lost it when suddenly you've gone from swords and sorcery to scifi! aaaargh WTF?

(for bills info, i found crpgs before tabletop rpgs and it was like 1984+ so my first crpgs were like Ultima III, Wasteland, Bards Tale, Questron, Wizardry, Magic Candle etc.. and my tabletop experience is with cyberpunk2020 etc skipped the whole ad&d tabletop thing).

oh.. and gauntlet was an amazing arcade game for its time. 4 players around the machine... awesome arcade goodness.

adamantyr's picture
Joined: 01/28/2007
A very good article. I dealt

A very good article. I dealt with a number of these issues while working on the design for my own CRPG that I'm writing for my vintage microcomputer. So I'll cover each of your points as I saw them myself:

1. Is it better to control a party or a single character?

A party. Single player CRPG's exist, and they're not bad. But it usually turns your single character into an uber-hero, who can do everything well, because he has no party to back him up. (The Avatar from Ultima 5 onwards and the hero class in Tunnels of Doom come to mind.) Some games may have more restrictions, so only one class type is possible, but then balance becomes difficult to obtain, since some classes may be more difficult than others. With a party, you can explore variety better without as much risk. Plus, in the old days, game designers assumed that a party CRPG could be played by multiple people; often my brother and I would play games together, so it wasn't a bad assumption to make.

Henchmen and AI-controlled party members work pretty well; I especially liked it in Ultima 7. Since computers are powerful enough now to automate party members and even have them react in different ways, it makes the game a much greater living world.

2. Is it better to create new characters or play pre-made ones?

Create new ones. Pre-mades, to me, mean two things; either the game designers decided that you, the player, were unworthy to conceive your own characters, or their game engine was too unbalanced to allow free reign in design. Reminds me of a tyrant DM from tabletop RPG's who insists your elf have an "elvish-sounding" name or gets mad because you make some out-of-character joke during the game.

3. What aspects, if any, should be randomized?

Random factors can kill a game very easily. I can't stand to play Telengard long because pure randomness can kill you at any time by spawning a monster you have no chance of defeating. Character advancement should also stay away from randomness. If luck can yield as much gain as consistent effort, a player will just go for the quick and easy path of luck if they can. When you first played Baldur's Gate, did you take the first set of ability scores, or re-roll until you got the ones you favored?

4. What's the best way to handle magic?

Magic is typically treated as an "add-on" to an existing tactical system with melee and ranged combat with conventional weapons. This is probably due to in original D&D it WAS an add-on to the Chainmail tactical system. Game designers need to acknowledge this and try and think outside the box if they can. Instead of letting old models dictate how your game works, try and find a way to integrate magic into a system of your own. There's no right or wrong way to handle it, but if you want something people will remember, chuck the D&D books and find your own path.

5. Should characters have to eat and sleep?

Generally, activities like this are more appropriate to simulations than games. The logistical aspect of maintaining food supplies and getting rest is, I think, slipping out of the CRPG genre a bit. Food in games like Ultima I-V was basically a money-sink; remember to buy food or you'll be in trouble later. Sleeping is usually to rest and recover the party, and may be considered a time-sink, if time is a factor in the game. Any mundane activity like this needs to be looked at in context, and the question must be asked "Is this fun? Is this necessary?"

6. What role should morality or ethics play?

I like playing heroes. To me, that's what heroic fantasy is about. From a game designer's perspective, though, you never know what the players will get up to. A CRPG can be thought of like a story... if you decide to write it so the player must commit atrocities in order to win the game, you may not find a big audience. I think what players like is the freedom to make the decision themselves, and not have the game engine or game designer decide for them.

7. Should gender/race have concrete effects in the game?

Race is usually used as a balance factor with character design. In modern games, it can also affect appearance, voices, mannerisms, and so forth. I think it's a good thing to have, but no game designer should feel compelled to have them.

Gender's a trickier issue, because it ties into avatar creation. We like to design our avatars to be a lot like ourselves, or our idealized selves. So it's a real kick in the teeth when a particular option isn't available. Since memory and computer power is way up from the old days, there's no real excuse to skimp on avatar design options.

8. What's better--sandbox play or a tight narrative?

Depends on the goal of the game. Sandbox play has it's value, since it tends to have a good replay factor. But ever since the advent of MMORPG's, it seems somewhat strange to be the only player in a massive world... I started feeling lonely in Morrowind. A tight narrative is interesting in that it can be an entertaining story, but it can also become very restrictive... I can't stand the modern Final Fantasy games. I think the essential CRPG leans more towards sandbox than narrative, but can be a hybrid and keep within genre.

9. Should characters age and eventually die?

Like eating and sleeping, depends on how it fits into the context of the game. And it's again, a bit too much like a simulation. Consider that in 3rd Edition D&D, all "aging" attacks and magical effects were removed.

10. What restrictions (if any) should be placed on saving the game?

To me, saving the game should be possible anywhere, anytime. The only reason to restrict this is if you want to force a player to have to run the same area from beginning to end, so that he has to do it with the resources he has at that save point. It would be funny to see a player panic when he enters a very dangerous area and sees the message "You can't save at this time". But in modern life, interruptions happen, and I'd rather extend the freedom of choice to save where you want.

There's my feedback, looking forward to further discussion. Oh, and if you want to know more about the vintage CRPG I'm writing, I got a website up at http://www.adamantyr.com/crpg.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Great points from top to

Great points from top to bottom, adamantyr. I will say though I have a different perspective on multi-character parties (#1). While computer controlled party members have their place, I had the most fun when I controlled each of my party members 100% on my own, like with Phantasie. I imbued each one with a personality and distinct attributes I could count on, even when the game developer himself hadn't made that a part of the game. While I see the value in having direct control of one character - you'd be playing yourself or some chosen variation thereof - I would hate to see the total loss of being a type of player gamemaster, meaning I'm the "hand of god" to my characters as I try to get them through the computer-controlled gameworld. It's "my guys/gals" versus the world. This ties into #7, where I find myself not wanting to play myself most of the time, but rather play characters created partially in mind and partially in-game. I like the distinction of sexes, particularly when there are character portraits involved. It's also nice when there is nominal trade-off between each sex, meaning if you're going to penalize maximum strength for a woman, you better penalize something for a man (and not necessarily charisma)...

#5 is a pet peeve of mine. It takes a special game for me to put up with eating or sleeping regularly in-game. I'm actually surprised there hasn't been a CRPG game (that I'm aware of (or remember) from a sampling of probably thousands of games I've been exposed to) that has tried for full simulation and required not only a regular eat/sleep cycle, but also bathroom breaks and washing up. I know I also get peeved in games that make excessive use of poisoning, being turned undead, being turned to stone or any number of other gruesome repetitive fates. That and too many fights, especially random encounters, that disrupt the game's flow, are no-no's in my book. Of course I've put up with them and enjoyed the games' otherwise, but the issue is truly one of balance in favor of gameplay and enjoyment, which should almost always win out.

As for #10, I concede that classic-era save systems may have been restrictive due to technical reasons (for instance, only saving in town), so I let those slide for the most part, but these days, yes, there is no excuse for not being able to save anywhere, be it console or computer.

By the way, I think another point should made that it sure would be nice to have an RPG in the classic style that is NOT based on fantasy, sci-fi or a post apocalyptic world (my library of boxed games is FILLED with those types of games). A few games here and there have tried that, like the heavily flawed "Expedition Amazon", but how about something based on the spy genre (inspiration, TSR's Top Secret) or wild west (inspiration, TSR's Boot Hill)?

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Wow, everyone has made some

Wow, everyone has made some great points here. There's just so much to talk about when it comes to CRPGs; that's another reason why I love them so much. With an FPS, you don't have that much room for discussion. Does the game have good graphics? Check. Lots of weapon types? Check. Good AI? Check. After that, where do you go? The best FPS seem to integrate GAG or Racing elements or simulations (i.e., the crane in Half-Life 2). Though I suppose with squad-based FPS you might get into CRPG type discussions. I think Raven Shield even lets your characters "level up" in a fashion if they survive missions (I'm not certain, though). I'm trying to remember if the arcade/strategy game Cannon Fodder had some level-up system in place as well.

There are also games like Bull Frog's Syndicate, which to me seem a nice balance of strategy, arcade, and CRPG elements. Sometimes the lines get so blurry it makes your head hurt just thinking about it. I've seen people argue that Metroid and even Super Mario Bros. are CRPGs, since you can gain new abilities. I can almost see Metroid; but Mario is definitely a platform/action game even if you can grab some power-ups. The same goes for the Warcraft games (not WOW). Warcraft, Starcraft, and Heroes of Might and Magic have many elements that remind me of CRPGs, but the strategy elements are obviously what defines those games.

To my mind, CRPGs are more like GAGs than any other genre. It isn't that much of a stretch to take a CRPG, graft on some stats, combat routines, and so on, and end up with a great CRPG. Infocom and Sierra both had hybrid games that did exactly that (Infocom's Beyond Zork, Sierra's Quest for Glory and Krondor games). The only trouble is that sometimes these CRPG elements irritate adventure fans, who see combat and such as repetitive and boring. The old magazines I looked at criticized CRPGs extensively for being too repetitive and unimaginative. The GAGs required you to be more creative to succeed, though many GAGs suffer from non-intuitive puzzles and hopelessly obscure clues.

I'm not sure why there haven't been more CRPGs that aren't sci-fi or fantasy based. I'm curious if the "dating games" popular in the East may have some CRPG elements. I haven't played them. I might also wonder about Super Mario RPG. I distinctly remember reading Miyamoto in an interview ranting about how much he hated RPGs and found them boring. I wonder if it's too much of a stretch to call Mail Order Monsters a CRPG?


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