What's a CRPG? Some Thoughts on CRPG Genres

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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!


Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Matt Barton wrote:I'm not
Matt Barton wrote:

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?

As your points make clear, there are a lot of RPG-like elements in a lot of different games and game types, but that doesn't make them RPG's. I played a ton of Mail Order Monsters, maximizing my trainer (over 100 wins, etc.), though mostly using an exploit (you could use the robot drones to defeat the arena opponent rather than subjecting your beast to any combat). In any case, it was definitely one of the first monster raising/management and arena combat sims, but most certainly not an RPG. I always thought of Racing Destruction Set and Mail Order Monsters as inseparable, and, to a lesser degree, Adventure Construction Set (ACS). I still have my original boxed copies of all three for the C-64 from when I little. I never did finish my Doctor Who RPG in ACS...

By the way, speaking of ACS, would you consider those games RPG's? Technically, the games it came with and the games you could make qualified as RPG's, albeit with some limits, though certainly comparable to many of the earliest graphical RPG games.

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

Igor (not verified)
Very interesting article

I accidental find this article and start reading it. It is great work, I will in pleasure I think for next two weeks :) Interesting, what founds better in computer role games than real world role games.

Thanks again for article,

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Spam Spam Spam
For online dating wrote:

I accidental find this article and start reading it. It is great work, I will in pleasure I think for next two weeks :) Interesting, what founds better in computer role games than real world role games.

Thanks again for article,

I believe we have a spammer here. Using a username that is in fact a link to a dating site. How clever Igor.

Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Yeah, I usually just edit

Yeah, I usually just edit out those URLs. I'll do that now in fact.

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.


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