The Gamemasters

The Gamemasters
Our Games Are Built On Paper

Allen Varney | 6 Sep 2005 08:02
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IN THE BEGINNING - which is to say, 1974 - there were E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two tabletop miniatures gamers in Wisconsin who begat Dungeons & Dragons. And D&D begat an orc-horde of paper-and-dice imitators and emulators. And it was good.

And on the computer, D&D begat the original text adventure game, Adventure, aka Colossal Cave, aka Zork I-III. And the text adventure begat the Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), which soon ramified into endless variants: MOOs, MUSHes, and a zillion others. And D&D begat the computer roleplaying game: the Wizardry, Bard's Tale, and Might & Magic series, and many more. And D&D ensnared Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott's teenage son, who played so much D&D he nearly flunked out of high school. Young Richard Garriott adapted elements of his campaign in his computer games Akalabeth and Ultima I, and earned his first million dollars before he turned 18. And that was good too.

And 15 years later, D&D begat the computer roleplaying game all over again. BioWare used the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules and the Forgotten Realms setting in its landmark mid-'90s Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate and sequels), which revived the dormant computer RPG form. Black Isle Studios used the same engine and the AD&D Planescape setting to bring forth the form's finest example, Planescape: Torment. And it was really good.

And D&D eventually begat MMOGs. In the '80s and '90s Garriott, as "Lord British," masterminded eight more Ultima RPGs and the early development of Ultima Online. Meanwhile, Verant Interactive borrowed one MUD subspecies, the fantasy hack-and-slash "Diku MUD," and gave it a slick graphic overlay to beget EverQuest. And it was good, depending on whom you talk to.

All this begetting shows how a paper-and-dice roleplaying game built the foundation for much of today's electronic entertainment. Turbine's new D&D Online MMOG, now in beta, proves its influence continues.

But D&D is just the start. The foundation of computer gaming is large and deep, and much of it is made of paper.

The Paper Invasion
Dungeons & Dragons looms large. But there are thousands of paper, board, card and roleplaying games, and experienced gamers can spot their influence on computer equivalents. Obviously Sid Meier's Civilization series was inspired by its boardgame namesake, and practically every turn-based computer wargame uses concepts propounded in early Avalon Hill and SPI paper games. Then there are the licenses: Warhammer lately, Magic Online, and, stretching further back, Space Hulk, Diplomacy, Autoduel, Ogre ....

How many computer RPGs use numerical attributes? How many let you create characters by allocating points to ability scores? Lots. They all borrow from the paper RPG field, which explored every imaginable variant of the idea well ahead of computer versions. For instance, the oldest surviving superhero RPG, Champions, shaped the character creation systems in Freedom Force and City of Heroes. RuneQuest inspired the Morrowind skill system, and Call of Cthulhu (which adapts the RuneQuest rules mechanics) spawned the Alone in the Dark series and other horror games. And so on.

(Another paper RPG figures notably in computer history by its absence. Interplay licensed the Generic Universal Roleplaying System [GURPS] for the Fallout series, but dumped it after friction with GURPS designer Steve Jackson. The Interplay team created a replacement system and went on to make history.)

But more than the paper games themselves, though, and more than their rules systems, the paper legacy has powerfully shaped the computer gaming field through its designers. Today you'd have to look hard to find an electronic game designer who didn't fritter away his or her youth playing RPGs and boardgames. It's part of the standard geek resume. Quite a few of them got their start in the low-paid plantation fields of paper gaming before working their way up to the big house on the hill, computers.

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