How RPGs Defined Themselves (2024)

How RPGs Defined Themselves (1)

In the process of writing the “What is an RPG” article a couple weeks ago, I found myself reminiscing about my own history with role-playing games.

It’s been a weird, long road, beginning with me playing redbox D&D with my parents, to having my mind blown by sillier and more playful RPGs like Paranoia, to live-action parlor Live-Action Role-Play games in the Camarilla, to even designing and building open-world RPGs for my career. And I’ve been tremendously lucky to cross paths and compare notes with some of the people behind the books, from authors of various aspects of the World of Darkness to designers like Ken Rolston — co-creator of Paranoia and our delightfully deranged gamedev grandfather at Big Huge Games.

In short, I’ve been watching the history of this genre for my entire life, and I kept coming back to couple points that stood out to me. Times when mainstream movements spawned major counter-movements that eventually became their own mainstreams. Times when we saw the formation of a major new branch on the genre’s family tree.

There’s a term for that sort of thing, and because I never pass up the opportunity to share a new word, here it is: schismogenesis — “creation through splits”.

Introduction to Schismogenesis

In anthropology, the term “schismogenesis” refers to how groups define themselves in relation to other groups — either in contrast to them, or in compliment to them.

The term was coined in 1935, but unlike many anthropological ideas from that red flag of a decade, it’s held up as a tool for identifying the dynamics of growth in systems and cultures. Graeber and Wengrow’s excellent “The Dawn of Everything” uses schismogenesis as an analytical lens to examine the development of ancient Athens and Sparta. And honestly, there are worse things out there than following in David Graeber’s scholarly footsteps.

So here’s a brief history of RPGs, as seen in four schisms. And maybe hints of a new one to come?

The Chainmail Schism

This is the big one that everyone knows about: the semi-mythical origins of Dungeons & Dragons. In the early ‘70s, Gary Gygax’s heroic miniatures wargame “Chainmail” met Dave Arneson’s homebrewed rules for following individual characters through multiple military campaigns, they began collaborating on a project they originally just called “The Fantasy Game”. In 1974, it would be published under the name “Dungeons & Dragons”, and we know more or less where it went from there.

Before D&D, there were a wide variety of miniature-based wargames, from historical simulations to fantasy battles. Some of the more complicated games offered ongoing campaigns that saw armies swell or dwindle in power based on the scenario and course of events. But there wasn’t much widespread concept of players following a single character and their individual story.

As you may have guessed, the idea caught on. And despite a satanic panic in the ‘80s, D&D became synonymous with the idea of tabletop role-playing games (or TTRPGs, for those who love acronyms). But as the market grew, competitors rose and tried to distinguish themselves from the leader of the pack…

The Storytelling Schism

By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, TTRPGs were at a height never seen before. While none of D&D’s competitors held anywhere near their control of the market, there was still a large enough audience to support games in a variety of genres and tones, from cyberpunks to superheroes to cartoon animals to hapless victims of a satirical dystopia.

The largest competitor to emerge was White Wolf’s setting of wraiths, vampires, werewolves, and goth-punks called “the World of Darkness.” As roleplaying game of “personal horror”, it had less of a focus on combat than its competitors, using the same broad mechanics for dodging a werewolf’s claws (roll DEXTERITY+DODGE, difficulty 6) as you’d use for charming a stranger in a club (roll CHARISMA+SUBTERFUGE, difficulty 7), or for maintaining your composure as that stranger revealed themselves to be a grotesque Nosferatu looking to drain your blood (roll WITS+ETIQUETTE, difficult 9).

This rules system was referred to as “the Storyteller System”, and it was deliberately loose and adaptable to a variety of broad situations, with the exact details of how those rolls translated to reality largely being up to the Storyteller, who was encouraged to use that freedom to build the most enjoyable — or thematically appropriate — story for the players as they could.

In addition to White Wolf’s Storyteller System, we also saw many RPGs aimed towards more casual players, introducing a “beer and chips” kind of roleplaying that was less serious and competitive than the adversarial tone that was common between players and DMs — itself a holdover from D&D’s wargaming roots. These games had much looser mechanics, with Paranoia billing its expansions as “More rules you can ignore!” Altogether, this led to much more focus on the experience of collaborative storytelling than adversarial combat.

As an aside: in game design, we sometimes refer to mechanics as being fluffy or crunchy in terms of how “solid” and unbendably proscriptive they are. A system like D&D is fairly crunchy, with concrete rules about what numbers you have to roll to hit a target or exactly where every character is standing in a combat. However, the Storyteller System is much fluffier, allowing for much more Storyteller leeway in interpreting what your “2 successes to maintain composure” roll translates to in the story.

One broad rule is that a crunchy system more fairly balances power between the players and the DM/storyteller, and serves well for simulations; while a fluffy system leaves a lot of the power in the hands of the DM/Storyteller, but also gives more leeway for personal interpretation and storytelling.

As such, this split between the crunchy strategy games and the fluffy storytelling games is one that would shape the future of the medium.

The East/West CRPG Schism

While the tabletop scene was booming and eventually busting, role-playing games had made the jump into the computer realm very successfully. With successful series like Wizardry, Might & Magic, and the Bard’s Tale, most computer RPGs (or CRPGs) were from western studios and revolved around making your own characters for a party and dungeon-delving. The Ultima series stood out as a strange exception, making open-world single-character RPGs that would seem well ahead of their time in retrospect.

The genre spread to wider markets and console gaming, with Japanese studios making no shortage of their own dungeon-delving RPGs like the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. But sometime around the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, these Japanese RPGs began differentiating themselves from the build-your-party delvers of the west. Studios like Square and Enix drew on their tremendous rosters of artists and storytellers by making their RPGs use pre-made characters who would proceed through stories tailor-made for those characters.

Where characters in “western” RPGs were pretty much just a pile of stats and whatever name the player gave them, JRPGs became famous for having distinctive, memorable characters like Cloud, Kefka, or Chrono — who sported character designs by excellent artists, memorable musical themes, and animated cut scenes. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was a revolution to players, and to this day, the name “Final Fantasy” is remembered by a generation as their introduction to RPGs.

In response, western CRPGs distinguished themselves from the deeply character-centric, highly-scripted RPGs of their Japanese competitors by doubling down on the player freedom. Studios like Black Isle and BioWare built RPGs that offered players wide worlds to explore and challenges that could be solved in a variety of ways. This trend towards “open worlds” had been presaged by the Ultima series and would later be carried on by countless other RPGs.

At the time, there were constant arguments among RPG players about which was a “better” trend for the medium: the character-centric Japanese style or the open-world western style. Ultimately, though, these styles didn’t have to be at odds, nor were they inherently tied to lands of origin. They just became two strong branches of the evolutionary tree of the medium.

The Systemic Size Schism

In the late ‘00s to present, we’ve seen AAA RPGs growing exponentially in size and cost. Every RPG competes with others in terms of how many hours of gameplay they offer and in square mileage of their maps. And as I’ve pointed out, this constant inflation in big games has made studios unable or unwilling to experiment with gameplay.

So, smaller studios have carried the mantle of experimenting in the medium. And one of the ways they’ve sought to find new ways to compete with the tremendous cost of building detailed and gigantic maps is to design systems that can build the world and stories for them. We’ve seen this in simulation-heavy worlds like that of Dwarf Fortress, or more structured stories that draw from systemic elements like Wildermyth. Once they were proven in the indie scene, we’ve begun seeing this sort of procedural generation used in big games, like the procedural “template” quests in Skyrim or Watch Dogs 3.

Now, these procedural systems are not to be confused with the “generative AI” tech trend which seems to be mercifully dying away by now. These systems are built by designers to follow specific rules and the details of characters, dialogue, goals, and rewards are filled from various conditionalized tables. Done well, this can offer a new and unprecedented degree of reactivity to a world. Done poorly, this can feel as arbitrary as rolling for random treasure and finding that the direwolves you killed were carrying $20 and a laptop.

But by adding the potential of infinite quests and a constantly reactive world, computer RPGs are embracing a long-sought element of tabletop RPGs: the sense of a truly reactive world from a live storyteller who’s working with us to create a world. And in that, I’m beginning to see a reaction that could be a new schism itself, or just the complimentary response to this one…

The Next Schism?

By now, many of the mechanics of RPGs have spread into other styles of games, to the point where almost any game can be called an RPG by some metric. And along with the ever-growing competition in game size, we’re seeing an industry focus on live-service games — ongoing games with steady streams of new content that seek to offer infinite playtime for players.

And when you combine ongoing RPG-style games with developers reacting to the players’ actions, it seems natural that the next step is to have an overt “game master” who directs the game world in response to the players’ actions.

And lo, we see exactly that in Helldivers 2, with its enigmatic game master “Joel”. In response to this revelation, many players have developed a much deeper connection with the game, with the sense that their actions — inconsequential as they may individually be — are all adding up to a deep and personally-directed story.

But the existence of a human storyteller at the helm gives a face for this sort of world reactivity, which lets players fill in the blanks with their own assumptions of the personality behind the choices. Even when the results are largely the same as procedural generation, this sense of a larger intelligence is highly compelling.

Could this be harnessed more directly in a live-service roleplaying game? Could a simulated intelligence like an AI assistant fill that role? Could a role like this be systemitized into something that end-game players take turns fulfilling for other players?

Regardless, the return of computer RPGs to the tabletop concept of collaborative storytelling would be a fascinating revival of an earlier era of the medium. And potentially the next evolution of the genre.

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How RPGs Defined Themselves (2024)
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