The Gamemasters

Our Games Are Built On Paper


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.

Why Paper Works
What do these designers learn from paper and dice that they bring to the computer field? “Brevity,” says historical wargame designer Mike Bennighof. “The forced limitations of a physical game (number of words, number and size of pieces) enforce a certain design discipline that helps create a more focused computer product as well. It makes you ask, ‘what is the why?’ Thanks to many years of paper game work, I can grasp in my mind how the game’s different processes should come together in a working virtual machine.”

Shane Hensley, who owns the paper publisher Great White Games, designed the Deadlands weird-west RPG, and is now lead writer on Cryptic/NCSoft’s City of Villains MMORPG. “The pen-and-paper industry is like a crash course on what’s fun and what’s not,” he says. “Because we crank out so many more products than a computer game company, we get to test out more theories.” His own design experiments have given Hensley insights into the minds of the paper game audience, “many of which are cut from the same cloth as our video/computer game audience.”

And did Andrew Greenberg’s experience with White Wolf’s gothic-punk Vampire paper game help him with – uhh – Mall Tycoon? Actually, yes: “When working in computer games, it is too easy to focus on the individual components and forget the overall design,” Greenberg says. “That is impossible in tabletop gaming, where you have to ensure everything meshes together well. Having come from a tabletop gaming background helped me avoid that trap.”

Most important, Greenberg says, “Tabletop gaming creates innumerable opportunities to meet and get to know the people who play the games I make. Gaming with them, without the barrier of a computer, really helped me understand why they play games and what they most enjoy – assets that are hard to develop when one designs solely for computer games.”

The background helps in mundane details, too. Bruce Harlick of Sigil Games says, “The ability to create (and prototype and test) a system on paper is a big help; it can save time and effort in the long run. The engineers like the way I wrote design specs. For example, I tended to write things such as loot tables as though they’d be treasure charts from a paper RPG. This might have made them a little easier to read.”

Possibly most useful to a paper designer making the transition to computers is a habit of mind, a propensity to simulate. Paper games have modeled all kinds of interactions, from social climbing to persuasion to interrogation to missionary work, and topics from soap opera to Wuthering Heights romantic melodrama to Venetian Renaissance politics, not to mention every variety of combat and magic system. That skill in quantifying dynamic interactions helps designers adapt well to a silicon environment where literally everything is a number.

Not every paper game designer has that inclination, and those that lack it run into trouble. Paul Jaquays made the jump better than most. A versatile creator, Jaquays did remarkably fine work in the paper field as designer, editor, and painter before moving to id Software to design levels for Quake III Arena. In his view, “There aren’t as many ex – pencil-and-paper folk involved in computer gaming as you might think; it’s actually fairly difficult to make the crossover. Most RPG gamers are novelist wannabes, and writers aren’t as needed in computer game production as they are in the roleplaying biz.”

Of the designers who successfully negotiate the transition, most stay in computers, or try to stay. Compared to paper, computer games promise a far larger audience, and the money is a lot better. (For that matter, the money is a lot better in fast food and janitorial, too. Hensley comments, “Many people in the electronic world hope to get into pen-and-paper endeavors – until they realize the financials.”)

And they love having the computer do the paperwork, as it were. Greenberg’s Holistic Entertainment recently restarted development on their Noble Armada computer game, based on the miniatures game of the same name, which in turn was derived from their Fading Suns roleplaying game. “This is a perfect example of the advantage of having a computer do all the hard work of number crunching and record keeping, allowing me to do the things I like as a player: fly spaceships, explore the galaxy, trade with weird aliens, and blow the bits out of other players’ ships.”

Some designers miss the old days and the old ways. Hensley says, “The ability to explore so many different worlds and concepts is definitely where my heart (and short attention span) is.” But Harlick enjoys both fields. “Even though I’m working in the computer industry, I tried to do a freelance project each year in the paper game world, just to stay in touch. I think paper games are fun because you don’t have the whole huge development cycle and waiting to see the final game that you do with the computer games. On the other hand, I love seeing the concepts and systems translated over to the computer for the video game projects.”

The paper gaming business remains small, even stagnant. But small-press “indie” paper RPGs continue to innovate; check out Breaking the Ice, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Mountain Witch, among many others. With no worthwhile paper market, imaginative paper designers will keep migrating into electronic gaming for years yet.

Allen Varney is a freelance writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. His published work includes six books, three board games, and nearly two dozen role-playing game supplements.

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