The mere mention of Dungeons & Dragons conjures up images of nerds of all ages, excitedly swishing a cupped fist back and forth before unleashing a hail of dice onto a dining room table. From its appearance on Futurama almost 20 years ago to its most recent plot-defining inclusion in Netflix’s horror series, Stranger Things, the seminal tabletop roleplaying game is arguably the most recognizable and important of all pen & paper RPGs. Now, with the inclusion of an official D&D mode in Divinity: Original Sin 2, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the importance of this staple of geekdom and how it has affected PC gaming. So we’re going to go through five of the most important Dungeons & Dragons games on PC and look at how they changed the gaming landscape forever, leaving a lasting legacy on both gamers and developers alike.
It doesn’t get much more retro than pen & paper, keep it old school with our list of the best old PC games.
Let’s start at the very beginning. In 1972, wargaming enthusiast Gary Gygax was becoming tired of simply throwing large armies together on a battlefield. He began to play around with an idea that was simultaneously smaller and larger than what anyone in the gaming community was used to. What if instead of commanding large armies, each player controlled a single hero who was as powerful as an army? Within a few short weeks, the first draft for what would become Dungeons & Dragons was already playable, and being tested by Gygax’s family and friends.
It is this leap of logic, the idea that a set of numerical values can represent the entirety of a fictional character, that now forms the basis of all computer games. Gygax didn’t know it at the time, but he had taken the first step towards inventing modern videogames. Even titles which are about as far away from the Tolkienesque fantasy setting of D&D as can be imagined utilize this very simple concept. Our favourite sports stars in FIFA and Madden NFL are little more than modern day elves and fighters, their strength and intelligence scores replaced with passing and tackling stats.
By 1975, D&D had become a runaway success and was particularly popular among computer science students at various American universities. It wasn’t long before they began using the game as an influence for experimentation with computer programming. Many of the earliest attempts to put D&D on a PC, such as 1975’s Dungeon and the catchily named pedit5 from the same year, were born in the bosom of America’s academic institutions. However, D&D would remain largely a tabletop affair throughout the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s. PC games such as Ultima and Wizardry would come along, undoubtedly taking influence from Gygax’s rulebooks and manuals, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the world would be treated to a genuine effort to put the Dungeons & Dragons experience onto our hard drives.
Pool of Radiance (1988)
Pool of Radiance was the first game in the Gold Box series, which would eventually grow to contain 30 titles. Up until this point, attempts to put something as complex as D&D on a computer had been met with frustration and disappointment. The sheer computing power required to properly represent the pen & paper game was beyond the average person. Now, providing you could afford a whopping 384k of memory, you were able to experience the city of New Phlan and its monster-riddled suburbs in three whole dimensions!
Many things that we now take for granted as staples of the RPG genre were first showcased in Pool of Radiance. Or perhaps more specifically, they all came together in this game. The ability to roam around a 3D world, create characters and outfit them with gear, interact with lots of NPCs and choose how your party progressed, all while an actual story unfolded around you, had been done before. But now, for the first time ever, they were all in one game. There were still some limitations though. Most of the story was contained in the instruction manual. At certain points the game might inform you that you had overheard ‘Tavern Story 18’ which was your prompt to open up the book and enjoy a juicy snippet of information. This was to save space on the disks, which were expensive to produce and needed to be filled with actual gameplay.
The fact that Pool of Radiance spawned so many sequels is a testament to just how big of a deal it was. Not only did it finally give D&D players a worthy computer game, but it introduced a whole generation of impressionable young PC gamers to the tabletop sensation. Ultimately, it legitimized home computers like the PC, Commodore Amiga and Apple II as the only platforms where something of this complexity could be pulled off. An idea which still holds true nearly 30 years later.
Neverwinter Nights (1991)
Not to be confused with the 2002 CRPG of the same name, Neverwinter Nights broke new ground in the arena of multiplayer RPGs, effectively creating the MMO as we know it today.
By 1991, Dungeons & Dragons had amassed quite a collection of officially licensed PC games, spread across the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Savage Frontier settings. SSI wanted their next title to break new ground once again and chose the fertile ground of, what was at the time, a new thing called the internet in which to plant their latest digital seeds.
A genre known as MUDs (multi-user dungeons) had been developing almost parallel to that of the PC RPG, with the first, Colossal Cave Adventure, arriving in 1975 around the same time as Dungeon and pedit5. MUDs allowed players connected on a local network to explore a randomly generated dungeon together, often fighting and trading items in the process. But there was just one problem, these games were all text based, therefore limiting the levels of immersion players could experience whilst adventuring. That is, until Neverwinter Nights arrived on the scene.
While it may have been rudimentary, Neverwinter Nights proved that there was a market for subscription-based MMOs. In fact, it initially cost as much as $8 per hour to play which is about $14 when adjusted for today’s inflation. It played almost identically to Pool of Radiance, with the obvious addition of multiple simultaneous players. Other innovations included a leaderboard of the best fighters in the city as well as the PC’s introduction to the city of Neverwinter, which we would revisit many more times over the coming years. As the first graphical MMO, you can thank Neverwinter Nights for games like Everquest, WoW and Guild Wars. Without this coming together of D&D and AOL, an entire genre of games wouldn’t exist.
Baldur’s Gate (1998)
By 1995, the gaming world had experienced the 3D revolution. Players no longer wanted to explore worlds from a fixed, first-person perspective and D&D games were in desperate need of a re-design. At the same time, three Canadian doctors had just graduated from medical school in Alberta, Canada and set up a software development studio, with the intention of making medical programs for hospitals. Appropriately, they named their new studio Bioware. However, these three friends soon realised that they found their games of D&D much more stimulating than their medical doctorates and promptly set their sights on the PC games market. By 1996 they had acquired a license to develop D&D games and chose the city of Baldur’s Gate as the setting for their new RPG.
Put yourselves in the shoes of a brave, young adventurer. You have to get into a temple to retrieve a body for someone, but it’ll cost you 2,000 gold to bribe the guards. Fortunately, you’ve already buttered up one of the priestesses by returning a bowl that was stolen from her, so you can get in without a fight or a payout. Moments later, you’re watching a father resurrect his son and you’ve done a family a good turn. This is what Baldur’s Gate brought to the world of PC gaming, something which would later be termed ‘emergent narrative.’ The idea that your decisions matter, that your companions care about what you say and do and that you have to accept responsibility for how your character interacts with the world.
By striving to make a game that felt like a proper D&D experience, the guys at Bioware had inadvertently advanced PC gaming once more and games like Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic and Pillars of Eternity owe much of their existence to Baldur’s Gate. With its use of an isometric view, tight party mechanics and visible die rolls, it set both the visual and mechanical standards by which critically acclaimed RPGs still adhere today. Furthermore, the Infinity Engine is still being used to make PRGs now, albeit in a more modern form. Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate II and the incredible Planescape: Torment would soon follow, taking these ideas to their logical conclusions. The late ‘90s truly were a golden era for D&D games on PC.
Neverwinter Nights (2002)
By 2002, Bioware were at it again. The studio’s reputation for innovating the way an RPG tells a story was pretty much earned in this era and their reboot of the Neverwinter Nights title was no exception. In truth, the main campaign was a little lacklustre and retrospectively, Neverwinter Nights is a decent, if slightly flawed RPG. This has caused it to be somewhat unfairly overlooked because it brought one huge innovation which warrants a place in the annals of PC gaming history.
If Baldur’s Gate deserves acclaim for successfully bringing the D&D player’s experience to the PC, Neverwinter Nights extendeds it to the Dungeon Master by allowing literally anyone to create their own adventures within the game’s engine. Furthermore, players could then run these custom made campaigns, inviting their friends to take a whack at their creations. Dungeon Masters could join the game as a referee, issuing gold and experience points, controlling NPCs and doing pretty much anything a real Dungeon Master would be expected to do.
This new, openly moddable RPG gave rise to innumerable custom game modes, many of which were effectively MMORPGs, with their own rules, stories and settings. Bioware fed the community tilesets, monster models and various tools aimed at allowing Dungeon Masters to create ever more complex scenarios. Some modders even used the tools to recreate classic pen and paper adventures, such as the much-loved ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ by none other than Gary Gygax himself. Many gamers, myself included, believed that this was the logical conclusion of CRPGs. We’d finally taken what we had on our kitchen tables and transferred it onto our computers. But we weren’t quite there yet.
Modern Tabletop Simulators (2009)
Sometime around the early ‘00s an attitude began to permeate the games industry. The original Xbox drew many PC enthusiasts towards a console for the first time and Sony’s PlayStation 2 enjoyed runaway success. To this day, it still holds the title of best-selling console of all time. Unfortunately, this spooked a lot of PC developers, many of whom declared the ‘inevitable’ death of PC gaming and switched focus to consoles. This period saw many D&D franchises making the leap over to the console arena. Most of these were mindless hack-and-slash titles such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes. Fun games in their own right, but far from the depth and complexity of the CRPGs that the late ‘90s had brought us.
It was in this drought that the tabletop gaming community began to enjoy a resurgence. Access to the internet slowly became the norm and YouTube rose to prominence as a cheap and easy way for anyone to make videos. This gave rise to many people learning about tabletop gaming for the first time and soon they started figuring out ways to play over the internet. Before long, numerous games and apps had begun popping up, each different, but all of them offering innovative new ways for people to play tabletop RPGs from the comfort of their own homes.
From the official launch of Fantasy Grounds in 2009, to the fully web-based app Roll20 in 2012, to the entirely 3D Tabletop Simulator in 2015, there are now more ways than ever to play actual Dungeons & Dragons on your PC. We no longer have to rely on developers to write pre-scripted stories with programmed AI, we can simply load up a web page and jump into a game of D&D with our best friends or a group of total strangers. Furthermore, with titles like Pillars of Eternity and the recent Torment: Tides of Numenera keeping the spirit of ‘90s D&D games alive, we now live in an age where we can choose to play however we like. There really has never been a better time to get rolling some dice, be they virtual or made of obsidian-coloured plastic. Long live Dungeons & Dragons!