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Arcane Lore: the history of role-playing

We look back at the history of role-playing – prepare for ‘wizard’s sleeve’ and ‘whipping out your broadsword’ jokes – you have been warned…

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Dungeons and Dragons

Game mechanics

The basic premise is a simple one, but in motion it can be fiendishly complicated. One player assumes the role of the dungeon master, and essentially functions in the role of omnipresent deity over the gameworld. They will outline the parameters of the quest, the environments in play and the non-player characters available to be interacted with – to be a good dungeon master requires an absurdly high roll for creativity – but there are rules to be adhered to, and the framework of the game is built around the dungeon master’s interpretation of these rules, as laid out in three books: the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Decisions on what can happen are made by the dungeon master. Decisions on what does happen – where the characters travel, what they do, and how they interact with the world – are made by the other players around the table. But the real decisions are made by the dice. You want to pick a lock? Roll the dice. Get higher than a certain score, determined by your character’s manual dexterity, and the lock pops open. Roll lower than that score, and there’s a chance the lock may be forever broken, and you need to find another way around. Want to strike an enemy? Roll the dice. If you’re lucky, you’ll score a hit, then you’ll roll the dice again to see how much damage you’ve done. It sounds cumbersome when laid out in this way, but probability-based algorithms measured against key statistics are the basis of every single role-playing game, computerised or otherwise. It may be hidden under the hood and it could well be infinitely more complex than a set of polyhedral dice, but it’s always there. The dice rule all.

Dungeons and Dragons

I could go on all day about the similarities between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the modern, computer role-playing game. Aside from the dungeon master, the other players form a questing ‘party’ – a term that is instantly familiar. They build their characters by assigning points to statistics from a fixed pool of available attribute points (Fallout’s ‘SPECIAL’, anyone?) so to build a strong character and a balanced party is critical for survival. As you complete actions, you gain experience points, and can increase your character’s stats (‘level up’) to better prepare them for the growing difficulty of the quests they face. Anybody who plays a modern roleplaying game will tell you that you need more than heavily armoured warriors (‘tanks’) to succeed – you need a rogue for lockpicking, trap disarming and stealth; a magic-user for ranged attacks, status buffs and curative magic – again I could go on, but this aspect of balance is acutely felt in all modern roleplaying games, and depending on your choices can totally change the way you experience a game.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

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