Where It Started: D&D Videogames

Let Dragon+ take you on a journey through D&D’s videogame past, all the way to its modern day status as an online gaming superstar.

Bobby MacPherson


As MMOs duel for supremacy in a gaming market already saturated with big-budget sword-and-sorcery fare, the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons is visible in every beautifully rendered fire spell, number-crunching combat system and epic, world-shaking story.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that the influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the games industry is purely an indirect one: some of the finest RPGs of the last two decades have been licensed D&D products, the industry having enjoyed its approach to simulated adventure since the early ’80s.


8 BIT-BEHOLDERS

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While it’s generally accepted that the relationship Dungeons & Dragons has with the medium began in the late ’80s with the Amiga and Apple II computers, the first real entrants were actually on the short-lived Intellivision console. In 1981 Mattel released Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain and followed up with a sequel a year later, entitled Treasure of Tarmin. With their first-person perspective and stripped-down dungeon-crawling, these games were much simpler fare than the intricate, stat-based RPGs that would become a staple of the brand, but they were well-received all the same.

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The first truly successful foray into videogames D&D had was with the 1988 hit Pool of Radiance, on the Amiga and Apple II. As one might expect of an early game attempting a digital recreation of D&D’s myriad rules, Pool of Radiance was hard, yet rewardingly deep, with story-altering dialogue options and a simplified version of the D&D battle system. It was also the first licensed game to utilize the Forgotten Realms setting – by dropping the player into Faerûn’s Moonsea region, it situated the game within that world’s canon, which has been a staple of almost all D&D games that have followed.

Building on Pool of Radiance’s template, the early-to-mid ’90s saw a slew of fantastic D&D RPGs brought to life. Far too numerous to recount in full, Pool of Radiance’s clearest protégés were Westwood Studio’s acclaimed first-person, point-and-click dungeon-crawler, Eye of the Beholder, and the Dragonlance-set Champions of Krynn, developed by Pool of Radiance’s own Strategic Simulations. Though largely lost to the mists of time (but making a resurgence in popularity thanks to retro-loving Let’s Play vloggers on Youtube), all three games garnered a sizeable fanbase.

Of course, the ’90s didn’t just see the D&D brand associated with maddeningly in-depth RPGs, as famously eccentric Japanese developer Capcom brought the franchise to arcade machines for the first time with 1993’s Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and its 1996 sequel Chronicles of Mystara. The Mystara-set side-scrolling beat-’em-up surprisingly kept in line with D&D’s class system, with each character representing a different adventuring archetype, replete with stats, spells and specialist items that could be picked up along the way. With their distinctly Japanese art style and breakneck pace, Capcom’s games proved that the D&D brand was as diverse as its players.


ENTER BIOWARE

While certain titles such as Eye of the Beholder will be clear in the memory of retro gamers, the videogame almost all players and D&D fans will be aware of is Baldur’s Gate. Bioware’s isometric Forgotten Realms epic, which launched in 1998, arguably set the standard for the modern Western RPG genre for years to come. Dropping players onto the Sword Coast, Baldur’s Gate did away with the customizable party of previous D&D games, opting instead for a blank-slate protagonist who is joined by a series of quirky, well-written companions plucked from the gamut of Forgotten Realms races and classes. Baldur’s Gate was also the first game to implement D&D’s dice-rolling combat into real-time battles, imbuing encounters with the tenseness of a tabletop game, without compromising its strategic roots.

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Hot off Baldur’s Gate’s success, Black Isle studios launched the Icewind Dale series, which was lighter on story and heavier on mechanics and good old fashioned adventuring. Icewind Dale hearkened back to the earlier D&D videogames, while maintaining that brand-new isometric sheen. Black Isle’s crowning achievement, however, was arguably Planescape: Torment. This videogame recreated D&D’s alignment system and storytelling flexibility so accurately, that it was possible to go the entire game without drawing your weapon once, proving that even D&D’s more esoteric qualities could transfer to other media.

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Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance marks the first time a D&D game debuted on the PlayStation 2 console in 2001. A sort of spiritual successor to Capcom’s side-scrolling beat-’em-ups, Dark Alliance eschewed tactical combat and world-building for fast-paced, Diablo-esque top-down hack-’n’-slash action. It may have been a deviation from Bioware’s tried-and-tested template, but – like its Japanese forebear – Dark Alliance and its sequel Dark Alliance 2 (2004) were an excuse to bring some mayhem to the Forgotten Realms.

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While perhaps a bit less iconic than D&D’s isometric renaissance, Bioware’s jump to full 3D in 2002 with Neverwinter Nights was a natural and satisfying evolution. This game cleverly looked at what made Baldur’s Gate so great (real-time combat system, memorable NPC party members) and left much of it untouched – aside from the inclusion of fully-3D environments. Spawning numerous expansions and an impressive sequel overseen by Obsidian Entertainment (a new studio born from the ashes of Black Isle Studios after its closure), Neverwinter Nights – and its sequel Neverwinter Nights 2 – served as the template for much of Bioware’s post-D&D fare ( Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and the Mass Effect series). Neverwinter Nights remains well-loved to this day for its breakthroughs in allowing players to create their own content using the Aurora toolset shipped with each game copy. A vibrant community of gamers and creators at sites like NeverwinterVault.com still use the Aurora toolset to tell their stories.


ONLINE AND BEYOND

Many would argue that a true digital representation of the Dungeons & Dragons system can only be found in MMOs, a genre that holds the best chance of combining the split-second number crunching only possible in gaming, with the sense of communal adventure that made D&D popular in the first place.

D&D’s forays into the MMO market have been quietly significant. The first game to attempt an online presence was 1991’s Neverwinter Nights, an MS-DOS multiplayer RPG developed by Strategic Simulations. A modest commercial success, Neverwinter Nights was the first online game ever to display graphics, utilizing a first-person POV similar to that used in Strategic Simulations’ Pools of Radiance.

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However, a second significant attempt didn’t come until Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online in 2006. Award-winning in its execution, Dungeons & Dragons Online utilized the now-familiar real-time combat and quest-heavy pre-endgame content seen in games like World of Warcraft, but coupled this with a levelling system similar to D&D v.3.5. Dungeons & Dragons Online was also significant in that it was an early adopter of the free-to-play model, managing to keep its servers ticking over healthily for nine years without the usual bombardment of micro-transactions that normally accompany any non-subscription MMOs.

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All of which brings us to D&D’s newest incarnations in gaming, Neverwinter and Sword Coast Legends (although games such as Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity still fly the D&D flag). In the two years since its release, a moderation and design team has been dedicated to keeping the free-to-play title Neverwinter bug-free, loading it with the kind of new content usually associated with subscription-based games.

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Meanwhile, Sword Coast Legends is the most recent officially licensed game to represent the brand. Crafted by a team of industry veterans, the game has a compelling single-player narrative. Yet it truly shines in DM Mode, where Dungeon Masters get to create adventures for up to four online players. This real-time experience allows a DM to guide players through customizable adventures, acting as both friend and foe, much like in a tabletop roleplaying game.

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Considering the popularity of virtual tabletops such as Fantasy Grounds (see our in-depth look at that system on page 13), it’s clear that the future of Dungeons & Dragons can be found online. As MMOs move away from being tepid loot-hunts to become the narrative and communal experiences players enjoy in an immersive tabletop session, the perfect collision of D&D’s rules system and gaming’s immediacy should make for a very exciting future indeed.