Everyone’s going old school in their computer roleplaying games these days. Recent games like Grimrock 2, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin, and the steady stream of roguelikes hark back to the golden era of the form, when kobolds were kobolds and the gold coins flowed freely.
The biggest, best chunk of those old games came, of course, from the Dungeons & Dragons bloodline. Whether the game was published by TSR or Wizards of the Coast, the tabletop game’s stewards were always amenable to seeing the rules translated to videogame form. This ended up leading to an enormous output of roleplaying games, mostly for PC but several for console. Some were bad, most were okay. Ten of them (one game per series and RPGs only) were great. I’m using “great” expansively in this instance; some of the games are good or fun, while a couple are less good than they are enormously influential.
Developer / Publisher: SSI
Death Knights is the second of SSI’s famous “Gold Box” series of RPGs set in Krynn, the world of the famous Dragonlance novels. It’s also almost certainly the best. The gameplay is, by now, old hat for anyone who’s come up with American RPGs: you create your party from scratch, head into dungeons, clear them out, and level up. Even by 1991, the rules for SSI’s Gold Box games were pretty well entrenched.
What made Death Knights stand out is that it made a much better effort at tying it into the larger Dragonlance narrative than its predecessor in the series, Champions of Krynn. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Dragonlance but the effort made Death Knights feel more grounded than the prior game. Plus death knights are super cool.
The great forgotten D&D game, Dungeon Hack burns away all of the story and worldbuilding the great late ‘80s games made famous in favor of pure dungeon crawling. What kept Dungeon Hack fresh was that it used random dungeon generation; pretty tame stuff in today’s hobby but scintillating back in the day. And it was endless, with huge dungeon maps and a claimed 4 billion possible levels.
D&D in its earliest days was a game of resource management. Do I have the hit points to go into the next room? Can I survive a random encounter? Do I have enough torches? Dungeon Hack brings the feel of that back, if not the mechanics, and for tabletop gamers of a certain vintage (like me because I’m really old) it’s a welcome change up in the D&D videogame library.
Developer: Westwood Associates
This is the game probably most responsible for the Grimrock series. Eye of the Beholder is maybe the best of SSI’s first person dungeon crawlers, not least because its graphics and sound both hold up remarkably well today. There’s a pittance of a story (bad guys under the city!) but, as is usually the case with this strain of game, you’re mostly there to beat up enemies, level up, and get treasure.
One of the coolest things about Eye is that you can increase your party size in play—something later seen in Black Isle’s games—and export your characters to a wide variety of games in SSI’s catalog. This gives the game an expansive feeling of continuity which most of the other RPGs of the era don’t have.
Platforms: PS2, Xbox
Developer: Black Isle
You’re going to see Baldur’s Gate II further down the list (spoilers) and think I’ve broken my rule about one game per series, but I haven’t. The Dark Alliance series is a distinct thing all its own, independent of its more famous and well-regarded cousin. The console market wanted in on the fun after so many years of rad D&D RPGs being on PC either exclusively or first.
And that’s how a loud, brash, fun as heck hack and slash RPG series set in the Forgotten Realms was born. It’s way more Diablo than Baldur’s Gate, despite the name. That means, aside from the style of play, you can’t design your characters from scratch. But the playable characters offer a wide variety of playstyles, while the customization as you level means that you can fine tune as you go. Topping it off is a co-op mode which is so much fun that even Drizzt showing up can’t ruin.
Temple of Elemental Evil is notable for several reasons. It was the first game to use the 3.5 ruleset, arguably the most popular version of the rules. It was an attempt to revisit arguably the most iconic D&D dungeon, the titular Temple of Elemental Evil (it’s weird how things work). And it was also cripplingly, horribly broken at release, with gamebreaking bugs and a touchy interface.
Despite those release day bugs (something Troika were sadly known for), it became quickly apparent that Elemental Evil was a really good game once the patches rolled in. Building on the style of Black Isle’s genre-changing Infinity Engine games, the shift to pure turn-based combat and edition change weren’t unwelcome as a change of pace from what was, at that time, a half decade defined by the Baldur’s Gate series. It never reached the same critical heights, and I remember being incandescent with anger over the bugs at the time of release, but the patched Temple of Elemental Evil is a worthy game to revisit.
Platforms: PC, NES
Developer / Publisher: SSI
I can’t say with any certainty that Pool of Radiance is appreciably better than the other Gold Box games. The fact is that most are good but samey. Pool is no different. It’s a good game, certainly, but it outranks the others because it is one of the most influential products ever released under the D&D moniker. It set the standard for all of the golden age games TSR and SSI had a hand in.
It’s all here in some form. Party formation from scratch. The AD&D rules in as close to a proper translation as can be mustered. The ability to transfer characters to other games in the series. An epic storyline in one of the many game worlds making up the D&D multiverse.
Maybe most importantly, it created a template for tying in the computer versions of D&D with the tabletop version which is still in use today. When Pool came out, it was followed by publicizing its links to the Ruins of Adventure tabletop adventure upon which it was based, as well as a novelization. This marked the beginning of a new phase of D&D’s history, one where the Forgotten Realms was its most lucrative series of game books, novels became a core part of their business, and videogames were part of a multimedia approach. You can still see it today with Neverwinter’s (the MMO, not the game below) symbiotic relationship with the tabletop game’s release schedule or the continued fixation on the Realms.
The idea is simple. Supply the raw material to replicate the tabletop D&D experience on the computer screen. Your players hop online to play through adventures you create while you either join in or do some Dungeonmaster meddling here and there. Plus, include a traditional campaign for people to play through.
Neverwinter Nights didn’t always hit the mark, but the ambition was high and, by the time the expansions rolled in, it was stable and came pretty close to its intentions. The lackluster developer made campaign gave way to the very good exploration of the Underdark by the second expansion. And, maybe most importantly, it set the stage for the plethora of online gaming tools today. Services like Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 would certainly be available, but the way we interact with them and some of the graphical tools they employ wouldn’t exist in quite the same way without Neverwinter Nights setting early expectations of what was best.
Developer: Black Isle
After several story oriented outings, Black Isle turned its Infinity Engine to a story-light, hack and slash throwback. And it was great.
Icewind Dale doesn’t have the literary aspirations of its predecessors in the Black Isle catalog. It wants to let you fight waves of monsters and crack open the best parts of the old AD&D 2nd Edition system. It’s a process argument and I know it’s passé to go all in on system, but Icewind Dale is best viewed as a system first, narrative second, type of game. You make a party from scratch, something you weren’t strictly allowed to do in Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment. And they knew you were going to min-max it. There were no complicated voiceover interactions with your party members, no main character with an intense personal story. Just the cold winds of the North, a simple storyline, and the chance to play murderhobo with the greatest RPG engine the D&D games put out.
Publisher: Black Isle / Interplay
You could place Baldur’s Gate II in first place and I wouldn’t argue. It’s such a near run thing between 2nd and 1st, with two legendary games, that there is no wrong answer. As an expression of what classic D&D is capable of—and by classic I mean a more or less standard fantasy setting like the Realms—nothing gets it like BGII.
The main thing it gets right is its pacing. In the best tabletop D&D campaigns, there’s a mix of story and sandbox. You can wander away from the narrative of a major evil or lost kingdom in order to be that 1970s treasure hoarding fantasy hero. You get your George R. R. Martin and your Gary Gygax all at once.
So it is with BGII. The tight scripting of the first chapter gives way to flinging open the entire nation of Amn to your party. There’s a castle to explore over there, a dungeon here, a dark forest the next hill over. You do all of this before bringing it back around to the main narrative, battling for your soul and finding out terrible secrets about your heritage. There’s stolen souls, secret elves, love stories, endless dungeons… it’s everything you’ve ever liked in D&D without ever, remarkably, feeling bloated.
That makes it sound triter than it actually is, 16 years on when we’re inundated with that sort of tale, but it’s far better than I can do justice to in my allotted word count. The voice acting paired with the memorable characters (Minsc and Boo, you’ll be referenced 50 years from now) is worth a playthrough all on its own. Plus it’s when Bioware became BIOWARE, RPG studio behemoth.
Just go play it.
Developer: Black Isle
Only one game could knock BGII off the top slot and, like I said, it’s close. The fact is that Planescape: Torment is probably the greatest single RPG ever put in videogame form and I’m aware of what a lofty claim that is.
To understand any story oriented RPG released after 1999, you have to view it in light of how revolutionary Torment was. Everything, from The Witcher to Dragon Age, even to stuff like Bastion, is chasing the Torment dragon. There were certainly well-told tales put in RPG form prior, but nothing attempted to hit the literary heights of this game.
None of the dialogue seems forced; it’s often even artful, the kind of lovingly crafted exchanges you see in good fiction. The story, ostensibly a recycled tale of an amnesiac looking for a past, veers into unexpected places and shifts subtly, even naturally, as your morality changes based on your actions. And tying it all together is TSR’s greatest creation, the Planescape setting.
Look, you’re sick of fantasy. I get it. But Planescape is something different. It’s a gonzo interpretation of Gygax’s multiverse, a place where a city at the center of time and space, ruled by a mute woman with knives for a face, is a ring floating over a finger of rock. Where devils and angels hang out in bars before heading to a cosmic battlefield. Where what you believe is, for once in the D&D cosmos, more important than what you are. It’s a moral universe, one which changes, even physically, through emotions and codes of conduct.
It’s the setting that makes this tale of amnesia more than it should be. Because the possibilities of who you might be and what your actions were are very truly cosmic in scope. An awful lot of games aspire to tell the sorts of morality tales that Torment, seemingly without an ounce of effort, made real. There’s nothing like it, still.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.