The discussion about canceled CRPGs last week was very productive, spawning some interesting forum threads and showing me a lot of games I had missed.
So today I’ll bring up another topic for debate: Books on Computer Role-Playing Games.
I’ve been working on the book for about 9 months now, and during this time I tried to read every book on CRPG & gaming history that I could find. Bellow is a selection of the best ones I found that might be useful to other CRPG fans – including a few on tabletop RPGs and general gaming history.
I’m still delving through hardware-specific books such as On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore but, sadly, those rarely go in-depth about gaming. So I’ll leave them out for now, at least until I find a solid game-centric one. Also, I’m focusing on books today, but in the future I’ll hopefully also post about the websites, articles and other valuable online sources that provide a lot of interesting content. There are a lot of them, most very unappreciated.
Word of warning: I’m not a academic, nor a game designer (abominations on RPG Maker aside). Thus, if you enjoy debating the anthropological impact of role-playing a shared fantasy imaginary in a post-modern society, or want bro tips on making your own Skyrim, then this might not be the list for you. The CRPG Book Project was created to share the history of the genre and that’s my focus here: Gaming History, coupled with a bit of analysis/criticism.
Regardless, everyone is invited to stay awhile and read. And if you have any book to recommend, please do so. 🙂
Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford (2001) Swords & Circuitry: A Designer’s Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games
If I could only recommend one book, it would be this one. Neal Hallford is the legend behind Betrayal at Krondor, Planet’s Edge and Might & Magic III, so when he talks about RPGs, you should listen. The book extremely well-written and full of historical research, great insights and real examples – a pleasure to read for designers and fans alike, reason why it’s on this list – you’ll value good RPGs even more after reading it.
Plus it offers interviews with key game developers (including Jon Van Caneghem) and even some design documents from CRPG classics, such as an early description of Fallout’s Vault 15, design documents from Nox or dialog script from Betrayal at Krondor.
Neal announced last year that he would make a second, revised edition of the book, but we got no news so far on how that’s coming along.
Matt Barton (2008) Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role Playing Games
Matt Barton is well-know (or at least should be) for his Matt Chat channel, where he interviews hundreds of game designers, from Brian Fargo and Richard Garriott to R.A. Montgomery and the recently departed Ralph Baer, counting over 260 episodes so far.
His book presents a summary of the entire genre, from the PLATO games in 1974 to Oblivion in 2006. Matt goes for a more academical approach, dividing CRPG history in 7 eras, and then analyzes more than 250 titles.
Some descriptions are a bit generic, and the images are all black-and-white, but there’s much interesting content to be found here, especially on early titles.
Brad King and John Borland (2008) Dungeons & Dreamers: A story of how computer games created a global community
Written almost like a script for a documentary, Dungeons & Dreamers tells the history of key games, together with the life of their developers.
You could call it the “Masters of Doom for RPGs”: most of the book is about Richard Garriott and the Ultima series, sometimes sounding a bit too fanboyish, but you’ll also read amusing stories behind Colossal Cave, MUDs, Doom, Counter-Strike and even the political protests after the Columbine shooting.
Michael Tresca (2010) The Evolution of Fantasy Role-playing Games
A good starting point, Michael’s book provides a clear and concise overview of RPGs & its multiple ramifications – LARP, Wargaming, CRPG, MUD, MMORPG, CYOA, etc…
About 240 pages long, it’s a good beginner’s guide, explaining how Tolkien influenced D&D, then describing basic things such as what a Fighter or an Elf are. It’s very simplistic at some points – and oddly very in-depth at others – but overall it’s a good book to have around, even if only for it’s clear, concise presentation and nice bibliography.
The book can be divided in two parts: the first, about 130 pages long, is all about Richard Garriott and ORIGIN Systems, filled with interviews, technical details and curiosities on how each Ultima game was designed – sadly only up to Ultima VI, as the book is very outdated.
The second half (about 170 pages) is both a hint guide and a plot summary of the series. In a very amusing format, the author narrates – and LARPs – the adventures of his character, Alfred McCormick, as he play through the series, adding hints and maps to help
The second edition of the book adds Ultima VII, Underworld, Martian Dreams and Savage Empire to the walkthrough section, but sadly the author didn’t manage to get interviews and behind-the-scenes content about the development process of these classics. Still, the book is a joy for Ultima fans, and a sort of all-around document that I wish more game series also had.
Lawrence Shick (1991) Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games
Heroic Worlds is a 450-page encyclopedia with virtually every tabletop RPG system, supplement and scenario published from 1970 until 1990, complete with a handy timeline and articles from designers such as Gary Gygax, Steve Jackson, Ken St. Andre and Michale Stackpole.
While it looks like a catalog – each game described in just a few lines – it’s a fantastic reference guide on everything about PnP RPGs. At least for those interested in its early years, since new editions were never made.
Jon Peterson (2012) Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventure from Chess to Role-Playing Games
To put it shortly, this book is the most exhaustive analysis of Dungeons & Dragons you’ll ever read – a 720-page monolith in honor of Gygax.
Talking about everything from wargaming in 1700’s to the trajectory of fantasy in culture, in-depth rule analysis and trivia like why clerics can’t use cutting weapons, Jon’s research is impressive – even overwhelming sometimes. But hey, if you’re into that, there’s no better book.
General Gaming History:
Tristan Donovan (2010) Replay: The History of Video Games
If you’re interested in gaming history as a whole, this is the best book around. It represents an enormous amount of research, backed by almost 50 pages of references, condensed it into a 500-page book.
Tirstan covers everything you can expect, and still surprise you by addressing the subject globally, with things such as a chapter about the French gaming scene in the 80’s. The amazing amount of information packed here, the rich bibliography and the amusing Gameography at the end makes this a wonderful book for any video game fan.
Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson (2003) High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games
Don’t judge a book by its (poor) cover. High Score! is co-written by the former editor-in-chief of the Computer Gaming World magazine – therefore focusing heavily on 80’s and early 90’s PC titles.
There are great sections on Cinemaware, SSI, Ultima and Might & Magic, and the entire book is filled with rare photos, concept arts, box covers and screenshots that will bring a tear to the eye of nostalgic gamers.
A third edition was successfully kicktstarted by DeMaria in 2012, but unfortunately he’s having some health issues and the book is progressing steadily, but slowly.
The focus is clearly on consoles and arcades, with computers barely being mentioned (the nerve!), but the content is still extremely rich. There are thousands of quotes from key people in the industry, providing a backstage look at the history of how gaming came to be.
Computer Gaming World Museum
The legendary CGW magazine ran from 1981 to 2006, and all the issues are available freely for download at the Museum. Reading them like a travel back in time, and it’s fun to see all the ads and reviews games had at release. There were also some great articles and columnists, such as the CRPG expert Scorpia. I really recommend you to check edition #87.
Visit the museum here: http://www.cgwmuseum.org/index.php
Back in the days, when Fallout was still isometric, there was a lot of chat between the developer and the fans. And I do mean A LOT.
The Fallout Bible is nothing less than a huge Q&A session that lasted for a whole year. MCA talks about everything: the timeline & background story of the world, concept art, detailed character stats, the reason behind some design choices and even cut content, such as a race of humanoid raccoons. Nothing short of 254-pages of Fallout goodness.
While a lot of it will only interest die-hard fans, there’s also some amazing behind-the-scenes info on the development process of one of the best games in history.