A game of Dungeons and Dragons. Photo: Will Merydith/Flickr
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The evolution of the role-playing game: from table top to video games, and back again

The descendants of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons exist in the physical and virtual worlds, and even though they might play very differently, they're still influencing each other.

The table top role-playing game is, for me at least, the pinnacle of nerd culture. I’ve seen comic book fans who can quote chapter and verse of what obscure superheroes were doing 40 years ago, and I’ve seen gamers so practiced and skilled that they maraud through digital battlefields like Miyamoto Musashi with a mouse, but role-playing games are something else.

There is the classic nerd love of lore and story, but there is also the mechanical and geeky side, because every game has systems to be understood and mastered. Then there's also the creative side, from the dining table impresario who creates the story to be played, to the players themselves who might spend days with the source books researching their characters (you know who you are).

Role-playing games (RPGs) take several forms, but the two main ones are table top - which are the direct descendants of the original Dungeons and Dragons - and video game, which have also evolved, albeit in along a different path, from table top Dungeons and Dragons. This shared ancestry is the root of many of the tropes that have come to define them to this day. Yet, despite the common ancestor, there have usually been great differences between how table top and video game RPGs play, and as such the two types of game have, by necessity, evolved along separate paths in many ways, each adapting to different technology and different markets.

The difference is such now that when people talk about a video game having RPG elements they will typically be referring to persistent stats and the gradual improvement of abilities and items for the character. This speaks to how distant video game and table top philosophies have become - you could easily have a table top RPG with none of those elements yet be in no doubt it was an RPG. In video games the sine qua non of the role-playing game - taking on the role of a character who is not you - is such a given that it no longer defines the genre.

However, in spite of the differences in approach, there have been points of near contact over the years between the two types of game.

One of the traditional differences between a video game RPG and a table top RPG is that the table top game has somebody appointed to be in charge. Dungeon Masters, Game Masters, Marshals, call them what you will, but there always has to be somebody who runs the show. This is a tricky role to explain to people who have never done it themselves. Being in charge of an RPG session combines the attributes of a referee and a storyteller, in a complicated balancing act of trying to entertain and challenge your players with the game, while at the same time not killing their characters off too cruelly, or going the opposite way and making them feel like you’re too heavily on their side. This arbitrator has the theoretical powers of a god over their world (or, at least to the point that the players will tolerate).

This element of the RPG has largely eluded video games but there have been a couple of games which have included the capacity for somebody to act as the director of events within the game world. MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs) like Ultima Online or Everquest would sometimes feature what was called a "GM Event", where one or more of the staff would appear in the game and things would happen, such as some weird creatures spawning and being swamped by whatever players were nearby.

The most notable game to incorporate a dungeon master feature is the classic isometric RPG Neverwinter Nights, which allowed you to build your own worlds and to have a player acting as the game master, who could spawn things into the game, take control of non-player characters in order to have them speak (via text chat, which was the style of the time) or move things around. Playing on the persistent worlds (as they were called) for Neverwinter Nights varied from server to server - some were hack'n'slash fests, others featured permanent death, but they were always interesting. At its best Neverwinter Nights played in this form was perhaps the most perfect marriage yet seen of the digital and table top RPG.

Another series of games that include this element aren’t typical RPGs at all - it’s the categorisation-defying first-person oddity that is the Arma series. Arma 3 is the first of the series to actually employ a player with the ability to control the game world as a standard feature, but it has been modded into the game in the past, and it works surprisingly well. Building missions for Arma, combined now with the ability to modify them in play, gives a player a very similar role to that of the table top RPGs game master. The flexibility of the Arma games is such that, while they may not be marketed as RPGs, with the right group of players they can absolutely be played as one.

The difference that video games struggle to match with the table top RPGs is the freedom of imagination. If the game master can express an idea to his or her players, then that idea is, for all intents and purposes, in play. You can’t do that as dynamically with a video game if you’re shooting for graphics that look like what they are meant to be. Video games can, however, attempt to bridge this gap to an extent by using text instead of graphics. Multi-User Dungeons, for example, take place in text-based chatrooms, and ASCII-based games like Dwarf Fortress rely on symbols rather than visual representations of what is in play, require the use of imagination in the same way as a table top game. (Of course, there's also no rule that says a game of Nethack cannot be interpreted as a bunch of alphanumeric symbols eating each other.)

There are advantages to the video game RPG too. They are accessible and convenient to play largely because most can be played alone. Also, there's a certain freedom that comes from playing an RPG without somebody else in the room judging you for whatever you decide you want your character to be. Computers also handle the mechanical side of the RPGs systems without fussing over rules interpretations or lost dice.

In the past the logistics of finding and getting into a table top RPG playing group were prohibitive for a lot of would-be players, but with the advent of video conferencing and other such advances those problems have evaporated. This has enabled table top games to find a new audience, and also inch closer to their video game counterparts in terms of how the experience plays out. When you replace the books with rules on a web page, the dice with a random number generator and the sitting in a room with friends with sitting alone with a headset watching a screen, you’re definitely moving into the video game mindset regardless of the game you happen to be playing.

There will always be something cerebral and inaccessible about table top RPGs - they will always demand time and space and concentration to play. This will inevitably keep them from becoming part of the mainstream, as their digital cousins have, but it is also what will keep them distinct. Not everything has to be for everybody, some things will always be for nerds.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game