When most Xbox 360 gamers hear the term “role-playing game,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably a game like Final Fantasy or an MMORPG like World of Warcraft. Many of this generation’s gamers are unaware of the long and rich history of role-playing games. Even some developers are ignorant of the genre’s lineage as evidenced by the fact newly designed RPGs make the same mistakes as other games did decades ago. That’s where The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael Tresca comes in. This book, like it’s title implies, chronicles the vast history of RPGs from Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft.
The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games is a great book to learn how and why certain RPG game mechanics came about. Surprisingly, it is one of the few of its kind. As Tresca writes in the introduction,
“There is a distressing lack of history knowledge in the gaming community. Tabletop role-players seem entirely disconnected from the miniature wargaming that spawned Dungeons & Dragons. MUD coders don’t understand where their Dungeons & Dragons-themed rules and assumptions came from. MMORPG developers almost unilaterally ignored what made MUDs successful, making the same mistakes that MUDs made a decade before. Computer role-playing games tout ‘innovations’ that were implemented long before by tabletop gamers and MUD developers.”
With countless hours spent role-playing and decades of experience under his belt, Michael Tresca has been playing RPGs for literally longer than some of his book’s readers will have been alive. He has personally experienced the evolution of role-playing games first hand making this a very important source of information from a historical perspective.
While incredibly informative, the book is also very interesting to read. It is easy to see just how similar different types of role-playing games really are. As you read through early chapters you will find yourself thinking, “ah so that’s where that mechanic came from!” There was a natural progression of evolution in the genre from tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons which later inspired interactive fiction that allowed players to partake in a D&D-esque experience by themselves and with fewer rules to worry about. As computers started to become more ubiquitous and more powerful, it was only natural that role-playing games would make the transition to a digital format with MUDs and play-by-post games and from there, complex computer RPGs and ultimately MMOs later developed.
Tresca does an excellent job chronicling early forms of role-playing games and explaining the effects they had on the development of later games. Peppered throughout the book are anecdotes about his personal role-playing experiences and quotes from his gaming groups. These diversions from the mainly historical accounts of the RPG genre are some of the best parts in the book because gamers with similar experiences can relate.
Tresca argues that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien established the basic framework of what role-playing games would later emulate – a fellowship of characters of varying races and classes set out on an adventure. Even today’s games are heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and the basis of fellowship with similar statistical categories and group-oriented game play. One good example described in The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games is how early MUDs allowed an unlimited number of players in the same party. As Tresca explains, this would lead to the entire population of the MUD becoming one huge group. The game’s creators realized that a massive number of players cooperating could take down any monster, no matter how tough, and it ruined the balance of the game. This lead to a limit on party size. Years later, players teaming up in a group to take down tough monsters or complete a dungeon would be called “raiding” in World of Warcraft.
If there is a downside to this book, it is that it has a somewhat limited audience. Only readers who are already interested in learning about or have experienced role-playing games to some degree will enjoy all this book has to offer. Since many sections of the book are devoted to historically describing how a certain kind of RPG evolved over time, it can include lists of games and people’s names that you won’t recognize.
Every RPG really has the same goal in mind, for the player to achieve agency with his or her character. That is, they want the player to feel like they actually are their character. This is the essence of “role-playing.” Whether this is achieved by taking on the role of an established character like Kaim Argonar in Lost Odyssey on the Xbox 360 or creating your own character in Dungeons and Dragons at your kitchen table, the general principle has remained the same for decades. The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games is a must-read for anybody interested in playing or ever creating an RPG.
Interested in this book? Pick it up at Amazon.
Final score: 4 / 5 stars
(This review was based off a review copy of the book).