The term “classical” or “old-school” CRPG makes sense only in comparison to the current brood of games. For this purpose, I would split up CRPG development into three generations, each of which has contributed different features to the role-playing world. At the end, I will also take a look at which of those contributions a creator of homegrown CRPGs might be interested in and which are better left to history.

First Generation (1991-1993)

Example games:
Ultima VI, Ultima VII: Black Gate, Ultima VII: Serpent Isle
Might & Magic III – V
Wizardry VI – VII
Lands of Lore
Realms of Arkania

I am fully aware that there have been CRPGs before this time. But whenever people talk about the classic heights of the CRPG genre and refer to “the tradition of Ultima and Might & Magic“, they mean exactly these games, the golden age of the MCGA graphic made (320×200 px – yay!). It must be noted that these years saw the creation of numerous high quality RPG games, far more than those listed above; the abundance of these titles may contribute to the fond remembrance of this era.

In terms of game design, I’d highlight the following features – especially in comparison to later games:

Character Development

With exception of the Ultima games, one of the general and most-remembered RPG features in this time was the creation and outfitting of a whole party, right from the start. You would usually have a vast array of options, far too many to cover them all even with six characters of your design, so it was a matter of carefully picking races, classes and skills which you thought would carry you best through the adventure. Essentially, this was the first strategic challenge of the adventure, possibly overwhelming for novices but delightfully challenging for experienced players and those who were willing to invest both time and brain cells here. However, probably no one misses the random determination of character’s starting ability scores which would have you rerolling the dice numerous times until you got sufficiently powerful heroes. The whole process could easily take one to two hours, but it already got your imagination started, thinking about all the possible challenges you might face.

Game Elements

Ultima already showed us how complex conversations could be. Some games of this time required the player to actually input the terms he wished to talk about instead of just choosing from a list of options. Combat was generally tactical but rarely as deep as in Dragon Age: Origins or Pillars of Eternity; having the correct roster of chraracters and equipment in your party was usually the more important part.
Puzzles are rarely found in modern games (though they slowly seem to be making a comeback), but could be found in vast numbers during this era. They often did not have any relation to the surrounding game world, being just thrown in for challenge; however, since CRPGs at this time still were more abstract challenges than VR experiences anyway, it didn’t much matter.

Level design

In line with the nature of abstract challenges, CRPG maps in this time were generally more compact; you had to use your imagination to make a grand castle out of a few 16×16 squares maps. Then again, this also led to a higher concentration of actual gameplay on the maps and less running around, arguably making for a more intense experience. While the Ultima series tried to break ground here, the whole Serpent Isle is still laughably small compared to, say, even one sector of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Due to the concentration of events and different environments, it still felt large enough.

Second generation (1998-2001)

Example games:
Baldur’s Gate I & II, as well as numerous other games with the Infinity Engine (Planescape: Torment!)
Might & Magic VI – VII
Fallout II

I believe the split between these two eras can be made easily, as in the years between the supply of CRPGs was horrifyingly low, with solid but unspectacular entries like Stonekeep or Anvil of Dawn being the best offers. But then, in relatively short order, Might & Magic VI and especially Baldur’s Gate arrived and brought the genre back to life. However, these games differed notably from the previous generation in many aspects:

Character Development

Baldur’s Gate did away with the party creation; you would only create the main character and then pick up different companions along the way. This removed the two hour roadblock from the beginning of the game and lessened the danger for the player to start out with a party that ultimately would have no chance of winning the game; it also allowed for those companions to have fully defined personalities and bring their own quests with them, both aspects which Bioware would build upon in later games.
Might & Magic and the Icewind Dale Infinity Engine games still offered the player to create his own custom party at the beginning, but their difficulty alone made them suitable for veterans only anyway. The Infinity Engine games, being based on the tabletop “Dungeons & Dragons” universe, still randomly generate starting attributes; Might & Magic VI has already lost this.

Game Elements

The most important new element, at first heavily featured in the Fallout series, is the “moral decision”: Conversations (and quests) are no longer paths with a foregone conclusion. Instead, you will be given options on how to treat your opposite or finish quests, sometimes clearly “good” or “evil” ways, but often enough more ambigious; do you return the stolen goods to the merchant on hard times who gave you the quest or do you leave them with the outcasts who are dying of hunger? Do you trust the old king or the revolutionary? Arcanum offers a choice of ways between magic and technology; even Might & Magic, notorious for pretty much neglecting story and world building, gives you the option of advancing on the light or the dark side.

(Aside: The most curious thing is that the Ultima series, which kind of introduced this kind of decisions (in the character generation, no less – you would choose between two virtues and the choice would determine your starting attributes; the merchant question would be the choice between “honesty” and “compassion”), never built further upon this system; even in the old Ultima IV, which relied upon the virtues, there would always be an obvious “right” decision and not much of a temptation to follow the dark side.)

Then, as if those decisions weren’t enough, Fallout and especially the Infinity game Planescape: Torment let your character stats influence conversations as well. You simply need to be of certain strength to successfully intimidate someone, right? All of this makes conversations probably the most interesting part of many of these games; as Planescape: Torment shows, a game based pretty much entirely on such conversations can be pretty fascinating.

Finally, this generation also was the first one to make heavy use of crafting, mostly in way of alchemy. While this does not seem like a spectacular addition at first, it was an extremely influential one; crafting has become such an integral part of (fantasy) CRPGs that today it’s simply an expected feature, nearly on par with magic.

Level Design

Due to the wide gap between the first and second generation, there was also a massive difference in technology. In particular, memory capacities had grown exponentially, so game worlds became a whole lot bigger; not only for the sake of size itself, but also to make the areas feel more “real”, certainly less abstract than they had to be in the previous generation. Of course, this also reduced the concentration of events and vastly increased the time necessary to cross maps.

Modern Times

Example games:
Dragon Age series (especially Origins)
Elder Scrolls series (from Morrowind onward)
Mass Effect series
The Witcher series

In recent times, technological advancements and the desire to reach the mass market have changed the CRPG genre rapidly. While I’m not saying those titles are bad games, just from examining those changes it’s no wonder that especially players who were familiar with the earlier generations are looking to indie games for satisfying their thirst for CRPGs.

Character Development

Creation of a complete party is no more. In the Dragon Age series you at least manage the advancement of your companions and can specialize them in certain directions. Mass Effect still has similar companions, but the options for developing them are so limited that there is not much to do here for you; party management pretty much means selecting two companions which fit the current mission more or less well. The Elder Scrolls and Witcher series only feature one main character which you can develop according to your playstyle (melee or ranged combat, sneaking, spellcasting). With ego shooters including specializations, talents and perks as well, the line is blurring here.

Game Elements

Puzzles are mostly gone. They also fit less well into the ever more real and less abstract game worlds; what kind of person secures her treasure chamber with a riddle any stranger could solve? Dragon Age: Origins is the last game to feature demanding tactical combat; each further title walks into the direction of action combat, as is the case with the Mass Effect series. The Elder Scrolls and especially the Witcher combats are full on action, notably influenced by your dexterity with the mouse! Conversations, on the other hand, play an increased role in nearly all the games listed here, including (and especially) the Witcher games; your choices can matter for the rest of the game, and they are often quite difficult to make. So while the newer games differ from the roots of tabletop role-playing – which included a lot of statistics management – they are probably closer to the original intention of role-playing, namely enacting a different character in his own environment, with his own thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Level Design

Overland areas are by now often incredibly vast, giving you free choice to roam the countryside as you desire. This roaming might include a lot of pointless walking, since dimensions are becoming ever more realistic. To combat the loss of intensity, game designers have invented fast travel, which takes away from the “real” feeling quite a bit. Dungeons, by stark contrast, have become pretty linear, even though that line might take numerous twists and turns. As a whole, these brave new worlds are beautiful and allow for atmospheric trips through a wilderness far from home, but gameplay-wise are quite a step behind the abstract challenges presented by levels from the first generation.


It can be seen pretty well that on the path to VR worlds, cinematic presentation and the mass market in general, numerous features fell by the wayside. Of course, while those features might block accessibility or require abstract thoughtwork, the challenges they present were what kept dedicated gamers drawn to the genre in the first place. By now, this path has gone on long enough that both the first and the second generation of CRPGs are fondly referred to as “classical”, even though there are significant differences between them.

Assuming limited resources (we are talking toolkits, right?), I would start design with something akin to the first generation, i.e. following the often-mentioned “tradition of Ultima and Might & Magic”. Their intense, abstract gameplay that exercises your mind and has a lot of things playing out in your imagination, with barely a pause between gameplay events, is something that toolkits can reproduce very well and which is rarely found in today’s game landscape.

From that point on, we can go through the ages and pick out those elements introduced by further generations that can add to the “classical” experience while overall keeping it still intact:

Character Development

There is really no need to keep random values in character generation and development – all you do is forcing players to endlessly reroll the dice, reload the gamestates until finally the results are acceptable. Character management should by complex and interesting enough without such shenanigans.

Absolute customization of the party and characters with personal backgrounds and maybe even personal quests, as introduced in Baldur’s Gate, don’t quite fit each other. As tempting as the latter option is, developing numerous possible party members with complete conversation trees and quest lines can also be quite demanding, even more so if you wish to have interactions that only happen when the party includes a certain combination of characters. There’s more to say on that topic, but with limited resources, you should probably stick to the customizable party or give the player a set number of default companions.

Game Elements

The importance of crafting was already mentioned above – if you can include it in your game, do so. It opens up more design space than might at first be apparent; for instance, with crafting components, you also have a far wider array of items you can give the player as treasure/rewards, essentially splitting up powerful items into many smaller parts.

Moral or plot decisions can add immensely to a game (unless you are completely focused on game mechanics). The problem is that they, again, require more effort in production, especially if the different outcomes have, or should have, a notable impact on the game world. Planning things out in advance is definitely recommended here (from what I know, 90% of people will ignore this recommendation, wishing to explore the game as it is created – good luck).

Level Design

As with conversation decisions, designing non-linear maps takes more effort, but makes exploration that much more interesting, especially with the dungeons in today’s major titles becoming ever more linear. On the other hand, modern engines do their best to use all three dimensions (which often covers the linearity); this is something most toolkits cannot replicate, but keeping in mind that levels on different heights might actually interact can do wonders.

Well, turns out taking a trip through 20 years of CRPGs takes some time. Thanks for reading, now go crafting!