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A Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs

The CRPG or Computer Role Playing Game has seen a revival in recent years with the success of Pillars of Eternity, Wastleand 2, and Torment Tides of Numenera on Kickstarter but those were all funded without a doubt, by die-hard fans of the genre. For people who aren’t fans of the genre CRPGs can seem daunting and honestly it’s not hard to see why.

Let’s talk about what a CRPG is first. They began as basically Dungeons and Dragons clones back in the day. In fact Baldur’s Gate, which is arguably the most acclaimed CRPG was a licensed DnD game as were all the games in the Forgotten Realms collection. This means they tried to emulate the rather complex rules of DnD and stream lining was not a major concern. This is one of the big reasons it can be difficult to get into the CRPG genre. There is a huge amount of rules to get your head around. Have you seen the manual for Baldur’s Gate? It’s 77 pages long. About 40 of those pages are just lore and the rest are gameplay rules and tips.

Typically in a CRPG you will make your own character and then go on an epic story driven adventure across various lands to save the world. Not all of them have such massive stories but a lot of them do. Character creation can sometimes take a while as there’s a lot to take in. Before creating your first character it’s best to look at your options. First you’ll have to pick a race and then a class. You might not know which one you want to play straight away but the game will provide a description of each race and class for you. I find it best to click on them all and find out what their strengths and weaknesses are. But there are 3 basic types of character. There’s the tank, spellcaster and thief.

A Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs
Just look at all that stuff. Infravision, THAC0, what does it all mean?

Tanks are strong and enjoy hand to hand combat. In a CRPG a tank is usually called a Warrior or a Fighter. They take a lot of hits and deal a lot of damage. Spellcasters have a lot of variety. Sometimes they’re Paladins or Clerics (religious spell casters) and sometimes they’re wizards. They usually fight behind the front lines, preferring to pick off targets from afar with magic attacks. Clerics on the other hand use their magic mainly to buff up the party or to heal their wounds. The third common archetype is the thief. Thief classes, usually called Rogues don’t tend to have a lot of HP (hit points) and prefer to sneak behind an enemy for an attack. They can also pickpocket unsuspecting NPCs and pick locks.

Character creation is only the beginning of course. The two main aspects of a CRPG are combat and dialogue. Yes they have a lot of talking and reading. Let’s start with combat first. These games typically have you playing from a top down perspective so you can see everyone on the battlefield at once. Tactical play is emphasised here. For the most part it’s best to take combat slow, by which I mean pausing after every command to issue new ones. You can tell your party to attack and they’ll keep hitting whatever’s in front of them with their weapons but that isn’t enough. It’s up to you to decide who casts what spells or uses what abilities and when. Weakening an enemy’s attack power with magic at the beginning of a fight can make things a lot easier for you. Basically, you always have to make sure your party is positioned well and works to the best of their abilities. Keep tanks in the front line attracting the attention of hard hitters, get the rogues to sneak behind them and attack without being seen and make sure your spellcasters are far away from any swords that would easily slice them in two.

Now onto the other main gameplay aspect of the CRPG. So much of your time will be spent reading dialogue and responding to it. Usually when you meet a character they’ll say their bit in a text box and you’ll be given a list of possible responses. This allows you to take the conversation in various ways. Your character’s skills will often come in to play as well. For example, Planescape Torment is all about a man trying to find out what he did in his past lives. If you give him a lot of Intelligence and Charisma points at the start, he will have an easier time talking to people, getting information from them and using his intelligence to solve riddles for example. If you were to give him lots of Strength points he would be able to physically threaten other characters. This wouldn’t work for a weaker character because nobody’s going to take his threats seriously.

So now we know CRPGs are all about tactical combat, exploring huge worlds and doing a lot of talking. So where do you start? I’ve put together a little list down below of games in the genre I think are more accessible than some of the older ones and should make good entry points into the genre for those less experienced.

Tyranny:

Tyranny is a strong contender for best one to play first. It does something no other RPG would dream of. It has a story that doesn’t take a million hours to beat. The game’s director said he was sick of overly long games he could never beat and wanted to make something for people who want to play a game over a couple of days or a week and get to the end. What makes it even more accessible is that there isn’t a big focus on combat. While other CRPGs put a big emphasis on combat, tyranny is more about the story. You get to make a lot of choices in Tyranny and they make a huge difference to the characters and the world as a whole. If you’d rather spend your time immersed in an easily digestible but satisfying story, Tyranny is the game for you.

A Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs
An example of lore snippets in Tyranny’s dialogue.

The game has another feature that I can’t believe isn’t a staple of the genre already. The designers knew that all that jargon and exotic character names would be hard to remember so they implemented a system much like how Pillars of Eternity highlighted jargon in character creation. Only this time, key words are highlighted in dialogue. That means that important characters’ names, place names and any mention of the world’s history will appear in green. Mousing over them will make a small pop up box appear with a description of whatever or whoever they’re talking about. This is a godsend for people like me. I often take long breaks during lengthy games and when I come back I’ve forgotten what have the characters did or what their names were. With this system I can hop back in at any time and get a short catch up on the important stuff without having to watch a lets play on YouTube.

Pillars of Eternity:

While I wouldn’t consider POE to be the best for a beginner, it is much more accessible than classic RPGs. For example, when creating a character many jargon words are highlighted and mousing over them will give you a short description of what they mean. No more checking page 73 of the textbook to understand what the hell Chaotic Neutral alignment means. In Pillars of Eternity you can just hover over the word and you’ll know straight away, allowing you to make choices about what kind of character you want to make. After you’ve made your character there will also be tutorial messages that pop up during the starting area. They’re unobtrusive and short enough to digest but contain enough information that you’re able to play the game properly after reading them. Experienced players also have the choice to switch them off entirely.

A Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs
You can see on the right hand side some words are green. These can be hovered over for descriptions of what they mean.

Divinity Original Sin:

Unlike previous games I’ve mentioned Divinity Original Sin does not have real-time combat, instead it’s completely turn based. In many CRPGs the combat happens in real-time and you must pause every couple of seconds to issue new commands. With so many characters in your party it can be difficult to keep track of who’s attacking who and with what spell or weapon. In Divinity each character moves one at a time. This gives you a lot of time to think and asses the situation. The fact that it also shows the order of play at the top, so you know who’s moving next, also helps you form strategies in your head. You know you can hold off on attacking the big guy because he won’t get to do anything for five more turns.

A Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs
Divinity gives the player a lot of easy to read information. Here it shows the order of attack and where a character needs to be for a backstab attack.

This game also makes use of quest markers, which are often absent in older games. The quest markers let you know which characters you need to talk to in order to get things moving instead of picking the guy who looks important and hope it’s the right one. Now, that’s not to say the other NPCs aren’t interesting to talk to. Divinity actually has a rather light-hearted tone and many of the characters will spout jokes when you talk to them or just tell stories of their ridiculous comedic lives. I think this makes the game easier to get into. The stakes are still high in the story, you’re saving the world after all, but the fact that everyone is joking around and there are talking sheep that only speak in puns makes you feel more at ease. There’s a little less tension and the big group of bandits up the road isn’t quite so frightening when you can spend a little time talking to the cat in the pub.

Divinity is probably the best entry point into the genre. It lets you get a feel for things like character creation and stats but every class is viable. One problem with classic CRPGs is that some classes were a lot harder to play than others. In Divinity your class only affects what weapons you can use and certain skill advantages. But you’ll want to give your character class specific skills. This means that you’ll always have a strong group of characters at hand, rather than suffering the fate of making a few wrong choices and getting stuck on a boss because of it.

Shadowrun Returns:

This is something of an outlier in the CRPG genre as it’s more of a tactical RPG. That is to say the combat is turn based, like Divinity, but everything is on a grid and you have to pay a lot more attention to the positioning of your characters and their abilities. There’ll be no brute forcing your way through bosses here. Like Divinity, this offers the player a lot of time to think about their next move without any pressure and much like Divinity it has stats to build up over time and different gear to equip. However, the stats and equipment take a back seat to tactical combat gameplay so they’re not so overwhelming.

A Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs
This handy guide is accessible from the pause menu any time during gameplay.

I heartily recommend Shadowrun Returns as it’s not terribly difficult. I really like turn based tactical games but I’m really bad at Fire Emblem for example. I was able to get through Shadowrun without too much bother. That’s not to say I didn’t die a bunch of times but then it wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t challenging. In my mind what makes Shadowrun a good one for beginners is that it’s more mission based than open world. You have small areas you can go to where there are shops, trainers and various people to talk to but all the combat takes place in mission areas. There is no giant open world with a million different ways to go. You still have dialogue choices and choices to make in combat but you know you’re always moving forward. There are still plenty of side quests to do but you never have to travel across the globe to finish one, so you’re not far from the main quest if you change your mind and want to go back to it.

Before I close this out, I’d like to present a few tips for new players. These are ways to avoid certain habits that a new player can fall into, I myself have done them all, and following these tips will make your gameplay much more enjoyable.

  1.  Don’t be afraid to set the difficulty to easy. These games are challenging and you likely won’t fully understand the mechanics on your first play through. I know I’ve had to make several new characters before getting anywhere in Planescape Torment or Baldur’s Gate.
  2. Even on easy you’ll probably die a lot and that’s ok. You aren’t meant to win on your first try. If you get to a challenging fight don’t just rush in angrily. Think of a different strategy before you go in. Decide who will attack first, should you have a ranged attacker in the back or the front? Take a look at the items you’ve picked up along the way. Often times you’ll find potions in your backpack you never though of using that can give you an edge in battle. Try them out!
  3. Save all the time!. These games have multiple save slots for a reason. Save all the time. Won a battle? Save. About to go into a battle? Save. Saving before tough fights ensures you’ll not have to wait long before giving it another try, meaning you can hop right back in!
  4. If you really try, and you’re still getting nowhere, go somewhere else. Too often I’ve seen people spend ages trying to do one battle over and over when they could have tried another quest they enjoyed, got some new powerful gear, levelled up the party and come back to whatever was kicking their ass and plough right through it. There’s no shame in admitting defeat, because you’ll be back to finish them off later.
  5. Take your time and be patient. It’ll take a while for you to get used to all the different terms and mechanics but just keep playing and they’ll become second nature to you in no time.

In conclusion, it’s best to start with a more recent game. The classics were from a different time when it was normal to read huge manuals before you even started the game up. They were made for longevity, even if that meant making them so difficult it took forever to beat. Modern CRPGs have implemented a lot of features to make it easy for anyone to play them, regardless of their experience in RPGs. There has never been a better time to get yourself stuck into the fantastic world of the CRPG.

If you know of any other good examples of CRPGs that are easy to get into, let me know in the comments. I hope this guide can help you enjoy a whole new genre of games.