Although this site is mainly about tabletop games in all their glory, there is no way we can ignore the influence of video games on tabletop games. When it comes to RPGs, video games came close to killing off tabletop RPGs completely. CRPGs, or computer role playing games, offer a lot of convenience over tabletop games. They have music and visuals. They can be picked up at any moment and dropped when you need to leave. You don’t need other players and you can even take games on the go these days.
Of course, there’s a lot that a cRPG will never be able to do compared to tabletop RPGs, but these are some of the cRPGs that I think are worthy of the tabletop games that inspired them. If you have to scratch that RPG itch between tabletop sessions, these are the ones that I would go with.
Baldur’s Gate I & II
Back in ancient times, around 1998, a cRPG was released that would change forever the way we thought about computer RPGs. Baldur’s Gate was the first game that really demonstrated that it was possible to approximate the quality of a tabletop RPG session.
It was an incredibly accurate computerized version of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules. Most importantly, this was the first game to use the Infinity game engine, which would go on to be the basis for several amazing cRPGs.
The second game wasn’t all that more advanced, but gave fans of the first game more of the same,and the writing in both games is exceptional. It’s set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. While the main quests are pretty run of the mill, the characters are amazing, the side-stories are great, and you can really play the role of your own character. There are twenty-five different characters that can join your party in the quest to figure out who the big baddie is and why he wants you dead.
Talking your way out of situations is often a possibility. Battles are properly tactical and the difficulty curve will test your patience. The game feels pretty clunky to play nowadays and doesn’t look that great anymore, but it’s still hands-down one of the best cRPGs ever made. The good news is that some of the original developers got together and formed a new studio called Beamdog. They’ve set about remastering Baldur’s Gate I and II, releasing them as “enhanced editions”.
You can get them on PC, but in my case I bought both games in their iPad versions. Not only is this a cheaper option, but nothing beats playing Baldur’s Gate in bed or on the couch.
Planescape Torment is one of the greatest video games of all time and certainly right at the top of the cRPG list.
Unlike games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape isn’t set in a high fantasy setting. Instead, it’s a dark, disturbing fantasy that borders on horror in many places. There are no shining heroes and evil villains. The main character is a mess. His morals are flexible, at least if you choose to play him that way. The world he finds himself in might have more in common with one of the circles of hell than a place anyone would want to live. At the start of the game you wake up as a corpse that has come back to life. At least that’s what it looks like at first. You have no idea who you are. Yes, I know that amnesia is a tired old trope in many genres, but here you’ll find it actually makes perfect sense.
Torment is widely regarded as basically having the best writing of any cRPG. It also gives you the opportunity to avoid combat almost all of the time – that is, if you spec your character correctly and say all the right things. The game doesn’t hold your hand, and exploration or choices often lead to a quick death. However, your game does not end with the death of the protagonist. In most cases, you just wake up on the slab again, with perhaps a few more lessons learned.
This game has endless replayability and one of the most unique and compelling settings ever put into an RPG, computerized or not. It runs on the same Infinity Engine as Baldur’s Gate, but with heavy modifications.
It used to be quite a pain to get this game to run on modern computers, but the recent enhanced edition has made it a cinch. Also, as you might have guessed, I have this one on iPad too!
Torment: Tides of Numenera
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Torment: Tides of Numenera is a proper spiritual successor to Planescape Torment. They are not officially connected in any way, but the folks at inXile who developed the game did very little to hide the object of their tribute project.
While Planescape Torment is one of those singular games that no one can ever recapture, Numenera is an excellent cRPG that sheds a lot of the technical and mechanical baggage that classic cRPGs saddled us with. The game is also incredibly well-written, dark and fantastical. There is nothing else to compare it to, quite frankly, other than its inspiration.
The consequences of your actions have real weight and there is no guarantee that things will turn out for the best. From mysterious amoral gods to crazed AI robots, Numenara is a creative tour de force that any self-respecting cRPG fan should have in their collection.
Let me tell you a little secret: I like playing characters with a lawful evil alignment. It’s so boring sometimes to play the good guy, so why not let the dark side indulge itself every now and then?
Tyranny is one of the rare games that lets you take on the role of the evil boss’ enforcer. In this world, the god Kyros (who is not very nice) has conquered the world. Yes, the bad guys have well and truly won over the forces of good long before the game even starts. Your character is a loyal servant to the god Kyros, and is taken with crushing a rebellion in one of the last regions of the world to be taken over.
There are plenty of interesting characteristics and mechanics in this game. For example. At the outset you get to determine how the world was conquered, which changes the way the game plays and how various factions will react to you. If evil is your thing, Tyranny is your game.
Pillars of Eternity
While the AAA cRPG dream is basically dead these days, there is still a hardcore cRPG fanbase out there who want something modern and deep.
Pillars of Eternity brought the classic cRPG, with its deep writing and isometric viewpoint, new life. Although it was a product of Kickstarter, this was no amateur operation. The developer behind the game is none other than Obsidian Entertainment, the same studio that created the amazing (if flawed) Knights of the Old Republic II and one of my personal favorites – Fallout: New Vegas.
One immediately notable thing about Pillars is how incredibly beautiful and detailed the game is. This is not a 3D game, but an isometric one in the same vein as Baldur’s Gate. There are 3D models in the game, but the backdrops are mainly 2D art; amazing art worth framing, if you ask me.
This game is insanely text-heavy, but that just goes to show that Obsidian knows its target market. Couple this with deep combat, and a wonderfully realized world and story, and you have exactly what the modern cRPG fan wants – at a pretty good price too!
The game takes place in the world of Eora. It’s not medieval as such, but a high-fantasy set in a sort of renaissance period. That means swords, bows, and primitive firearms all coexist, as well as magic, of course. Your character is an “awakened” who can see souls and recall their past lives. There are six races to choose from when creating your character, and many branches for the story and sidequests to take.
Pillars of Eternity is an amazing labor of love paid for by fans and created by seasoned RPG pros who were beholden to no one but the fans. It’s really something special.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Although not quite as legendary as Planescape Torment, Arcanum holds a very special place in cRPG history. First of all, it’s one of only three games made by the short-lived Troika Studios.
The other notable title from this studio is one of the best video game RPGs ever made – Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines. Bloodlines was a technical mess, but the actual game is amazing. So amazing that fans are still maintaining active patches for the game to this very day. It’s not a game I could include in this list however, since it doesn’t count as a classic cRPG. Then I’d have to start bringing in games like Morrowind or Skyrim.
Arcanum, on the other hand, is very much a classic cRPG. Released in 2001, Arcanum has a very unique setting compared to the typical cRPG. It’s set in a high-fantasy world which is going through an industrial revolution. Essentially this makes it a steampunk title, which are not exactly rare but don’t enjoy the same sort of popularity that high fantasy or even straight up sci-fi does in the deep RPG world.
One thing I really like about Arcanum, other than the unique setting, is the inclusion of multiple combat modes. You can play battles in real time (yuck), turn-based (yay!), and then just a sped up version of the turn-based game.
Character creation is also a strong point for this game. There are a ton of races to choose from and within these races you can also do a lot of customization. It’s also possible to do some very broken characters that completely change how the game is played. Famously, if you make your character’s intelligence low enough they no can speak good. It’s hilarious. This is not too surprising, however, coming from a studio that lets you be a schizophrenic vampire who talks to his TV.
Arcanum also has an amazing nonlinear design. The main quest twists and turns, depending on how you resolve issues and the choices you make overall. Some story branches disappear completely, which makes this a great game to play more than once. Like Planescape, this is also a game where combat is not the solution to everything. Talents like smooth talking or technological mastery can often save the day. You can pick this one up on Good Old Games for very little money. I highly recommend it.
This game is one of the most direct tabletop RPG translations on this list, apart from straight up AD&D games (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) like Baldur’s Gate. Published by the same folks who brought us Battletech, Shadowrun was first released as a tabletop RPG in 1989.
This was the era where William Gibson’s Neuromancer cyberpunk novel had a massive influence on all speculative fiction. In the 80s, the web and high-tech personal computing had not yet entered mainstream life, but people knew it was coming. Both scary and exciting, the time was right for Shadowrun. Shadowrun falls into a rather unique category: Cyberpunk fantasy. It has elves and orcs galore, with plenty of magic mixed in. However, this plays out in a world of hacking, VR, and mega corporations.
There have been video game adaptations of Shadowrun before in the 90s, but nothing really worth getting excited about. That all changed with the release of Shadowrun Returns. This game was developed by Harebrained Schemes, who recently also wowed me with an adaptation of the Battletech strategy game. Shadowrun Returns is an isometric cRPG with a true cyberpunk heart. It also has a lovely tactical combat system which I thoroughly enjoyed, but the retro 80s sci-fi fantasy setting feels really fresh in the late 2010s.
They’ve also released several sequels, but Returns is the one to play first. I had this on my iPad, but to my significant annoyance the developer decided to stop updating the game and it no longer works with the latest version of iOS. Despite being a little bitter about that, I think you should really try it on PC.
In 1997 a game would be released which would not only launch a franchise that still exists today, but would shake up cRPGs like never before. Fallout is still a deep, isometric cRPG. However, it’s setting and story would captivate millions of players.
It’s set in a world where human culture didn’t advance after World War II, but our technology kept getting better. So Fallout’s technology looks like the future seen through the eyes of mid 20th-century culture – something that’s been called “Raygun Gothic”.
A global nuclear war happens and some people flee to advanced fallout shelters, while the less fortunate either perish or struggle on in the harsh nuclear winters that follow. Your character is a vault dweller who lives in a vault with a failing water purification system. You have only a limited number of days to brace the unknown wasteland looking for a replacement “water chip”, or everyone in your vault will die. What you’ll find in the wastes is anyone’s guess, but that’s why they call it an adventure!
Look, there’s really no way I can do this game justice in just a few paragraphs. Yes, it’s a little clunky on modern hardware, but it’s no less engrossing than it ever was. If you love a deep cRPG, tactical combat, and a post-apocalyptic setting, this is basically the most perfect cRPG ever made.
After the glory days of the Baldur’s Gate games, things started to change rapidly in the world of video games. The isometric 2D style that cRPGs were known for started to look a little old-school. The 3D graphics revolution was in full swing, so it was inevitable that the next big installment in their cRPG series would make the leap to the third dimension.
In retrospect, this didn’t work out too well. Early 3D games did not age well and by modern 3D game standards this looks awful. However, you’ll still find a mighty fine cRPG which, along with its sequel, was the last to be based on the Forgotten Realms. Afterward, NWN Bioware moved on to original settings, as did the guys from Obsidian who made the sequel. You can pick up Beamdog’s Enhanced Edition for just a few bucks on platforms like Steam, so it costs very little to experience hundreds of hours adventuring in this amazing setting.
Dragon Age: Origins
Before the resurgence of cRPG popularity, mainly via Kickstarter, there was a drought of deep RPGs on computers. The trend was more towards action RPGs like Diablo and its sequels. Don’t get me wrong, aRPGs are brilliant for what they are, but it seemed that the mainstream’s attention span was no longer long enough for another Baldur’s Gate.
It looked like we wouldn’t get a AAA cRPG again, but then BioWare came to the rescue with the 2009 release of Dragon Age:Origins. While Bioware has said this game is a spiritual successor to both Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, it has a new and completely different setting; so no Forgotten Realms or D&D connection here. I suspect that BioWare did not want to go through all the licensing rigmarole that their Faerun adventures needed.
That has turned out to be a great decision. Dragon Age is set in the world of Thedas, which was a placeholder for “THE Dragon Age Setting” that then just sort of stuck. The Battle system and gameplay in DAO is top notch, but it’s the writing that really makes this game special. It offers great characters, plenty of choices, and literally hundreds of hours of gameplay. I bought this game twice, actually. Once when it first launched and then recently I bought the ultimate edition, which includes every expansion, DLC component, and other piece of content for the game. We’re looking at 200 hours here, folks!
There are two sequels as well: Dragon Age 2 & Dragon Age Inquisition. They’re OK, but they don’t come close to the cRPG greatness of DAO. To date it’s the last great AAA cRPG to be released.
I love RPGs in many different forms. Japanese RPGs, cRPGs, aRPGs, and of course tabletop RPGs. However, if you’re a tabletop stalwart, none of these genres other than cRPGs have any chance of floating your boat. Unfortunately, the mainstream AAA cRPG seems to be all but dead these days. Unless someone casts a spell of resurrection I don’t see that changing any time soon.
The independent game developer world is, however, ready to keep the flame alive. In some ways, given how good game development tools have come, this is the best cRPG fans have ever had it. On a technical level we are actually now getting cRPGs that are far better than AAA titles from 10 or 20 years ago. They are also gaining a level of purity that’s been missing for too long.
When you can’t make it to the tabletop or are stuck on a plane somewhere, this is about as close to the real thing as you are going to get.