Western RPG

The term "Western RPG" (WRPG for short; sometimes also referred to as Computer RPGs or CRPGs, due to their historical preference for PC platforms instead of consoles) can be used in two different ways:

A Role-Playing Game developed in the Western world, specifically North America and Europe.

Or a Role Playing Game following a style popularized by Western computer developers, which is sometimes differentiated from Eastern RPGs by having several or more of the following features:

  • Usually made in North America or Europe. However, there also have been Japanese examples, most of them influenced by the local popularity of Wizardry and Dungeon Master.
  • Often released on the PC instead of consoles (though recently they have been on both).
  • Aimed to satisfy the player's need for self-expression and fantasy fulfillment by allowing them to become something that they can never be in real life.
  • The game rules resemble (and are often licensed from) Tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Often has a Wide Open Sandbox game experience, but can be a Dungeon Crawler, or in recent years, a plot-based game focused on the Character Development of both the customized PC and the NPCs.
  • The main hero is generally customizable, and is more of a "blank slate" than a predetermined character.
  • In some games, non-boss encounters can be resolved (at least, in theory) without combat, through diplomacy or stealth.
  • Turn-Based Combat was the dominant combat form in the past, but has been steadily losing ground to action-based real time. Real Time with Pause is the genre's popular middle ground.
  • The art style tends to be more "realistic" and "grittier" than in Eastern RPGs.
  • Usually enemies are fought on screen rather than cutting to a separate "battle screen", though the latter was not uncommon in early Western RPGs. Terrain and party formations often play an important role in combat.
  • Background dice rolls are often visible, and stats are directly shown as they interact with the rules. In recent years, however, many of the more action-oriented Western RPGs have been moving away from this.
  • Often features numerous optional quests. These are usually recorded in a "quest log" or a similar system to keep track of them.

Computer RPG is a flexible format, having gone through several dominant design paradigms since its nascence around 1980. The earliest examples (Temple of Apshai, Ultima, Wizardry) were more-or-less faithful implementations of Dungeons & Dragons and are best described as "dungeon crawlers": as the player, you were supposed to get through a dungeon, killing monsters and looting treasure—in essence, a more forgiving version of the Roguelikes (which had been codified around the same time). This period also saw the most extensive cross-pollination between Western and Eastern RPGs. For example, Dragon Quest was influenced as much by Wizardry and Ultima as by The Portopia Serial Murder Case (a quintessential Visual Novel). And in the opposite direction, Western RPGs began taking cues from Japanese action RPG and Action-Adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda. But gradually, the two traditions grew apart.

For a while, RPGs in the West remained all about Turn-Based Combat, but something extraordinary happened in 1985: Richard Garriot's Origin Systems released Ultima IV, which codified the "sandbox RPG" subgenre, where you could go wherever you wanted and do whatever you pleased. For the longest time, Wizardry and Ultima were the pioneers of Western RPG tradition, with Wizardry codifying such things as a Player Party of pregenerated NPCs and Karma Meter, while Ultima codified things like interactive dialogue (via a Text Parser) and NPC Scheduling. Ultima even "gave birth" to (as in, "made profitable") the MMORPG genre. Although the Ultima series reached its high point, withered, and died by 1999, it saw a successor to its traditions in The Elder Scrolls series, which climbed to the heights of commercial and critical success in the following decade.

But in the mid-90ies, things were looking very grim for Western RPGs. Ultima was not the only reputed series that didn't make it to the 3D: Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, the Gold Box, The Magic Candle, Quest for Glory, Eye of the Beholder, Lands of Lore... they were all dead or dying by the end of the decade. And as if to fill the void, Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy VII stormed the Western markets and conquered them in a flash, with nobody left to challenge them... or so it seemed. From the ashes of the old Western RPG tradition, two phoenixes rose around 1997. One was Diablo, a perky little dungeon crawler that captivated the masses with simple, action-oriented gameplay (instead of traditional turn-based) and a consistent and moody Gothic atmosphere. The other was Fallout, a game that profoundly changed the Western understanding of role-playing video games by focusing on a single PC's story (rather than a party) and on the choices the players must make, from building their character to story-shaping decisions to figuring out their path to victory.

On the shoulders of these giants, the third and, so far, the youngest subgenre of Western RPG arose: the "narrative RPG". Although its earliest specimenBetrayal at Krondor and, unsurprisingly, the Ultima games from Ultima VII Part II onwards—emerged at the dusk of the Golden Age (1993), the subgenre wasn't codified until Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate II towards the end of the decade. Learning from the successful story-oriented competitors from Japan, these games put the spotlight on intricate plots and interesting characters and hit gold. As the sixth generation approached, this allowed the Western RPGs to go on an offensive and plant boots on the console ground with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (a sandbox RPG) and Knights of the Old Republic (a narrative RPG).

The jump to full 3D and Multi-Platform brought with it new sensibilities, however. Some Western-developed games (Septerra Core, Anachronox, Summoner, Sonic Chronicles, etc.) deliberately went for the console RPG feel. Other developers embraced real-time combat and Game Pad controls and started streamlining traditional RPG mechanics and pitching their games as "Action RPGs"—a term that has never been particularly well-defined in the West, but one that now posed the critical question: just when does an "ARPG" stop being an RPG and become an Action Game? At the same time, RPG Elements started to bleed into other genres (shooters, strategy games, MOBAs, sandboxes, etc.), and by The New '10s, Western RPG was suffering from a severe identity crisis that could be summed up in one sentence as "It's an RPG if the publisher says it is."

Perhaps as a response to this, the genre is experiencing a renaissance of sorts in The New '10s. The rise of crowdfunding (and Kickstarter in particular) and affordable game tech (like Unity) has allowed some veteran developers to go back and reevaluate the gameplay and story ideas that were on the table during the Golden (pre-1995) and Silver Ages (late 90ies to early 2000s) but have been swept under the rug as Western RPGs went down the triple-A road. For more details on the Western RPG renaissance phenomenon, see the Analysis tab. On the triple-A side of the industry, the narrative RPG subgenre is currently defined by the rivalry between BioWare's flagship franchises, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and CD Projekt RED's The Witcher games. The sandbox RPG niche is dominated by Bethesda, who released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to great success and now owns the Fallout IP. Pure dungeon crawlers have largely gone out of favor with the big publishers, but Blizzard has made a resurgence with Diablo III, and Diablo clones like the Torchlight series still bring in the cash.

See also our guide on how to Write a Western RPG.

Examples of this genre:

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Alternative Title(s): Western Role Playing Game