May 3, 2024
5min read

What is a Text Based RPG?

What is a Text Based RPG?

What is a Text-Based RPG?

This is a very early generation of the RPG genre. In times when computers took half of the room and cost tens of thousands of dollars while having less computing power than your phones today. 

Imagination had to fill in the gaps but it generally showed how much gamers wanted to enjoy the mystical fantastical worlds in a visual form. So let's talk more about the history of text-based RPGs!

Core elements of a text-based RPG

It’s mostly text. Hah, but really, text-based games HAD to rely on descriptions and players imagination due to limitations of the hardware. Which in the 60s and 70s was a serious concern. 

"Yeah I can do the repairs, could you bring your computer so I can check it?" "Uhhhhh... Hm."

PDP-10 computer mainframe

Funnily enough, the earliest games in this genre existed because of the passion of people who wanted to see things like Dungeons and Dragons or The Lord of the Rings in a digitalised format.

Not as a commercial product but a hobby to enjoy with other like minded gamers.

Text-based interface

It might be tough to imagine it today but there was a time where graphics were limited to extremely basic geometrical shapes and super basic drawings of enemies. 

Few straight lines were placed together to draw a corridor and every action was described by text rather than shown graphically.

The UI was quite basic but understandable enough, imagination had to take the wheel on a regular basis.

Character creation and development

The early games followed the early D&D TTRPG mechanics, which, while quite loose in their first editions, established their basics quite well. So as you’d expect, the attribute systems, armour class, races etc. were all present and followed the typical levelling up system of accumulating enough experience points from your hero(es) exploits.

Simpler times when to play MMORPG you've had to go to the University. Wait a second...
Magazine review for MUD1

Worldbuilding and exploration

Ah, potentially one of the biggest reasons why these games became quickly popular with gamers. 

If you think about it, it was kind of like reading a fantasy book, while at the same time being the main character in the story! 

And since a lot of it was heavily influenced by epics like The Lord of the Rings, it’s no surprise that these games were very easy to get immersed in.

After all, who didn’t imagine what it would be like to participate in some of the events they’ve read in a book?

Design principles and player engagement

Early text-based games were, in essence, pioneers of the RPG video game genre.

While more basic due to the hardware limitations, it did introduce parts that would be popularised in more modern titles of the genre. 

That, and of course a huge amount of all kinds of crazy RPG genres that exist today.

Writing and narrative design

Text-based RPGs allow a completely different experience than what your typical 3D games do, since they don’t have to limit themselves with things like graphics and visuals, they can employ ideas and create really impressive stories and mechanics. 

Not to say games with proper graphics can’t, rather that everything implemented into the game requires a LOT more resources to do so. 

Indie creators can create great narrative storylines and worlds without spending millions of dollars in development.

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Gameplay mechanics and modability

While the older titles were pretty linear and (mostly) focused on exploring the “dungeons”, text-based RPGs today offer an impressive amount of options and possibilities for your character to explore. 

The degree of what your character can do is of course dependent on how much time and effort the developer(s) put into it.

The sheer amount of mechanics and options that your character can perform in Dwarf Fortress for example is staggering. 

The Dwarf Fortress purists will tell you that graphical UI isn't the real experience. These people are not your friends...
Source: Dwarf Fortress official Steam page

The game has an extreme amount of world simulation in-play. From weather, to individual body parts of each existing character and how it affects their overall mood.

Complexity and learning curve

There is a reason why these games don’t have many commercial successes. They can have a rather steep learning curve at the very beginning in comparison to other modern titles that exist on the market. 

But once the hurdle is cleared, you discover things you wouldn’t expect in any other genres. Minimalistic UI and graphics allow for a staggering number of mechanics and the complexity level that you would expect in real life.

If you are willing to give it a go, that is…

Itching for some more action based RPG?

Our company Dreams Quest is currently producing a mobile ARPG called Origins: The Fall of Azoria. It’ll include a colourful, intricate world full of mysteries and secret knowledge, deep lore, fun puzzles and of course action packed combat. 

Check out our social media links to Twitter(X), Youtube , Discord and more on top and the bottom of the article for more relevant info!

FAQs about Text-Based RPGs 

What are the most popular text-based RPGs?

Dwarf Fortress, Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead are very popular titles in the genre. 

Each unique in their own way and each offering immense amounts of fun and enjoyment for those who take the dive into them. A really solid text-based RPG sandbox experience.

What was the first text-based RPG?

Unfortunately it isn’t clear, the first text-based RPGs were created on very old mainframe computers and were more of a passion project on university campuses, since personal computers weren’t a thing back then. 

Some very early titles that were created around 1975 are: dnd (lower case, as DND in uppercase is a completely different game), Dungeon, Moria, Orthanc.

Imagination used to be a necessity when playing video games. Just like when reading books.
The dnd text-based RPG

Was D&D the first RPG?

D&D was the first commercially released RPG in the world and quite successful at that. We’ve covered the topic in our First RPG article, in case you’re curious about details!

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