CRPG Glossary

Confused about the terminology that you see on my blog? I hope this glossary helps. Terms that I think were invented by me or my commenters are preceded with an asterisk (*), and when possible, linked to the comment or posting in which they first appeared.

These definitions are meant to reflect the way that I use them (and, to an extent, the way my commenters typically use them) on this blog. Most deviations from uses found on other sites are intentional and of course reflect my own biases.

Since commenting on pages breaks the "recent comments feed," use this blog entry to offer comments on the glossary, including suggestions for additional terms.



*Afternoon RPG: A game that technically has the elements to meet the criteria as an RPG, but which offers such rapid game sessions--often not even allowing saving--that they only last a few hours. They're generally meant to be replayed.

Amulet of Yendor
The object of the quest in Rogue and a few other roguelikes. Metaphorically, the item that the player has to retrieve to win a game.

Arcane Magic
Magic wielded by magicians and sorcerers, in contrast to the divine magic of priests and clerics. It is often more concerned with direct damage to enemies (e.g., fireballs, lightning bolts). 

Attributes
A series of quantified characteristics assigned to a character, enemy, or NPC. The classic Dungeons and Dragons list is strength, intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, constitution, and charisma. Many games re-name these attributes (e.g., "might" instead of strength or "endurance" instead of constitution) or supply additional ones, such as luck or speed. Various "saving throws" or magic resistances also fall into the category. Development of attributes and the way they interact in the game world are key elements of RPGs.
     
Attributes seen during character creation in Disciples of Steel (1991).
      
Automap
An in-game map that is slowly filled in (and sometimes annotated) as the player explores the game world. Alternately, the dividing line between games that asked players to put in a little effort versus those that just expect them to look at the screen and drool. Useful for culling players whose opinions may be dismissed without further consideration. Example: "'I would never play a game without an automap,' said the slack-jawed lummox as he temporarily put down his controller to reach for another handful of Doritos."

Avatar
The graphical representation of the player in the game, somewhat synonymous with PC. Takes on a special meaning for players of the Ultima series, which introduces the "Avatar of Virtue" in Ultima IV and plays with the various meanings of the term. (Side note: You don't need to point out that the term comes from Hinduism in every discussion in which the term appears. Everyone already knows it comes from Hinduism.)


Backstory
The narrative that precedes the beginning of the game, told in manuals in the early years of CRPGs and in cinematic sequences in more recent titles. Length and detail of backstories vary from game to game, some describing the literal creation of the world, others simply describing the PC's life up until the game begins. Backstories are often kept purposefully mysterious and only revealed as the game progresses. Contrast with framing story.
       
Blobber
The game gives you multiple characters, but you play via a first-person interface in which your perspective is none of them and all of them at the same time. The party moves together and fights together as if they were one "blob." Allegedly coined on RPGCodex in the early 2000s. May have originally been used derisively but now has no particular quality attached.

Buffing
A pre-combat ritual of increasing favorable statistics through the use of multiple spells or objects that provide magical effects. For instance, before fighting a tough battle in a Gold Box game, the player might buff with "Bless," "Prayer," "Protection from Evil," "Haste," "Resist Fire," "Resist Cold," "Globe of Invulnerability," and "Mirror Image," among other possibilities. 
           
A heavily-buffed party.
     
*Cabbage Theory
The principle that game realism must keep pace with graphical detail, or else the game becomes somewhat ridiculous and players end up spending more time shaking off absurdities than enjoying the game.
      
No one makes fun of the [abstract] food systems of games like Ultima where you have an enormous feedbag with thousands of meals that deplete at a regular basis, but we do make fun of a game like Skyrim, where you can stop combat to ingest 30 cabbages. Once you get to the point that a game can graphically depict individual cabbages, you expect it to treat them like real cabbages.
       
*Combat Waltz
A maneuver allowed by first-person, real-time, tile-based RPGs in the mold of Dungeon Master. It requires an area of at least 2 x 2 tiles, although variants can be done around corners or in rooms with pillars in the middle. The player's party attacks an enemy party from the side, then quickly side-steps and turns before the enemy can retaliate. The enemy responds by walking into the square where the party once stood, prompting another attack from the party and then another side-step and turn. Repeat until the enemy is dead. Sometimes considered an "exploit," it seems to be an intended mechanic by the developers of some of the more difficult Dungeon Master derivatives.

Completionist/Completionism
A term coined to pretend that, no, you're not playing like a jackass; you're following a philosophy. Antonym: role-playing.

Computer role-playing game (CRPG)
A computer game that adopts the mechanical conventions of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), including attributes, inventories, experience and leveling, and probability-based combat. Please note that "playing a role" is not a distinguishing characteristic of a CRPG. You play a role in almost every computer game.

Divine Magic
Magic wielded by priests and clerics in the form of prayers and holy powers. Divine magic is often more focused on healing, curing ill effects, and doing non-direct damage against enemies (e.g., sleep, paralysis), although systems vary considerably between games. Compare to arcane magic. 

DOSBox
An emulator that allows individuals with Windows, Macintosh, or Linux operating systems to play games designed for Microsoft DOS.

Emulator
A computer program that pretends to be a different kind of computer for the purposes of running software and playing games. 
   
A 1980s Apple II game runs on a modern Windows 10 PC via an emulator called AppleWin.
       
Experience Points
A quantitative attribute that measures how much an RPG character has accomplished in the game. Drawn from tabletop RPGs. Experience points are awarded (in most games) for killing enemies and solving quests, somewhat more rarely for finding locations and other gameplay achievements. A certain experience point threshold is usually required for leveling. 

Framing story
A narrative that ostensibly describes the purpose of the game and the character's motivation, but which is not referenced or developed in the game itself, meaning that a different "frame" could have been placed around the game with the player none the wiser. It is essentially an excuse for, rather than a companion to, the actual gameplay. Popular titles with framing stories include Dungeon Master (1987), Captive (1990), and Sword of Kadash (1984).
 
*GIMLET
The rating scale I designed to quantify my enjoyment of CRPGs in 10 categories: game world, character creation and development, NPCs, encounters and foes, combat and magic, equipment, economy, quests, graphics/sound/interface, and gameplay. Each category gets 10 points and the highest theoretical score is 100. Anything about 35 is worth checking out; anything above 50 is actually "good"; and anything above 75 is the cream of the crop. The name comes from my favorite cocktail; it technically stands for something, but it was forced and not worth recounting.

Gold Box
A series of games published by Strategic Simulations, Inc. and based on the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying system. The first was Pool of Radiance in 1988; the last was Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures in 1993. The games are characterized by multi-character, first-person exploration but top-down tactical combat. It was one of the first engines to render enjoyable D&D gaming on the computer, and in aspects it remains unsurpassed even today.

*Goofy Cartoonish Little Man (GCLM)
The protagonist of some CRPGs, particularly early Japanese RPGs. In appearance and movement, he is designed to be unassuming, geeky, and somewhat comic--in contrast to typical western heroic stereotypes--although none of this affects his skill in combat. Features might include a squat, nonathletic frame, a Moe haircut, childlike features, exaggerated expressions, or even cute animalistic traits like pointy ears and tails. "Mario" is the quintessential example from outside the RPG genre.
       
A GCLM explores the corridors of Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II.
     
Grinding
Repeated combats against enemies (generally re-spawning enemies) that the player knows he can defeat, for the purpose of improving characters so that later combats against scripted foes are easier. Grinding characters to higher levels is sometimes seen as the "lame," less risky alternative to creativity and tactics, although in some games (particularly early ones), winning without some amount of grinding is functionally impossible.

Hex editor
A computer program that allows the user to edit the binary data in a computer file. Used by gamers to edit saved game or character files so they can directly manipulate attributes, experience, gold, and other variables.

Hit points
A quantitative measure of a character's health, sometimes also strength and fatigue. In most RPGs, reaching 0 hit points means death, although in a subset, hitting 0 only means falling unconscious. Most RPGs offer numerous ways to restore hit points, and increasing maximum hit points is often a key benefit of leveling.

An interface in which character, enemy, object, and other world features are represented by discrete icons. Distinguished from "top-down" in that you generally see, for instance, an entire character body rather than just the top of his head. Ditto for chairs, thrones, chests, and so forth.
          
Ultima V (1988) is a classic iconographic game. Note that the icons use a mix of perspectives that are neither consistently oblique nor consistently top-down.
          
Isometric
A type of third-person interface in which you view characters and objects on the screen at an oblique angle--neither directly from the top nor directly from the ground. Technically, "isometric" implies that all axes have been equally (hence, "iso") shortened and the perspective is literally 45 degrees vertical and about 35 degrees horizontal. Axonometric or oblique angle are more accurate terms when the angles aren't equal, but the term "isometric" is generally used in all cases even when it isn't technically correct. If only used when accurate, "isometric" would hardly ever be applied to video game projections since many of the objects and sprites are hand-drawn and style trumps technical accuracy.
       
Faery Tale Adventure (1987) is one of the earliest games with a not-quite-isometric-but-we're-going-to-call-it-that-anyway perspective.
         
Joystick
A controller of limited utility designed for other gaming genres.

Lawnmowing
Comprehensive exploration of a top-down, outdoor environment, by settling on a pattern of movement, much like one would adopt in mowing a patch of grass. Facilitated with an auto-mapping system that reveals the game area as you move through it.
       
Lawnmowing an outdoor area in Expedition: Amazon (1983) by moving north to the top of the screen, then one square east, then south to the bottom, and so forth.
   
Leveling
Achieving enough experience points to reach the next level, with associated improvements in statistics or abilities.

Lord British
Alter-ego of Richard Garriott, founder of Origin Systems and creator of the Ultima series of computer games. Appears in the Ultima games as a key NPC. 

Main quest
The primary goal of the character in a CRPG, usually established by the backstory and referenced throughout the game. Completion of the main quest typically, but not always, ends the game. May occur in many stages and offer options and alternate endings. Compare to side quest.

Mana
A term used by some games for "spell points"; a pool of magical power depleted as the character casts spells; contrast with Vancian Magic. Did you know the term comes from Austronesian languages like Hawaiian and Māori? Like hell you did.

Menu Town
An in-game village, city, or castle which the player can't actually explore, instead selecting from a menu of services--the philosophy being that if nothing interesting is going to happen in town anyway, why force the player to walk from store to store instead of just handling buying, selling, healing, and sleeping via text?
           
Wizardry (1981) offered a menu town at the top of the dungeon. So did Wizardry II, Wizardry III, and Wizardry V.
      
Min-Maxing 
Playing a game in such a way that you try to maximize favorable traits, statistics, and rewards and minimize those that are unfavorable; for instance, by choosing a character class that has the easiest time with the game rather than the one you'd most like to play, or choosing the quest option that results in the highest experience reward rather than the one most in line with your character's values. Seen as the antithesis of role-playing.

NPC
"Non-player character"; a term ported from tabletop role-playing games that describes unique, named characters, with their own personalities and agendas, under the control of a dungeon master rather than one of the players. In CRPGs, NPCs are under the control of the computer and their own AI. They are distinguished from enemies in that they do not attack the player and often have dialogue, although some games blur the line between enemies and NPCs, and the latter can easily become the former.

*NUKE
"Nigh-unkillable enemy." An enemy created by an RPG that seems to defy the laws that govern other enemies, as well as the PC, in combat. He will not die from regular damage, no matter how much or how consistently inflicted. The only way to kill him is to find the right combination of tricks or special maneuvers. 

Open world
A gaming approach that lets the player explore a large game world in any order or speed that he or she chooses, irrespective of the next stop on the main quest. The few exemplars before the modern age include the Might and Magic titles, Fate: Gates of Dawn, MegaTraveller 2, and Ultima IV-VII. Note that many open world games are also sandbox games, but not inevitably: the sandbox designation is more about the game engine and physics than the approach to the game world.

PC
"Player character": the character that is controlled by the player. Some games allow multiple PCs. 
         
Permadeath
Literally, permanent death. Permadeath is a feature of roguelikes and other difficult games where you may be able to save the game for later play, but when you reload it, the saved file gets deleted. A character who dies in the game is gone for good unless the player save-scums.

*Razor Walls
An approach to tiled dungeon design in which the wall itself occupies no physical space and can be depicted via a single thin line. Contrast to Worm Tunnels.
         

A dungeon level designed with razor walls.
         
Re-spawn
See spawn. 

Retcon
A piece of information introduced in a sequel that requires a re-interpretation of events in previous games, often creating absurdities or inconsistencies. For instance, the manual for Ultima VI states that the Avatar, who wasn't introduced until Ultima IV, is the same hero who completed Ultimas I-III, despite the fact that characters in those games could be non-human, and Ultima III had four of them.


Roguelike
After Rogue (1980), the first of its kind, a type of CRPG usually characterized by permadeath (i.e., no re-loading after death), randomly-generated dungeons, abstract representation of creatures and items using plain ASCII characters, and complexities associated with item identification and inventory management.

Roguelite
A game that clearly draws inspiration from Rogue but which lacks some of the difficulty or complexity of a true roguelike.

Role-playing
Acting according to the alignment, motives, backstory, and disposition to which you have assigned your character. Manifests in dialogue options, encounter options, combat approaches and actions, quest prioritization, and inventory. As few titles before the modern era offered true role-playing options, role-playing is ironically not a key requirement of a computer role-playing game.

Sandbox
A game that offers a large open world, populates it with people, creatures, and objects, and offers a complex engine and mechanics (often including realistic physics) by which those people, creatures, and objects interact. The player is placed in the world and allowed to experiment or play with the various interactions made possible by the game engine. As possibilities are essentially infinite, no two players--or no single player in multiple iterations--are likely to experience the same game. Ultima VI (1990) is probably the earliest game with mechanics complex enough to qualify as a "sandbox."
        
Game mechanics that let you trap the king in his throne, clone him, and set the clones fighting are the very definition of "sandbox."
     
Save-scumming
Subverting the intended difficulty or challenge of a game by saving and restoring more often than would normally be allowed (i.e., at all in a roguelike) or by saving before every risky decision.

Ignoring the main plot of a game to backtrack to a previously-explored area because a walkthrough alerted you to an encounter or treasure you missed the first time. After Andrew Schultz, the most prolific walkthrough writer in RPG history. 

Side quest
An ancillary objective unnecessary to complete the main game, but often useful for role-playing, character development, and acquisition of inventory or wealth. Now ubiquitous, side quests were rare in RPGs until the mid- to late 1990s.

Spawn
To appear in the game world. Both PCs and NPCs spawn at particular points. Enemies that re-spawn re-appear in the game world after some passage of time, allowing grinding.

Spinner
A dungeon square that "spins" the party and faces them in a different direction. If the designer of the game is clever, this will happen quickly, and the terrain in the new facing direction will look the same as the old direction, obscuring the fact that anything has happened and messing up the player's mapping efforts for a while. A staple of tile-based dungeon crawlers.
     
Trying to create the "perfect" character by hitting the "re-roll" button dozens of times during character creation.

Tiles
Discrete units of terrain in most RPGs through the early- to mid-1990s. Usually squares of uniform size, easily mappable on graph paper, tiles can contain the party, enemies, and special encounters. The party occupies only one tile at a time and moves instantly between them. Although often associated with turn-based games, titles like Dungeons of Daggorath and Dungeon Master blend tiles and real-time gameplay. In most modern games, tiles are replaced with movement across continuous terrain.

Vancian Magic
A magic system named after Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, famously adopted by Dungeons & Dragons. Under the system, magic is organized into discrete "spells" with predictable effects. Although the spellcaster may have a large book of such spells, he must use his down time to memorize a subset of spells for later casting. Once depleted, spells cannot be cast again until the spellcaster has time to rest and memorize again. Vancian magic is in contrast to the mana system used by other RPGs.

Walking Dead
A situation in which the player is technically able to keep playing the game, but will inevitably be unable to win because he lost a key quest item, killed a vital NPC, failed to develop a necessary skill, suffered a bug, or otherwise blocked himself from a present or future step on the main quest. Usually a sign of poor development unless the game explicitly warns you that it's happened (cf. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind).

Walkthrough
A detailed guide written by someone who has won a game to help players who get stuck or don't want to take the time to win it legitimately.

*Worm Tunnels
An approach to tiled dungeon design that insists on at least one tile of space between adjacent walls, greatly reducing the amount of explorable space per level. Contrast with Razor Walls.


A dungeon level composed of worm tunnels.