Dungeons & Dragons has been around for over 3 decades in the digital medium known as “video games”, and in that time has changed considerably from how it once was. Iconic games of yesteryear like Eye of the Beholder have come and gone, and have since been replaced by classics like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and even Dungeons and Dragons Online. In this article I want to give you a brief rundown on the history of D&D in video games, and take you down a trip through nostalgia lane. And though we will not cover every single D&D game ever made for PC (or console), we will discuss ones that are relevant to modern day D&D games.
Baldur’s Gate 3: A Brief History of D&D Video Games
Dungeons & Dragons began it’s 30+ years on PC with the game Pool of Radiance which launched in 1988 for MS DOS, Macintosh, and Apple II using the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ruleset, commonly referred to as 1st Edition. The game was first person until players encountered enemies, at which point the game shifted to turn-based combat looking down onto your characters and enemies. Movement was not fluid outside of combat and players had to inch forward one grid space at a time to get where they wanted to go. It was the first of a 4 part series that featured similar mechanics, and started a wave of games called Gold Box that all generally played in a similar style.
Eye of the Beholder
In 1990 Eye of the Beholder was released on MS DOS, Amiga and Sega CD, and it was a first person dungeon crawler that was based in real time and was inspired by the game Dungeon Master. Character and enemy actions worked on timers, which meant that you could only attack or cast spells so often, and you had to wait for them to come off Cooldown before using them again. Eye of the Beholder used the 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, and was the first real time first person D&D game to do so. The game was extremely popular and spawned 2 sequels that built upon the foundations of the game, expanding into outside areas that weren’t just dungeons. It did however, draw criticism for its real time combat, that left players sometimes looking through their actions while they were constantly attacked.
Neverwinter Nights was released in 1991 and was the first MMO ever to display graphics, and it combined the gameplay style of Pool of Radiance with an online community. The game was co-developed by AOL in order to make this happen, and is the precursor to modern MMO games as we know them today. At the time its servers closed in 1997 it had over 100,000 players. The rights to the name Neverwinter Nights would later be sold to Bioware, who would use the name for their titles in future iterations of D&D.
Warriors of the Eternal Sun
In 1992 Warriors of the Eternal Sun was released for Sega Genesis, and no other platforms. It used the 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, which was adapted heavily to fit the Genesis. In this D&D adventure players moved as one character out on the landscape, much like Final Fantasy, and then shifted into turn-based combat when encounters would begin. Additionally, the game feature Real-Time combat in first person when players would enter caves or dungeons, and was the first D&D game to feature a combination of both real time and turn-based combat.
Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures
In 1993 Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures was released for MS DOS and Macintosh and was the first tool kit provided to players that allowed them to build adventures of their own. Adventures created here played out similarly to Pool of Radiance, but used the 2nd Edition Rule Set instead of the first, like many other Gold Box games.
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands was released in 1993 for MS DOS and was the first D&D game on PC to be 100% Isometric, not switching to first person when traversing the game, unlike the Gold Box D&D games. It was based on 2nd Edition D&D rules, and featured turn-based combat, just like the Gold Box games. It was praised for it’s tactical combat and battles that featured many enemies on the screen at once, leading to some intense fights.
Dungeon Hack was released in 1993 for MS DOS and played somewhat similarly to Eye of the Beholder, which featured dungeon crawling and first person real time combat. What separated it from other D&D games was that the dungeons were randomly generated, allowing for a different experience each time you played the game. Additionally, you could modify the difficulty of these dungeons, and certain aspects about them to further tailor your gameplay experience. But what’s really interesting is that you could set permadeath on, allowing the game to feel more like a Rogue-like experience, where if you die you just begin the game again. It was based on 2nd Edition, and featured a lot more combat than most other D&D games with the story taking more of a back seat.
Baldur’s Gate was released in 1998 and was developed by Bioware and published by Interplay for Microsoft Windows and MAC operating systems (in 2000). The game is based on 2nd Edition D&D and was the first D&D computer game to feature isometric Real Time combat, and even had a pause button that allowed players to stop combat and figure out what they wished to do before continuing. Baldur’s Gate was so well received that many believe it revitalized RPG gaming on PC, particularly when it came to Dungeons & Dragons, which had a slew of games that did not fair particularly well over the previous 5 years.
It was also, to my knowledge, the first D&D game (that wasn’t an MMO) to be multiplayer, a feature that would continue forward into nearly every D&D game after it. Baldur’s Gate spawned several other CRPGs that to this day remain fan favorites such as Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. The game has since re-released with an Enhanced Edition in 2012, which also subsequently released on IOS, Android and all current gen consoles including Nintendo Switch. A sequel was released in 2000 that is considered one of the best RPGs of all time, and plays somewhat similarly to BG, using the 2nd Edition rule set.
Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor
Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor was released in 2001 by Ubisoft, and was the first D&D game to attempt 3rd Edition D&D Rules on PC. It was also one of only two D&D games to be turn-based since the released of Baldur’s Gate in 1998, but sales were poor and the game was riddled with bugs causing it to flop badly.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance
Releasing in 2001 on Xbox and Playstation 2, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was the first real time adaption of 3rd Edition D&D, and featured local co-operative play. The gameplay of Dark Alliance leaned more heavily towards hack n’ slash, and is a fan favorite among those that enjoy co-operative D&D that is less complex, but still very fun. It also never released on PC, which is an exception for D&D games, and nearly unheard of. Sales were good enough that a sequel was released in 2004 that featured new classes, and similar gameplay.
In 2002 Bioware released Neverwinter Nights, with the concept of creating a game based off 3rd Edition D&D that would allow many players to play together, and was their vision ever since they purchased the rights to the name from AOL. The game was real time, but had more emphasis on multiplayer interaction and development then playing with a party of characters. The game was so popular that it spawned 3 Expansion Packs and thousands upon thousands of custom campaigns that were created by players using the Aurora toolset of Neverwinter Nights.
The game was re-released in Enhanced Edition form in 2018 on PC, and just became available on PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in December of last year. It was popular enough that Obsidian released a sequel: Neverwinter Nights 2 in October of 2006, which used an adaption of the 3.5 Edition Rule Set, and again had a heavy focus on Multiplayer interaction and development, complete with its own tool kit. It has yet to get the remastered treatment.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released on Xbox and Microsoft Windows in 2003 by Bioware, and was later ported to Android and IOS in 2013/2014. Though not a true D&D game, it’s mechanics were based on 3rd Edition D&D, making it one of few games ever made that incorporated them into a different game world. The game featured real time with pause combat on a smaller scale, with a maximum party size of 3. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time, and Revan continues to be one of the most iconic characters in RPG gaming history. A sequel was released in 2004 that featured similar gameplay, which led to the game being made into the MMO The Old Republic in 2011, and had no connection to D&D.
The Temple of Elemental Evil
The Temple of Elemental Evil was released on Microsoft Windows in 2003 and is the only other turn-based D&D game to be released since Baldur’s Gate. It is based on 3.5 Edition D&D, and while it had decent reviews, was plagued with bugs at launch and was not particularly financially successful. A lack of multiplayer was one of those reasons, as the game featured no co operative play of any kind.
Dungeons & Dragons Online
Dungeons & Dragons Online was launched in 2006 by Turbine, the same company that made Lord of the Rings Online. It was based on the 3.5 Edition Rule Set, and was the first true D&D MMO to launch since Dark Sun: Crimson Sands in 1996. It is a third-person action RPG that uses real time combat, and can be zoomed into first person if desired. The game was purchased by Standing Stone Games in 2016, and there have been 4 expansion released to date, with the 5th slated for some time later this year.
Neverwinter was released by Perfect World Entertainment in 2013 for Microsoft Windows and eventually PS4 and Xbox One a couple of years later. It is an MMO set in the Forgotten Realms, and is the only D&D game that was based on the 4th Edition Rule Set. Subsequent patches have changed the game considerably, and in 2019 all Classes were overhauled to be more like those in 5th Edition, which released a year after Neverwinter. It remains the most popular MMO based on D&D to date, with new expansions or modules coming about every 6 months.
Sword Coast Legends
Sword Coast Legends was released for Microsoft Windows, Xbox One and Playstation 4 in 2015. It featured real-time combat, and can be played single or multiplayer. To date, it remains the only D&D game that was designed from the start with the 5th Edition Rule Set, but sadly the game failed miserably, and the studio that made it closed shortly after, eventually halting support and sales of the game.
It has been nearly 5 years since the release of Sword Coast Legends, and over a decade since the last Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion was released, meaning there has not been a “classic” D&D game in a very long time. This has caused the rise of other popular CRPGs such as Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin, and Pathfinder: Kingmaker to carry on in their absence. Dungeons & Dragons is once again in trouble, just like they were in the 5 year stretch before Baldur’s Gate was published, and it seems only fitting that Baldur’s gate III would be the game to come to D&D’s rescue once again. And, it also seems only fitting that Larian, a studio credited with the revival of the CRPG genre in the 21st century, be the ones to do it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in the turn-based or the real time camp, it makes no difference. Dungeons & Dragons in video game form has appeared in so many shapes and sizes over the years that you’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t have at least something you are looking for. Baldur’s Gate redefined the way Dungeons & Dragons was played for over 20 years, and it seems possible that Baldur’s Gate III will do the same for the next 20. Whether you think the game “feels” like Baldur’s Gate or not, you should be hoping for the success of Dungeons & Dragons, because if history repeats itself you will likely find half a dozen D&D RPGs over the next decade and you are bound to fall in love with one of them.
For more Dungeons & Dragon’s based content be sure to check out next Baldur’s Gate III: Everything We Know So Far (Gameplay & Mechanics). You can also check out our Baldur’s Gate 3 Impressions video here. And don’t forget to visit the Baldur’s Gate 3 Wiki!
Want to understand D&D better? Check out our DnD Guides: Baldur’s Gate III Prep: 5th Edition D&D – Abilities & The D20 and Baldur’s Gate III Prep: 5th Edition D&D – Proficiency, Skills & Advantage/Disadvantage