I’ll be real with you. I’m not Cameron Kunzelman and I hate the Forgotten Realms. I wish those realms would be, if you know what I mean.
But I still picked up Baldur’s Gate 3, because I had to. Faerûn or not, I’m a sucker for D&D’s bullshit. Even if I stopped following it’s expansion when d20 became the standard.
Can we still be real? Okay, good. Because I think I hate Baldur’s Gate 3. The 16 hours I sunk into it almost made me break up with the genre. It doesn’t help that it crashed every half hour or less. But really it was just boring. It added nothing new to the formula of countless computer role-playing games (yes, we’re gonna just call ‘em CRPGs from here on out). The NPCs feel paper thin, everyone is CRANKY, and combat still has that Dungeons and Dragons “you suck at level 1” bullshit feel going on. And as demanding it is on my PC, it doesn’t feel worth it.
I’m keeping it around though, because it might get better. It’s still Early Access (and it’s definitely Early Access). But until it gets better, and doesn’t crash constantly…
Here are a few CRPGs that will scratch that itch in marvelous ways and that will absolutely run on just about anything you have lying around.
And yes, most of these games are bad.
I mean truly awful. They’re broken in ways that don’t seem possible. Their graphics are atrocious even by the standards of their times. They make design choices that could only happen when you’re extremely on your bullshit, high, or otherwise delirious. Or all three. They are each a precious relic from a time when polish meant something entirely different than it does now. Eras when user experience wasn’t a widespread, codified discipline. They are messy ancestors to their more professional put-together heirs. Why would I recommend them?
Because they are all treasures.
And I promise that old bastard Elminster won’t show up once in any of them.
There’s little question about where I land on Morrowind. It’s one of those critical thought-defining games for me. So much of what I think about games is still filtered back through my feelings about Morrowind.
At the time it was new, it crushed my PC. Even a few years on the poorly optimized, dodgy codebase chugged despite upgrades. I first played through the entire thing, mod-less, on the original Xbox. I fell in love.
This was a game that not only had some very clever and amusing writing, it had a deep understanding of the pitfalls of stock RPG narratives, the failures at being edgy held over from bad AD&D groups, but also how to make punishing dungeons for the unprepared. It had such a rich and innovative magic system that it would have to be carved away in subsequent expansions because it was so broken and complicated for players unwilling to take the time to invest in understanding it. Also, it’s fucking weird.
Time hasn’t been the kindest to Morrowind. Its graphics (while still beautiful and inspiring in their own way) do appear rudimentary at times. Characters walk in the most outlandish ways, with the stiff, awkward gait of someone having severe bathroom troubles. And yes, the game (even when patched unofficially) still is a broken mess.
But, it’s been long enough that even the average intel integrated graphics chipset can get it running respectably. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a CRPG that even begins to express the depth of inquiry into the messiness of colonialism, and what living in the shadows of an imperial state is like.
There’s so much richness in Morrowind, from the factions fighting over Imperial scraps (or actively plotting to undermine the Empire), or the fact that prophecy or not you’re still an Outlander, to the black and grey market traders (and drug dealers, and slavers, etc.), or the way most NPCs repeat basically the same dialogue about most topics mirroring the way most people just kind of know the headlines about any given subject.
Just turn the music off, because fuck accused rapist Jeremy Soule. If you need an accompaniment, might I suggest Jack de Quidt’s scores for the Seasons of Hieron.
It’s got elves, trolls, and a big fuck off Dragon so that’s basically fantasy. Right? Shadowrun Returns isn’t the return of the glory of the Genesis Shadowrun, but Harebrained Schemes has brought back a sense of tactical combat, cyberpunk cool, and messy socialist politics in a tidy, attractive isometric bundle.
Honestly, it’s the best playing edition of Shadowrun you’ll ever run. No spending half an hour trying to resolve a single grenade toss, or everyone going out on a Taco Bell run while the one Decker does a single turn of Matrix combat alone with the GM. It’s 80% of what you want from Shadowrun and none of what you don’t.
The snowy anarchic state of Sixth World Berlin is the setting for a story that involves dragons, AI, treachery, betrayal, megacorporations and all that good Shadowrun bullshit. Also there are no less than two big NPC badasses in your squad: Eiger, a troll lady sniper (named after a fuck-off big Swiss mountain, literally “ogre” in English) and heavily augmented razorgirl named Glory. They are both extremely wife material.
If solid isometric combat, compelling NPCs, and an engaging branched story that blends fantasy with cyberpunk politics in a way that CD Project Red will never understand is your thing, this is your game.
So, Elvira inherited a castle and wants to renovate it into a tourist trap. But the spirit of her long dead sorceress ancestor is awakened along with a host of unspeakable evil and she goes and gets herself captured. So did you, by the way, but Elvira manages to help free you so you can save her perfect VGA decolletage from demons and help her fulfil her dreams.
Do you need more setup for this Horror Soft ‘90s adventure, or are you sufficiently enticed?
This game is punishing. You will die. A lot. You will die unfairly. You will learn to save scum harder than you ever have. And you’ll have a blast doing it, because who doesn’t want to go on a wacky horror movie adventure to save Elvira?
Combining the worst puzzles from ‘90s adventure games with the worst exploration of ‘90s adventure games with miserable twitch ‘90s first-person dungeon crawler active time combat, it sounds like the worst possible thing, right? It isn’t. That’s the equally exquisite sequel.
But if venturing all alone into a spooky disaster castle seeking out six magic keys and a dagger to save your busty b-movie goth girlfriend doesn’t sound like a fun time, I can’t help you.
Also you get incredible game over scenes like this:
I’m a sucker for a good Bad End.
There must be a rule that all Vampire-centric CRPGs have to be beautiful disasters. BLOODNET is no different. But bear with me, it’s great and arguably less broken than Baldur’s Gate 3 is at present.
You play as Ransom Stark, a man on a mission to kill Dracula, after being bitten by noted vampire Van Helsing. Yes. Thankfully Stark has a cyber implant that keeps his vampirism in check.
You’ll navigate meatspace and pick up some amazing NPCs with various abilities and outlandish personalities, and of course, delve into cyberspace (Is it bad? Yes! Is it weird? HELL YES!). And of course there’s an astonishing amount of random encounters to battle your way through. Is the combat system good? NO! IT ISN’T!
But at its heart BloodNet is a fantastic, thoroughly batshit Gothic Noir Cyberpunk story about vampires hellbent on global domination and the loose confederation of ragtag assholes who will try to stop them in New York circa 2094, and if you can push yourself beyond modern convenience (and you should), you will find a precious, densely-written, deeply odd gem.
It’s broken, bad, and beautiful in ways that only MicroProse games in the ‘90s were allowed to be.
The first of the Dark Savant trilogy, Bane of the Cosmic Forge is easily one of the best Wizardry games. Roll a party named after your friends and throw your whole squad into the meat-grinder of labyrinthine dungeons.
With more involved character progression and leveling than previous games, and a wealth of species and classes to choose from when rolling your own squad, Wizardry VI is hands down one of the most satisfying crunchy CRPGs. It’s also the first Wizardry to feature EGA graphics (this was a Big Deal at the time) and a mouse-driven interface, so it’s much more user-friendly in some regards.
While many dungeon-crawlers are light on story, and this one is absolutely on some trashy Fantasy paperback nonsense (or your average DM’s campaign built on trashy Fantasy paperbacks), there’s a lot more meat here than your average blobber (a genre term coined because your party moves tile-by-tile in a blob). There’s doomed kings, vampires, angry ghost queens, space shit, magic pens, and proper nouns like “Xorphitus.”
It’s extremely silly, but also very good. And there are even multiple endings! We stan a CRPG with player narrative choice.
Okay, I understand that for some people the allure of Baldur’s Gate is the Dungeons & Dragons branding, and wrapping up your fantasy roleplaying within a series of systems and world buildings that are comfortable like an old couch.
SSI’s “Gold Box” games (they came in a gold box, like Zelda) are still my standard when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons on the PC. Sure, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment are great and all that. But when it comes down to it I want that hella bad crunch of AD&D 2nd Edition. Unbalanced, tedious fights that you can screw yourself over in hours before you even reach them.
But when your mage runs out of memorized spells and has to throw a fucking dart that saves the day? Worth it. Absolutely worth it.
Champions of Krynn is the first in a trilogy set in the (far more interesting) Dragonlance campaign setting. And it rips. It’s the apex of AD&D nonsense. These are the CRPGs that many of us over 30s cut our teeth on. It’s ugly, convoluted, outright broken in a number of (usually unfun) ways and you’ll have to struggle with DOSbox to run it.
But it’ll run on anything, and you can carry your party across all three adventures. Along the way you’ll mess up (and get messed up by) hordes of the standard Monstrous Manual fare, as well as Draconians, Dragons, and the most metal album cover art dude of all time: Lord Soth.
It’s a full old school Dungeons & Dragons experience, and you don’t have to deal with anyone’s shitty older brother being a jerk and lying about dice rolls.
It’s a good time, y’all.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.