I had an interesting discussion in another forum about the golden age of crpgs and how they compare to today crpgs.
Someone mentioned that role-playing is about immersion and then mentioned the complexity of modern crpgs. Immersion and char system alone don't make a game a crpg and i explained my point of view.
We can consider crpgs in their periods of time which i will call pre-crpgs (before 1990), classic crpgs (1990 - 2000) and modern crpgs (> 2000).
But first the basics, the mother of all rping or pnps:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%26Dhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurpshttp://www.sjgames.com/gurps/
In a pnp you have the world or the setting that is usually described in pnp books and you have the char system to help you role-play whovever you want. The quality of a pnp depends on the imagination of the game master who is controling the game and it's participants who may also sugest events. It's not possible to have this freedom in a crpg.
I think with a little observation you will reognize d&d and gurps as the main systems used by classics like Darklands (1992), Daggerfall (1996), Fallout (1997), Baldurs Gate (1998), Planescape (1999) just to mention a few. I would say this was the golden age of crpgs. From planescape afterwards it followed the slow fall of Interplay. Bethesda was also reaquired and the original Daggerfall team completely replaced. With only a few exceptions like Gothic and a few others most crpgs done since that time follow a new crpg model where there is more focus on visuals, mixing of rpg little features with proeminent action gameplay and storytelling that is easy to follow.
Theres plenty of references for the classics here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darklandshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daggerfallhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallout_%28computer_game%29http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldur%27s_Gate_serieshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planescape:_Torment
In a crpg the computer replaces the game master and tries to provide a wide variety of gameplay and life experiences for the major adventuring classes that are part of the world. The world itself and the npcs that populate it must also behave and react in a realistic and adequate way for the rpg world they are playing in. The Immersion metaphor must also apply to npc behaviors, social structure, factions, organizations, city layouts, map layouts, etc...
I don't consider a game a classic crpg if it's linear and provides only one type of gameplay. It should at least provide unique gameplay for the basic adventure types: thief/assassin, warrior/soldier, wizard/scholar, tech/mechanist/dwarf to be able to role-play. That is the world should be able to supply each type with the apropriate quests for him to be able to level up (have a career) using only his skills of choice. The world should provide a credible background and npc reactions for this char type way of life.
Let's see how this works with the games above.
Darklands: German games allways have something bold and crazy and completely innovative about them. In this game the players objective is to become famous in whatever the players career he chooses. Theres no main quest. It's a game of pure exploration and discovery.
Daggerfall: The game is much like Darklands but with a complex and well writen main quest graph. Again in Daggerfall we can specialize in a carrer and trough guilds and merchant quests one can continualy role-play and keep developing his character of choice. I admit that Daggerfall had too many bugs and was mostly an incomplete game. But it already shows what was in plane for it, with a generated world and the possibility to allocate chars and quest items dynamicaly. Daggerfall path was to proceduraly generate quests and locations from templates to make the rping experience much more interesting. The world was also suposed to be much more dynamic with towns ocasionaly being under siege or afected by plagues.
Fallout: This is the classic of the classics for me. It's an example of how it's possible to create a great rpg without geting stuck on fantasy cliches. The world is brilliant and very imaginative. The quest and character dialogs are of excellent quality. Quests are not just simple quest for bonus items. They tell the human story of the Fallout world. In each town there are usualy factions in conflict and quests invite the player to take part in one the sides or play for yourself doing quests for both sides. Your actions will change the outcome of each place when you finish the main quest. You can finish Fallout as a stupid char (int <4 or something), by not shoting anybody, by dialog only, by sneaking all your way around, by using your science and repair skills. Fallout skills are those we know from common crpgs but they are focused on tech, doctor, stealth, diplomatic/dialog, survival, and combat groups adequate for a post-apocaliptic and slightly sci-fi world.
Baldurs Gate: This game comes after Fallout and is a bit more streamlinedin terms of role-playing. Most quests will resolve in combat but you have an opurtunity to play a specialist char by playing in a team. You usually compose a team with at least a thief, a warrior, a priest, a mage, a warrior. What makes BG different is the personality of npcs that can join your team later. They will engage in conversations, discussions and comflicts by their own during your travels. They will also question the player about is actions and complain if it doesn't please them. Dialog is great and requires you to think before answering. Each npc has his own story and motivations and it's wise to know them well.
Planescape: Planescape it's a bit like Baldurs Gate. Except multiply the story originality by 10 and multiply the deep of npc interactions by 10 again and you have Planescape. Planesacpe story would be worth a book. Combat wasn't as good as BG in my opinion and the game was a bit more streamlined in this area. It's said that the amount of text in Planescape feets in an encyclopedia book (around 1000 pages).
After this Interplay starts going down and a new age of modern crpgs starts following a path that was already been taken with games like DeusEx and Diablo. The process of streamlining and simplifying crpgs commences.