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Dungeons and Dragons: The First Modern RPG – (History of Game Design)

RPGs are one of the most popular genres of games, and it all began with Dungeons and Dragons. Let's take a look at the origin of this classic game, and see how it has influenced game design and pop culture throughout the years!

Caleb Compton, Blogger

May 12, 2020

11 Min Read

The following article is a reproduction. The original article, and over 100 more, can be found at RemptonGames.com


What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. In today’s installment of “History of Game Design” I want to take a look at one of the most innovative and influential games of all time – Dungeons and Dragons. Since it’s debut nearly 50 years ago, D&D has influenced and inspired countless games, and has also had a significant impact on the Fantasy Genre as a whole. While this game has far too much history to cover everything in a single installment, today I want to look at the origins of the first edition, briefly cover how the game has changed over the years, and see how much its mechanics have influenced modern game design. Without further ado, let’s get started.

While games that simulate warfare have been around for thousands of years, the modern concept of a wargame as a highly detailed, dense strategy game goes back to a game known as “Tactics” published by Avalon Hill in 1954. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s wargames steadily grew in popularity, to the point that groups and societies dedicated to this hobby began to pop up. One of these groups was the International Federation of Wargaming, which was founded by Bill Speer, Gary Gygax, and Scott Duncan in 1967.

This group was dedicated to not only playing wargames, but spreading information about wargames and bringing people together. It produced fanzines that it distributed to its members, and held conventions such as the Lake Geneva Wargames Convention – better known today as Gen Con. This organization was also made up of several smaller groups dedicated to specific categories of wargaming, such as the Armored Operations Society which was dedicated to WWII gaming.

One of these subgroups was the Castle and Crusade society – started by Gygax and Rob Kuntz – which was dedicated to medieval miniatures wargaming. It was in a small newsletter for this group, known as the Domesday Book,  that Gygax originally published his sets of rules for medieval miniatures. Although the circulation of this magazine was small, it nonetheless caught the eye of Guidon Games, which hired Gygax to work on a series of wargames with miniatures.

Among these games was Chainmail, published in 1971, which was largely based on the medieval miniatures rules published in the Domesday book with help from hobby shop owner Jeff Perren. Chainmail was an expansion of these rules, and consisted of 4 parts. The first section covered rules for mass battles, with each miniature representing groups of 20 units and rules governing things such as artillery, terrain, and how foot-soldiers interacted with cavalry units.

The second section was rules for 1 on 1 combat, and the third section was for jousting. The fourth section was a small appendix, which included rules for adding fantasy elements such as Elemental creatures and magic spells.

A few years earlier, around 1967, Dave Wesely developed an experimental new form of wargame, which he called Braunstein. This game, which took place in a fictional German town of the same name, was set during the Napoleonic wars. Unlike most other wargames at the time, which had players controlling armies of soldiers on different sides of the battle, Braunstein had each player assigned an individual role. Some players might be military commanders, while others might be the town Mayor, for example.

In addition, this game took some inspiration from a wargaming book from the late 1800’s called Stratego. Strategos basically allowed players to attempt any action they could think of. If the action was not covered by the rules, then the Referee would determine the outcome of that attempt. Wesely took these concepts, and applied them to individual characters instead of military units.

While it may have simply been a goofy experiment at the time, the concept of giving each player a unique “Player Character” with a personality and backstory that can carry over from game to game was revolutionary. This idea was expanded by many of Wesely’s gaming buddies, most notably Dave Arneson who applied this “Player Character” concept to a Tolkien-inspired world called Black Moor. In his Black Moor games Arneson began using the Chainmail system for combat, but also added his own additions such as character classes and experience points.

By 1971 Gary Gygax was working at Guidon Games, and he began a collaboration with Dave Arneson on one of his ideas for a new game – a Napoleonic naval wargame known as Don’t Give Up the Ship!, which would be published by Guidon Games in 1972. Sometime after working on Don’t Give Up the Ship! Arneson introduced Gygax to his Black Moor game, and the two began working on a new game – a game that would soon come to be known as Dungeons and Dragons.

This early edition of Dungeons and Dragons built upon the rules previously created by both collaborators. It used a combat system derived from Chainmail, as well as the Role-playing and referee concepts from Braunstein and ideas such as level advancement and armor classes taken from Arneson’s Black Moor games. It also played heavily into the fantasy aspects that were briefly touched on in the Chainmail appendix, creating a vast fantasy world heavily inspired by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft.

Designing a game is one thing – getting it printed is another, and Gygax and Arneson had quite a difficult time. Perhaps because their game was so unusual and experimental it was impossible to find a publisher to license it from them, so they had to publish it themselves. This required starting a new company – Tactical Studies Rules, better known as TSR. D&D would be TSR’s first game, and it had to be printed on a very tight budget. Because of this, the designers had to find ways to limit their expenses such as by hiring their friends to do artwork at a few dollars a piece.

Despite all of these difficulties, however, the first edition of D&D was finally published in 1974. This early version of D&D was quite primitive from a modern point of view. It only had a handful of playable races and classes, and it wasn’t even really a stand-alone game with the rules assuming that the player already had access to a copy of Chainmail as well as an Avalon Hill game called Outdoor Survival.

This first edition was pretty rough, and didn’t take off right away. Only around 1000 copies were sold in the first year, and 3,000 more were sold the year after that. However, in 1975 the growth of D&D began to accelerate. New expansions were created, based on the popular campaign settings of Black Moor and Greyhawk, and the Dungeons and Dragons fan community began to grow with the creation of the first D&D magazines.

In 1977, Dungeons and Dragons had its first major change, and split into two separate products. The first, Basic D&D, was a cleaned up version of the first edition designed to be more friendly to new players. The second was a more structured rule-system known as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which introduced the three core rulebooks of the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Throughout the late 70’s and 80’s these two forms of D&D evolved separately, each receiving their own expansions and revisions. However, the next major shift didn’t occur until 1989 when Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – 2nd edition was released. In addition to revising the rules, 2nd Edition tried to remove some of the more controversial aspects of D&D following it’s supposed connections with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.

The third edition of Advanced D&D was released in 2000, and simply went by the name Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, since the basic version had since been discontinued. This version had a much more unified ruleset, which mostly resolved the outcome of actions by rolling a 20 sided die known as a D20. In addition to forming the new rules for D&D, third edition also serves as the fundamental ruleset of the D20 system – an open license ruleset that allows others to build their own RPGs around the 3rd edition rules.

Further revisions of the basic ruleset would come with 4th edition in 2008, and 5th Edition, also known as D&D Next, published in 2014. The 5th edition is noteworthy because it is the first edition of D&D to rely on public playtesting, and was developed with feedback from over 75,000 playtesters.

Its hard to overstate just how much the gaming industry owes to D&D. To begin with, it introduced the entire concept of a Role Playing Game, which didn’t really exist outside of the developer’s local playgroups at the time. Role Playing Games, or RPGs, have since expanded to be a staple genre that not only includes Tabletop RPGs like D&D, but also digital RPGs such as the Final Fantasy and Pokemon series, and even Live Action RPGs known as LARPs.

Prior to D&D, wargamers generally controlled military companies, units, and vehicles, but never really took the role of a specific character. While the idea of a 1-to-1 correlation between a player and a character was not entirely new – for example, the game Clue was published over 20 years earlier in 1949, and had each player represent a different character. The difference, however, was two-fold. First, in these older games the character you chose didn’t really affect your behavior in the game.

Second, in D&D your character carries over through multiple play-sessions, and remembers the events of previous sessions. This allows players to really spend a lot of time figuring out the back-story of their characters, and refining their personalities. This ties into another innovation of D&D – the concept of a campaign. While wargames can get quite long, they were also self-contained. This was not the case for D&D, in which multiple different adventures could be strung together with the same characters. This potential for endless adventures also allows Dungeon Masters to build huge, complex and realistic worlds for their characters to inhabit.

Speaking of Dungeon Masters, the idea of using a referee to decide the outcome of actions was another major mechanical innovation, because it allowed the players an unprecedented level of freedom. Players were no longer required to stay within the sharp boundaries created by the rulebook, but could attempt any action they could think of. The only limitations were their own creativity, and the Dungeon Master’s generosity.

While these big ideas help form the core of the role-playing experience, the smaller mechanical choices in D&D have been equally influential. Character classes can be found in countless RPGs, and many of these games not only borrow the concept of character classes but also mimic the specific classes used in D&D. While the first edition only had 3 possible classes – the cleric, the fighting man, and the magic-user, later editions expanded and refined these classes to include such classics as Paladins, Thieves, and Bards.

The concept of levels and experience points can also be found everywhere in the modern world, and not even just in games. While these mechanics can be found in countless games, they also form the foundation for the entire concept of “gamification”, which is when you try to apply “game design” concepts to a real world activity. Almost always, this involves giving the “player” experience points for participating in the activity, and allowing them to level up when they obtain enough. These concepts are so popular and well known that they are often taken for granted, but D&D was the first to do it.

However, D&D is not only influential from a game design perspective, but also had a huge influence on the fantasy genre. The races, magical items, settings, and magic system of D&D have probably had more influence on fantasy books, films, and games than any other single source besides The Lord of The Rings. The entire genre of Isekai anime basically owes it’s existence to Dungeons and Dragons, and the fantasy concepts introduced in this game are referenced in everything from Rick and Morty to Pixar’s Onward.

That’s all I have for today. If you liked this video please leave a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more you can check out my previous entries in the “History of Game Design” series – I’ll put a link in the description down below. If you have any games or genres that you think should be highlighted in future entries of this series, let me know in the comments down below. And join me next time for part 4 of my Evolution of Pokemon Designs series. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.

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