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Dungeons & Dragons: The Pen and Paper Video Game

In a fitting tribute to late Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, Volition designer Monje examines Gygax's massive legacy, suggesting that D&D was "the progenitor of most contemporary video games, irrespective of genre."

Alvan Monje, Blogger

April 23, 2008

11 Min Read

[In a fitting tribute to late Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, Volition designer Monje examines Gygax's massive legacy, suggesting that D&D was "the progenitor of most contemporary video games, irrespective of genre."]

This past March, Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, passed away at the age of 69. Gamers and websites marked his passing with the inevitable humorous tributes (my favorite: "When I heard the news, I cried 2d10 tears") and honored him for the huge influence his game has had on our industry - namely that pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons directly spawned the video game RPG genre.

Rightly so; there certainly wouldn't be a Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, or World of Warcraft today without the good ol' analog D&D, released back in 1974, and the genre shows no signs of slowing down.

On closer inspection, however, even this level of recognition is grossly inadequate. In creating Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson didn't just build a blueprint for the digital RPGs to come; they built the progenitor of most contemporary video games, irrespective of genre.

Virtual Worlds

You might remember playing games of pretend as a kid, building forts, playing cops and robbers or cowboys and indians, tinkering with action figures and the like. At its core, First Edition D&D was a set of rules that formalized such imaginative play.

Using Gygax' own miniatures wargame Chainmail as a foundation, D&D had rules for movement, for combat, for injuries and death, but also rules for interacting with characters and a system of morality.

As confusing and unintuitive as the rules sometimes were, the model of the world that emerged was pretty sophisticated; for instance in separating ability scores from skill proficiencies, the model distinguished things one is born with from things one learns. The dichotomy of free will and fate was even represented; players chose their own actions yet were always at the mercy of dice rolls.

In providing these rules and model of the world, D&D offered a powerful framework for running the first interactive simulations of reality, one in which both the everyday and the extraordinary were possible. For the first time in gaming, you could walk around a world, talk to people, explore towns and cities -- and, yes, dungeons.

More importantly, you could be a hero in that world, going on adventures to rescue those people, save those towns, fight dragons. Though crude by today's digital standards, the simulation was robust and extensible, modeling the fantastic -- elves, dragons, magic -- as well as the mundane.

The simulations ran on the best computers around: human brains. Armed with common sense knowledge, intuition, and imagination, a person need only hear the word "forest" or "castle" in order to picture one. (This worked out well, since building a convincing digital forest in 1974 was impossible.)

Still, players needed something to generate the experience -- where do the "forest" or "castle" come from? Gygax and Arneson's answer was another human brain: the Dungeon Master's. The DM of a D&D campaign runs and arbitrates the game, doing everything from designing the world and describing it to his players to providing goals and obstacles to controlling the actions of NPCs.

Contemporary video games also have a Dungeon Master, but there he's much harder to pin down, because his job is spread across many people: dozens of programmers, artists, and designers all lend a hand in creating a game's challenges and rewards, visuals and atmosphere. Hardware and software also share some DM responsibilities, by for example controlling NPCs and by drawing the game world on TV screens.

The complexity and resources involved in "DMing" video games underscore how much more sophisticated and robust video game simulations are than pen-and-paper simulations. But the latter's crudeness is part of its appeal. Because D&D "simulations" rely so much on human imagination and common sense, they can take place at precisely the level that humans care about -- at the very high level of people, places, and things -- and no lower.

This allows DMs to focus on what really matters -- the gameplay, the story, and the storytelling -- and lets them avoid the extreme pain required in creating, bit by bit, the robust digital worlds that run on silicon.

Level of complexity (and creator masochism) aside, however, it becomes easier to see a deeper link between pen-and-paper D&D and contemporary video games of most any genre, given the parallels. Both offer interactive simulations that let players act within virtual worlds. They just differ in how they get there.

Games and Stories

The parallels between pen-and-paper RPGs and video games don't end with their simulations, however. Both are games that tell stories, or perhaps more accurately, offer stories that have gameplay. A novel concept, if you take a step back.

Today most gamers take it for granted that games have stories, yet most traditional games -- chess and checkers, tag and hide-and-seek, baseball and basketball -- don't have any story.

They don't have plot, characters, or themes; in fact they barely represent anything at all. Games pose abstract problems or challenges that players are tasked with solving, and they engage the logical left brain more than the artistic right, the body more than the heart.

In contrast, stories depict fictional people, places, and events; they mirror the real world and are fundamentally representational. Readers and viewers act as silent witnesses, powerless over the characters and events depicted but moved by them all the same. Stories appeal more to the right brain than the left, more to the heart than the body.

Given these stark differences -- games as abstract, interactive problem-solving exercises, stories as representational, passive depictions that elicit emotion -- it's quite strange for game and story to be combined into the same experience, but Dungeons & Dragons did exactly that, and with much success.

The key was the simulation: it was both interactive, with goals, obstacles, and rewards for players, and representational, with characters, settings, and events for players to encounter. Moreover, these seemingly disparate game and story elements were often combined; a quest to save the princess from a dungeon, for instance, neatly ties a goal to a character, an obstacle to a setting.

Today the vast majority of video games, from FPSes to platformers, adventure games to open world games, are games that tell a story, and D&D blazed the trail.

Class Struggle (and Cooperation)

As influential as Dungeons & Dragons may have been in the field of story-driven single-player games, that isn't the complete picture; with its system of character classes, D&D has had an impact even on competitive and cooperative multiplayer games.

One example is fighting games, which feature a rock-paper-scissors method of balancing similar to that used in D&D. Fighting games often have quick weak characters and strong slow ones; similarly D&D has agile but frail thieves and hardy but slow fighters. Such differentiation provides balance to fighting games, where no character is vastly better than another in every situation.

Team-based FPSes like Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty 4 also benefit from class systems. At their core, character classes and the rock-paper-scissors balancing on which they are based embody the opportunity cost of specialization -- the fact that getting really good at one thing comes at the expense of being really good at other things.

For team-based games this is ideal; a player with a soldier-type class, for instance, cannot excel at everything, so must cooperate with teammates -- medics, engineers, and so on -- if he really wants to win.

Games featuring a class system with levels have an additional benefit: they provide a sense of progression and reward as players become more powerful and unlock new abilities. Such progression acts as a carrot-on-a-stick motivation system, where the next reward -- a new perk in Call of Duty 4, for instance -- is always just out of reach.

Note that classes and levels don't even need to be explicit to have these benefits; for instance, BioShock's tonics and plasmids offer players the same opportunities for specialization and progression as other games with more rigid and defined character improvement systems.

Open Worlds

One final video game genre closely related to D&D, but not usually seen as such, is open world games like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Assassin's Creed, and others. Open world games enhance player freedom over more traditional, linear genres by offering both a larger set of possible player actions and opportunities, and a larger set of consequences for them.

But even open world games have their limits. In particular, since a computer has no common sense or intuition and cannot improvise, it can't handle anything that wasn't planned for and implemented by the developers in advance; a player can't explore the inside of a building if it hasn't been created, for instance, or talk to people if the dialogue system was cut.

Further, the huge cost of creating systems and content for increasingly advanced game machines severely limits how much video games can provide players.

Sure, creating a building interior or dialogue system are perfectly solvable problems, but as any experienced developer knows, game development is a zero sum game; if someone wants more content or a new feature, something else has to give.

These problems -- the necessity of implementing features and content beforehand, and the huge cost involved in doing so -- limit what even open world video games can offer players. In contrast, D&D and other pen-and-paper RPGs don't have these restrictions, and thus offer massive potential for player freedom, consequence, and creativity.

Using a previous example, if the players try to enter a building the DM didn't anticipate, the DM can simply improvise whatever makes sense. Perhaps they're in a poor area of town and the building is a dingy tavern.

The DM could then populate it as appropriate, with broken bottles, drunkards, refuse and so on. That's the beauty of pen-and-paper simulations; they take place at such a high level that it's trivially easy to add or change content on the fly.

Player creativity and consequence are vastly increased for similar reasons. People have a common sense understanding of gravity, physics, sound, so if a player finds, say, a wine bottle, he can use that bottle in a myriad of different ways. He could use the bottle as a bludgeon, throw it to create a distraction, empty the bottle to store a different liquid, and so on.

Such freedom and consequence can act on a massive scale, not just on objects but also on the ongoing story itself. The fate of entire nations can hang in the balance based on player choices -- entire wars can begin or end. Because the simulation is so high-level, the story can branch in ways video games are only beginning to explore.

To be fair, D&D campaigns in practice can be as linear and confining as their digital counterparts, due to the DM's personal style, preferences, and level of creativity or inclination. But the richness of interaction, the potential for "open world" experiences is always there, and dwarfs what is possible in today's video games.

Thanks Gary, We Owe You One

Pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons was in some key ways a progenitor of the contemporary video game, and had a massive impact that goes far beyond the RPG genre. First, by allowing gamers to run the first robust interactive simulations, D&D was one of the first products that let gamers act within a virtual world.

By using that simulation to bind game elements and story elements together, D&D was also a pioneering game that did more than just gameplay, it told a story and offered players fantastic adventures. And with its class system and open player freedom, it even influenced fighting games, team-based FPSes, and open world games.

Game designers should be aware of such connections and should leverage, twist, or stretch them to create better games, ones that offer richer interaction, more compelling stories, and worlds as immersive as the ones in our imaginations.

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About the Author(s)

Alvan Monje


Alvan Monje is a Senior Designer at Volition. He started there in 1999, in QA, where he helped to ship FreeSpace 2, Summoner, and Red Faction. He transitioned into design in 2001 and since then has worked on Summoner 2, Saints Row, and Saints Row 2. Currently he is Design Architect on an unannounced project. Outside of work, Alvan tries to avoid pen-and-paper gaming and MMOs, focusing instead on leveling up his real-life character. Unfortunately he is not always successful.

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