The Game Archaeologist: Dungeons & Dragons

    
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Part of the holy mission of the Game Archaeologist is to ferret out the roots of history that ultimately led to MMORPGs as we know them today. Another part of the mission is to root out ferrets, as my claw-scarred arms can attest. Some of that history is fairly recent, but today we’re going to travel back — way back — to a time before many of you were born. Including me, as a matter of fact.

The year is 1974. The world is hip-deep in the throes of shag carpeting, driftwood furniture, and the strains of Grand Funk Railroad. It truly seemed like nothing would ever be cool or non-earth-toned again. At this, the lowest moment in all of history, game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson took the concept of miniature wargaming, merged it with a fantasy motif, and sold it under the name Dungeons & Dragons. Geeks everywhere had a reason to rejoice, and through this roleplaying game the foundations for MMOs were laid.

Let’s take a brief survey through D&D, giving special emphasis to how this great-granddaddy of RPGs passed down a legacy that we enjoy in our modern online titles. Also, there will be popcorn.

D&D cemented fantasy as the RPG norm

Dungeons & Dragons certainly did not create the fantasy genre, but Gygax and Arneson capitalized the crap out of it. During the 20th century, fantasy fiction saw a serious uptick in popularity and publication, from the works of C.S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance, to name a few. With college students proudly wearing their “Frodo Lives!” buttons and musical artists crafting albums with fantastical themes, it was time to strike while the nerd iron was hot.

Part of D&D’s genius is that it didn’t try to invent a completely new world with its own rules but instead borrowed, stole, copied, and paid homage to all of the great ideas that had gone before it. The designers pulled from every corner of fantasy fiction, mythology, and real-world inspirational sources to create a melting pot that had a little of something for everyone. The result became a universal fantasy, through which players could enjoy any of the worlds they already admired.

In just a few short years after the game’s launch, D&D became synonymous with “fantasy” — and RPGs had their progeny. While there would be other RPG genres to come — science fiction, horror, western, steampunk, cyberpunk, Hello Kitty — fantasy became the de facto norm. If you have a pet peeve about there being too many fantasy MMOs out there, it’s not entirely fair to blame D&D, however; chances are it would’ve been the case even if D&D never existed. It’s been generally proven that people can identify with and understand fantasy more easily than other fictional genres, partially because it draws from medieval history and real-world imagery.

D&D promoted roleplaying and socialization between gamers

While Dungeons & Dragons earned a stigma of being a game full of losers who played in their parents’ basements, an important point was missed: These “losers” were still getting together to socialize, interact, and have fun together. It beat the heck out of being isolated and alone, and with a common hobby to unite these people, friendships formed and supportive groups emerged. D&D became, essentially, the geek’s football — a “sport” that a group of friends got together to enjoy in a communal sense with snacks, shouting, groans of defeat and shrieks of victory.

One of the cornerstones of the game, roleplaying, became both divisive and beloved, depending on one’s perspective. While it’s understandable that many outsiders thought it was a bit barmy to see players talk in strange dialects, occasionally wear odd headpieces and refer to what sounded like Lovecraftian horrors, the truth was that D&D’s penchant for roleplaying had foundations in traditionally accepted pastimes. Children, after all, play-act through stories, and even some grown-ups in 1974 devoted their entire lives to performing as actors on the stage and the silver screen.

Stepping into the shoes of one’s character and living his, her or its adventures through imagination and game mechanics became an inseparable part of the D&D experience. Even as the genre changed and evolved to meet the needs and limitations of online gaming, roleplaying never died out. For some, it became a strictly internal experience, while others kept the spirit of D&Desque RPing alive on special servers and in RP-dedicated guilds.

D&D fine-tuned RPG game mechanics

Character sheets. Experience points. Hit points. Mana. Dungeon runs. Levels. Armor class. Skills. Inventory. Giant spiders.

If these sound completely familiar — almost mundane, really — it’s because D&D took the time to create, modify and fine-tune many of these game mechanics over the years. It’s hard to imagine playing an RPG without health or hit points, particularly when you get into combat. By taking the time to gradually educate gamers on these concepts while modifying them as the systems were extensively play-tested, the D&D team fashioned an entire encyclopedia of systems that future games and campaigns could use as an established foundation.

D&D was a pioneer of geek culture

Geeks certainly existed before and in spite of Dungeons & Dragons — don’t get me wrong. But it’s hard to deny that D&D was a huge influence in geek culture over the past 36 years. One of my earliest movie memories is E.T., a movie that featured characters playing D&D during a scene at the kids’ home. This demonstrated how the game had become a phenomenon at this point, pushing past the outskirts of the fringe to make inroads into the mainstream.

D&D has been featured in cartoons, comic books, a pair of really bad movies, and practically every geek convention that doesn’t have the words “Star” and “Trek” in the title (even so, Spock is really a Space Elf and Kirk a Chaotic Good Barbarian). Stranger Things catapulted Dungeons & Dragons right back into the forefront of geek culture when it came on the scene a few years ago. D&D helped to make it cool to be a geek, even as it bore the brunt of some ridicule and moral panic from time to time.

D&D served as inspiration for countless MMOs

Finally! MMOs! The thing we talk about on Massively OP almost as much as we talk about bandicoots! You knew we’d get around to it sooner or later.

The truth is that MMOs simply owe a huge tribute of thanks to D&D for the work that I’ve outlined already in this article as well as a whole lot more. Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons are almost, without exception, referred to whenever a new fantasy MMO comes to term — and for good reason. Because a bulk of gamers have difficulty accepting fantasy without the conventions and tropes established by these two franchises, MMOs typically follow suit or pay for being too out-of-the-box.

This isn’t always a good thing, mind you, but I’m still pretty grateful that MMOs had such a powerhouse of a pen-and-paper game to pull from when trying to get started, otherwise it might have been a lot longer until we would’ve seen online RPGs take off the way that they have.

It’s kind of amusing how MMOs, video games and D&D have looped around each other so many times by now that we’ve successfully achieved infinite geekery. At the same time as two D&D MMOs (Dungeons and Dragons Online and Neverwinter) are on the market, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition draws inspiration from MMOs for some of its systems (and it even uses online tools to aid play).

Have a memory or two to share about your own Dungeons & Dragons experiences? Let’s hear about them in the comments, especially if they led you to playing MMOs later in life!

(I lied about the popcorn.)

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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Nathan Aldana

I’m currently playing in a discord group running Dragon Heist, we’ve had some hilarious moments and I think become pretty good friends even ooc because of it.

truly, tabletop rpgs are the best multiplayer rpgs.

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Bruno Brito

Oh, we’re talking about the PnP D&D.

Yeah, not that much into it. I like fantasy rpgs, but i’m really averse to how D&D works. I’m a Vampire guy.

And there’s a brazilian system called 3D&T, that i love. Way better for fantasy stuff, since it’s simple.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I never got to play D&D, because my parents bought into the moral panic BS. My mom even made me throw out my Dragonlance books, when she found out they were based on D&D. But, Lord of the Rings was fine. I played Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, on the down low, after I had my own computer. It wasn’t until YouTube came out, and people started to post videos of D&D, that I was able to show her and explain what the game was actually like. A bunch of people around a table, telling stories and rolling dice. No human sacrifices. Then she wondered what everyone was even freaking out about in the first place. I still haven’t played D&D, because I don’t have any friends that are into that. Oy vey.

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Does not check email

I grew up baptist in the Midwest. Even in the 90s uttering dungeons and the word dragons in the same week was met with damnation and fiery speeches. At any moment the tbd cult would show up and take you away!!

Meanwhile we had church members drunk driving, beating people and plowing cars into their homes on a semi regular basis but that was cool.

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Paragon Lost

Started playing DnD in March of 1978. Definitely was a magical time and I have many fond memories of that time. One thing though, for many of us even back then in Southern California, DnD felt so restrictive and limited.

We were housing ruling the heck out of it right from the start and as AD&D 1st edition came out did the same to that version. A lot of ended up moving on to other game systems as they became available. I personally by 1979/80 was more into playing Traveller and Runequest. I still played some DnD because like today, its still the dominant ttrpg out there and easy to find games to jump into.

Personally I won’t run it, I’d rather run a more in depth, flexible systems with active combat mechanics. Which is why by 83′ for my own games that I ran I used first Palladium Rpg and then Rolemaster and then GURPs when it came out by the mid 80’s. Now a days there are even more systems out there to dive into, like the Cypher system by Monte Cook Games or the 2D20 system by Modiphius as two examples.

Regardless, fond memories of southern California in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and hanging out at game shops in the evenings after being at the beach all day.

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sophiskiai

To expand a little on D&D’s origins (and give Jeff Perren his due) – in 1970 Jeff Perren developed a short set of rules for mass combat with mediaeval miniatures, Gary Gygax then worked with Perren to develop and expand these rules and publish them in some hobbyist magazines, and this got Gygax a publishing deal to print them as the mediaeval combat game Chainmail with Gygax and Perren co-credited on the cover (including rules for one-to-one combat, jousting, and a fantasy supplement added late in development) which came out in ’71. Dave Arneson used Chainmail to run a fantasy campaign, and when Gygax and Arneson later published D&D in ’74 it heavily incorporated a lot of rules and elements from Chainmail.

One very interesting period of D&D history is the massive shared world Living Greyhawk campaign, which ran from 2000 to 2008 and was basically an attempt to run tabletop RPG sessions like a live MMO. Parties of 4 to 6 players ran instanced adventures (some of which could be played anywhere in the world and some of which could only be played in the real world nations associated with certain in-game nations and areas) with the RPGA acting as a central authority and keeping records and groups of volunteers managing things for each geographical area. Each year new adventures were published and older adventures retired, and there were sometimes special events where dozens of players got together and ran multiple parallel adventures with the outcomes affecting the game world.

I organised / ran / played a ton of Living Greyhawk games with about a dozen other regulars in my area from ’02 to ’08, but official support and continuity ended when 4th edition was released – D&D4e had its own Living Forgotten Realms campaign but this was a lot more streamlined and centralised under Wizards of the Coast control.

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Tee Parsley

I think Styopa is right about a lot of D&D rules codification. Certainly, in my play, D&D did not survive the second wave of RPG games. Moved on.

Fortunately for me, in both my D&D era, and my longest pnp games runs, I had superlative groups to play with. Two GMs were later NYT bestsellers, there were notable game designers and artists, and an all around stellar rp cast.

I still play pnp, and the group includes a number of ex TSR employees. None of whom are that interested in the D&D rulesets. Too haphazard and murky.

Though as Aaron Allston once said, ‘D&D created a generation of game designers because everyone had to come up with house rules and designs to deal with the cracks in and inconsistencies of the rules set.’

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styopa

Yet….some might assert that D&D’s codification of standards wasn’t always great or helpful for the hobby. Levels are a standard of RPGs but I’d argue that they’ve always been a kludge ultimately causing more creative harm than help. Hit points as well – the hand-wavy rationalization of hp NEVER made sense (you get more hp as you level up, why, again? The rationale is that you become better at dodging so the 8hp strike that would kill a 1st level character is only a scratch to that 12th level character…which works all right as a rationalization – until you get to falling damage or poison).

There are ample examples of alternatives that work BETTER than either of these canonical ‘requirements’.

RQ for example made hp more or less exactly what they are: the amount of physical damage you can take….as you get “better” as an adventurer – no levels here – you don’t get arbitrarily “more” of them, you jut get better at protecting the ones you have with better parry, dodge, magic, and armor.

Harnmaster IIRC dispenses with HP entirely, as you take damage you roll vs your CON to be more or less incapacitated. As you take more and more damage, succeeding (ie resisting incapacitation) becomes harder. There’s no finite “oh she can only do 8hp in this shot and I have 9 so nothing to worry about!” quantities here, it’s all just probabilities, arguably much more like real life where we don’t have hp meters in our heads.

In any case, I think too many MMOs have simply aped the D&D meme as closely as they dared and stopped thinking creatively at that point, to their and the hobby’s detriment.*

*that said, I’d also say that where they have tepidly followed RPG conventions, they haven’t even bothered to learn lessons long-ago taught by tabletop RPGs about power creep, class balancing (or not), player expectations, retconning, etc. Even if I feel that a lot of D&D’s lessons aren’t the best, even the lessons that they can teach have often been astonishingly disregarded by devs – I can’t figure out why.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Levels are ok up to a point but not when the game becomes all about the levelling instead of the adventure. While progression is a cornerstone of many RPG’s it is not as essential as many make it out to be.

Roll on the random deity table and thank them that game devs figured out that Vancian magic was a disaster. D&D’s magic system was designed around the flawed concepts in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of having read it then you’ll learn that that crap system existed because maff is haaaaard.

I’ll admit Calculus can be a bit challenging to wrap one’s head around but the idea that it’s so hard that once you use an equation you lose all memory of it until you learn it again is just far too silly.

/rant

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Paragon Lost

Another strike against DnD was the Vancian magic system for sure, never appealed to me at all.

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Paragon Lost

Agree, I always felt that skill based systems were better versus level based ones. Harn had some good stuff going for it, I used to use some of their cities for drop into my own game world because they were so well done. The game system itself felt similar to Runequest/Stormbringer aka Basic Roleplaying System that Chaosium designed.

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Bruno Brito

which works all right as a rationalization – until you get to falling damage or poison).

Hence why a lot of games use percentage damage nowadays to make the damage actually relevant.

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PanagiotisLial1

My first PC game was Eye of the Beholder

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Anton Mochalin

Was one of my first games too. A decent game for that time it was.

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PanagiotisLial1

I also loved how games back then came with many goodies in the box

it even had a papyrous styled map among others

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Minimalistway

While i grew up with video game consoles and home computers, and have many geeky/nerdy friends, not one of them know what D&D is, first time i read about it was in early 2000s, most likely from Slashdot? i was fascinated by the whole idea but no one here want to play it … or even know what this is.

That’s all i have, every now and then i wish i played D&D when i was a kid, now i just read about it and see how people make their own games, characters and worlds, i enjoy reading the rules and the systems.

I wanted to buy WoW RPG books but all of them are out of print and all of them priced for more than $50, some more than $100 … but i searched for them now and i see a copy for $30!

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Hirku

I loved everything TSR was doing in the 80’s. I owned the starter sets for AD&D and the espionage-themed Top Secret, but never actually played because nobody in my circle cared. Thank goodness for the official Endless Quest choose-your-own-adventure books. Once a solo’er, always a solo’er.

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styopa

Everything?comment image
I was at Gen Con the year they launched these.

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Hirku

Nine-year-old me would’ve loved the shit out of those, too.

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styopa

In 1982 let’s remember that there was absolutely zero social approval of RPGs and gamers, however.
9 year olds generally WERE the consumers. But teenagers who hoped that someone of the opposite sex might someday show some interest in them, using one of these publicly? Never.

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Fisty

Those are sweet. I’ve always wanted one. :(

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Schlag Sweetleaf
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