Eleven Game Changers: Dungeons & Dragons

Today, it’s the second title in my Game Changers series.  These are games that, for better or worse, changed the tabletop gaming hobby into what we see today.  The first post was all about Acquire, the 1964 board game designed by Sid Sackson that basically invented the Eurogame.  Today, we’ll talk about a game that thematically and mechanically went in an entirely different direction.  And that game is

image by RPGG user rmidjord

Dungeons and Dragons was first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.  It was a very different type of gaming experience than had really existed before.  It didn’t have a board or cards or counters, or really anything that people generally associated with tabletop gaming at the time.  It was a game that primarily took place in people’s imagination, with the assistance of rules and dice.  It was, in fact, the first roleplaying game.  Or, at least, the first one that was widely available.

First, let’s reconstruct the history of D&D.  Gary Gygax was a wargame designer (and also the founder of the Lake Geneva Wargames Convention, later known as Gen Con).  His 1971 medieval miniatures wargame Chainmail inspired Dave Arneson to create a Blackmoor campaign, which became an early predecessor to D&D.  Arneson shared this with Gygax in 1972, and the two began working on the Dungeons & Dragons system.  It sold out quickly upon its release in 1974, and several new printings came out.  In 1977, the game was divided into Basic and Advanced versions, and the Monster Manual came out, detailing 350 creatures to be used in various campaigns.

D&D got a number of new versions over the years, but an official second edition of Advance Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1989.  The game continued to evolve, and then TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.  This led to the release of the third edition ruleset in 2000, which is the favorite version of many fans.  A revision to the third edition (referred to as edition 3.5) came out in 2003.  The fourth edition came out in 2008, and was considered to be a step backward.  This led to the founding of the Pathfinder system by Paizo Games, which is basically D&D 3.75.  The fifth edition game out in 2014, which brought back a lot of the classic elements and was praised as a step back in the right direction.

First Edition – image by RPGG user wavemotion
First Edition Monster Manual – image by RPGG user manowarplayer
Advanced D&D 2nd edition – image by RPGG user Amiral
D&D 3rd edition – imaged by RPGG user Purple
D&D 4th edition – image by RPGG user Aldie
D&D 5th edition – image by RPGG user trystero11

Before I go on, let me say that I am absolutely NOT an D&D expert.  I played in a campaign one time that lasted for all of three sessions before it petered out and never got going again. That’s my only experience with the game.  So please, do not consider the next section as a tutorial for the game.  It’s extremely likely that it’s not even going to be accurate, so please let me know what I messed up.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that is typically played over the course of several sessions in a campaign.  Before the start of a campaign, players will create their own characters.  There are six basic ability scores that will be determined – Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  Players will also choose a race (i.e. Dwarf, Human, Elf), a class (i.e. Fighter, Wizard, Cleric), and an alignment (i.e. Good, Evil, Lawful, Chaotic).

The game is run by a Dungeon Master (DM) who is responsible for moving the story along, describing pertinent information, playing any non-player characters (NPCs) that may be encountered, and controlling any monsters that are faced in combat.  Generally, the characters will describe their choices and the DM will figure out what happens next.  This usually involves rolling dice, the results of which the DM will compare to various charts he or she has available.  Dice used in the game could be four-sided (d4), six-sided (d6), eight-sided (d8), ten-sided (d10), twelve-sided (d12), or twenty sided (d20).

As play progresses, player characters (PCs) will gain new abilities and levels that will help them towards the ends of the quests as they face more difficult monsters.  Usually, they’ll be used for an entire campaign, but it isn’t uncommon for some D&D players to carry characters over across multiple campaigns.  After all, you don’t want to waste all that cool stuff you picked up on just one campaign.

Dungeons & Dragons episode of Community – image from giphy.com

On this blog, I generally cover board games.  I’ve never talked about a pure roleplaying game before.  However, for this series on game changers, I could not ignore it because there is no other tabletop game in existence that has had the cultural impact that Dungeons & Dragons has had.

D&D had its own influences – The Lord of the Rings, Conan, and The Dying Earth all played a role in the game’s development.  But its impact can be felt in all kinds of modern media – other roleplaying games, board games, video games, movies, TV shows, books, comics, and the list goes on.  Look at Stranger Things – the first few minutes show a D&D campaign that basically sets up the entire series.  Or Ready Player One (the book), which prominently features a D&D module that is crucial to the plot.  Even Game of Thrones probably owes a lot of its popularity to D&D (though I have no empirical evidence to suggest that this is the case).

Beyond its cultural impact, you also see the effects of the game mechanics in all manner of games.  Ever played a game with hit points?  Thank D&D.  Ever played a game where you could level up your character as you play?  Thank D&D.  Ever played a roleplaying game at al, whether tabletop or digital?  Thank D&D.

Despite its obvious influences, the reputation of Dungeons and Dragons is not all positive.  There was plenty of controversy in the 1980s when some people decided to accuse D&D of being a tool of the occult.  And of course, just about everyone has probably heard (or made) a joke about overweight people living in their mother’s basement playing D&D.  But still, it persists and has been a huge part of a lot of gamer’s lives.  While some of the games I’m going to feature in this series may have had questionable impact on the industry, I don’t think anyone can deny that Dungeons & Dragons was a true game changer.

Thanks for joining me for the second installment in this series.  There will be another in a month, and of course plenty of other content between now and then.  Have fun out there!

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