One of the most influential games of the last century was Dungeons & Dragons. This is not to suggest it has enjoyed enormous commercial success – it hasn't. Except, perhaps, in contrast to other role-playing game systems, which (other than White Wolf's horror-fetish World of Darkness and perhaps Steve Jackson Games' GURPS and Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu) have suffered either instant or lingering commercial failure. Estimates state some 20 million people have played D&D since its inception – impressive figures, especially for tabletop role-playing games, although for comparison bear in mind that Trivial Pursuit sold 20 million units in 1984 alone.
The influence of Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, can be divided into two specific aspects: firstly, there is the mechanical influence, which has been felt most strongly in the videogames industry. The progress structures that were developed with this game are compelling and addictive, and become even more so when the rate of progress is increased, as it is when similar structures appear in videogames. In tabletop D&D, a player would be lucky to gain a level each week that they played. In a computer RPG, a player would be surprised not to gain levels in the space of a few hours, or even minutes near the beginning of the game. Not only computer RPGs but videogames in general owe a huge mechanical debt to D&D – even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas contains reward structures descending from D&D amongst its mechanics.
The second influence – which is less commercially relevant but is just as culturally significant – is the confluence of narrative and play in what has been called participatory storytelling. Prior to D&D there were no mechanics for this kind of play – only children created ad hoc stories together; adults might write fiction, but they did not perform fiction with one another outside of improvisational theatre. The genius of Gary Gygax and Dave Areneson was to recognise that the central mechanics in wargames had a potential beyond that of representing conflict – the fundamental elements of these games were applicable to a more narrative form. Chainmail (by Gygax and Jeff Peren), the direct predecessor to D&D, was a 1971 wargame with rules for fantasy monsters and one-on-one “swashbuckling” action, inspired by the works of J.R.R Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Robert E. Howard (Conan) among others. It rapidly became apparent that this direction could lead to a new kind of a game – one in which the focus was individual heroes and their stories, not whole armies.
Thus was born the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, published by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974, back when the height of videogame sophistication was Pong. The original white box edition was essentially incomprehensible to anyone who was not already familiar with wargaming, but still proved hugely popular in comparison with the wargames available at the time. In this regard, it is important not to underestimate the role of Avalon Hill in the success of D&D: without the venerable wargame company paving the way for hobby gaming in general, it would have been essentially impossible for D&D to gain its initial foothold. Only because a niche market for esoteric and often complex boardgames had been established was it possible for role-playing games to spread so rapidly among university students, high schoolers, and other stalwarts of hobby gaming.
In 1977, TSR Hobbies (the next in the long chain of companies in the TSR lineage) began a two-pronged market strategy in respect of the then hugely popular (in hobby games terms!) D&D franchise. On the one hand, Basic Dungeons & Dragons retained the boxed set format (ideal for sale in toy stores) and was designed to be an introduction to the game for new players. On the other, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was offered as a series of premium hardback rulebooks, intended for players of the basic game to “graduate” to, as they mastered the rules. The core of the advanced game came in three books published initially over three years: Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual, a schema which still exists to some extent today. TSR's product line for D&D was also supplemented by some third party companies such as Judges Guild, which published licensed AD&D content up until 1982.
The basis of the two-pronged strategy was sound: having a cheaper introductory version coupled with a more expensive advanced version made it easier for players to get into the game, and gave experienced players additional options. Unfortunately, the integration between the two versions was scant, and each was actuated by a wildly different design philosophy. Gary Gygax, in charge of AD&D, wanted rules for every conceivable situation (far more, in fact, than any player ever used). Eric Holmes, in charge of Basic D&D, preferred a more stripped down approach, with more room for improvisation. In this regard, it was almost as if the split echoed the two influences cited above: AD&D followed the mechanical line, while D&D followed the role-playing line, loosely speaking. There is a certain irony to Gygax leading the more complicated rule set: he had once quipped that TSR would be in trouble if the players ever realised that they didn't actually need any rules...
In 1979, a story broke that a university student in Michigan had disappeared in the school's steam tunnels while playing a live-action version of D&D. A 1982 TV-movie, Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks, was based loosely on the events, and wildly misrepresented the role-playing hobby in a manner reminiscent of the classic Reefer Madness. It was the beginning of a spate of negative publicity, which lead to a backlash against the game from conservative Christian groups who alleged the game promoted demon worship and suicide. This opinion had originating in Patricia Pulling, whose D&D-playing son killed himself in 1982, although there is no evidence the game was a factor in his death. Three years later, Pulling appeared on 60 Minutes opposite Gary Gygax, after which Gygax received death threats and had to hire a bodyguard. He left the company shortly afterwards owing to a dispute with the controlling shareholders, not long after creating the briefly successful Dungeons & Dragons cartoon for CBS, which lead its time slot for two years.
Between the negative publicity and the cartoon show, the media attention on D&D served to raise awareness of the game to new levels, and TSR's annual D&D sales shot up to $16 million in 1982, and $29 million by 1985. The New York Times speculated in January 1983 that Dungeons & Dragons could be “the great game of the 1980s”. During this time, Basic D&D diverged even further from AD&D under the guidance of new editor Tom Moldvay, who produced the 1981 edition, and the two rulesets were definitively considered to be entirely distinct games. AD&D was supplemented during this decade by many new hardback rulebooks, each of which sold a few hundred thousand units. Basic D&Dwas supplemented by a sequence of new boxed sets, each dealing with progressively higher level characters – Expert (levels 4-14), Companion (levels 15-25), Master (levels 26-36) and Immortals (level 36+), but the bulk of sales appear to have been for the Basic and Expert boxes. In 1989, the Basic boxed set apparently sold over a million units, annual sales that no other tabletop RPG has ever reached.
The very existence of D&D had been formative for the computer role-playing game genre, and was a clear inspiration for both Ultima and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, both launched in 1981. Both titles were key influences in the development of computer role-playing games, and Wizardry affected designers in both Japan and the US to an enormous degree. Despite this chain of lineage to D&D, TSR were slow to benefit from videogame revenue. Some largely unsuccessful Mattel and Intellivision titles in 1981 and 1982 were eventually followed in 1988 with the first of the popular “Gold Box” titles by SSI, beginning in 1988 with Pool of Radiance, and followed by half a dozen other titles in this line over the next four years, along with a slew of other licensed videogames over the next decade, several of which enjoyed modest success.
The 1990s were not so lucrative for TSR. David “Zeb” Cook's 1989 revision of AD&D into 2nd Edition removed a great deal of what had offended conservative Christians in the original game, including references to demons and devils, playable evil classes and races, and sexually suggestive art. This version drew less influence from the sword and sorcery fiction of Howard, Leiber and Moorcock, and represented itself as a blend of medieval history and mythology (although the Moorcock-inspired alignment system remained). Unfortunately, the entire tabletop role-playing game market was to suffer a near-fatal blow at the hands of a new contender in the hobby game space with the arrival in 1992 of Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering, a unique and addictive trading card game designed by Richard Garfield. M:TG (and to a lesser extent other collectible card games) sucked almost all the air out of the balloon for tabletop RPGs, and drove many companies bankrupt.
The final insult for TSR came in 1997, when the ailing company was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the very company that had effectively driven it out of business. Ironically, two years later, Wizards of the Coast was itself purchased by toy giant Hasbro, who had little or no interest in tabletop role-playing, but were very interested in the massive revenues generated by both M:TG and the Pokémon Trading Card Game, which WotC had shrewdly licensed. Ironically, the Hasbro acquisition united Dungeons & Dragons with the company that had paved its way, Avalon Hill, the rights for which had been acquired by Hasbro after the collapse of the ailing wargaming company in 1998.
Under the guidance of Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons was finally to enjoy more substantial success in the videogame marketplace, beginning with BioWare's Baldur's Gate series (1998-2001), the engine for which also drove the 1999 PlaneScape: Torment, a highly regarded but commercially unsuccessful title by Black Isle Studios, who had also acted as publisher for Baldur's Gate. However, just as D&D had been slow to take advantage of its influence in the cRPG space, it was too slow to move into the new massively multiplayer online RPG space. Early MUDs, the direct predecessors to MMORPGs, had been vastly influenced by D&D (especially the numerous LP and diku MUDs), and there is no reason the Dungeons & Dragons brand couldn't have moved to dominate the MMO space. Instead, World of Warcraft was to claim the crown – itself clearly a direct descendent of the ideas that originated in D&D.
In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of AD&D, now called simply Dungeons & Dragons, thus marking the end of the two-pronged market strategy (and the commercial termination of Basic D&D). From now on, there would be only one product line for D&D at any given time. The third edition was marked by a daring decision to license the core rules, known as the d20 System, under the Open Game License (OGL), although both Dungeons & Dragons and d20 System remained trademarks of WotC. The motivation for this came from D&D's brand manager, Ryan Dancey, and was commercial in nature. It was a fact of the marketplace for tabletop RPGs that rulebooks sold far better than supporting materials such as adventure modules; the OGL spread the cost of producing support materials to other companies (latter day Judges Guilds, in effect), while theoretically driving sales of the core rulebooks. A later 3.5 edition was also released under the OGL, and for seven years D&D was the flagship product in the open gaming movement.
However, reading between the lines, it seems as if Hasbro corporate were less than pleased with what was entailed by open gaming, and when Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was released in 2008 it came with a new, highly restrictive license known as the Game System License (GSL). This license has since been updated, but it still falls wildly short of the freedoms offered under OGL. The genius of the original OGL was that it allowed WotC to own the premier product in a theoretically expanded marketplace (on the principle that a smaller share of a bigger market would be worth more). However, judging from the revisions in the GSL, Hasbro's legal department had issues both with the freedoms being granted to potential competitors, and with their lack of control over the content that might be offered. To their credit, the GSL still allows relatively easy licensing of 4th edition books, certainly compared to the situation in other media – but it shuts down almost all other kinds of support, including software, magazines and websites, and provides no affordances for content rooted in 3rd edition.
One of the interesting things about the revised GSL is its effective admission of how little of the content in the D&D settings actually belongs to WotC/Hasbro, on account of the game even from the outset being cobbled together from dozens of different source materials and mythologies. Just thirteen monsters are listed in the revised GSL as being effectively D&D intellectual property, and of these only the Beholder and the Mind Flayer are particularly notable*. The creatures most associated with D&D such as Orcs, Elves, Dwarves etc. had already been excluded from legal protection in a landmark case between TSR and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, which established that one cannot legally own a race. Tolkien's estate did claim “Hobbit” as a trademark, however, and references to Hobbits and Ents were removed from D&D in 1977 as a result of the case.
The net result of the new GSL has been a split in the market between third party companies supporting 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and companies unwilling to commit to the GSL (the scariest clause of which is the one which allows the terms of the agreement to be changed at any time without notice). Those who reject the GSL are either continuing to support the 3.5 edition of D&D under the original OGL, or spin-offs such as Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the appearance of which may have been a factor in souring Hasbro on the OGL. Since the whole point of the OGL as (presumably) sold to Hasbro was to drive sales of the core D&D rulebooks, the appearance of rival rulebooks may have been a deal breaker (which might also explain why the GSL expressly locks down any ability to reference the mechanics of the D&D core rulebooks).
Beyond the legal issues, 4th edition raised eyebrows because for the first time in its life the new D&D ruleset clearly showed the influence of MMOs – a change probably intended to help attract MMORPG players to the tabletop game. The core of D&D's cash flow lies with teenagers and university students, and the revised rules seem to assume that making the game more like an MMO will help appeal to an audience already familiar with online adventuring. This is most strikingly apparent in the spelling out in the 4th edition rulebooks of specific “roles” for combat, each of which overtly corresponds to the dungeon roles popularised in the World of Warcraft community (given here in brackets): defender (“tank”), striker (“DPS”), controller (“crowd control”) and leader (“healer”). Such roles make no sense in the context of participatory storytelling or the history of fantasy novels; they emerged from game balancing issues unique to the post-MUD online dungeon-bash games.
Thus one of the most original and innovative games ever to be published is now second fiddle to its electronic progeny. Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition seems to recognise that the success of World of Warcraft lies not in its ability to support role-play, for only a minority of players participate in the game world in this way, but in its slick, streamlined reward structures – inspired by the original D&D game, but tweaked to addictive excellence by the designers of computer role-playing games over the intervening decades (especially in Japan, where the genre is the most popular form of videogame). Nothing can take away the tremendous contribution of this game to the history of play, but it is still slightly saddening to see that now, even more than ever before, D&D as a commercial product is less about supporting the incredible niche hobby of participatory storytelling that it founded, and much more about wringing the spare change out of teenagers.
Are you, or were you, a Dungeons & Dragons player? I'm interested in hearing from players of the game who have opinions about the different rulesets, particularly players who still use 1st or 2nd edition AD&D rules (or D&D boxed set/cyclopedia rules), players refusing to leave 3.5 for 4e, players who have jumped ship for Pathfinder, or players who have switched to 4e and are happy with it. Thanks in advance for sharing your views!
* The full list of restricted monsters is Balhannoth, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Displacer Beast, Gauth, Githyanki, Githzerai, Kuo-Toa, Mind Flayer, Illithid, Slaad, Umber Hulk, and Yuan-Ti.