From "Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life," by John Michaud, The New Yorker, Culture Desk, July 18, 2014:
[D&D] ushered in a seminal change in the way games were created and enjoyed. Instead of pieces...there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board...there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace...but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D. & D.’s addictive quality. By 1981, more than three million people were playing Dungeons & Dragons.
From "A Game as Literary Tutorial," by Ethan Gilsdorf, The New York Times, Books section, July 13, 2014.
For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives.
The playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, 44, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” said D&D “harkens back to an incredibly primitive mode of storytelling,” one that was both “immersive and interactive.” The Dungeon Master resembles “the tribal storyteller who gathers everyone around the fire to tell stories about heroes and gods and monsters,” he said. “It’s a live, communal event, where anything can happen in the moment.”
2014 is the 40th anniversary of the creation of commercial role-playing games (RPG).*
In 1974, Gary Gygax (1938–2008) and Dave Arneson (1947–2009), both influenced by tabletop wargames and fantasy fiction, created Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). In 1977, the Dungeons & Dragon's Basic Set was published by the company Gygax and Arneson co-founded, TSR, Inc., and Gygax next wrote the more complex three-book Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
The game, under the simple title Dungeons & Dragons, is the epitome of tabletop role-playing games. Its fifth edition debuts in summer 2014 as a product of Wizards of the Coast (WofC), a Hasbro subsidiary based in Seattle.
Tabletop wargames, a major influence on Gygax and Arneson, descend from chess but are less abstract. They are strategy games that first became popular in the 1950s in the U.S. through the Avalon Hill gaming company.** Before that time, wargames existed as instructional tools for military officers--for instance Kriegsspiel (1812) used by the Prussian army--however, popular wargamming arguably descends more directly from the game H.G. Wells created in his 1913 book Little Wars. The book transforms typical improvisational play with toy soldiers into a parlour game version based on codified rules.*** (Read Little Wars at the Gutenberg Project website.)
Both tabletop wargames and RPGs use dice and probability. In wargames, dice and chance tend to stand in for battlefield or strategic conditions generally termed "friction," which are not encapsulated by the rules, e.g., weather conditions, the "fog of war" (Nebel des Krieges, a concept identified by Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), troop morale, etc.)****
In role-playing games, the dice serve the same basic function but relative to friction usually operating at the level of the individual character each player controls (known as a player character or "PC") and not a military unit, and the result of the rolls may effect the sort of narrative structure unfolding during the gaming session.
The various polyhedral dice used in many RPGs are sub-cultural icons and are designated by their number of sides, e.g., d4, d6, d8, d10, d20, etc.
Fantasy fiction was the second influence on Gygax and Arneson. It dramatically expanded as a literary genre following the tremendous popularity beginning in the 1960s of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954).***** The genre includes hundreds of unremarkable "Tol-clones" written since the 1960s as well as a few comparatively more worthwhile works. As I see it, the genre as it exists now descends from three literary categories predating Tolkien, the first two of which influenced Tolkien and the latter two of which are now generally considered to be sub-genres within fantasy fiction:
1) mythology and myth-imbued lore, primarily those of medieval Germanic peoples (e.g. the Prose Edda, penned c. 1220 by Snorri Sturluson, and Beowulf of the Nowell Codex that was penned c. 975–1025);
2) a type of tale Tolkien describes in his 1947 essay "On Fairy-Stories," which includes works by George MacDonald (e.g. The Princess and the Goblin, 1872) and William Morris (e.g. The Well at the World's End, 1896); and
3) fantastical or horror pulp fiction, such as the short stories published in the 1920s magazine Weird Tales, including works by H.P. Lovecraft (e.g. "The Call of Cthuhlu"); this category also falls into one often termed "weird fiction".
The Role-playing Games Industry After D&D
From the 1990s on, tabletop role-playing games evolved into card-based games, computer and mobile device role-playing games, and what is now the $1.4 billion massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) industry.
I spent many hours during my teenage years playing tabletop role-playing games. Some fellow Generation X gamers include Steven Colbert, Conan O'Brian, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Jon Favreau, Ewan McGreggor, Seth Greene, Patton Oswalt, Joss Whedon, Jack Black, and David Boreanaz. Vin Diesel is a major D&D fan. He's been interviewed about role-playing and cites Dungeons & Dragons as an influence on his Riddick films. (On the set of Riddick in 2004, he introduced Dame Judi Dench to D&D.) Wil Wheaton is also a fan and an enthusiast of tabletop gaming in general. He hosts the program TableTop on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. Among the Baby Boomer generation, Stephen King is one celebrity who is a D&D fan.
The second part of Jerry Whitworth's excellent article "The ’80s – Geek Edition" gives a good sense of the evolution of RPGs, in part from from the perspective of the comics art profession.
Here is a list of tabletop RPGs that I often played. I highlighted those still in production as of January 2014:
- Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP), a product of Ice Crown Enterprises, Inc., and the first role-playing game I purchased,
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a product to Fantasy Flight Games in Roseville, MN licensed by the British company Games Workshop (LSE: GAW.L),
- GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System; see the Web site), a creation of Steven Jackson Games—the Austin, Texas offices of which were raided by the Secret Service in the 1990s relative to concerns that GURPS Cyberpunk was a how-to on cyber crime—including related products GURPS Autoduel, GURPS Horror, and GURPS Old West.
- Star Frontiers,
- Twilight 2000,
- Top Secret,
- Ars Magica (I merely dabbled in this RPG; it's now in its fifth edition)
and, of course,
- Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the fifth edition of which will be released in 2014 as a product of Hasbo-owned Wizards of the Coast (WofC).
ARTICLES OF SPECIAL NOTE:
"Happy 40th Birthday to Dungeons & Dragons," The Guardian, Jan. 3, 2014.
The Great Kingdom is an upcoming documentary about the origins of D&D.
This TSR timeline offers a look at D&D's evolution over the last 40 years.
See the Salon.com article, "All I needed to know about life I learned from 'Dungeons & Dragons'"
Images: Top: "The red box," the 1983 revision of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. This product probably more than any other introduced people to tabletop RGPs. Second from top: my polyhedral dice, unused for about 20 years now!. Middle: the first edition of The Lord of the Rings. Second from bottom: a webisode of the Geek & Sundry program TableTop. Bottom: the cover of an edition of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP).
*What's a role-playing game? The short first two paragraphs devoted to the topic on Wikipedia are as good of a definition as any I've encountered.
**The Avalon Hill brand is, like the Dungeons & Dragon's brand, owned now by Wizards of the Coast (WofC). As a teenager in the 1980s, I played numerous Avalon Hill tabletop wargames, too. That quality tabletop wargames possess that chess lacks I term "military simulation;" others use the term "battlefield emulation." I find it difficult to describe. It's something like a concern for the historicity of the simulated military encounter or some history-based technical detail that not only the aesthetic of the game but also at least some of the rules attempt to impart. This degree, the depth, of military simulation varies widely from game to game.
Regarding the emergence of tabletop wargames in the 1950s, perhaps it reflects, in part, American society's heightened awareness of military matters as the U.S. moved into its second decade of almost unrelenting war or concern for war: the Second World War followed by the Cold War and the Korean conflict.
***Wells' game may reflect British society's formality and preoccupation with the British Empire, which in 1913 was arguably at its height, or the concern with geo-political contests between European empires as well as the fact that the upper and middle-class lifestyles afforded the leisure time necessary for Wells' game. As others have pointed out, it's ironic that Wells, a pacifist, created Little Wars. Perhaps him doing so points to just how pervasive the aforementioned societal preoccupation was. Wells couldn't escape it. Nonetheless, Wells notes in his book that "much better is this amiable miniature [war] than the real thing." (See Michael Rundel's "HG Wells' 'Little Wars': How An Icon Of Sci-Fi Invented Modern War Games 100 Years Ago.")
****The most original wargame I encountered, though I never had opportunity to play it, was Ogre, which is now in its sixth edition and which also exists as the Kickstarter-funded, 29-pound The Ogre Designer's Edition (photo, click to enlarge) that shipped in November 2013. The special edition's production garnered 5,512 backers on Kickstarter and $903,680 in excess funding above the stated $20,000 goal.
*****Some might include certain historical novels set in the Middle Ages in the fantasy category, too, but this is a gray area. These are the sort of historical novels in which magic is real at least in minds of some or all of the novel's characters. An example is Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy. To her characters, magic is a reality—they presume it to be an actual, operative thing in their world—and so it's described as such from a first-person point of view. However, the reader herself is not expected to suspend disbelief and accept that magic was in historical fact operative in 500s Britain and France.
Another gray area is what I call naturalistic fantasy: works that are devoid of magic or or the supernatural or downplay it, but that are set in a time and place imagined by the author and not corresponding to reality. George R.R. Martin's fiction comes close to this type of fiction. Compared to Tolkien's fantasy, for instance, Martin's is less mythic in tone, less concerned with magic, and is more informed by gritty, human interaction and the dynamics of power and politics than, say, the arguably more academic concepts of philology and mythology that inform Tolkien's works so greatly.