Dungeons and Dragons, the granddaddy of role-playing games, turns 40 this year.
Yes, it was 40 years ago that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax (both deceased) made their creation available to the public for purchase. In fact, as determined by Jon Peterson, a historian on the subject and author of book (and ongoing blog) Playing at the World, the precise date is this Sunday, January 26, 2014.
What an age we live in! Thanks to modern technology, you can experience a whole host of classic D&D stuff, which is available for purchase in PDF form here.
The influence of these original and future D&D can’t be understated – not only in gaming and nerd culture, but it’s permeated popular culture has even crept into everyday lives (and there’s a promising-looking documentary in the works about that very subject). Here are a few of the critical hits that D&D either originated or helped to propagate (and feel free to share yours in the comments section).
With most household games defaulting to cube (i.e., six-sided) dice, D&D opened up a whole new world, helping to spread four-, eight-, 10-, 12-, and 20-sided dice into more common usage. In RPGs, these are useful to help simulate that different weapons may cause differing damage or that different abilities have differing percent chances to work. They’re also fun to spin around on the table when you’re waiting for your turn. Quite interesting are the “percentile dice”: roll two 10-siders, designating one of the die the “tens” digit and the other the “ones” digit, and you can get results from 1-100 (represented by the “00″).
Speaking of dice: Would nearly so many people know the word “dodecahedron” if not for D&D? (It’s the 12-sided die). We doubt it. “Encumbrance” is a D&D word you might also find useful when taking the SATs … and maybe even real life. We also dig the term “leveling up” — originally describing when a character accumulates enough experience points to enhance current abilities and gain new ones. This has crept into real life, describing someone visibly achieving the next level in an activity. The popularity of video games that use some kind of level/experience point system has hastened this concept’s adoption, but let’s not forget its roots are in good old tabletop gaming.
Then there are the acronyms. Acronyms tend to be unsightly, confusing and overused (we’ve often dreamed of a magical text that could instantly unravel acronyms — naturally, it would be called The Acronymicon). The business world and government agencies/programs are the main culprits. But D&D gifted us with some good ones, most notably RPG (role-playing game). There’s also the classically confusing THAC0 (“to hit armor class zero”), D&D’s old measure of how likely it is to land a blow on a foe. Pervasive? No. But kind of funny. More useful is the shorthand for Dungeon Master (“DM”), the player who guides the others on their journey, and the closely related GM, or Game Master.
I don’t think D&D’s influence on modern fantasy can easily be measured. One big influencer was the Dragonlance series, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The initial six books in the D&D-branded series remain the most compelling and iconic of the lot. And you can check out Hickman’s ongoing blogging regarding the history of Dragonlance, which itself turns 30 this year, on his site and through a Facebook page called Dragonlance Legacy, of which he says he, Weis, and others involved in its creation will be posting from time to time.
As with book authors, we’re sure this list is inexhaustible, but D&D and RPGs have inspired reams of comics creators. A short list of comics (both web and print) that we dig that show D&D/RPG influences include Goblins, Order of the Stick, Knights of the Dinner Table, Nodwick, Lower Regions, and Skullkickers. And, while not a story, Tom Fowler’s doodle blog, D&D&D is pretty sweet as well.
The influence on video games cannot be understated. The very concept of each character having a unique set of attributes both to start and that can change with time is omnipresent in modern games. The ability to choose your own path to get to a goal, even an assigned one.
Among favorites, we can of course point to modern classics that carry the D&D brand, such as Planescape: Torment, the Icewind Dale series, and, most notably, the recently refreshed Baldur’s Gate series (“Cover your nose Boo! We will leave no crevice untouched!”). But long before these, we saw text-based games (ZORK), simple dungeon-crawlers such as Rogue/Roguelikes (“you faint from lack of food”/”you were killed by an Emu”), early multiple-player jaunts such as MUDs, and storied franchises including Ultima, Wizardry and Might & Magic. These in turn influenced JRPGs — notably Final Fantasy - and of course the MMORPGs such as Everquest that in turn spawned World of Warcraft and more.
Naturally, D&D influenced a generation of other tabletop RPGs, some of which sought to simplify (GURPS), make more flexible (Hero Games), or further flesh out (Rolemaster) early D&D’s often arbitrary and clunky rules. In a little bit of push-me, pull-you, D&D itself has had many editions, several generations of which have incorporated some of the flexibility and concepts from other systems. In fact, the company is currently playtesting its latest system, which is due to drop in Summer 2014.
But trading card games (TCGs) owe a lot to D&D as well. Of course there’s Magic the Gathering, which is in line with D&D’s fantasy roots (and whose creator, Wizards of the Coast, purchased TSR, then-owner of D&D itself, in 1997 [Wizards itself is now owned by Hasbro]). There’s also a host of others, such as the uber-popular Pokemon TCG, which include versions of hit points, leveling up, and creative strategic thinking that uses and abuses the rules to take the games to a whole new level.
D&D has spawned bombs (D&D movie from 2000, we’re looking at you), but some classics as well. Who can forget the TV movie Mazes & Monsters - a production that fed off of and fed into the paranoia of D&D, starring a young Tom Hanks. The skinny: A boy gets so wrapped up in his role-playing game habits that he snaps and begins to believe he’s his character. Granted, this is a novelty watch, but an amusing part of D&D’s influence all the same.
On the more enjoyable side we have the classic Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon. (See, young people, there was a time when cartoons were largely banished to Saturday a.m.). The goofy ‘Dungeon master’ character, the ridiculous unicorn, the cool character and creature designs and air of mystery combined to a pretty memorable show. C’mon, fellow folks born in the 1970s, back me up here.
But — allow us to finish on a very strong note — the finale of Freaks & Geeks, an episode titled “Discos and Dragons,” was made especially poignant and funny through Daniel’s (James Franco) surprisingly successful incorporation into a game of D&D with the AV guys. D&D, bringing nerd and cool kid together through a world of imagination. Imagine that.
Again, this list is rather subjective and by no means exhaustive. While this coming Sunday is a great day to raise a glass of mead to D&D, pour one out for the late Mr. Arneson and Mr. Gygax, or even engage in some role playing, there’s a good chance you’re engaging in things influenced by D&D during your normal course of activities. Not bad for a game whose creators, with optimism, initially anticipated selling maybe 50,000 copies.*
*This according to ‘Dungeons & Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Gaming Culture, from Geek to Chic,’ by Brad King & John Borland.
Images: Wizards of the Coast, 905 Entertainment, Marvel Productions