[In the latest in his popular Game Design Essentials series, which has previously spanned subjects from Atari games through 'mysterious games', 'open world games', 'unusual control schemes' and 'difficult games', writer John Harris examines 10 games from the Western computer RPG (CRPG) tradition and 10 from the Japanese console RPG (JRPG) tradition, to figure out what exactly makes them tick -- and why you should care.]
Introduction: (Original) Dungeons
by: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson
Influenced by: Braunstein, a
game that Dave Arneson is known to have played, predated D&D. There were also weird fiction and pulp
fantasy stories and tabletop war games dating back to H.G. Wells' floor game
Series: No less than seven
editions and many side-products. Not to mention all the CRPGs that claim to be
derived from its rules. Also, those CRPGs that steal mechanics from it without
Nearly all RPGs.
it's not a CRPG, let's begin with a discussion of the original role-playing
game, the edition of Dungeons & Dragons that started the role-playing game
craze in 1974. It might not seem relevant to the discussion, but there are some
things about the RPG genre that only really make sense when viewed in
comparison with this particular game.
may not actually have been the first role-playing game; word is that Dave
Arneson participated in another game prior to its release. But D&D 1974,
referred to among fans on the 'net as "OD&D," was the
introduction of RPGs to practically everyone else.
the term "role-playing game," it seems, was not used in the original
set. A search through the books and supplements of the OD&D game show a
good number of uses of the word "role," as a general term for a
character played by either a player or the referee, but none for
"role-playing game." Neither
is it used in any of the supplements.
The earliest published use seems to be
either the Holmes version of the game, which slightly predates AD&D, or the
last issue of TSR's early publication The
Strategic Review, where it's used in describing their shiny upcoming magazine
The Dragon. Until then, it seems there may have been no good name for what
Dungeons & Dragons was.
is important because "role-playing game" is one of those terms that
is proscriptive in its use. It implies that players, to an extent, personify
their characters. D&D arose out of a marriage between wargaming and fantasy
fiction, so narrative is in its blood, but early on the most frequent type of
adventure was a simple free-form dungeon crawl. If you count OD&D as a
role-playing game, then you necessarily have to admit that RPGs don't have to
be games of storytelling, or at least not games of "top-down,"
DM-driven storytelling. (RPGs have always been games of what we might call
this sense computer versions have more in common with early social roleplaying
sessions than later ones. Few people
play CRPGs with an eye towards acting out their characters' roles.
thing, the game was hard. Really hard! Characters dropped like flies! Only a
small percentage of characters would ever reach level two. That might seem
harsh, because it was,
but it didn't chase players off because people didn't identify as strongly with
characters. One tends not to get attached to characters who stand a good chance
of not making it out of their first trip into the dungeon. Without
storytelling, and with the game's much-simpler system -- compared, even, to
AD&D 1st edition, which is not really all that dissimilar to OD&D with
all the supplements applied.
is important because many early CRPGs, and even some early JRPGs, took a
similar attitude to character death. The Wizardry-influenced
style of game makes death common, especially at low levels. Wizardry charges a good
deal to revive a dead character, the process has a good chance of failing, and
if it does it costs even more to try to revive the pile of ashes the corpse
becomes. The roguelike genre continues to hold up the tradition to this day.
thing, the game had a strong setting and a reduced scope. OD&D is a game about exploring dungeons,
and other dangerous places, and that's mostly it. High-level characters may get
the opportunity to start their own little fortress or tower, but with level
nine, "name level," so far away and the game so deadly, this isn't
something a player can do more than hope to reach. Because dungeon exploring is
ultimately a loot-harvesting game, and treasure can be obtained in ways other
than fighting, characters gained one experience point per gold piece acquired. This knowledge can seem
surprising to us computer gamers today, as nearly every CRPG that uses an
experience system anymore doles it for fighting alone.
XP-for-gold rule implies strongly that the DM must carefully guard his riches
and not hand out gold on a whim. This
need led, at times, to a kind of DM vs. players rivalry. If a DMs failed to
realize this they could end up subtly nudged towards giving out extra wealth,
leading to what became known as "Monty Haul" campaigns, with vast
amounts of treasure distributed for little work. Second edition remedied this
by switching to all combat-based experience, offering treasure XP as an option,
as well as XP for completing quests.
out experience points for collecting gold fits in with the '20s and '30s pulp
fantasy works that inspired the game, which are fairly gritty tales with heroes
are mostly in it for personal enrichment. Characters in pulp fantasy are, by
D&D standards, fairly weak. Even the most powerful ones, like Conan, face
significant danger from some angle or another, in his case from magic and gods.
OD&D characters are never completely safe, at least not if the DM is
why is this important? Because this attitude, that role playing is a game of
loot acquisition first, is everywhere in early computer RPGs. Even those with
strong save-the-world quests have a lot of loot gaining along the way. It also
explains those "strange" games, like PLATO dnd, that allow characters experience, or even
direct improvement, for the simple act of money-harvesting.
thing: OD&D did not include a mandatory combat system. The first books
referred players to Chainmail, a prior game of Gygax's, for ideas for how to
resolve battles. It had a section marked "Alternate Combat System"
that would later become the standard combat mechanism D&D would use for
years, but Chainmail was the official solution, and besides its use of armor
class and hit points, its rules were quite different from what is now seen as
standard D&D combat.
is important because it shows is that combat play, ultimately, was not
considered the defining aspect of the game. It was a replaceable system. When
played with Chainmail, D&D looks a lot like a special form of wargame
campaign. This may well be a contributing factor to the strong split between
"exploration mode" and "combat mode" that many RPGs use to
this day. OD&D didn't get the system that would ultimately become the
combat method used in AD&D 1st edition, and later mutated into the
"d20 System," until the first supplement, under the heading
"ALTERNATIVE COMBAT SYSTEM."
to this is the fifth thing, and perhaps the most important of all: OD&D was
poorly explained. It is impossible to play Original Dungeons & Dragons with
just the first three rule books, and even the supplements left important things
out. Gygax and Arneson wrote for a presumed audience of wargamers. It still
managed to become popular because the game primarily spread by word-of-mouth.
People didn't learn from reading the books; they learned from other people, and
thus the rules of the game followed the principles of oral tradition, with the
rules used as reference.
is important because it let a hundred rulesets thrive. Different regions tended
to play the game in different ways. When more rigorous rules were written, some
people decided they liked their old system better and invented competing RPGs,
codifying those rules, to compete with D&D. It is this very proliferation
of rules that produced the wide variety of games and approaches among early
am not trying to argue that the game was better or worse than present-day RPGs.
It is not hard, really, to find people who would say otherwise; there is a
burgeoning field of "retro-clone" RPGs out there whose purpose is to
make games very much like those old systems. But the original game of Dungeons
& Dragons was surprisingly different from what we remember today, and it
turns out that many of the oddnesses of RPG gaming, some persisting right up to
the present, have their roots in its evolution.
Some of the ideas for this
introduction came from the following blogs:
- Delta's D&D
- Jeff's Gameblog
- I Waste the Buddha
With My Crossbow
- Lamentations of the Flame
- Always Go Right