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Dungeons & Dragons: The Pen and Paper Video Game

April 23, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In a fitting tribute to late Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, Volition designer Monje examines Gygax's massive legacy, suggesting that D&D was "the progenitor of most contemporary video games, irrespective of genre."]

This past March, Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, passed away at the age of 69. Gamers and websites marked his passing with the inevitable humorous tributes (my favorite: "When I heard the news, I cried 2d10 tears") and honored him for the huge influence his game has had on our industry - namely that pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons directly spawned the video game RPG genre.

Rightly so; there certainly wouldn't be a Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, or World of Warcraft today without the good ol' analog D&D, released back in 1974, and the genre shows no signs of slowing down.

On closer inspection, however, even this level of recognition is grossly inadequate. In creating Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson didn't just build a blueprint for the digital RPGs to come; they built the progenitor of most contemporary video games, irrespective of genre.

Virtual Worlds

You might remember playing games of pretend as a kid, building forts, playing cops and robbers or cowboys and indians, tinkering with action figures and the like. At its core, First Edition D&D was a set of rules that formalized such imaginative play.

Using Gygax' own miniatures wargame Chainmail as a foundation, D&D had rules for movement, for combat, for injuries and death, but also rules for interacting with characters and a system of morality.

As confusing and unintuitive as the rules sometimes were, the model of the world that emerged was pretty sophisticated; for instance in separating ability scores from skill proficiencies, the model distinguished things one is born with from things one learns. The dichotomy of free will and fate was even represented; players chose their own actions yet were always at the mercy of dice rolls.

In providing these rules and model of the world, D&D offered a powerful framework for running the first interactive simulations of reality, one in which both the everyday and the extraordinary were possible. For the first time in gaming, you could walk around a world, talk to people, explore towns and cities -- and, yes, dungeons.

More importantly, you could be a hero in that world, going on adventures to rescue those people, save those towns, fight dragons. Though crude by today's digital standards, the simulation was robust and extensible, modeling the fantastic -- elves, dragons, magic -- as well as the mundane.

The simulations ran on the best computers around: human brains. Armed with common sense knowledge, intuition, and imagination, a person need only hear the word "forest" or "castle" in order to picture one. (This worked out well, since building a convincing digital forest in 1974 was impossible.)

Still, players needed something to generate the experience -- where do the "forest" or "castle" come from? Gygax and Arneson's answer was another human brain: the Dungeon Master's. The DM of a D&D campaign runs and arbitrates the game, doing everything from designing the world and describing it to his players to providing goals and obstacles to controlling the actions of NPCs.

Contemporary video games also have a Dungeon Master, but there he's much harder to pin down, because his job is spread across many people: dozens of programmers, artists, and designers all lend a hand in creating a game's challenges and rewards, visuals and atmosphere. Hardware and software also share some DM responsibilities, by for example controlling NPCs and by drawing the game world on TV screens.

The complexity and resources involved in "DMing" video games underscore how much more sophisticated and robust video game simulations are than pen-and-paper simulations. But the latter's crudeness is part of its appeal. Because D&D "simulations" rely so much on human imagination and common sense, they can take place at precisely the level that humans care about -- at the very high level of people, places, and things -- and no lower.

This allows DMs to focus on what really matters -- the gameplay, the story, and the storytelling -- and lets them avoid the extreme pain required in creating, bit by bit, the robust digital worlds that run on silicon.

Level of complexity (and creator masochism) aside, however, it becomes easier to see a deeper link between pen-and-paper D&D and contemporary video games of most any genre, given the parallels. Both offer interactive simulations that let players act within virtual worlds. They just differ in how they get there.

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Nathaniel Diaz
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This is perhaps the best, most insightful article I have read on Gamasutra. I remember DMing several games, from traditional D & D to Marvel Superheroes. The limits for every aspect of the experience were my imagination, and no video game to date has come close to that. Every player in my pen and paper adventures was totally entrance with the worlds we created: I created the frame work, and they created all the visuals - in their own imagination. This made every minute spent in the game world personal to each person. Thank you for writting this article, maybe it will inspire newer developers who haven't experienced D & D to try new things.

Tony Dormanesh
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Yes, a great article on one the greatest games ever created. It's too bad most people don't know these things. I know for a fact I would not be a game developer if it wasn't for D&D.

They need to teach this stuff in game history class so the new generation of developers understand their roots.

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Well, in a sence they do. At Fullsail in orlando florida Dave Arneson is teaching their "rules of the game" class. Probably one of the more fun classes in the set.

Aaron Lutz
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Thanks to Alvan Monje and Gamasutra for this article. It's true that D&D has had a more significant impact in games that most people know or are willing to admit. D&D was my only outlet for creativity when I was young, and remains my favorite now that I'm older.

I only hope that someday, perhaps in my lifetime, games will be able to reach that same level of interactivity, freedom, choice and accountability, and imagination that D&D offers, allowing those who only ever knew of video games a taste of where it all began in vivid high-definition and surround-sound. *grin*

P.S. No offense, Wizards, but D&D Online doesn't even come close.

Lewis Pulsipher
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There are many games with "story" that are not related to RPG/D&D, for example most historical games. The word "story" is contained in "history", and historical boardgames predate D&D by 15 years or more. (Gary was involved in board wargames long before D&D; I first corresponded with him about the "International Federation of Wargamers" in 1966).

Nonetheless, I agree that D&D is at the root of video games, because most video games involve role assumption (not quite the same as RP). The player identifies with one person, and usually but not always has an avatar. That's the difference, not "story".

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This is a silly statement. D&D is not at the heart of Pac-man, asteroids, or tempest. Log out of world of warcraft for once and remember the rest of the video-gaming world.

Aaron Casillas
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My parents did not allow us to play D&D because it would lead ot devil worshipping. SO, being the smart brats that we were we played it

a) in real life, a bunch of 5-10 year old kids with Card Board armor and helmets...I recall having a "talcum powder" filled staff, one swing and I'd have about 5 kids all powdered up!

b) played it in legos, we used a dice and assigned hitpoints to the body parts, waay before Star Wars Legos

c) created a side scroller version, more dice and pencil

Truly any piece of art or literature that inspires and births more is worth remembrance.

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I disagree with both this article in general and in detail. First, people have been making video games since the 50's. The first video game console came out a year -before- D&D. Granted, these are the simplest of games because the hardware just wasn't there yet, but I think you are confusing precedence with influence by claiming all the cool things that video games became able to do when hardware improved are the -result- of D&D.

The "Open Worlds" section of the article seems superfluous as it doesn't serve to enforce the main point. All it really says is that those types of games are similar (and ultimately inferior?) to D&D. Again, though, similarity does not imply causality.

I have much respect for Gygax and I still play D&D to this day, but I think it is an serious insult to game developers to tell them that their ideas are all derived from someone else's. Nobody at ID would have ever thought to put the Doom player's face on the screen if D&D hadn't invented the idea of roles in games? Come on...

Bob Curtis
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> This is a silly statement. D&D is not at the heart of Pac-man, asteroids, or tempest. Log out of world of warcraft for once and remember the rest of the video-gaming world.

First, the author said D&D was the influence on MODERN video games. Second, Pac-Man, Asteroids and Tempest all have "stories" even if those stories are at the simplest level ("you're a guy in a space ship who has to blow up asteroids to survive," for example.)

> First, people have been making video games since the 50's. The first video game console came out a year -before- D&D.

Again, the author said D&D was influential in /modern/ video games. And yes, "video games" have been around longer than D&D (as a kid in the 70's I played "Hunt the Wumpus" and other "video games" over a Teletype machine and a modem connecting to a mainframe - some of the first "online" gaming). But D&D has been highly influential for generations now, and one of those influences has been in the video game hobby/industry.

All ideas build on those ideas of the past. We would have no Metallica, for example, were it not for the influence of "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" bands like Venom and Diamondhead, among others. And, ultimately, going back and back logically, we wouldn't have rock and roll were it not for blues and country of the 50's and previous, and going back further we wouldn't have any modern music without the likes of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, et. al.

Same goes with games. Yes, there were historical war games of all kinds before D&D. But Gygax and Arneson were (to my knowledge) the first to combine wargaming with fantasy elements - elves, dwarves, etc - and then add in fantasy "heroes" to the mix, and then eventually spin off the fantasy hero concept into the first version of D&D; this influenced others and so on, so that video games can easily be seen as heavily influenced by their work and the popularity of the D&D concept.

One thing the author failed to mention regarding this topic is that most modern video games borrow the general D&D mechanic for health and other statistics. Doom, Duke Nukem, WoW, and beyond all use a system not at all unlike Hit Points to determine a characters overall health (or death).

As an aside, most modern video games can trace their roots back to a little TI-99 video game called Tunnels of Doom. Therein, the game designer borrowed D&D concepts to create a fantasy "rpg" game that spawned many modern video game concepts. It was perhaps the first to include virtual, 3D environments (you walked down 3D tunnels from one room to another in a virtual dungeon - very much a precursor to games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), the map screen showing where you've been, and "top down" 3rd person combat (like most modern rpg games).

In short, this article is spot on, bravo.