Finally, there was one very consistent influence and theme on the early work of nearly everyone: Dungeons & Dragons. Not surprisingly, many of the people I corresponded with had been big fans of the game, and often had been drawn into design through it.
There were several factors at work here: the accessibility of the game, with very wide distribution and a low starting price (particularly compared to buying a computer!), a pathway to move from player to Dungeon Master (DM) using established modules and rules, to designer creating your own dungeons and rules, and plenty of pathways from there on toother RPG's including so many computer-based variants.
Tom Henderson of Rockstar New England tells a story of bridging the gap from 1970's era board/war games to D&D:
I can still remember seeing a wargame in the store for the first time. I was 12 years old, and I saw a bunch of Avalon Hill games. I got super excited and got my parents to buy me some for Christmas. It was France 1940, 1914, and Wilderness Survival. I still have France 1940. Later I saw an ad for a new magazine called Strategy & Tactics that had a game in every issue! I started getting S&T and found out that they sold blank counters. I started making up my own games, although I can't really remember much about them.
It was ads in S&T that exposed me to roleplaying -- ads for Chainmail and Empire of the Petal Throne. I liked the idea a lot. Finding other people to play with wasn't so easy. When the D&D craze really hit it became easier though. and I usually DMed, making elaborate missions. D&D for me was supplanted later by Runequest, and latter I added Champions and all sorts of other RPGs.
Empire of the Petal Throne happened to be my introduction to paper roleplaying games. Released just shortly after Dungeons & Dragons, it was set in the incredibly detailed world of Tekumel, invented by Professor M.A.R. Barker. His world and the strange, non-Tolkien sort of creatures in it was fascinating to me, and the fantasy world aspect of the early paper RPGs also attracted the attention of others.
For instance, David Navarro of Recoil Games was captivated more by the elaborate worlds of role playing games:
Generally speaking, although I've been aware of and admired the beauty of elegant game rules since I was very young, what got me into game design wasn't really rule-building but world-building. Even my D&D campaigns were relatively short on traps and enemies and long on lore, exploration and incidental detail.
And Jordan Thomas of 2K Marin also echoed that starting with RPGs did not necessarily lead to a fascination with rules, but in his case with the storytelling aspects of the genre:
By about 13 I had become hooked on Sierra adventure games and Gold Box RPGs on the PC. This, I am convinced, transmitted a bone-deep narratology infection into me which I still accidentally spit up all over otherwise harmonious systems of play, and have to scuttle away in shame.
Still learning how to get excited about rules for their own sake, honestly; I never come at it from that angle. I also started running story-heavy D&D games at around this time. Super Monty Hall stuff, where I sort of instinctively understood core fantasy, but not the rewards of the ludic journey at all.
Brian Upton of SCEA speaks of the solitary aspects of being hooked on game design early on:
I definitely started early. I was fascinated by board games a child and if I couldn't get someone to play with me (a fairly often occurrence) I would sit around and reread the rules and imagine different strategies. I started playing D & D when I was 12 and I spent hours drawing maps and creating my own adventures.
Stieg Hedlund of Turpitude followed a similar path, and hit D&D at the same age as Brian:
I was extremely into board games (Risk, Sorry, Parcheesi), card games (War, Pinochle, Hearts, and some crazy foreign stuff, some of which I don't remember the names of but which definitely included Mille Bornes) from a very young age, and was always thinking about how these games worked, strategies. I won a lot, though a lot of that had to do with luck more than skill. We did get Pong when it came out and I remember playing that a lot as well.
I also got very deeply into Tolkien at this time, having read the LoTR series years before, but digging further into the Silmarillion and the Appendices, which launched me, as they did for so many, into dabbling in linguistics and conlangery (though I'll note that I'd been working with simple ciphers for years before this).
I got the boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons when I was 12, and that was a real defining moment. I quickly started exploring scenario creation, then rule variants, balancing, and issues like that. This led to my doing this professionally by the age of 16.
Is it any surprise that the designer of Diablo and Diablo II wasa D&D fan? And I'm sure at this point many Diablo players migrate over to paper RPG too. If like me, the term "conlangery" is new to you, it means the art of constructing languages -- like Tolkien's Elvish and Dwarvish, or artificial languages like Esperanto or Loglan. Stieg continues:
It was a kick working with the Wizards of the Coast guys on the Diablo D&D stuff many years later. And very interesting that a lot of the direction for the Fourth Edition comes from CRPGs, particularly WoW, for which the Diablo series is pretty foundational -- the students have become the masters.
And yet not everyone found it easy to get into D&D. Sheri Graner Ray of Saber Dance Studios speaks of how even that sometimes took a lot of determination:
So I came to games much later than ya'll did. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It's not the end of the world, but you can sure see it from there. Unfortunately, it was (and still is) one of the most socially and economically depressed regions of the country.
Because of that, the Valley had no comic shops, no game shops, not even any book shops to speak of... nothing. Didn't have a McDonalds until I was in high school and the nearest Chinese restaurant was a four hour drive north to San Antonio. It wasn't until 1980 that I even heard of a game called Dungeons & Dragons... and then only by way of an article in Parade magazine about the "evils" of that game.
Having just read Lord of the Rings, I had to find out more about D&D. No one I knew had ever heard of it, so in 1981 I put an ad in the student paper of the local community college I was attending trying to find someone to teach me to play. (Can you imagine? A 19-year-old girl LOOKING for someone to teach her to play PnP games?? LOL!)
So ultimately, even if there is no single set path all budding game designers follow, I think it is clear that if you have a fascination with the mechanics and rules of existing games -- particularly Dungeons & Dragons -- combined with a dedication to tinker and change those games or create new ones by whatever means and media possible are a strong sign that a career in game design may be in your future.