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Dungeons & Dragons: The Pen and Paper Video Game
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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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