Geek culture celebrates 40 years of D&D.
When I was growing up I always wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons. It just looked so cool. I had spent hundreds of hours playing games on various home computers that my dad had decided were essential for the house, but which always ended up just being used to play games or mess around on Deluxe Paint 3. (I am still at a loss to understand how anyone ever managed to get that golden pharoah mask drawn using a Commodore Amiga mouse.) I loved the freedom and open endedness of games like Frontier: Elite II and tried to find it elsewhere with limited success. Me and a friend even went so far as to attempt to program our own in Basic. It was never completed, nor was it any good.
When I first heard about Dungeons and Dragons I was amazed. Someone had already made the very game that I was looking for. More than that though, this game had been a direct inspiration to the people who had made the games I grew up with. I had to play it. The only problem was that it wasn’t playable with just one person, unlike computer games. Nonetheless, with still no-one to play with, I have over the years gathered a small collection of dice, a few rulebooks, the recently re-released version of the old red box set from 1983, a fairly terrible “beginners” version of Advanced D&D called “First Quest” that came with an hilariously bad soundtrack CD. At least D&D geeks have people to play with. I just have the books. And the terrible CD.
In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson released the first version of their newly-developed role playing game entitled Dungeons and Dragons. It was an expansion of a tabletop strategy game that they had created some years earlier called Chainmail. The first edition of D&D appears to be one of the most frustrating games ever created. It was based around the idea that players would have prior knowledge and experience and ownership of the game Chainmail, and would also own a copy of the game Avalon Hill. To play D&D you would need the rules, the measurement guides and the maps from these other two games, only one of which was published by Gygax’s own company, Tactical Studies Rules. These guys were serious gamers, so much so that the idea that people didn’t own the other two games seems to have not even entered their heads. True, the original intention of D&D was to make a dungeon-crawling expansion game, and not a stand-alone one. But still, I’d be pissed off if I was trying to figure out the rules to D&D and it kept telling me to flip to a different page in a different book from a different game to reference something like “projectile distance”. I think that the space you just used to tell me where to go and look the information up could have been easily filled with a number and a measurement. Or maybe not, what do I know? I never got a chance to play.
After the first edition Gygax and Arneson expanded the D&D rule books to account for fiddly details that hadn’t occurred to them originally. Subtle things like needing to know what you were doing and understanding how the fuck it was supposed to work. They split the game into two versions, one of which would continue along the already set route (but with its own set of rules, disregarding the need for games from TSR’s back catalogue) and the other becoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. These two versions stood side-by-side for over two decades, each one being updated independently of the other. The Advanced Ruleset became the basis for the first major ventures into the world of PC gaming, including the Baldurs Gate series. Members of the team that worked on Baldurs Gate would go on to work on many of the RPG video games that we know and love today such as Mass Effect, Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic. It would also introduce elements that still confound and bemuse some of the most hardened tabletop RPG veterans. Just ask someone who plays D&D what THAC0 means for a brief demonstration of the divisiveness of the AD&D system.
To me it always looked as though there was a definite split between the two camps. Fans of AD&D thought that D&D was too basic and designed as a beginner’s guide to the real game, and fans of D&D thought that the advanced rules were overly complex and hindered the game. Essentially, some people find that looking up rules for forty minutes between every monster encounter is an enjoyable and essential part of the experience. Some people just want to play.
In 1985, after years of legal disputes, managerial strangeness and various other issues, Gygax sold his shares in TSR, effectively giving up his rights to Dungeons and Dragons completely. His work on making the cartoon series a ratings hit had not managed to stop TSR from falling into massive debt, due in part to “a number of gross mismanagements” by the Blume brothers, who had bought up the stock in the company after the death of Gygax’s original business partner Don Kaye in 1975. Gygax started up another company and went on to have critical success with his other games, even revisiting the notes for his original D&D campaigns to collect them for release with the new system called “Castles and Crusades”.
In 1997 the nearly completely bankrupt TSR was acquired by the fantasy gaming equivalent of Electronic Arts, Wizards of the Coast, which was in turn acquired by Hasbro in 1999. They began work on their own update to the rules and would attempt to create a hybrid version of the two current rulesets. This was, to some extent, done in order that Wizards could “put its stamp on D&D”. It would also serve as a starting point for a whole new generation of players and would form the basis for many RPG systems in the future.
In 2000 the third edition rules were released, combining the rules for both D&D and AD&D to form one, singular, ultra version of the game. Except that they had to release the tabletop equivalent of a patch roughly 3 years later. Wizards also released the “Open Game License” which formed a basic starting point from which other companies could create their own games. The new ruleset won the Origins award for “Best Roleplaying Game” in 2000. This release has been steadily followed by a slew of extension books for the game featuring new monsters, character races and classes and settings for dungeon masters to use as templates for their own adventures. This had always been one of the strongest appeals of D&D. Books were released that gave you all the numbers and data you would need so that you could tailor your game to your own group. Monsters too easy? Substitute them for different ones. One of your players wants to be a half vampire, half werewolf, half dragon that’s related to Merlin and King Arthur? Tell that guy to fuck off and stop wasting your time, then find someone else to play. The Players Handbook and all its subsequent versions contain easily adaptable templates to start off with, meaning that players can get playing without a lot of trouble rolling a character and fiddling around.
Version 4 was released in 2008 and was either hated or adored depending upon who you listen to and which side of the fence you are on. Many of its harshest critics say that it adheres too closely to MMO combat rules, whilst some of its biggest advocates cite this as one of the new format’s biggest strengths. In the hope of gaining new players, the rules have become more streamlined in an effort to not only attract a new generation of dungeoneers, but also to ensure that seasoned stalwarts can play quickly and easily with the minimum of setup. Apparently. According to the back of the book.
Wizards of the Coast are currently working on their D&D Next project, which is being play-tested by actual players rather than just by people at the offices of the company. It looks as though Wizards are attempting to make this iteration of the game one that will please every player. That’s obviously never going to happen. There are still those who will only ever play 3.5 because that’s where they started and there are those who swallow up each new release like a starving Gelatinous Cube. As for me, I still don’t have an opinion. I think I preferred reading the rules to 4.
So here’s to 40 years of D&D. And here’s to another 2d20+4 more!
– Anton Krasauskas is a Level 15 Yorkshireman equipped with Snark and Lightning Typing Speed. Find him on Twitter @ajkrasauskas.