I enter the burial chamber cautiously, my feet quietly traipsing across the sopping wet floor. My stealth check succeeds and in the shadows of the ancient temple, I am practically unstoppable. Heavy breathing is audible from about fifty feet away and I roll for Nature to see if I can identify the creature it is emanating from. The dice don’t cooperate. I have no idea what I am about to face, but my allies are behind the doorway anticipating answers. The Cleric stumbles forward through the archway, her heavy armor clamoring in a failed attempt to follow me. The beast turns, letting out an ungodly scream. I notch an arrow as a minor action, aim and fire.
The dice hit the table, wobble and fall on the dreaded number one: a critical failure. In the low-light, I can make out the monster’s purple skin tone and the elongated tentacles around his mouth. Fear strikes my heart and the hearts’ of my compatriots. This is no mere dungeon dweller; this is a mind flayer. He leans down to consume the Cleric’s head in his giant maw. We don’t have much time.
The Barbarian kicks down the door and swipes at the aberrant beast with a massive double-bladed axe. His roll has more success than mine and the damage to the mind flayer is intense. It squeals in pain and releases the Cleric from its jaws. The Cleric takes a moment to heal her self as I notch a second arrow. I take my time, jostling the d20 in my palm. It tumbles across the tabletop and lands on a 20. Luck has returned to me. The arrow pierces a vulnerable spot on the mind flayer’s alien anatomy and my critical hit sends him tumbling to the ground in a puddle of black blood.
We retrieve the artifact and return to our benefactor; for payment and for experience.
Dungeons & Dragons has had an indelible impact on my life, the lives’ of other gamers, and on pop culture as a whole. It’s created potent memories like the one above; that to players are as real and vivid as those from their own lives. D&D is a catalyst for imagination, storytelling, friendship, and strategic thinking, providing the inspiration for a legion of tabletop and video game experiences. For the uninitiated, it is an odd and unclassifiable pastime. But for the true believers, Dungeons & Dragons is an exercise for the mind; a collaborative improvisation that transports players into vast worlds and epic tales. With forty years under its belt, this game deserves to be celebrated for its achievements, innovations and contributions to the world.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson met at the second ever Gen-Con tabletop gaming convention in 1969. Both men were deeply involved in the Midwest war-gaming scene and were particularly interested in the medieval time period. Arneson had begun experimenting with the idea of having players in his game group portray individual characters instead of mass armies as was traditional in the war games of the time. Blackmoor, as he called this experience, is the first example of what would later be called a roleplaying game. Arneson was learning how to build this game as he played it and took rules from a variety of sources, one of which was Gary Gygax’s Chainmail. Chainmail was the first major success Gygax had ever had as a game developer. While it offered rules for a typical war game, it also provided mechanics for one-on-one combat. An expansion added the elements of fantasy that would later become the foundation of D&D. Arneson began modifying Chainmail to better suit his Blackmoor campaign, adding familiar elements like Armor Class and Hit Points.
The true genesis of Dungeons & Dragons, however, occurred in 1972 when Gygax travelled to visit Arneson to experience the roleplaying game for himself. He was so taken by Blackmoor that he started building his own setting: Greyhawk. The two men collaborated via phone and mail, playtesting their new “Fantasy Game” with their respective groups. In January of 1974, 1,000 copies of Dungeons & Dragons were launched into the world.
Forty years, five editions, and millions of players later, the original roleplaying game is still an essential part of the fabric of gamer culture. It has outlived many of its peers, as well as its creators, and continues to attract curious, imaginative teens and adults all around the world. D&D is a phenomenon that has seen its fair share of tremendous success and crippling controversy, yet always seems to land on its feet in the eyes of the public. Still, there is a stigma attached to the game by those who’ve never experienced its charms. So beyond its historical importance to the gaming community, what is Dungeons & Dragons and why is it so important?
To define this particular game, you have to first define what a roleplaying game is. While there are dozens - if not hundreds - of RPG systems, most of them involve similar concepts. Players take on the role of a character in a fictional universe. They assign limited numeric values to skills and talents that the character would have available to them; quantifying and customizing their role in the story. The players are joined at the table by a Game Master, whose position can seem nebulous and open-ended. The Game Master is equal parts referee and storyteller; his job is to facilitate the game session by establishing the conflict, plot and setting. The player’s choices guide where the story will go, but the GM is responsible for providing a structure for the evening’s entertainment. GM’s must also have an extensive knowledge of the rules of the game, so that they are able to interpret them during more complicated circumstances.
When a player wants to take a specific action (ex. picking a lock, attacking an enemy, examining a room), he rolls a die and adds the numeric value from the corresponding skill or power. The die represents the element of luck, which can be offset by the improvement of specific abilities in a character. The Game Master compares the player’s total with a preset value signifying the difficulty of the task. If the roll defeats the difficulty, the character succeeds in his action. This is a vast simplification, but the true essence of roleplaying.
The significance of Dungeons & Dragons goes beyond the fact that it pioneered the above mechanics. Dungeons & Dragons is arguably the most vast and “complete” roleplaying game ever made. While there are multiple versions featuring different rule sets (including the upcoming D&D Next), each version features dozens upon dozens of supplemental materials to help further define the game experience. The options are practically limitless and nearly any scenario that a GM or player can think up can be easily rendered into any game session.
In fact, the sheer variety in D&D can be overwhelming at times. There are more than twenty published campaign settings throughout its history that assist GM’s in creating massive and intricate worlds. With details of historical, geographic, political and cultural information, these tomes are enormous wells of inspiration. To populate these fantastical universes with player characters, hundreds of magical races and defining classes have been published with a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. If the player can imagine a character concept, it can certainly be built within D&D rules. But heroes are useless without villains and perhaps the most intriguing and eye-catching element of the game is it’s thousands upon thousands of monstrous foes. The Monster Manual may be Dungeons and Dragons most important publication because it draws in curious strangers with its museum of oddities. Owlbears, Aboleths, Gelatinous Cubes, Kobolds; the Monster Manual is an endless resource of information on the social hierarchy, favored habitat, and evolutionary advantages of the horrors that the player’s will face on their epic quest. And once they’ve defeated their own devious mind flayer, Dungeons & Dragons provides a myriad of rewards in the form of magical items and other assorted loot.
Other roleplaying games offer most or all of these options, but aren’t nearly as comprehensive. Some games - like Pathfinder (which is heavily inspired by D&D 3.5), World of Darkness, and Star Wars - have attempted to compete, but rarely do they have the immense history and depth of the original. Dungeons & Dragons is also one of the most rigorously playtested games on the market, leading to a balance and polish that other titles are only now beginning to match.
The truth is Dungeons & Dragons is simply an intellectualized and quantified version of a game we all play as kids: “Let’s pretend”. The game made it socially acceptable to be an adult who was just as interested in taking on other more interesting and escapist lives. It is improvisational theater without the audience; an exercise in learning to think as someone else. There have been numerous scientific studies that conclude that roleplaying leads to increased empathy and social awareness, a true psychological benefit to players and Game Masters alike.
However, the real value of Dungeons & Dragons is in its ability to create persistent friendships and camaraderie. The cooperative nature of the game emphasizes teamwork, which establishes a permanent bond between the people at the table. There are gaming groups that have been playing the same characters in the same campaign for thirty years. D&D facilitates shared memories that while fictional, are still intensely personal. It’s not uncommon to reminisce about the time you rolled high enough to ride a lava shark across the Nine Hells of Baator. This sense of ownership over the experience of the game is the foundation of some of my closest friendships and that is a story you will here all across the gaming community. For outsiders, it’s easy to see roleplaying as silly and immature; but typically that comes from a place of ignorance. Dungeons & Dragons is one of the best and most innovative ways to spend time with friends that mankind has ever thought up.
Even beyond the table, D&D has been influential. Modern video roleplaying games like Mass Effect, Fallout, World of Warcraft and any number of turn-based projects rely heavily on the ideas pioneered by Gygax and Arneson. The only difference is that the video games do the math for the player. More and more, the term “RPG elements” is bandied about in the least likely of places: Call of Duty’s multiplayer, WWE’s character creator, Grand Theft Auto’s vehicle customization. It’s a genre that has influenced and bettered other genres; an extremely rare achievement.
This game, developed by two men in their basements through snail mail, transformed the way that people play. Dungeons & Dragons has been a pop culture phenomenon that has lasted longer than most tabletop games could ever hope to. Its longevity is a testament to its ability to attract new players regardless of the age of the idea. D&D is a fertile ground for creative people to explore a narrative together; a unique medium that while inspired by Tolkien, has transcended the source material and become something even greater. From the friends we’ve made to the games it’s inspired to the strides it’s made to make gaming culture acceptable by the mainstream, Dungeons & Dragons will forever be a tool for those who love to let their imagination’s run wild.
Here’s to another forty years.