I was recently asked (OK I lobbied for it) to give a presentation on Dungeons & Dragons at work. It’s a game… we’re a games company.. makes sense. So I thought I’d immortalise it in pixels.
It turns out most people had played a tabletop Role Playing Game at one point or another. Those who hadn’t, I surmised, had probably played a computer variant, perhaps without realising it, but I still wanted to briefly explain the general idea for the Muggles.
Dungeons & Dragons is a Role Playing Game, which mostly takes place in the imagination of the players. Here’s some typical players:
And here’s the sort of thing they’ll be picturing themselves as:
In D&D and many other RPGs players choose a character class, which have different abilities and skills, they then form a party and go on adventures. D&D (as the name would hopefully suggest) takes place in a medieval fantasy world, so players take on the roles of Ranger, Warrior, Thief, Wizard and other archetypal character types of the genre.
Players describe their actions to a Games Master or Dungeon Master- who acts as the game’s referee and storyteller, describing the situation the players are in. He also plays the role of the NPCs (Non Player Characters – basically monsters and innkeepers) – whilst also keeping an eye on the rules.
Characters have statistics that influence dice rolls to determine actions – here’s some dice:
And, while the game largely takes place in the imagination of the players, miniatures are often used to represent characters. Here’s some miniatures:
The question you usually get asked by people who’ve never encountered RPGs is “do you have to dress up?” and obviously, no you don’t have to dress up
THE HISTORY OF THE RING
Dungeons & Dragons grew out of the wargaming scene of the early 1970s. The development of the game has been covered in great detail a number of times. I would recommend the excellent Designers & Dragons series by Shannon Appelcline, and David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice & Men – which, to be honest, i got most of my research from.
Broadly speaking, Dave Arneson hit upon the idea of giving the players in his wargaming group a single character rather than an army and sending them through an underground labyrinth, rather than an open battlefield. Throw in some magic and fantastical creatures, as well as Wisconsin gamer Gary Gygax, who developed and codified a lot of Arneson’s concepts, and that’s how D&D, the first Role Playing Game came about.
Their declared influences included Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, Robert E Howard’s Conan, Fritz Leiber’s swashbuckling, roguish Lankhmar stories, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (Swords, Sorcery & Psychedelia), and Jack Vance’s whimsical Dying Earth books.
Hmmm… who might they be missing. Is there an elephant in the room?
Gary Gygax claimed there was little or no Tolkien influence on Dungeons & Dragons. While the game included Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, wizards and magic swords, these were all elements taken from folklore, mythology and the standard tropes of fantastic fiction that had inspired Tolkien himself. It’s the specific depiction of these elements that hew so closely to Tolkien’s writings, that raise suspicions about Gygax’s claims. Lord Of The Rings was published in 1954, but achieved cult status in America in the late sixties. Its bucolic, pre industrial utopia, and brave, warm hearted, weed smoking heroes struck a chord with the counterculture, and hippies everywhere took to wearing “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf For President” badges.
Tolkien’s world seeped into the culture during the seventies. Students’ dorm rooms were adorned with posters of wizards and warriors, while countless songs about Galadriel and Gollum played in the background. It was in this environment that Arneson and Gygax were inspired to take their wargaming beyond the Napoleonic wars.
Hobbit, Ent, Nazgul, and Balrog were all unique Tolkien creations that made it into the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. Gygax claimed this was merely a commercial move to pull in Lord of the Rings fans, but when Tolkien Enterprises – a new company recently set up to license the works for movies, toys and games – started sending cease and desist letters, those elements had to be removed. Sort of. Hobbit was changed to Halfling, Ent to Treant (“Tree-Giant”), Nazgul to Wraith, and Balrog to Balor Demon. Orc was another Tolkien created term, but one that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps everyone presumed Old JRR had not created the word (an ork is a demon from the obscure Tyrol alpine folklore, not necessarily anything like the goblinoid creature we now think of). This is presumably why orcs now appear in Warhammer, World of Warcraft and pretty much every other generic fantasyland created for games and books.
Descent Into The Underdark
The cliche of D&D being a path to The Occult and Devil Worship still persists, and that’s mostly down to an incident that took place in 1979. James Dallas Egbert III was a college student who went missing, and his family hired a private investigator called William Dear to track him down. Among his personal effects in his dorm room were D&D books. This is at a time when the game was barely known outside of small pockets of wargamers and students around America, and, it should be noted, that the game wasn’t written in a way that was easily understood by anyone but an already experienced wargamer. These guys weren’t professional writers or games designers they were just enthusiasts. D&D didn’t even describe how the game was played. So Dear made some leaps of logic and arrived at the conclusion that Egbert was playing a real life version of the game and that he’d gone off the rails – the mass media picked up the story and started to link it with the occult world – inspired by the demonic artwork and descriptions of spellcasting and so on.
Egbert reappeared soon afterwards, his disappearance down to depression rather than anything else, and a year later he committed suicide. By now the damage had been done.
The so called Satanic Panic of the early 80s led to concern from schools, parents’ groups and religious organisations and some cities tried to ban the game. Sensationalistic books were written about the Egbert case – Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters was later made into a TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks in 1982, and William Dear’s own version of events was told as The Dungeon Master in 1984.
The same arguments that popular entertainment had an adverse effect on its audience had been made against comic books in the 1950s, and would soon be made against video nasties, heavy metal, rap music and eventually video games. The idea that Role Playing was somehow a doorway to the occult persisted, but it did lead to D&D and TSR really taking off. They had already been on an upward swing but, in in the wake of the Egbert case, and with all the media attention focussed on them, their sales quadrupled within a year.
Potion of Giant Revenue
In the early 80s, there was something of a minor fad for sword & sorcery movies. Conan The Barbarian finally got a movie in 1982, and we’d had (the awesome) Dragonslayer and Excalibur in 1981, and (the considerably less awesome) Krull in 1983. None of them were massively successful, but fantasy as a genre was gaining ground if not exactly becoming mainstream.
TSR were making money hand over fist in the early to mid 80s. They hired good illustrators -particularly for the book covers, and got their products into book stores and toy shops, rather than specialist wargaming hobby stores.
D&D had by now been split into two separate lines: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a far more complex rule system. Gygax wanted a rule to cover every single eventuality and was aggressively in favour of adherence to the rules as written, rather than the loosey goosey, these are just guidelines, feel free to make stuff up earliest version of the game. By way of contrast, Basic D&D was simpler and aimed at a younger audience- and finally explained how the game was played! This was later (counterproductively) expanded to include the Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals Sets.
To Read the next part of this MONSTER POST, TURN TO 247
To See a picture of VENGER TURN TO 84
To Read an older, much shorter post about AD&D, TURN TO 76