Thursday, 16 June 2022

D&D's Uniqueness and the Inevitability of Roleplaying

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post. As many of you pointed out in the comments, one would probably have to put Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson into the Newton/Einstein camp, in that the creation of role playing games was probably inevitable and would have happened at some point soon anyway. But there is a genuine case to be made that it was not inevitable - and even quite unlikely - that it should have ended up a fantasy game, and particularly one about exploring dungeons.

As will be evident to anyone (and, again, as most commenters pointed out yesterday), human beings like role playing, and will do it even with purportedly abstract games, or when on their own. Nobody who has ever played a video or board game can fail to notice that as soon as there is some character or item with which one can personally identify, people begin to act in accordance with that particular 'role' and to a certain extent assume it psychologically (if only for the duration of playing the game). 

Insofar as this is true, I think we can safely say that at some point people would have come up with something along the lines of D&D even if Gygax and Arneson had never been born. It is only a very short leap from 'doing a voice' while guiding the battleship around the Monopoly board and haughtily demanding rent for a competitor landing on Old Kent Road, to actually role playing 'let's pretend to be 19th century property developers and make up complicated rules for the game'. It would have happened sooner or later.

However, it is really rather unusual that the first real role playing game worthy of the name happened to have an assumed fantasy setting rather than anything else. It seems to me that, all other things being equal, one would have expected the first role playing game to have emerged from historical wargames (as it did so, indirectly), and hence have something to do with either the Napoleonic era, World War I or World War II. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there turns out to be a large number of parallel universes in which 'D&D' is actually a Commando comics-style WWII 'special forces' RPG.

(Other possibilities that seem at least as, if not more, plausible than a fantasy setting for a first-ever RPG include something to do with sport, a specific historical era, colonisation, business tycoons, even biblical stories.) 

Gygax and Arneson, in other words, also have a bit of the Gustave Eiffel about them. The concept of the role playing game was probably always going to be invented, but the fact that RPGs have become synonymous with a particular type of fantasy is surprising, in hindsight, and really has to be put down to fluke - or, being charitable, to a genuine flash of genius,.

42 comments:

  1. The fantasy element was probably a result of the timing; I believe there was a resurgence of interest in fantasy, and Tolkien in particular, in the 70s. 15 years later, and the first rpg may have been Cyberpunk!

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    1. Now there's a concept for a retroclone...

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    2. I think there is a retro-clone which is based on actual Greek and Roman mythology, but I'm not totaly sure about that

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  2. I have considered that something like roleplaying *might* have emerged historically through collaborative epistolary writing. Something like Dracula but several friends adopting fictional characters and writing to each other.

    The problem is that someone, the receiver of all letters, needs to stand for 'reality' or 'what happened all things considered' and in that case it seems wasteful of the imaginative effort of writing.

    The alternative that a system of probabilities could be set up in advance to decide between conflicting 'realities', is extremely unintuitive. The concept of probability is very slippery and was only relatively lately understood. The gambling craze among aristocrats for a century or two proves that there was little aptitude to exploit poor understanding of probability. Even experts confuse probability and statistics everyday now.

    What Gygax did was to abstract probability in a fun and intuitive way that should have lit fires under teachers but more importantly was crack cocaine for smart-geeky teens who wanted to get a grip on reality.

    Ultimately, I am unconvinced that abstracting probabilities for conflicts of interest is a good thing, an accurate thing, and I believe that that was Gygax's genius.

    I don't think we can escape from the enduring quality of the single pov narrative. Dracula (yes) vs collaborative letters. For gaming this means find a great DM and let them have their way in judgement rather than trust to rules. IMHO.

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    1. You may be right about that, but given the existence of dice-based wargames and board games it seems to me also to be inevitable that at some point dice-based adjudication would have been used in RPGs also.

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    2. Your responses are patronisingly positive, so I'm out.

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    3. Has it occurred to you that I am a busy person who doesn't have time to write detailed responses to all comments on his blog, but tries out of politeness to respond to as many as he can, rather than just ignore them? I can't believe how self-entitled some people are.

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  3. I'm not sure if your categorizing of Arneson/Gygax is correct or incorrect. I think it may be impossible to determine it now.

    However, I will say I am unaware of ANY OTHER EXISTING RPG that delivers the type of game play that D&D does. It is truly unique in the amount of mileage it gets out of its design and premise.

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    1. I would agree with that, but is it not true of all the others?

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    2. Um...if you're asking "does not EACH RPG deliver a unique experience?" then I would say, "no." As in "no that's not true."

      But maybe that's just me.

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    3. Which ones don't? I'm not trying to catch you out - I'm curious.

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    4. Sure. I think my point was not to depreciate that other RPGs offer (i.e. different ways to do fantasy escapism)...it was more to emphasize what D&D does that is different and unique from what other RPGs do.

      Namely: D&D offers an immersive game experience that is, by necessity, HIGHLY COOPERATIVE. One character type is not able to "do everything" but must have the aid of other players (playing different character types) in order to overcome the challenges inherent in the game world, providing an experience that is asymmetrical (and interesting!) by design.

      At the same time, it offers a single objective ("goal") in the form of its reward mechanism (gold for x.p.) that encourages both independent/creative thinking (many ways to the goal) while also ensuring all PCs are on the same page (everyone working for the same goal).

      I have not found any other RPG that provides the same interplay of systems. I believe that this is a major reason for D&D's enduing popularity, even though these features have been largely undermined since the advent of 2nd Edition AD&D (1988) and possibly earlier (depending on how one views the so-called "Hickman Revolution").

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    5. Interesting point that. And that is, for me, one of the reasons that I do not like to play D&D. I know about the appeal, and I see it too, but that is not the reason I would like to play, It is, in my view, still too much a skirmish game. What I want out of rpg is the Role part. I want to be able to play that person, and have other concerns besides the XP or gold that this monster, or enemy, will bring. So therefor I play RPG;s that have room for my style. However, I do think that the appeal of D&D is precisely that it still IS a skirmish game, and so you can concentrate on that part alone. I also think that indeed the later forms of D&D were, and are, not as focussed on thsi, and that this is part of the reason of the wave of OSR games at the moment

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    6. As a lark/pastime, such games can be fun. But they pale after awhile, don’t they?

      Maybe it’s just me.

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  4. I think (without any real data to back me up I admit) that D&D as a historical game would never have spread far outside of wargaming circles. Only by tapping into the sci-fi/fantasy fandom of the 1970s did it spread beyond those groups into the larger college and creative circles that propelled it into the larger hobby we have today.

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    1. You could well be right about that, and it's a good point that deserves further thought.

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  5. I don't think "roleplaying" is what really sets RPGs apart, but rather the specific synthesis of set rules and improv that are combined a way that works. I can imagine Gloomhaven-style games in which people sometimes do voices and improv games with a few vague rules but I think that hitting that specific sweet spot in between is something special that has a good chance of not happening at all in a major way (or if it happens in a very different way with very different fundamental assumptions, perhaps something like En Garde! which is very VERY different from D&D) without Gygax and Arneson.

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  6. There is at least one other known instance where roleplaying games were invented independently from D&D - a uk wild west game. But it was D&D that got the ball rolling and created a cambrian explosion of people doing their own versions.
    http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2021/02/western-gunfight-1970-first-rpg.html

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  7. One of the other commenters on the previous post did a better job of expressing this than I did, but I think Gygax and Arneson's contribution wasn't so much 'inventing' D&D as *publishing* D&D (and then Gygax's relentless marketing).

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    1. Yeah, that's true of a lot of "revolutionary" cultural artefacts.

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  8. I think it would have happened through the route of mystery games. There was a parallel ecosystem of "murder mystery party games" developing in the 80s and 90s with assigned character roles, etc. I don't know if there was any direct connection in their origins to tabletop roleplaying games at all. Anybody know more?

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    1. Interesting again. I have no idea, though.

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  9. RPGs, including medieval fantasy ones, were definitely inevitable. Even the structure of "1 referee, handful of adventurers, conversation-as-mechanic" was inevitable. But D&D in the exact form it took? Obviously comes from Gygax, Arneson, and Don Kaye. But maybe the most interesting devil of all is in the details. I feel like things like hex maps, attack matrices, even the assortment of funny dice may have all been things that we wouldn't have in an alternate timeline without D&D, knowing their respective origins in the game. But I bet a system of "races and classes" might have emerged no matter what, since (at least from what I've read), those were largely demanded by the first players and not really something that Gary or Dave much cared for. Even though they were not themselves huge Tolkien fans, they were nonetheless surrounded by them.

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  10. If the first roleplaying games were about "the Napoleonic era, World War I or World War II" or "sport, a specific historical era, colonisation, business tycoons, even biblical stories" I would never have been interested. I'm glad that I live in this universe!😊

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  11. I think that there's an unfortunate mix-up in many of the arguments here and in the previous post, stemming from the term "roleplaying game". Lots of people have mentioned Angria/Gondal and other *role-assuming exercises*, for lack of a better term, and suggested that these would have led to the creation of RPGs. But those lead to *trad* RPGs, something which actually has very little to do with D&D itself, and is more like an offshoot of people who didn't really want to play *D&D* discovering it, going "hm, I bet I can alter this so it gives backbone to my character-acting entertainment with a plot!" and then trying to do that with varying success.

    So, if by "role-playing game" we mean this type of collaborative-novelistic thing, then sure, they probably would've found some other thing to hang their imaginative play up on. But on the other hand, it would probably have been a tiny niche at most, forever – few people *ever* played these games, and after the Vampire boom of the '90s was past, fewer than ever – and these games are actually entirely different from D&D in scope, topic and form, they just inherited a bunch of its furniture (character sheets, dice) due to the way things evolved.

    On the other hand, if by "roleplaying game" we mean "fantastic adventure game" like D&D, rooted in exploration and gameplay, and without any real collaborative-fiction element rooted in the game itself (as much and as often as people try to add it back in) then no, I don't think that would ever have been created for the tabletop if not for Arneson and Gygax. Would anyone have written Diplomacy if Calhamer hadn't, just because the rules are extremely elegant? I strongly doubt that. Dippy, and D&D like it, is like an engineering feat in this sense. It's a very specific, and very clever, game design that to my knowledge none of the collaborative-fiction games was ever able to equal.

    I guess this is a very long way of saying "I agree with JB above".

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    1. I don't deny that it's clever, but I think something like it would ultimately have been created because it didn't spring from the ether and nor did it spring from improv theatre. It came from a wargaming milieu that already had RPG-ish elements.

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  12. But tony bath and his group were basically playing a D&D-like already, they didn’t have character advancement but did have role play and dice probabilities

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  13. Since yesterday's post, I also was reminded of the game Mazes and Minotaurs, which I think is of some relevance here. It's a fascinating exercise in alternate-universe design where the creators asked "what if Gary and Dave were into Greek mythology and Ray Harryhausen instead?" and went from there. They take D&D and rebuild it from the ground up with this assumption, and the results are pretty cool. There's lot of clever changes in the implicit worldbuilding of the game and its sense of fantasy and genre, but also some insightful differences in the mechanics themselves and what other bits of game design would have influenced it instead of Chainmail and whatnot.

    Here's the post that kicked off the idea: https://www.rpg.net/news%2breviews/columns/tempus12nov02.html

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  14. In my opinion, fantasy was not inevitable, but highly probable genre of the first RPG. History of warfare, the source of wargaming, speaks more about troops and numbers and less about individual characters. Fantasy literature, on the other hand, includes important and interesting characters like Conan or Aragorn, and so gives more motivation to roleplaying these heroes. This is also true about epics like Iliad and chivalrous romances, but they were not widely known. Other genres with similar focus on heroes are westerns, historical adventures, science-fiction adventures and super-hero comics, so they also could became a source for the first RPG (and see Boot Hill and En Garde!, both published in 1975, Starfaring, published in 1976 and Superhero: 2044, published in 1977).

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    1. Westerns are a good call. That certainly seems like it could have been a contender.

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    2. Another reason, why fantasy is more likely to lead to the invention of role-playing games is that you probably can pretend to be a cowboy without special rules: you can certanly wear a broad hat, learn to ride a horse and to shoot a revolver IRL. But you cannot become an elf or use magic IRL - so you need rules for this. This suggests, that fantasy, science-fiction adventures, super-hero comics or something else with supernatural elements is more likely to become a source for RPG then westerns or other historical adventures.

      Also, fantasy has quite a lot of big and epic battles, and so surely will attract wargamers, who will try to replay them. On the other hand, super-hero comics generally have only small-scale skirmishes, which are interesting to role-play, but are probably not very interesting to wargamers. So, we are left with fantasy and sci-fi. And the difference between sci-fi with supernatural elements and epic heroes and fantasy is pretty small (Barsoom cicle certanly had some influence on early DnD).

      In conclusion, the evolution from historical wargames to fantasy wargames to fantasy roleplaying games may seem unlikely, but it has good reasons and is, probably, inevitable (if there are both growing wargaming community and popular fantasy literature).

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  15. Humans have had dice and stories for all of recorded history, and could in theory have invented RPGs at any time. But they didn't. Some discussion of this oddity by a historian here: https://antonhowes.substack.com/p/age-of-invention-where-be-dragons

    It's easy to say things are "obvious" in retrospect, but that doesn't mean they were inevitable. Australians developed elaborate rock-throwers, boomerangs, etc, but never stumbled on the bow and arrow. Famously, the the Incans *had* the wheel - but only ever used it in children's toys, and never tried scaling it up into actual vehicles. Europe got bank notes long after China. Etc.

    But on the other hand, the Western example found by Playing At The World mentioned by other commenters seems like evidence that it was Steam Engine Time for D&D. Possibly for the social reasons discussed by Anton Howes above. (Although it's worth noting they were missing some pieces and did not in fact catch on.)

    Admittedly, thanks to exploding populations there are just a lot more people around today to come up with these sorts of ideas. Add in the (debatable) need for advanced literacy/math, and arguably a majority of potential D&D inventors lived in the past century, or at least the modern era. So maybe, with all those people, it really was inevitable.

    But still. The Australians had *tens of thousands of years* to come up with the bow. It's so simple, so obvious seeming a tool. But they didn't. It's entirely possible there's a single unsung genius, post-dating humanity's emigration to Australia, without whom we would never have invented the bow and arrow! Who knows how many equally "obvious" ideas we missed altogether?

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    1. Well, I get the general point, but I think I lean more towards the "Steam Engine Time" thesis. When did people have the time to invent something like D&D before the 20th century?

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    2. Well, people constantly invented plenty of complicated games - including some fairly complex card, dice, and board games.

      And the basic core of D&D, before all the complicated rules for special cases were invented, is fairly simple - 1d6 per HD, 1d6 damage on a hit, 1D20 vs [some number representing armor/defence] to hit. To start, randomly roll for Ability Scores & pick a Class (a list of some special abilities, often custom). You can earn Experience Points and treasure to improve your character.

      That doesn't disprove the Steam Engine Time hypothesis, though. What was "stopping" the discovery of natural selection for all those millenia, before Darwin and Wallace (and others) did so around the same time? It's a fairly simple, abstract idea, with little empirical grounding at first, and there are even a few ancient philosophers who seem to have been groping towards the idea. But also, there was very clearly something in the intellectual current at that precise time that was repeatedly leading people to invent it.

      I think the biggest conceptual leap might actually be that most games throughout history have been very abstract. Symbolic paint over arbitrary abstraction at most. Chess "represents" battle in a fundamentally different, even if still fairly complex (especially in the older variants), way than D&D. That would make wargames the Big Important New Idea - not invented for recreational purposes, but which inevitably evolved into D&D type games once the leap had been made.

      Unfortunately, given that there seems to be some confusion over who invented wargames, I wouldn't be surprised if that Steam Engine Time as well...

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    3. I do think it's significant that classic D&D conforms (by pure luck?) quite closely to modern "Skinner Box" theories of game design.

      Heavy randomness (in combat, in encounters, in treasure, often even in dungeon rooms and hexes); tons of different Numbers that Go Up (XP, GP, character level, damage, dungeon level, spell level), lots of different currencies and resources that trade off against each other in complicated ways (to serve as constant rewards and make you get sucked into minimaxing them)... there's a reason D&D is still king after all this time, and a reason why modern video games are still very heavily based on it despite decades of iteration and experimentation. It's not *just* the first RPG, it's also a far better game in its own right than it has any right to be.

      In that, I think it might be a unique bolt of genius. Even if other people would have invented "RPGs". People with access to decades of hindsight still struggle to make their games as fun as D&D.

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    4. Don't get me wrong. While I think "something like" D&D was inevitable, it must be said that D&D itself is a brilliantly enjoyable game.

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  16. There's something to be said here about the nature of stories. Focusing solely on hypothesis, that the emergence of fantasy as the first genre candidate was extremely unlikely, I would point out, that our most potent and crucially most LIVED stories, are our fantastic myth cycles.

    I offer up the idea, that mythology isn't something 'that happened', or something that we pretend happened but didn't really happen in the 'real world'. It's occurring right this very second in exactly the place one would expect ---the imaginal realm. Mythology tells us something about how we live and act in this moment.

    The realm of the sub conscious is the realm of the fantastic. Once the form arrived and we could start to simulate a kind of reality within this 'new' kind of game (contentious, but for the sake of my argument), it strikes me as not howlingly improbable, that DA and GG would drink from the fantasy well, as the source of their initial inspiration.

    Likewise, fantasy's continued popularity compared to other genres in the RPG world. Fantasy is both readily available and seeks to be expressed. If we were to go a step further and grant agency to _ideas_ the terrain would look exceedingly different once again (but is perhaps beyond the scope of this discussion). See Jung's The Red Book (think I've pointed to it before) and various indigenous reality frameworks.

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    1. There is probably some truth to this, although I also wonder where other very popular types of story (like soap operas) fit into this.

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  17. Maybe... though monsters and heroes are big, obvious symbols with pretty potent subconscious heft (for a variety of possible reasons). Soap operas are definitely versions of those myths...through a couple of filters.
    That said, I think the 'Ur-attraction' of say, the Minotaur, remains fundamentally compulsive.

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