Wednesday, 15 June 2022

How Unique is D&D?

I can't remember where I came across this little aphorism (for some reason I have it in my head that it was in a Luis Bunuel interview), and I am almost certainly misremembering it, but the gist of it is as follows: if you had to eliminate from history two people from the list of Isaac Newton, Gustave Eiffel and Albert Einstein, you would have to choose Newton and Einstein. Their discoveries would eventually have been made by other people, because they concern immutable laws of the universe. But Eiffel's tower would never have existed without him. You could therefore afford to lose from the path of human development the two great scientists as individuals, but not the clever French engineer.

You may not agree that the Eiffel Tower is anything to write home about, but the point remains: some great works are inevitable. Others are flashes of insight that are truly unique. All other things being equal, the latter are probably the more valuable. 

Would the achievements of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson fall into the Newton/Einstein or Eiffel category? I think I know the answer. But I'm curious to hear yours. 

Put your thoughts in the comments. We will revisit the matter tomorrow. 


  1. I'm not particularly certain of my grounds here, but if I remember rightly many of Newton's achievements were amply verified by other scientists... two or three centuries later.

    Gygax and Arneson's innovations seem like fairly natural developments of wargaming culture. No flash of superhuman insight is required. Equally, there wasn't anyone else simultaneously getting to that point, if they hadn't done it we very probably might not have roleplaying games yet.

  2. I've wondered about this too. To my shame, I haven't read Jon Peterson's Playing at the World, but a bit of Google suggests I'm not missing any meaningful precursors. D&D feels like such a specific thing, it's hard to say with confidence whether the proto-rpg wargames played at the time would have independently become something akin to D&D but for Gygax and Arneson.

    Following your Eiffel example, something else may have come into being that was similar to D&D, (e.g. from Barker, or later from Jackson and Livingstone maybe), but it would have been different enough to not be D&D. Eiffiel didn't invent the tower after all, and contemporary engineers built similar structures.

    I think it's also worth considering the impact of video games on the tabletop RPG, though. If Gygax and Arneson hadn't created D&D in the 70s, would anyone have bothered a few years later, with the advent of video games (what would video games have been like without D&D's influence is another question)? Maybe the 70s were the last possible period when D&D could have been created?

    More generally, I'm not sure I agree with the premise. You could probably cobble Newton's big ideas together from Leibnitz, Hooke and others, but none of them wrote Principia. Sometimes, it's not so much a question of "was this thing discovered?" as "how well was this discovery disseminated?"

    Maybe? I don't know. Counterfactuals are great fun, though.

  3. Based on Peterson's Playing at the World, I'd say Gygax and Arneson are in the Newton/Einstein category. With the Braunstein campaign that influenced Arneson, Tony Bath's Hyborian campaign, the SCA and so on in the 60s/70s, I think someone would have eventually came up with the idea of the RPG.

  4. Great question! It makes me wonder if perhaps early creators such as M.A.R. Barker and Ken St. Andre would have eventually found their own inspiration, or if they owed it to TSR/D&D at the time to forge the path that showed them they could also published their own RPGs. I have a feeling that it might have been delayed, but that sooner or later the idea of an RPG would have been put to paper in some form....but it could have been delayed many years if not for Gygax and Arneson.

  5. there's simply too much idiosyncrasy in "D&D" to assume it inevitable. six stats, Vancian magic, "the dungeon" as the primary adventuring environment... roleplaying games as a whole were probably inevitable though, like the Bronte sisters were playing their own shared, private fictional worlds ages before Gygax was even born. I can imagine a world where roleplaying like this took off, somehow, and we end up with a culture where things being "gamified" to the extent that they were in D&D was the wild exception rather than the general rule. one way or another, pretty sure you're always gonna have adults wanting to play pretend in ostensibly "more developed" ways, wanting to take on alternate personalities and the like

  6. I believe that tabletop roleplaying would have happened without Gygax and Arneson but not in the same form. Enough war gaming groups were toying around with the idea around the same time. Add to that the fact that people have been larping basically forever and it seems inevitable.
    However I don’t know that it would have ever become anything more that a small niche hobby if not for Gary Gygax’s visionary leadership. Dave Arneson was the creative spark but the game would have died with him had it not been for Gygax’s drive to codify the rules and turn that into a business to get the game to the masses.
    I guess what I’m saying is that in my opinion without Gary Gygax very few of us would have ever heard of a roleplaying game much less played one.

  7. Fascinating idea. I think the answer is yes and no. On one hand of course this was a natural progression of war among that many were moving towards. Gygax didnt invent roleplaying games. But he did write dnd and that contains a bit of the sui generis zeitgeist of that moment. The particular cocktail of wargame rules culture, Wisconsin game clubs, pulp fiction, S&S, etc is a special thing that still excites people and arguably may have lit a brighter spark than a Star Trek rpg would have done.

  8. Any low-numbers skirmish wargame tends towards role-playing. When you have a single figure a side, "my guy runs over there" soon becomes "I run over there". Speaking in character soon follows.

    The big Arneson/Gygax innovation, though, is the dungeon. Adding exploration to skirmishing is the big breakthrough, and it's the dungeon concept that leads to treasure, levels (of the dungeon, of monsters and of PCs) and, therefore, detailed character advancement.

    Although it's easy to abandon dungeons and levels in RPGs (as RuneQuest did), I think those are the key factors in the creation of explorable environments and sustained character advancement. And those are the things that took nascent roleplaying from fringe to phenomenon.

  9. Interesting question! I'm not sure I agree with the original premise, though! I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why that is, but I think it feels a bit like a false dichotomy - the examples are too different. "Is D&D more like the law of inertia, or is it more like Citizen Kane?"
    My first thought is that D&D is more akin to the invention of the airbrush! Elements of the airbrush existed beforehand - paint, compression of air, valves, etc. But for someone to fabricate a device that marries all those components together and allows other people to create what they want from it - that's D&D to me.
    But taking this further, and abstracting the airbrush a bit, I think the difference here is between the tool and the things made with the tool. What is a more unique contribution, the hammer or the house built with it? What was more important, the discovery of electricity or the light bulb? When I reframe the question this way, it feels to me as if D&D is like the metallurgical innovations that allowed the tower to be built and the tower itself is like an actual campaign. The Eiffel tower is what was done with the knowledge of the laws and limitations
    That said, is it inevitable that D&D’s “laws” or some form of them would eventually have been discovered and enacted without Gygax and Arneson? I think that’s likely. Even kids larping come up with “rules” that define the limits of play. It would not surprise me at all to learn that someone in a small village somewhere with a chess set came up with a brilliant set of rules that complicated the game hugely and made it much more like roleplaying, but no one else knew about it besides his closest friends because it all happened before the invention of the printing press! Is it inevitable that someone would have built the Eiffel tower? No more so than it was inevitable that your last campaign was what it was. D&D is the brush, the Eiffel tower is the Mona Lisa.
    Thanks very much for posing this question, it was a lot of fun to think about and I look forward to seeing other answers!

  10. I think that with all the work done by Jon Peterson in his various books, it has become clear that roleplaying was not unique and was bound to happen during the 70s in one form or another. However, D&D is a specific mix of the ingredients that were available. So, in my view, D&D is more like the Eiffel tower.

  11. Can't give any real big development in the conversation, other than three bits of trivia to this conversation. One is that of a supposed interaction between a Futurama writer and Gygax, where the futurama writer asked if Gary considered himself as the inventor of rpgs and Gygax said no and that every since kids been playing Cowboys and Indians, there have been rpgs.
    The second factod is that Fritz Leiber created the Lankhmar board game and his two characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser where thought up by him and his friend Harry Otto Fischer as basically fantasy versions of themselves. All of what they were doing sounds very proto-rpg to me.
    Also there is this Against the Wicked City post:

  12. I remember reading something about a game played in the french court that we would recognise as rpg adjacent. Also when reading about the Brontës childhood they had invented a fantasy world which they made plays, wrote stories, and even played games about it, which sounds akin to rpgs.

    My own childhood was spent playing cops and robbers, and getting frustrated at the lack of resolution for actions (not that I would have put it like that when I was that age).

    I think their love of fantasy, combined with the formality of war games makes it almost inevitable that they created rpgs as we know them. I think it is entirely possible, likely even, that other people would have come up with something similar. Which is not to take away from or disparage their achievement.