In the early 70s a small gang of wargamers in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin unwittingly stumbled across the magic formula that would revolutionize gaming and come to define the mechanics, terminology and various other elements that are present in almost every game we play today.
Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and friends were keen players of historical wargames played with miniatures to represent medieval knights, Napoleonic infantry, WW2 tanks, infantry squads and so on. Gygax had created a medieval miniatures wargame known as Chainmail, and tucked away into the back of that was a supplement that added fantasy elements to the game, with heroes, wizards, elves, orcs, dragons and so on, mostly ripped straight out of The Lord of the Rings.
The fantasy supplement to Chainmail was a game mode that only superficially altered the base rules, which were still pretty simple and based on your common six sided die. But one time at a gathering of hobbyists in Lake Geneva (the now world famous Gen Con), Dave Arneson showed off an adaptation of the Chainmail fantasy rules that was more of a mod than a mode, set in his world of Blackmoor. Gygax noticed the potential this had to be a game in its own right and began to work on it. The result was the embryonic form of Dungeons and Dragons.
At the time early D&D was being developed, video games existed in a primitive form. Pong was out in arcades in 1973. But, like chocolate and peanut putter, they were destined to be great together, even if it took time for society to realize it.
Dungeons and Doom
Obviously, any CRPG is deeply indebted to Dungeons and Dragons, even if they’re not a direct adaptation of the rules. Even the Final Fantasy series, now in its fifteenth iteration (plus a bunch of unnumbered titles), began as a straight Japanese D&D adaption. But looking more broadly, one of the most obvious legacies of Dungeons and Dragons when it comes to video games are the environments.
The ‘Dungeons’ part of D&D comes from the first dungeon crawl, which started as part of a WW2-set wargame in which a small invading force entered the enemy’s castle through a former escape tunnel dug from the fortress’s dungeon. The group had so much fun with this scenario that it was repeated over and over with increasingly complex dungeons until the original wargame aspect of the game was discarded in favor of dungeon exploration with individual player characters.
Dungeons provide great opportunity for on-the-fly level design. They restrict the play area to a defined environment and limit visibility for players. This was a godsend for tabletop Game Masters who didn’t have the time to create hugely detailed open worlds and for early video game programmers who didn’t have the technology. Populated with monsters and traps, the dungeons allowed for a tense, dynamic gameplay involving combat, exploration and resource management.
Text adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure (a.k.a. Adventure) was released in 1976 and expanded to include more fantasy elements in 1977 was the first ‘dungeon crawl’ video game. What followed were text-based Roguelike games and Multi-User Dungeons that were like early MMOs. Games like Blizzard’s Diablo series are proud dungeon crawlers, and you only have to look at Dark Souls 3 to see that this early game form isn’t going to die anytime soon (although the player character will, over and over again).
But to illustrate just how influential dungeon level design is beyond fantasy RPGs, the best example can be found in the iconic FPS Doom. Doom‘s rooms, corridors, secrets and traps are classic D&D, even down to the demonic enemies. The difference is that Doomguy can make demons eat a faceful of lead instead of the pointy end of a +2 sword. The makers of Doom would actually draw even deeper dungeon crawl inspiration with Heretic and Hexen, the latter of which featured a choice of three ‘character classes’ (Fighter, Mage, Cleric), same as in D&D.
Action-Adventure and platform games also heavily lean on the dungeon format. Whether you’re taking control of Nathan Drake, Lara Croft, Jill Valentine, Link or even Mario, chances are you’ll end up exploring your fair share of forbidden temples, haunted castles, military bases, absurdly spacious sewers and actual dungeons, navigating a maze of corridors and rooms, solving structural traps and puzzles, etc. just like D&D adventurers.
While D&D and video games alike expanded past their focus on labyrinthine dungeon areas, any game that features adventure, exploration, and combat will still likely lean on the labyrinthine complex for some play areas.
A Touch Of Class
That’s the story of dungeons, but what about the people that go there? The original fantasy supplement for Chainmail included rules for heroes and wizards. The former were simply super-soldiers, capable of dealing more death and taking more hits than regular men. Wizards had a selection of spells to use, including the ubiquitous fireball and lightning bolt.
Even with just these two classes, you have the beginnings of some common video game mechanics. In order to have player characters who could last through combat after combat and face tough monsters, their health was abstracted to a total number of ‘Hit Points’. This abstraction of health and damage attracted criticism for being unrealistic but other more simulationist approaches led to characters that were too easily crippled or maimed.
Ultimately, the rule of cool prevailed. If a game doesn’t go the ‘extra lives’ route a la classic Sonic and Mario, then your character probably has hit points. Some hardcore games will actually have your player character suffer bleeding and crippling injuries that impede your actions, but most will just count down to critical existence failure.
The wizard spells are also the source of many video game powerups and abilities but more importantly, the kind of elemental rock-paper-scissors system where, for example, blasting a group of orcs with a fireball is fine but not very effective against a fire giant. PokÃ©mon famously gets a lot of mileage out of this but there are similar systems in most games that feature supernatural abilities which play off various strengths and weaknesses.
Heroes were renamed to fighting-men, and later simply fighters as the game moved away from its military focus. The fighter kicked ass, took names, and could use any weapon and armor. Magic users, on the other hand, were physically very weak but had limited access to powerful magic effects. Joining in later was the cleric, an hybrid kind of character with combined but limited fighting and magic ability. Critically, clerical magic was geared towards supporting their allies, which became its defining feature as it evolved into a video game archetype, the medic. Originally introduced as a vampire hunter, the cleric remained particularly effective against undead monsters. Lastly there was the thief, a roguish archetype focused on stealth, not very good in a fair fight but capable of nasty surprise attacks.
These four classes remained at the core of Dungeons and Dragons, even though many other options were added as the game evolved, they were usually variants of the ‘core four’. Generally, a successful adventuring party needed a balance of all four elements to be effective.
At one point, character classes were rare in non-RPG videogames. Some classic co-op games such as Streets of Rage, however, offered a selection of characters with small differences in stats or playstyles. Generally speaking, single player games focused on a unique protagonist, usually a jack-of-all-trades when it came to ability.
Character classes really took off again with the rise of online gaming, particularly in MMORPGs and arena-type shooters. Now, with group play becoming common, there was a need to differentiate the different players and also make each one valuable in a team. Game designers often fell back on a D&D‘s class system, making specialists for combat, support, stealth, and so on. The D&D class system takes a lot of flak for being too restrictive, but it’s simple and effective game design and has been put o good use for three decades of game development.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Titanfall 2, Gears of War 4 and Overwatch are all recent non-RPG games that rely heavily on a class based system to differentiate player styles and give them a role in a team. But it’s not enough just to have class. You have to know how to use it, and that only comes with experience. Experience, and some lucky loot drops.
Looting and Levelling
‘Level’ is one of those words that will be forever associated with video games, but has its roots in Dungeons and Dragons, at least for its use in gaming. In D&D, level was used in several different ways. One was in dungeon design. Players started on the first level of a dungeon, but could find ways to access lower levels, which would contain more dangerous traps and monsters (but also better loot). Each dungeon level had its own map.
Characters also used levels as a measure of ability. Defeating monsters and collecting treasure earned experience. After earning a certain amount of experience that character would gain a level, become stronger, and may gain new abilities.
Finally, levels were used to measure power of other moves such as spells. For example, the power to stop time was learned at level 9, but a simple spell to detect magic only required level 1. Abilities and equipment are still sometimes measured this way in video games, especially if the game features a wide variety of items
Speaking of items, Dungeons and Dragons is often jokingly defined as a game of ‘kill things and take their stuff’. While tongue-in-cheek, it’s often not far from the reality of the game, and looting from one’s enemies is also a time-honored tradition in video games.
In D&D, items made a lot of difference to the character, boosting stats, granting new abilities and spells, and so on. Monsters would often guard a stash of valuables in their lair. Video game enemies could often take this to an absurd level, such as a giant spider that drops gold coins when you kill it, or a street hoodlum that was carrying a roast turkey for you to enjoy.
On the tabletop, with no save function and a Dungeon Master working against you, players are rightly proud of their high-level characters and hard-earned abilities and gear. It might be the social aspect of modern games that play on the satisfaction of showing off your high numbers as a mark of status, but it’s not just bragging rights. Online game items are worth real-world dollars, something that none of the cool stuff written down on my character sheet will ever bring me.
Like the class system, levelling one’s character seems to be coming back in style as far as video games are concerned. Even initially simple characters like Lara Croft and the Doomguy need to earn xp, level up and learn new tricks in their latest adventures. This kind of progression can help the player’s sense of development and reward as games become longer and more complex. It also increases that replayability factor, since it’s rare to get to use all the level up options in one playthrough, so why not try again with a different set-up and playstyle?
Ultimately, for a gamer there are few things as satisfying as gaining a level and picking up some phat lootz. It’s a rush of endorphins that feels just as good as winning something in real life, and cleverly exploited by game designers to keep us running on our digital hamster wheels. The next time you frag some mook, hear that sweet level up alert, and feel that rush come on like the quickening, thank Uncle Gary Gygax, the original Dr. Feelgood.
High Level Gaming
With so many AAA titles, many of which are not RPGs, going back to the basics of old school D&D for inspiration, it’s amazing just how well some of these old and simple gameplay mechanics have stood the test of time. A lot of bells and whistles have been added, but the core of gaming today isn’t all that different from what was worked out with pen and paper forty years ago.
With many high profile creatives and celebrities championing the cause of pen and paper roleplaying games, it seems like the days of gamers being stuffed into a locker for owning a 20-sided die are long gone. Even if you’re way more Couch & Console than Dungeons & Dragons, I’d recommend to check out your local gaming groups, and have a go at playing a good old school tabletop RPG. It might just help you appreciate video games in a whole new light.
Are there any ways you wish video games were more like tabletop games? Or vice versa?
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.