Evolution of Role-Playing Games
As an Old School Grognard I was asked
to write some articles on the evolution of gaming. I will attempt to
do so from the point of view of the D&D system, as that is the
one I am most familiar with.
I believe an over view is in
order. Most gamers today do not realize how many developments and forks
has undergone. Lets establish the extent of the playing field before
I get into specific factors and mechanics.
This was not
actually a fantasy or role-playing game, but a miniatures war gaming
system for medieval armies. It is however the ground level of the
D&D rules development. Measurement in inches, the round, and
turn all come from Chainmail.
-- 1974 Three digest
sized books in a box: Men and Magic, Monsters
The Underground and Wilderness Adventure. The
several times over the course of the run. Several supplements were
printed as well. Greyhawk, Blackmore, Eldrich Wizardry,
Gods, Demigods & Heroes. The last two
had color covers.
D&D was a
revolutionary game. While the term "role-playing" is found nowhere
covers it launched the role-playing genre of gaming to the greater
world. For the first time you had a game in which the players
cooperated to achieve a goal. A goal that wasn't fixed, and the game
was never really over.
Classes were three. Clerics,
Men and Magic Users. Three alignments, lawful, neutral, and chaotic.
Races were limited to Humans, Elves, Hobbits (yes, Hobbits) and
Dwarves. There was a further note that nearly anything could be
The later supplements added
classes and races, Gnomes and Half Elves. Thieves, Bards, Rangers
and so forth.
The rules were crude the
under explained. Frankly unplayable as it was written. The
Greyhawke supplement fixed a good many things, to a point. D&D
was never was an easy game to understand in this edition. It is a
mark of the strength of the concept that is survived to be popular in
spite of the rules. For example to look up the stats for a given
monster required looking three places in two books. One got to know
those little books very well.
On other other hand that
sketchiness was the grounding of the "Old School". DMs did
not look up rules, they made rulings. What was on the character
sheet was far less important than how the player played. Mental
dexterity was a requirement. A game as thought experiment.
Dungeons were crude for the
most part. "Story" was not yet part of the game. Random rooms with
random monsters. Kill monster, defeat trap, get treasure. The Key
for the first "Castle Greyhawk" was little more then a long
list of rooms with monsters and treasure.
At this point there is a fork in the
game. After Gygax pushed Arnson under the bus the AD&D line was
introduced that "claimed" to be a new game derived from the
old one. D&D continued as a secondary product.
AD&D -- 1979 Three hard
cover books formed the "core rules" The Player's
Handbook (PHB), The Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG),
Monster Manual. These are the best built, if
not the best
written D&D books. The binding of sewn gathers could take
anything thrown at them and generally did. In spite of decades of
hard use my three original books are still intact. (My Second Edition
PHB has a cracked spine. I'm careful with books.) This expanded
eventually to 11 hardcovers. Most of which were easily done without.
Classes in the core books
(Druid), Fighter (Paladin, Ranger), Magic User (Illusionist) Thief
(Assassin), and Monk. Races were Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half Elves,
Halflings (not Hobbit) Half Orcs, and Human. Alignments had expanded
to nine. Good/Evil being added to the Law/Chaos axis.
demanded that players be kept in the dark. The DMG was to be
forbidden to any mere player of the game. The entire game took on a
very authoritarian viewpoint. Not simply an authoritarian viewpoint
but tone. The language of the books was a stilted English I came to
call "Tsrish". It took me years to beat that out of my
game writing. Gygax pontificated throughout. He wanted the game to
go a certain direction. Sadly he didn't realize that it was way, way
too late to direct the game. I don't think any of us did. But those
of us that had steeped in D&D to start with simply did as we
pleased when we didn't like what we read in AD&D.
Organization was an
D&D, but nearly anything would be. It was still scatter shot
random where a given thing would appear. The PHB was better laid
out than the DMG. The Monster Manual was a blessed relief. The
whole listing for a monster in one place. I remember getting my
first Monster Manual. The hard covers the smell of the ink. The
$10.95 price. We were using the Monster Manual long before the other
two core books came out.
Not as early as '79
mind you, but
"story" was starting to mean something. The DMG had rules
for building dungeons from random charts. Yes, you got the kind of
dungeon you think that would produce. However TSR was starting to
produce its own adventure modules. "Against the Giants"
was the first, based on a series of modules played at Gencon. There
was a story there. One that continued right into "Queen of
the Demonweb Pits". A classic set of modules.
D&D -- I did not take
this fork. I went with AD&D, so anything said on Basic and its
further editions is research, not personal experience. I'm not going
to get into D&D Basic, Expert and so forth
right now. I'll stick with my own experience.
Second Edition -- 1989 A
reorganization and realignment of the AD&D game. Badly needed
many respects, they also took the opportunity to change a few (lot)
of the rules. Player's Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide,
Many, many supplements
both hard and soft cover.
little. Fighters were now Warriors, Assassins were dropped. Schools
and specialist wizards were introduced. Bard stopped being a
difficult, if not impossible, class at the end of the book.
Proficiencies were added. "THAC0" was introduced to the
For the first time
Gary Gygax did not
appear in the primary credits. Endless debates have sparked over
which is better, how many changes, etc., and so forth. For me the
primary change was a philosophical one. The Player's Manual was now
the thicker book. Gone was the idea that players should be kept in
the dark. Unless it truly needed to be privileged information, it
wasn't. Saving throws were in the PHB for the first time. Yea,
I personally adopted
the 2ed books for
the more organized layout. The DMG and PHB were organized in the
same order. There was enough of the game in the PHB that the DMG
wasn't even that necessary. I seldom opened it except for magic
items. 2ed saw several developments of the Monster book. First was
the Monstrous Compendium. A loose leaf book for
supplements could be added. I did add my own monsters. I even wrote
a letter to TSR to get the right font and size to make my pages blend
with theirs. (I printed color pictures). My Compendium still has
some of the color dot matrix pages, and ink jet pages I printed. This
worked less than ideally for many players and the loose leaf
binder is less durable than the hard covers. It was replaced by the
By this point having
played well over
a decade we were well set in many of our ways, and many of the rule
changes in 2ed were ignored. Indeed with the release of the Core 2
CD of the books I started to re-write the whole of the core books to
suit myself. Hey, I have the time.
By this time story
is king. Role-playing important and debated. Kill the monster get the
treasure long dead as a playing style.
Powers -- This was
also a road not traveled for myself. One might consider it the
testing ground for many of the aspects and mechanics we later see as
3rd Edition. Fortunately much of the added complication didn't make
At this point there
is the major
changing of the guard. TSR goes belly up a victim of its own
business practices. Wizards of the Coast buys the AD&D and
3rd Edition -- 2000 The
three classic core books make their usual appearance. It was the
Monster Manual again.
While third edition
did many good
things, positive armor class for example and the idea of the d20
mechanic. They did many unnecessary things as well. Things like
changing the names of spells that didn't need changing. I am
reminded of Robert Heinlein speaking as Jubal Hardshaw in "Stranger
in a Strange Land". "Leave the editor something to
change. They always think it tastes better after they pee in it."
Heinlein didn't like editors. I think WotC felt they needed to make
D&D theirs a little too much. Some things did not need changing.
Races were the usual
Elf, Gnome, Half Elf (never a half Dwarf), Half Orc, Halfing, Human.
Classes got a realignment. Bard, Fighters,
Rangers, Cleric, Druids, Barbarians, Monk, Rouge, Wizard.
is gone. However I have heard the complaint that D&D 3.x reads
like stereo instructions, dry to the point of stupor. No, great
literature is it not.
In my personal
opinion the best thing
they did wasn't part of the game, it was the OGL, the Open Gaming
License. A breath of fresh cool air after the stifling, coying heat
of the TSR terms and conditions. A development positively stunning
in its scope and idealism.
My own gaming group
did not move to
3e, and the main reason had nothing to do with the rules. The main
reason was the books themselves. The lines they placed in a (futile)
attempt to stop copying made the book difficult to read for the
vision challenged older gamer. As a result the new edition sat
mostly unread on my shelf for years. My three 3e books are still
nearly mint. DRM of any kind hinders the copiers not the least and
helps the legitimate user not at all.
It wasn't until I
got my hands on the
SRD (thank you OGL) that I started to add 3.x elements to my own
3.5 -- 2003 Fixing many
of the admittedly broken parts in the new system. Also a chance to
get you to buy a whole new set of books. Ten years from AD&D to
Second Edition, three years from 3.0 to 3.5. Feel the churn.
This edition brought
a break between
myself and WotC. I swore that if they had those damned lines, I
would never buy another new book from them again. Now, mind you I
had actually called the WotC offices and personally complained about
that "feature". I am not someone to suffer in silence. I
was told at the time that the background lines were the most
complained about item for the whole game. Well they left them in and
I haven't bought from them again. Every 3.5 book I own was bought on
the used market.
4th Edition -- 2008 The
usual three books. It is noted that WotC has published as many 4ed
books in the first year as AD&D did in a decade.
A total break with
the past. The only
thing that seems to have survived are the Name and the d20. Again my
personal opinion, and backed up by gaming sources not named to
protect them, this degree of change was dictated by Hasbro (Who
bought WotC) to kill the OGL. Something that has the effect on
cooperate lawyers that garlic does on Vampires. It is also confirmed
by the new terms and conditions which can best be summed up as "bend
over and spread them".
It is not an upgrade
of the game, it
is side grade a totally different game. It's kind of like sticking a
"Chess" label on a Go game and calling it "Better
The total break in
the rules set meant
something else as well. Someone like myself with a 33 year old game
world couldn't translate to the new edition, and keep all the
history. It simply would not fit. So along with Arnson, we, the
long dedicated D&D gamers had been thrown under the bus. Change
or get lost. Well, new edition, or 33 years of gaming history? I
got lost, so did my considerable disposable income. We 50 year old
guys have a bit of money to play with. I won't let WotC play any
Next time I will
discuss the specific
aspects of the game as they have developed. First up, Ability
Evolution of the Ability Score
is a work of Opinion. Opinion is that of the writer and site owner. If you don't like it, find another opinion.
Garry Stahl: 2010
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