What Games Are: Generation Gygax

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Although I haven’t played a tabletop roleplaying game since I emigrated from Ireland in 2002, it’s no exaggeration to say that I owe my entire career to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Between them they created probably the most influential game for an entire generation of game makers, Dungeons and DragonsD&D turns 40 today. 40 years of rolling dice, leveling up, scoring critical hits and making saving throws.

Much as the early activities of the Homebrew Computing Club led to the technology industry, D&D grew out of innocuous beginnings. Gygax was just a wargame nerd from Wisconsin who liked making medieval battle games. His early games were mostly about fighting, whether in sieges or one-on-one combats, rolling dice and assessing damage to armor and that kind of thing. The actual idea for D&D grew out of those roots, beginning life when its designers had the idea that some combats needed a moderator (a “dungeon master”) to hide information and lay out encounters.

It’s unlikely that either Arneson or Gygax knew just how influential their game would be. It was the first of what we would later look back on and recognize was not just a genre, but a medium. D&D would lead to a proliferation of games, far beyond just clones or imitators. Games like Call of Cthulhu, Traveler,  Shadowrun and Vampire: The Masquerade branched out from the fantasy-war trope and expanded on the core philosophy of the medium. Some of them even became culturally influential in their own right.

The central innovations of D&D were (1) the bringing of games and stories together, (2) the idea that a game’s action could happen in an imaginary space rather than needing a board or map, and (3) the idea of creating and developing a character as an outward persona of the player, one with which they would develop a kind of kinship. Those three ideas inspired a generation of geeks to sit around tables at four o’clock in the morning hyped up on cola and pizza while living out sagas. Outwardly roleplaying looked pretty weird to anyone who didn’t know what the hell they were doing (up to and including D&D being accused of encouraging satanism), but within the group environment the result was magical.

D&D is a primary influence for today’s video game designers. While the tabletop hobby was (and still is) a niche publishing industry, the foundations of its thought have inspired much greater effect in the digital realm. World of WarcraftDOTALeague of Legends, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect and countless computer roleplaying games are all descendants of D&D. So are many social games. The whole levels-experience mechanism that sits at the heart of nearly all free-to-play games? That’s from D&D. The idea of games and storytelling, branched narrative and player-driven choice? Also from D&D.

D&D also continues to inspire cutting edge video game design thinking. Although video games tend not to have a dungeon master to moderate their action and drive their story, for many digital game designers that kind of player-game relationship is the goal. Designers foresee a point when AI will perhaps be smart enough to be the player’s personal dungeon master, to create elaborate narratives that respond to the player’s contextual mood as well as just being systems of rules. The idea that video games are supposed to cross a gap at some point and be able to bring meaningful play into the player’s life? It comes from playing D&D

It’s hard not to see the game’s influence in most digital games and yet – perhaps sadly – Dungeons and Dragons itself has struggled to remain relevant. After going through several versions over the decades (alternately as Dungeons and Dragons and the later Advanced Dungeons and Dragons), the current fourth edition of the game proved something of a dud.

The third edition had pioneered the idea of licensing out its rule set in an open-source-ish sort of way (called D20) that led to many games being developed and published under a collective banner. But the fourth edition tried to lock things down once more. It also tried to simplify many signature aspects of the game, often interpreted as a response to the World of Warcraft generation. Why? Well because the kids of today just didn’t seem to want to play tabletop roleplaying games any more.

The net impact of the 4th edition was to alienate many core fans of the franchise while the kids continued to not care. Another game called Pathfinder effectively took over (through the D20 license) and to many core fans represented what D&D 4th edition should have been. This has left Wizards of the Coast (owners of D&D) stuck. It now has the job of trying to recapture its old audience, which it’s doing by engaging a fan community to help build a 5th edition (an initiative called D&D Next) but that likely doesn’t solve the long-term generational problem. 

Despite reminding me of my age as many geek milestones do (I also recently hit the big 4-0), I often wonder about the real legacy of our generation. Like any generation I suppose we’re arrogant enough to assume that the things we care about are the ones that will resonate for all time, but history tends to disagree. Will the contribution of Gygax and Arneson endure for another 40 years?

When I was a teenager awkwardly trying to find my way in the world I found the imagined worlds of games like D&D to be a great creative outlet. Like many designers working in video games today, I would spend many hours poring over the creation of imaginary landscapes and forming a whole world view via a gaming lens. All I really had was those books, a lot of time and some dice. I had computer games too, but they were much less convenient compared to today.

Does the Snapchat generation have the same sort of attention span or interest in games? Do tomorrow’s game designers have the inclination to sit and delve through thick books describing fantastical worlds when they can simply boot up any number of games on numerous devices and play them directly? Will it care about the cultural tropes of the older generation (such as alignment systems and whatnot)? Will it engage in theological debates about gameplay versus story versus simulation versus behavior? Or will that all seem irrelevant?

Levels and experience points have made their way into everything from gamification to bingo, but much of their context has already been left behind by a digitally native generation. While my generation of game designers owes an enormous debt to the ideas that drove D&D, it isn’t necessarily the case that our successors will be inspired by those ideas in the same way. D&D was a formative influence for many of us, but one that grew as much out of a context as of what it was. In a sense we’re Gary Gygax’s generation.

Perhaps the next generation will find games like Minecraft to be the equivalent influence for them, but if so I wonder how that will shift their perspective over what games are and what they might be.