On January 26, 1974 the world changed. A panoply of creatures popped into existence – Owlbears lumbered out of the woods while Bullettes snuffled out of caves, blinking in the sunlight. Adventurers donned metal plate armor and led their ambling pack horses into darkened dungeons. Traps sprung, capturing teams of dwarves in iron nets while gold glittered tantalizingly close to a shambling skeleton. For some, the ’70s were an era of free love. For others they were the era of untrammeled adventure.
Dungeons & Dragons, the pen-and-paper role-playing game that engulfed so many of our childhoods, turned 40 this weekend to little fanfare. Originally created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game built on many RPG mechanics that were beginning to percolate out of board gaming at the time. Like Diplomacy before it, D&D games were engrossing romps through worlds yet unvisited by the player. However, unlike the traditional board and die drivel, D&D borrowed from the popular mythologies of the day and the strange world of J.R.R. Tolkein and his ilk. The result – an all-encompassing game that took cues from improvisational theatre, model-building, war gaming, and political strategy – has become a signifier in the tech world and an interstitial generation of pre-electronic nerds as much as the bong and bell-bottoms defined the generation that spawned these role-players.
Things didn’t look good for D&D parent company TSR when they were bought out by Wizards Of The Coast who created the third and fourth editions of the game. A fifth edition is planned for this year.
D&D created nearly everything we hold dear. The games we love today – from Skyrim to Halo – all owe gratitude to the sweeping expanse of D&D gaming. Western fantasy is basically one long D&D game played solo while even the team structures and hierarchies we’ve come to use in business – from black belt consultants to agile teams – owe something to the camaraderie of kitchen-table dungeon crawls and the language of the Internet (arch, knowing, snarky, and at the same time earnest and obsessive) is the language of the RPG gamer.
It is hard to overstate how culturally important D&D was. It made us nerds powerful, and gave us a sword, a shield, and a dragon to slay in some dark corner. Like Bilbo tasked with robbing Smaug, we take the lessons of D&D and make beautiful art, conduct business, and interact as humans. It’s something we need and I’m glad it was born.
[Image from Diterlizzi which you should read if you want to learn where a lot of the original monsters came from.]