I first read a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook in late 1979, nearly six years after the world’s first roleplaying game had been released. Over the course of those years, a great deal had happened, both to D&D and to the wider hobby it spawned. While I hadn’t personally experienced all that had happened, my friends and I were beneficiaries of it all.
Looking back on the late 1970s from the vantage point of 2013, just days before the release of yet another big budget fantasy film, it’s sometimes hard to remember that fantasy – at least the peculiar kind of fantasy that D&D represents – was once a rather unusual taste. It certainly wasn’t yet the mainstream genre of entertainment it would become over the course of my lifetime, thanks in no small part to the success of Dungeons & Dragons. A few months before I discovered the game, Gary Gygax, in an editorial published in issue #26 (June 1979) of Dragon magazine, noted that, initially, he had assumed D&D would appeal only to a very small segment of the population. He writes:
The target audience to which we thought D&D would appeal was principally the same as that of historical wargames in general and military miniatures in particular. D&D was hurriedly compiled, assuming that readers would be familiar with medieval and ancient history, wargaming, military miniatures, etc. It was aimed at males.
He then goes on to say that, “Within a few months it became apparent to us that our basic assumptions might be a bit off target. In another year it became abundantly clear to us that we were so far off as to be laughable.” His larger point was that, because the game’s popularity had spread beyond college-age and older men with an interest in military history, the game itself would have to change to be more accessible to other potential players.
My 10 year-old self was one of those other potential players.
Whenever Christmas looms, my thoughts turn not to decorations, carols, and presents; but to dungeons. Actually, that’s not entirely true. My thoughts do turn to presents – or, rather, a single, very specific present, albeit one received not by myself, but by a good friend of mine in 1979.
Among my childhood friends, it was traditional that, during the Christmas break from school, we’d all take turns visiting one another’s homes to marvel at our respective holiday hauls. Together, we’d then play with whatever we deemed the most interesting presents. In the dying days of the 1970s, that typically meant Star Wars action figures (or perhaps Micronauts) and so it was that year. I believe that was the year that I received the much-coveted Imperial Troop Transport vehicle and so became the envy of my friends. But, cool as it was to be able to push a button on the Troop Transport and hear sound effects from my favorite movie, that wasn’t the Christmas gift that most interested me.
That honor fell instead to a strange little board game my friend Mike received. I say “strange,” because the “board” wasn’t really a board at all, but rather a folded up piece of thick paper that didn’t lay very flat on the table unless you held down the corners with books or other heavy objects. This board depicted a bunch of colored boxes connected by meandering yellow spaces, with a few larger spaces here and there. These larger spaces were all given rather evocative names like “King’s Library” and “Queen’s Treasure Room” and “Torture Chamber.” Flimsy though it might have been, the board nevertheless caught our attentions – and fired our imaginations.
The game, of course, was David R. Megarry’s Dungeon!, which was first published in 1975 by TSR Hobbies.
The hobby of tabletop roleplaying games officially kicked off in early 1974, with the publication of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons &Dragons. 2014, which is right around the corner, is thus the 40th anniversary of both D&Dand the hobby to which it gave birth. Think about that for a moment: people have been rolling polyhedral dice and pretending to be knights and wizards for nearly four decades. If I didn’t already feel old, that fact certainly would have made feel so.
Though RPGs are still going strong after all these years, the same cannot, unfortunately, be said of many of its founding figures. We lost Gary Gygax in 2008 and Dave Arneson the following year. Many more have followed in the years since, several of whom have been noted here at Black Gate. Many others are still with us, of course; it’s my hope that we’ll take the time to honor and, above all, thank them for their contributions to our lives while we still have the chance to do so. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have been endlessly enriched and improved because of that boxed set I cracked open at Christmas 1979. I cannot begin to imagine how different the course of my life might have run if it had not been for this crazy hobby. Roleplaying games have truly had a huge impact in making me the person I am today. I doubt I am alone in feeling this way.
Given the importance RPGs have played in so many lives and how influential roleplaying games, both as entertainments and as creative endeavors, have become, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to want to see their history preserved for the benefit of future gamers – and historians, some of whom will undoubtedly find value in exploring how a bunch of “let’s pretend” games came to be the wellsprings of so much of contemporary popular culture. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case. There’s no Gygax Collection at the University of Chicago nor are the Arneson Papers safely lodged at the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. If you’re interested in piecing together the early history of the hobby – and the individuals who helped create it – you’ll likely have to rely on much more scattered resources to do so, assuming you can find them at all.
Unless you’re interested in M.A.R. Barker and his fantasy world of Tékumel, that is.
If you’ve been following the online discussion of tabletop roleplaying games (especially fantasy roleplaying games) over the last few years, odds are good you’ve heard of the “Old School Renaissance.” For that matter, if you’ve been following the RPG coverage here at Black Gate, you’ve probably already noticed this term being used in numerous blog entries before this one. As folks online are wont to do, some will quibble and kvetch about the precise meaning of the OSR (as it’s come to be known; it even has a logo!), but, at its most basic, the Old School Renaissance is a renewed appreciation for the RPGs of the 1970s and ’80s, as well as a renewed interest in playing these classic games.
Gamers being what they are (and always have been), it wasn’t long after the OSR picked up steam that people wanted to start producing new material for their favorite RPGs, a desire facilitated by the Open Gaming License and System Reference Document that Wizards of the Coast released at the same time as the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragonsin 2000. Together, they made it possible to create and sell “clones” (or “retro-clones”) of popular roleplaying games from the past, games that are in many cases are long out of print or locked away in the IP vaults of a corporation. Want to write an adventure for your beloved 1981 edition ofD&D? Labyrinth Lordlets you do that. Want to publish a new campaign setting for AD&D? OSRICgives you the tools for just that. There are also clones for games like RuneQuest, Gamma World, Chill, and many more, not to mention many older games that have come back into print as a result of the renewed interest the OSR has generated in them. Whatever your favorite game of the past, odds are good that you’ll be satisfied.
There’s another category of old school RPGs, however. They’re not clones, since they aren’t modern-day restatements of older rules sets, but they do take clear inspiration from their predecessors of yore. They are, for lack of a better term, neoclassical roleplaying games.
Though I can’t be completely certain, I think the first time I encountered the name of H.P. Lovecraft was sometime during the course of 1980, not long after I’d discovered Dungeons &Dragons. The thin blue rulebook contained inside the Basic Set included a single reference to “Cthulhu” as a deity alongside Crom and Zeus (two names I already knew). Back in those days, hobby shops were ground zero for the burgeoning roleplaying hobby. Bearded wargamers, nerdy college kids, heavy metal-loving teens, and fantasy fans of all sorts rubbed shoulders in these peculiar little stores, swapping stories of their characters and campaigns, as well as holding forth on a variety of topics. To a young person such as myself, hobby shops were amazing places filled with amazing people, whose company I sought out as often as I could.
There was a strange camaraderie among the hobby shops’ patrons – or so it seemed to me anyway. We were all a little strange by the standards of the time, taking interest in things that were still many years from mainstream recognition, let alone acceptance. Consequently, the usual distinctions of age didn’t matter much and I regularly found myself chatting with people years older than myself about gaming and fantasy and science fiction. I can’t begin to convey what a big deal this was to me. I was a shy, bookish sort and didn’t make friends easily, yet here I was gabbing with teenagers and university students as if we were old comrades.
That’s when I heard someone mention Cthulhu again and, callow youth that I was, asked just who (or what) Cthulhu was. Little did I know that that innocent question would lead to a lifelong interest in the life and works of H.P. Lovecraft.
I suspect it’s not uncommon for a person to look back on the era of his earliest days and deem it the “perfect” time to have been a child; I certainly do. I regularly tell my own children how grateful I am to have been a kid in the 1970s. I say this not out of any particular love of plaid, shag carpet, or disco, but for two rather different reasons.
Firstly, ’70s were obsessed with the weird, the occult, and the apocalyptic. From The Exorcist to Soylent Green to In Search Of, there was clearly something in the air during that decade, something that had a profound effect on my youthful psyche and planted the seeds for many of my lifelong preoccupations. Secondly, the 1970s (at least as I experienced them in suburban Baltimore) was a time when contemporary television programming couldn’t keep up with demand, resulting in lots of reruns of older shows and movies being shown to plug holes in the schedule. The happy consequence of this for me was that I got to see tons of stuff made before I was born – including lots of great horror movies.
My imagination was thus founded on an unholy combination of old school horror films and Me Generation shlock – and I mean that in the best possible way. As a bookish kid with macabre sensibilities (owing perhaps to my being born two days before Halloween), the 1970s provided me with the raw materials needed to fuel my dreams and nightmares for many years to come. This is nowhere more apparent than when I look back on the various vampires I first encountered in those heady days.
To say that I have an abiding interest in the relationship between tabletop roleplaying games and the literary inspirations of their creators is something of an understatement.
Notice, though, that I said “inspirations” rather than another word that frequently gets bandied about when discussing the relationship between literature and RPGs – emulation. I can’t recall precisely when I first heard the term “emulation” used in the context of roleplaying games, but I’d be surprised if it were before the late 1980s. That’s about a decade after I entered the hobby, so my memory is admittedly fuzzy and I could well be mistaken. On the other hand, I heard the term “inspiration” a great deal, most notably in (you knew this was coming!) Gary Gygax’s 1979 Appendix N and the “Inspirational Source Material” found in the 1981 Tom Moldvay-edited edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Back in those days, game creators often talked about the books whose characters, plots, and ideas had fired their imaginations to such a degree that they decided to create a RPG that drew on them; they still do.
“Emulation” is something different. It’s one thing, I believe, to create a fantasy roleplaying game inspired by, say, Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan the Cimmerian, but an entirely different thing to create a roleplaying game intended to emulate the adventures of Conan. Emulation implies a degree of fidelity to its literary sources (at least thematically), as well as some means – whether rules or advice – to ensure that experience of playing the game imitates that source material. An example of what I’m talking about that comes immediately to mind is Chaosium’s Call of CthulhuRPG. While its rules do not explicitly talk about emulation, they do include game mechanics for the loss of sanity that results from encounters with blasphemous tomes and eldritch horrors. The creator of a game that’s merely inspired by some literary source is under no such obligations. After all, inspiration can take many forms, many of which do not include aping one’s sources of inspiration.
I mention all of this as a prologue to a large, more contentious discussion, namely the place of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in the creation of Dungeons &Dragons.
“Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”
There was something diabolically sweet in her tones — something of the tingling of glass when struck — which rang through the brains even of us who heard the words addressed to another. As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell; moving his hands from his face, he opened wide his arms. She was leaping for them, when Van Helsing sprang forward and held between them his little golden crucifix. She recoiled from it, and, with a suddenly distorted face, full of rage, dashed past him as if to enter the tomb.
So does Dr. John Seward describe the encounter between Abraham Van Helsing and newly-risen Lucy Westenra in Chapter 16 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’m not knowledgeable enough in literary vampire lore to be able to say with any certainty that the 1897 novel is the first time we see a bloodsucker recoil from a crucifix, but, even if it’s not, I have little doubt that it was probably the most widely-read and influential example of it. Not only has the novel itself sold untold copies in the English-speaking world alone, but motion picture adaptations, starting with F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized 1922 film, Nosferatu, have added much to the popular conception of “the undead” (to borrow Stoker’s own coinage) – and how to combat them.
In the world of gaming, it’s well-known that the medieval miniatures rules, Chainmail, written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, was the immediate predecessor to Dungeons & Dragons, especially its “Fantasy Supplement,” which introduces the option of including magic and monsters so as to “refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers.” Even a cursory examination of Chainmail reveals that there’s nary a mention of religion in its pages, including in the Fantasy Supplement. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, since the priest isn’t a distinct literary archetype in the pulp fantasy literature that inspired Gygax (as revealed in innumerable posts about his Appendix N bibliography on this site and elsewhere). Consequently, Chainmail includes only “heroes” and “wizards” as individual units.
Unless one considers charts, tables, and mathematical formulas to be “illustrations,” the original edition of GDW’s science fiction roleplaying game Traveller (1977) contains only one piece of genuine artwork: namely, the portrait to the right. That portrait, by an uncredited artist, depicts Alexander Lascelles Jamison, the example character whose career is detailed in the first volume of the classic SF RPG. Like all Traveller characters, before he starts seeking his fortune among the stars, Jamison has already had a career, in this case in the merchant service, where he mustered out with his own ship and the rank of captain.
Looking at that portrait, I found myself remembering a quote from “Margin of Profit,” a story by the late Poul Anderson, first published in the September 1956 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. That story, too, depicts an interstellar merchant captain:
He was a huge man, two meters in height and broad enough to match. A triple chin and swag belly did not make him appear soft. Rings glittered on hairy fingers and bracelets on tawny wrists, under snuff-soiled lace. Small black eyes, set close to a great hook nose under a sloping forehead, peered with laser intensity.
Anderson’s merchant is, of course, Nicholas Van Rijn, president of the Solar Spice & Liquors Company, and one of the more famous characters from the period between the end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the rise of the New Wave.
Had he not died of cancer in 2009, today would have been the 66th birthday of David L. “Dave” Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragonsand one of the most under-appreciated creators of the past century.That may sound like an exaggeration, but I mean it most sincerely. Through the medium of tabletop roleplaying games, a concept that owes as much to his imagination and ingenuity as anyone’s, Arneson has profoundly affected millions of lives, including my own. If you’ve ever played in any kind of game that featured a “dungeon” or had a character with “hit points” or who earned “experience points,” you can thank Dave Arneson, who pioneered all these game mechanics in his Blackmoor campaign in Minneapolis during the early 1970s. It was Arneson who made the conceptual leap from fighting battles on a sand table with miniature metal figures to playing individual characters who explored monster-filled labyrinths in search of “more and bigger loot,” as Volume 3 of the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragonsmemorably puts it.
Sadly, Arneson is far from a household name. When Gary Gygax, D&D‘s other co-creator, died in 2008, it was big news. Newspapers, magazines, and websites across the world, including such prestigious ones as The New York Times, The Economist, and the BBC (to cite but a few) all included high-profile obituaries of the man whom they called “the Father of Roleplaying Games.” More than that, these obituaries often served as springboards for wide-ranging reflections about RPGs and their place in shaping contemporary popular culture. The video game industry in particular hailed Gygax as its intellectual forefather, citing the seminal role Dungeons & Dragonsplayed in shaping it – and rightly so, I should add. There’s no question that Gary Gygax played an incalculably huge role in the popularization of the roleplaying game, a new form of entertainment whose ideas took the world by storm.
Arneson’s death, just a little over a year later, didn’t receive quite the same kind of coverage. There were still obituaries in The New York Times and on the BBC, of course, but they were shorter, more muted affairs, perhaps in part because Gygax’s death was still fresh in people’s minds and there didn’t seem to be much more to say about Arneson that hadn’t already been said about Gygax.