The Evolution of Role-Playing Games

Its the Sunday after gaming. I’m flat out beat. So I’m cheating and publishing a previous work. This was written for a short lived web-zine called “Big Iron Vault” back in the heyday of the firet iteration of Pen & Paper Games. So a bit of a blast from the past. I did not add anything, yes there has been water and editions under the bridge since.


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 D&D has undergone. Lets establish the extent of the playing field before I get into specific factors and mechanics.

Chainmail – 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.

D&D – 1974 Three digest sized books in a box: Men and Magic, Monsters and Treasure, The Underground and Wilderness Adventure. The box changed several times over the course of the run. Several supplements were printed as well. Greyhawk, Blackmore, Eldrich Wizardry, and Gods, Demigods & Heroes. The last two had color covers.

D&D was a revolutionary game. While the term “role-playing” is found nowhere between the 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, Fighting 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 played.

The later supplements added further classes and races, Gnomes and Half Elves. Thieves, Bards, Rangers and so forth.

The rules were crude the documentation 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 very 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), the Monster Manual. These are the best built, if not the best written D&D books. The binding of sewn gathers could take nearly 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 were Cleirc (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.

Philosophically AD&D advised, nay 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 improvement over D&D, but nearly anything would be. It was still scatter shot and 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.

Basic 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.

AD&D Second Edition – 1989 A reorganization and realignment of the AD&D game. Badly needed in many respects, they also took the opportunity to change a few (lot) of the rules. Player’s Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monstrous Compendium, later Monstrous Manual. Many, many supplements both hard and soft cover.

Races changed 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 D&D Lexicon.

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, saving throws.

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 which 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 Monstrous Manual.

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.

Skills and 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 it.

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 D&D line.

D&D 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 mix. Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf (never a half Dwarf), Half Orc, Halfing, Human. Classes got a realignment. Bard, Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, Cleric, Druids, Barbarians, Monk, Rouge, Wizard.

Tsrish 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 game.

D&D 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.

D&D 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 Chess”.

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 more.

strong text Next time I will discuss the specific aspects of the game as they have developed. First up, Ability Scores.

Garry Stahl – For Big Iron Vault 2009

Garry Stahl is a long time gamer having played war games since 1973, and role-playing games since 1976. He has run a single game world for that entire time. Most of his players have been with him for two decades or more. In the three plus decades I have played and DMed I have made every mistake that can be made and therefore am well qualified to discuss mistakes, developments and mistakes in developments. Some of his work is featured in The Greyhawke Campaign website.

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