Monday, January 18, 2010

How Gygax and Arneson Changed the World

This past weekend marked my daughter's tenth birthday. One of the gifts she received was a video game she'd wanted, a -- if you can believe it -- cheerleading simulation. Anyway, as I watched her play this game, I noticed that, to play, she first had to create a character and that, through play, her character acquired experience points to represent her virtual cheerleader's increase in skill. At certain XP thresholds, her character acquired new moves and access to other goodies unavailable to less experienced characters.

Now, none of this is exactly clever or innovative. Literally thousands of video games over the last quarter century or more have included such game mechanical architecture. But I think, given how far removed conceptually my daughter's game was from Dungeons & Dungeons, that this was the first time I well and truly understood the extent to which those three little brown books forever changed the world. The basic gameplay template Gary and Dave laid down in 1974 not only set the course for the vast majority of what followed in its wake but created the concepts and vocabulary that ordinary people, with no connection to D&D or the hobby understand intuitively.

Levels, hit points, character classes, XP: these and many more all achieved their vast currency through their use in D&D -- not a bad legacy for men who loved games as much as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did.

19 comments:

  1. I had a very similar experience with my daughter recently. I was teaching her how to play D&D, and found that a lot of what I may have had to explain to a child of my generation was intuitive to her. She was familiar with things like hit points, experience, levels, and so on through video games, Pokemon, etc.

    If course, other children of her age may not be as familiar with the milieu of D&D as she is. I haven't been reading her the Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Wizard of Oz, and so on for nothing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It still surprises me when a major film or tv show makes direct reference to D&D, such as in futurama. Who would've thought that 'little game' would had gone so far. Too bad things have gone the way they did since the 90's, but alas once you slip past your prime it's all downhill- like good musicians. It is like gravity, I always say, or like going up and down a pyramid. Still, some don't even get to go up. Man, 4E does even feel remotely like the D&D we grew up with, but still Gary and Dave left quite a legacy, which the old-school in particular keep alive.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was reading through some old discussions about the use of 'level titles' in D&D. Reading people's responses, it struck me at how ingrained the concept of 'levelling-up' has become. The level titles were an artifact of how wargames were played up until then; since nothing increased in level, each 'power level' had a distinct name. Thus 'Mages', 'Warlocks', and 'Wizards' each represented a distinct set of capabilities. Once 'level' was introduced, there was no need for such labels.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Now, you can build a WB Cheerleader class for Dwimmermount Campaign ;)

    Allmost everyday, I cross the biggest bookseller in town, which is the most direct way to my job. On the "top sales" stands, I can find "Dungeon of Naheulbeuk" novel (a novel inspired by a MP3 saga involving adventurers in a Dungeon), the same in comics, last Johann Sfar comics (a fahsionable / intelectual comics drawer) with a broo and a peryton on the cover, and so on...
    D&D everywhere...

    ReplyDelete
  5. It is kind of awe inspiring when you encounter some of the concepts of D&D in something that has no real connection to it normally. Its like running across something that fits Sun Tzu's Art of War in a cooking show.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm afraid I'm no historian; was there no experience point mechanic in the wargames which predated D&D then?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Many wargames included rules for improving units over time, but the specific mechanic that OD&D employs is, so far as I know -- someone can correct me if I'm wrong -- unique to it. More to the point, even if a wargame included similar mechanics, it's fair to say that it was through D&D and not through wargames that the idea became popularized and spread to computer games, much in the same way that hit points, which were present in some miniatures games, became such a common mechanic through the influence of D&D.

    ReplyDelete
  8. From what I remember of old mechanical pinball machines from the 1970's (and earlier), there wasn't really much in terms of "leveling up". The points values for hitting particular bumper targets were largely static. It would have taken a lot of mechanical ingenuity to effectively incorporate something like "leveling up", and increasing points of bumper targets.

    I get the impression the notions of "leveling up" in arcade type games, really took off when video games became more common. A computer program can easily things like leveling up, increasing points, faster/tougher badguys, etc ...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh yes, my question was not intended to belittle your original point; it's pretty clear to me that the experience/level mechanic we see in other games nowadays comes from computer rpgs, and they got it from D&D. I was just wondering where Gygax and Arneson got it from, since the original game was such a patchwork of ideas and mechanics from elsewhere. if they did invent it, then it's even more of an achievement.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I get the impression the notions of "leveling up" in arcade type games, really took off when video games became more common. A computer program can easily things like leveling up, increasing points, faster/tougher badguys, etc ...

    I've had that impression too. And the idea of leveling up came through programmers who in their off time played that game, what's it called again ....

    ;)

    ReplyDelete
  11. RE: OD&D and leveling up.

    I recall something about a flying ace sort of game where your character leveled up if he gained enough experience points, that was around before OD&D, but not long before. Am I imagining things?

    One could argue that "kinging" in checkers is a leveling-up, but it's conditional upon a single act (reaching the other end of the board) rather than accumulation of a number of points. You could say that the only act in the game worthy of EXP is reaching the other side, and the award is 1 EXP, and you need 1 EXP to reach Level 2, which is the maximum. And at Level 2 you can move backward as well as forward. But it's a stretch.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I recall something about a flying ace sort of game where your character leveled up if he gained enough experience points, that was around before OD&D, but not long before. Am I imagining things?

    You might be thinking of Battle in the Skies (aka Dawn Patrol) by Mike Carr, which was a WWI dogfighting game. There were experience rules in it but they were different than those in OD&D.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My girlfriend plays Farmville a lot on Facebook and I see experience, and levels, being used there as a way to lock off content.

    It's fascinating to see the effects of these two great games designers, like a thunderclap echoing through the ages. I bet there will be people in 50 years time tracing the origins of experience points and levels, from the latest game release, right back to D&D, too.

    ReplyDelete
  14. It probably has something to do with being an insurance salesman. Your insurance coverage levels up with more money, your actuary tables level up with more driving experience, etc., etc....

    ReplyDelete
  15. something just occurred to me. Why not use Arneson and Gygax together when we write about Gaming and D&D and such? Much in the same way people use the term "Lennon and McCartney."

    Folks, for the most part, associate the beginnings of the hobby with Gygax, and give a nod to Arneson as an afterthought.
    Maybe if we start using the term Arneson and Gygax it could one day be an accepted form, as in the Lennon/McCartney example?

    Just a thought.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hit points and Armor class come from an old Civil War game called Ironclads that pre-dates D&D. Dave decided the concept would work well for the fledgling RPG as well. There were several forms of leveling up or having experienced units in several miniatures warfare games of the times but none as expansive as theirs. Innovation is about combining and expanding existing elements in such a way as to make them intuitive. Dave and Gary did just that and brought these concepts together, applied them to individuals. The world has never been the same since as you rightly point out.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sheeeooot.

    "Leveling up" was invented by RPGs, man, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Truth is, it was invented more than once in human culture, but its tie to gaming is straight from Arneson. And nobody can take that away from him.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.