Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

26 August, 2019

It’s complicated… the history of tabletop RPGs
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:48 PM

Kotaku published a pretty good article about the early days of tabletop RPGs, looking at exactly who did what to influence the hobby today. Since I’ve been talking about RP, I thought this would be interesting to touch upon.

Let’s travel back in time and see how messy things got!

I touched on this topic briefly about a decade ago when Dave Arneson passed away. I had seen some talks at Gen Con from some of the early people, including Arenson, who gave a lot of detail about what the very earliest days of tabletop RPGs were like, before they were even called that. The Kotaku article obviously has a lot more useful information in it.

The summary

There was a long-standing disagreement between people about who did what in the early days of RPGs. As we see in MMOs, people often overlook a lot of small details as they rush to credit something. Many tabletop RPG fans are quick to credit Chainmail and the fantasy supplement as the earliest tabletop RPG. But the article shows it’s a lot more complicated than that. The idea of telling a collaborative story came much before that, and wasn’t Gygax’s creation. Gygax focused on mechanics and presentation, and when Arneson had the idea to tell a story using the basics of the Chainmail rules, it was a bolt from the blue for Gygax.

But things got messy over time. Gygax wanted more control and was jealous in many ways. This lead to Gygax eventually forcing people out of “his” company and retaining control, eventually removing people from the history of the company and even trying to create a “brand new” “Advanced” version of the game to remove Arenson completely from the history, the credits, the business in the form of royalties.

An analysis

It’s messy and complicated, but I think you can see a few threads out of this that makes sense.

First, it’s hard to say who created what in a creative endeavor. Many people contributed to tabletop RPGs, and trying to give a singular person all the credit is futile at best, revisionist at worst. Everyone involved in those early days threw ideas in, and there might even be more people who contributed but who don’t shove their way to the spotlight for credit.

A friend of mine likes to point out that the strength of Gygax is that he actually did things. He wrote things down, organized, edited. He might not have been the best at all of that, but he had that drive to put rules into printed form and sell them. Maybe he wasn’t the best editor, but he got the job done. (As an aside, my friend suggest that this questionable quality was a benefit, as it encouraged a lot of people to think they could do it better! Giving rise to a strong DIY ethic in tabletop RPGs.) And this brought the game to a wider audience, and probably gave focus to a wildly creative person like Arneson.

But I like that summary of the article: Gygax’s rules have diminished over time, so that the games bearing the Dungeons & Dragons name today only a passing resemblance to what Gygax created. (Rest in Peace, our old friend THAC0.) Mechanics change, get replaced, even get reinterpreted completely. But Arneson’s contribution of having a shared space to tell a collaborative story? That’s endured. In fact, you could say it’s what defines tabletop RPGs today… and also defines RP in other media like MMOs!

Lessons learned

I think part of the moral of this story is that who did what is really less important than actually doing something. Gygax did something amazing, no doubt. But in a way his legacy is tarnished by petty human foibles, and trying to become the sole owner of the idea of tabletop RPGs. D&D is really an amazing thing, and it inspired countless people, even if it wasn’t in the first thing to have espoused the ideas of what we define tabletop RPGs by. Gygax gets my admiration for that.

And I think this is an important thing for us creative types to learn. Especially as some creative things, such as building an MMO, become more and more complex. We need to expect that not only is our work likely built on foundations built by others, but that original ideas are tough. Gygax still has some chops as a creative person, but we see that a lot of what he did came from other sources, magic from Jack Vance’s writings and so on as described in the article. Is it really so surprising that the idea of role-playing beyond simulating wargame type combat was something he brought in as well?

Ultimately I think D&D is a fine accomplishment. But let’s also recognize others as well!

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