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Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Was table-top gaming inevitable?

Jerry Stratton, October 22, 2018

Runequest cover

Today, Gods & Monsters in its public form turned 18. On October 22, 2000, I posted a link to “The Game” on asking for Blues Brothers-style constructive criticism. Eighteen, of course, is only significant in gaming terms or adulthood, and in the former case only for those games that use 3d6 for stats. Combined with a sad event from two weeks ago, it has me thinking again about role-playing history and how lucky we are to have had Dungeons & Dragons in particular and tabletop fantasy roleplaying in general.

The other event is that Greg Stafford died on October 12. He founded the Chaosium in 1975 to publish his fantasy board game. Through it he published, in 1978, the highly influential RuneQuest game, set in the highly influential Glorantha world, which used the same world that his earlier board game did.

It is hard for someone who wasn’t quite there—I started gaming in 1981—to describe just how influential Glorantha and RuneQuest was, the idea of basing the rules on the setting.

In his tribute to Stafford, Zenopus relates a fascinating and telling story about how Greg Stafford was introduced to D&D:

I used to work for Bergamot Brass Works, a belt buckle company out of Lake Geneva, WI after high school. Real hippy job. I'd take buckles, hitch hike around and sell them to shops, etc. After a while, though, I moved to California. My friend of the time remained there, selling buckles (we were called Buckle-itis).

Through various circumstances I'd decided to publish my first boardgame, White Bear & Red Moon, on my own. As I was finishing up work on it, I got a package in the mail from my old partner Jeff. His cover letter said, "I was picking up my catalogues from the printer the other day and there was this guy waiting for his stuff. I asked what it was, and he said it was a fantasy game. I said, 'Hey, my buddy in California is doing one too! Can I buy one from ya?'"

Of course the guy was happy to, and so Jeff sent me this strange little booklet called Dungeons & Dragons.

Some guy who was friends with someone writing a fantasy game just happened to be at the print shop while Gary Gygax was printing the first run of his own fantasy game. This is the kind of story you expect to see in Hollywood, where everyone is working on a script. There was clearly something in the air then, some unmet need for a Dungeons and Dragons. But this doesn’t mean that tabletop roleplaying was inevitable, because just as clearly, no one was getting it. Greg Stafford’s game was a board game. It only became a roleplaying game because Stafford saw Dungeons & Dragons.1 All of those fantasy social clubs in the wargaming mags were played like war games or dinner games.

Even Dave Arneson was still playing the game like a war game. The players were different teams competing against each other with Arneson as the impartial judge, just as any war game of the period that used referees.

Even in the world of literary fiction, A.S. Byatt’s 1967 The Game contains something that reads a hell of a lot like Dungeons & Dragons. But she and her characters based their Game on a similar game the Brontë sisters used to play. With characters but no real rules, it played out more like a kid’s make-believe than a tabletop fantasy, with all the player-interaction problems you probably remember from your own childhood make-believe.

Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World relates in detail the massive number of failed attempts at meeting the need few knew they had for a D&D. In my review of Playing at the World, I wrote that,

What’s really amazing in the various sources from the modern era is that despite how much the fan and wargaming communities were yearning for something like Dungeons and Dragons, they were not willing to settle for something not enough like it. From Coventry to Hyboria to Midgard, things with a few of the elements of what would become roleplaying never caught on or flashed through one subcommunity and disappeared. Much of the spread of D&D happened through the sheer tenacity and enthusiasm of someone exposed to one game session, who then introduced what they understood of it to their group, who passed it on to another group, without waiting for any official rules. When real rulebooks were eventually available, there was nothing to stop it.

If Peterson is correct, the critical ingredient for Dungeons and Dragons specifically and tabletop roleplaying in general came when Arneson showed the game to Gygax, and, not having a second group to compete with Gygax, played the competition himself. To Gygax, this appeared to be players inhabiting a world, with the world represented by an impartial referee. The players cooperated—at least as much as players will—to explore this world, compete against its creatures and features, and bring home the gold.

That reformulation was a spark to gasoline. It also meant one person could be the catalyst to bringing the game to others. Instead of having to form two groups, all you really needed were two people, though of course at least four would be optimal. And the bootstrap time dropped to comparatively nothing. If the game master knew the rules, the rest of the players could pick them up as necessary. The game master didn’t even really need to know the rules. As long as they’d played a game once they could make up the rules as they went along.

Without that critical ingredient, brought about by accident at Gen Con in 1972, would we ever have found a Dungeons & Dragons? The more I read about the history of tabletop gaming, the more I doubt it.2 The critical concept, of playing at the world in the form of a game master, referee, or what-have-you, was clearly not obvious at the time, no matter how obvious it almost immediately seemed in retrospect.

The more I read about the history of tabletop gaming, the more lucky I feel that we have this amazing game form, and have had it for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

  1. Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms would likely have been fodder for novels had there been no D&D, and M. A. R. Barker’s Tékumel would have been used either for novels, board games, shared world tinkering if not for his introduction to D&D.

  2. An impartial referee running the world might have been able to grow out of computer wargaming, in the same way that computers can both referee a chess game between two people or be the opponent if there is no human available. Given the primitive personal computers of the late seventies and early eighties, programmers might even simplify the Braunstein computer opponent to just dungeon crawls. But would the concept of an impartial computer running the world ever have made the jump to a human running the world? And how would being born in computers instead of the other way around have changed the role of the referee and the form of the game?

  1. <- Well-behaved deities