A fairly complete, mostly accurate and
only slightly biased exposition of the hobby's turbulent
existence, from its origins to the modern day. Serialised in
Part I: One small step
for a wargamer...
Much of the information in this article came
from Gary Fine's superb sociological examination of RPGs,
entitled "Shared Fantasy".
Like all good histories, we begin with a
famous genius who sets the ball rolling. In this case, it is the
incredible visionary, H. G. Wells. For not only was Wells the
grandfather of science fiction, he was also the grandfather of
war-games. Which makes him, if you like, the great-grandfather
of role-playing games.
War-games have pretty much existed for as long
as there have been wars. The idea of simulating battles without
the personal hazards can be traced back to ancient Sumer, more
than four thousand years ago. Chess and Go, two of the oldest
games in the world, arose from war-games. Contemporary war games
originated in Prussia, at the turn of the 19th
century. The game, Kriegspiel (War Game), introduced the
ideas of arranging markers on a "sand table", and using a dice
to determine any random elements in the battle. After the
Franco-Prussian war, the English came up with their own version,
and they began to be used wisely by armed services to train in
tactics and predict military outcomes
It was Wells, however, who first opened up the
games for the amateur. In 1915, he published a set of amateur
wargaming rules in a book entitled Little Wars, now seen as the
"wargamers’ bible". Wells was also the first to suggest that
miniature figures be collected to represent respective forces,
to add flavour, and a sense of involvement, to the game. Though
the book was popular, wargames did not really take off until, in
1953, Charles Roberts released the first commercially available
"board" war game. Though it was a slow starter, Roberts
eventually went on to form the Avalon-Hill Game Company, now one
of the world’s biggest game companies.
Spark to a Flame
In fact, in the 60’s and 70’s, wargaming
enjoyed a peak of popularity that it has yet to recapture. It
seems all those young people who weren’t doing LSD and listening
to Bob Dylan were playing a hell of a lot of wargames. Soon, it
was no longer a game, it was an industry. A huge,
well-established and well-defined fanclub, with its own
congregations, publications and jargon was evolving, just as it
was for science-fiction fans at about the same time. By the late
sixties, there was a strong and stable sub-culture for wargamers,
a supportive environment that was beginning to foster much
creativity and experimentation among its members. It was just
this sort of exploration that was to be the fuel for the
role-playing fire. But a spark was still required. And what a
spark it was: The Lord of the Rings.
The first edition of D&D, like so many games
that followed, featured hobbits. However, Tolkien's lawyers soon
threatened copyright action, leading to the birth of the "halfling".
Released in full across the United States in
1966, it was to forever change the literary world, and likewise
the worlds of millions of middle class American teenage males.
And since ninety percent of wargamers were middle class
teenage males, it took little imagination to see what was going
to happen next. No longer did players want to recreate the
battle of Gettysburg, but the battle of Helm’s Deep. The
Napoleonic Wars were discarded in favour of the War of the Ring,
goblins and orcs replaced foot soldiers and calvalry. People
wanted to know just how much damage a Balrog could do, and what
the range was on a lightning bolt spell.
It seemed only a matter time before the first
game specifically set in Tolkien’s world was published. There
was, however, a slight impediment to this, which was the fact
that there were very few good wargames that dealt with the
medieval era well enough to allow such things as magic and
dragons to be introduced. Into the path of destiny stepped two
men: Ernest (Gary) Gygax and David Arneson.
A Legendary Partnership
TSR was named after another local gaming
club: The Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association.
In a small town in Wisconsin called Lake
Geneva, Gygax, Jeff Perren and friends had created a wargame
that gave an accurate model of most aspects of medieval warfare.
It was called Chainmail, and had been published by Gygax’s own
fledgling company, Tactical Studies Rules. It was a later, more
widely distributed version that became the first wargame to
include rules for giants, trolls, dragons and magic spells. This
game is seen to be the immediate predecessor of Dungeons and
Dragons, and indeed, there are many similarities in the rules
The seeds of role-playing had actually been
laid much earlier, however. At the time Chainmail was written,
Gygax was a member of a medieval warfare enthusiasts’ society
entitled The Castles and Crusades Society. A fellow member,
Arneson, had already began to experiment with some role-playing
ideas. As he himself puts it:
Arneson gives credit to himself for adding
"magic" to wargames - apparently after watching an episode of
Star Trek, Dave gave his druid a phaser, and zapped his
opponents' forces to kingdom come! This naturally led to the
lightning bolt spell.
I would have to give a lot of credit [for
the idea] to another local gamer, Dave Wesley. He was the
first one to input role-playing…the first game that stands
out in my mind is little medieval games, a very dull period
of war games. He had a dull set of rules and after our
second game, we were bored. To spice it up, Dave, who had
been doing the set ups and refereeing [the wargames], gave
each of us a little personal goal in the battle.
This was in 1968. Although crude, it was the
very first step towards role-playing. Arneson continues:
Well, that kind of got us all thinking
about "wasn’t that neat" and we did a couple of other games
with various people. "Let’s have a big medieval campaign
with half a dozen different people playing with little
powers with fifty or sixty men, and then you’re the king or
the knight, or whatever." And it developed from there. That
got us into role-playing.
In the early seventies, Arneson’s creativity
met Gygax’s fantasy and the two men began to combine their
ideas. In 1970 or 1971 (Arneson is unsure of the date), Arneson
took the Chainmail system and played what was the first true
role-playing game ever.
Of course, it wasn't called role-playing back
then. The first edition of D&D called it a "Fantasy Medieval
Wargame, Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures",
All the fellows had come over for a
traditional night of Napoleonic battle, and saw the table
covered with this huge keep or castle on it. [They] wondered
where this had come from in the plains of Poland or wherever
we were playing at the time, and they shortly found out that
they were going to go down in the deep, dank, dark dungeon.
This game was later to become the Blackmoor
dungeon campaign. Gygax rapidly followed suit with an adventure
that was to become the Greyhawk campaign. Over the next few
years, the two played and play-tested rules that would
eventually become the game Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first
commercially-available role-playing game. Like wargames, it was
to prove a slow starter, but a entirely new hobby had been born.
A final tribute to Dave Arneson
Like all great partnerships, Gygax and
Arneson’s was not without creative differences. Less than a year
after D&D was released, these differences reached a head, and
Arneson left. TSR, under Gygax and new partner Brian Blume,
continued to run, but without paying Arneson the royalties he
was still legally due as part owner. In 1979, Arneson took this
matter to court, and after a lengthy battle, was bought out by
TSR. The tragedy is that, today, Gygax is extolled and praised
far and wide as the sole parent of role-playing, while Arneson
has been all but forgotten by the industry. I hope this history
can go some way towards correcting this injustice.