Dec 27, 2019
What does insurance, J.R.R. Tolkien, HG Wells, and the Civil War have in common? They created a perfect storm for the advent of Dungeons and Dragons. Sure, D&D might not be directly impactful on the History of Computing. But it’s impacts are far and wide. The mechanics have inspired many a game. And the culture impact can be seen expansively across the computer gaming universe. D&D came of age during the same timeframe that the original PC hackers were bringing their computers to market. But how did it all start? We’ll leave the history of board games to the side, given that Chess sprang up in northern India over 1500 years ago, spreading first to the Persian empire and then to Spain following the Moorish conquest of that country. And given that card games go back to a time before the Tang Dynasty in 9th century China. And Gary Gygax, the co-creator and creative genius behind D&D loved playing chess, going back to playing with his grandfather as a young boy. Instead, we’ll start this journey in 1780 with Johann Christian Ludwig Hellwig, who invented the first true war-game to teach military strategy. It was good enough to go commercial. Then Georg Julis Venturini made a game in 1796, then Opiz in 1806, then Kriegsspiel in 1824, which translates from German to wargame. And thus the industry was born. There were a few dozen other board games but in 1913, Little Wars, by HG Wells, added hollow lead figures, ornately painted, and distance to bring us into the era of miniature wargaming. Infantry moved a foot, cavalry moved two, and artillery required other troops to be around it. You fought with spring loaded cannons and other combat resulted in a one to one loss usually, making the game about trying to knock troops out while they were setting up their cannons. It was cute, but in the years before World War II, many sensed that the release of a war game by the pacifist Wells was a sign of oncoming doom. Indeed it was. But each of these inventors had brought their own innovations to the concept. And each impacted real war, with wargaming being directly linked to the blitzkrieg. Not a lot happened in innovative new Wargames between Wells and the 1950s. Apparently the world was busy fighting real war games. But Jack Scruby started making figures in 1955 and connecting communities, writing a book called All About Wargames in 1957. Then Gettysburg was created by Charles Roberts and released by Avalon Hill, which he founded, in 1958. It was a huge success and attracted a lot of enthusiastic if not downright obsessed players. In the game, you could play the commanders of the game, like Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Meade, and many others. You had units of varying sizes and a number of factors could impact the odds of battle. The game mechanics were complex, and it sparked a whole movement of war games that slowly rose through the 60s and 70s. One of those obsessed gamers was Gary Gygax, an insurance underwriter, who started publishing articles and magazines, Gygax started a the Lake Geneva Wargames Convention in 1968, which has since moved to Indianapolis after a pitstop in Milwaukee and now brings in upwards of 30,000 attendees. Gygax collaborated with his friend Jeff Perren on a game they released in 1970 called Chainmail. Chaimail got a supplement that introduced spells, magic items, dwarves, and hobbits - which seems based on Tolkien novels, but according to Gygax was more a composite of a lot of pulp novels, including one of his favorite, the Conan series. 1970 turned out to be a rough year, as Gygax got laid off from the insurance company and had a family with a wife and 5 kids to support. That’s when he started making games as a career. At first, it didn’t pay too well, but he started making games and published Chainmail with Guidon Games which started selling a whopping 100 copies a month. At the time, they were using 6 sided dice but other numbering systems worked better. They started doing 1-10 or 1-20 random number generation by throwing poker chips in a coffee can, but then Gary found weird dice in a school supply catalog and added the crazy idea of a 20 sided dice. Now a symbol found on t-shirts and a universal calling card of table top gamers. At about the same time University of Minnesota history student, Dave Arneson met Gygax at Gencon and took Chainmail home to the Twin Cities and started improving the rules, releasing his own derivative game called Blackmoor. He came back to Gencon the next year after testing the system and he and Gygax would go on to collaborate on an updated and expanded set of rules. Gygax would codify much of what Arneson didn’t want to codify, as Arneson found lawyer balling rules to be less fun from a gameplay perspective. But Gary, the former underwriter, was a solid rule-maker and thus role-playing games were born, in a game first called The Fantasy Game. Gary wrote a 50 page instruction book, which by 1973 had evolved into a 150-page book. He shopped it to a number of game publishers, but none had a book that thick or could really grock the concept of role-playing. Especially one with concepts borrowed from across the puIn the meantime, Gygax had been writing articles and helping others with games, and doing a little cobbling on the side. Because everyone needs shoes. And so in 1973, Gygax teamed up with childhood friend Don Kaye and started Tactical Studies Rules, which would evolve into TSR, witch each investing $1,000. They released Cavaliers and Roundheads on the way to raising the capital to publish the game they were now calling… Dungeons and Dragons. The game evolved further and in 1974 they put out 1,000 copies of in a boxed set. To raise more capital they brought in Brian Blume, who invested 2,000 more dollars. Sales of that first run were great, but Kaye passed away in 1975 and Blume’s dad stepped in to buy his shares. They started Dragon magazine, opened The Dungeon Hobby Shop and started hiring people. The game continued to grow, with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons being released with a boatload of books. They entered what we now call a buying tornado and by 1980, sales were well over 8 million dollars. But in 1979 James Egbert, a Michigan State Student, disappeared. A private eye blamed Dungeons and Dragons. He later popped up in Louisiana but the negative publicity had already started. Another teen, Irving Pulling committed suicide in 1982 and his mom blamed D&D and then started a group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, or BADD. There’s no such thing as bad publicity though and sales hit $30 million by 83. In fact, part of the allure for many, including the crew I played with as a kid, was that it got a bad wrap in some ways… At this point Gary was in Hollywood getting cartoons made of Dungeons and Dragons and letting the Blume’s run the company. But they’d overspent and nearing bankruptcy due to stupid spending, Gygax had to return to Lake Geneva to save the company, which he did by releasing the first book in a long time, one of my favorite D&D books, Unearthed Arcana. Much drama running the company ensued, which isn’t pertinent to the connection D&D has to computing but basically Gary got forced out and the company lost touch with players because it was being run by people who didn’t really like gamers or gaming. 2nd edition D&D wasn’t a huge success But in 1996, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. They had made a bundle off of Magic The Gathering and now that TSR was in the hands of people who loved games and gamers again, they immediately started looking for ways to reinvigorate the brand - which their leadership had loved. 3rd edition open gaming license was published by Wizards of the Coast and allowed third-part publishers to make material compatible with D&D products using what was known as the d20 System Trademark License. Fourth edition came along and in 2008 but that open gaming License was irrevocable so most continued using it over the new Game System License, which had been more restrictive. By 2016 when 5th edition came along, this is all felt similar to what we’ve seen with Apache, BSD, and MIT licenses, with TSR moving back to the Open Gaming License which had been so popular. Now let’s connect Dungeons and Dragons to the impact on Computing. In 1975, Will Crowther was working at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman. He’d been playing some of those early copies of Dungeons and Dragons and working on natural language processing. The two went together like peanut butter and chocolate and out popped something that tasted a little like each, a game called Colossal Cave Adventure. If you played Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll remember drawing countless maps on graph paper. Adventure was like that and loosely followed Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system, given that Crowther was an avid caver. It ran on a PDP-10, and as those spread, so spread the fantasy game, getting updated by Stanford grad student Don Woods in 1976. Now, virtual words weren’t just on table tops, but they sprouted up in Rogue and by the time I got to college, there were countless MUDs or Multi-User Dungeons where you could kill other players. Mattel shipped the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game in 1981 then Dungeon! For the Apple II and another dozen or so games over the the years. These didn’t directly reflect the game mechanics of D&D though. But Pool of Raidance, set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting of D&D popped up for Nintentendo and PCs in 1988, with dozens of D&D games shipping across a number of campaign settings. You didn’t have to have your friends over to play D&D any more. Out of that evolved Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs, including EverQuest, Ultima Online, Second Life, Dungeons and Dragons, Dark Age of Camelot, Runescape, and more. Even more closely aligned with the Dungeons and Dragons game mechanics you also got Matrix online, Star Wars Old Republic, Age of Conan and the list goes on. Now, in the meantime, Wizardy had shipped in 1981, Dragon Warrior shipped in 1986, and the Legend of Zelda had shipped in 1986 as well. And these represented an evolution on a simpler set of rules but using the same concepts. Dragon Warrior had started as Dragon Quest after the creators played Wizardy for the first time. These are only a fraction of the games that used the broad concepts of hit points, damage, probability of attack, including practically every first person shooter ever made, linking nearly every video game created that includes combat, to Dungeons and Dragons if not through direct inspiration, through aspects of game mechanics. Dungeons and Dragons also impacted media, appearing in movies like Mazes and Monsters, an almost comedic look at playing the game, ET, where I think I first encountered the game, reinvigorating Steven Jackson to release nearly the full pantheon of important Tolkien works, Krull, The Dark Crystal, The Princess Bride, Pathfinder, Excalibur, Camelot, and even The Last Witch Hunter, based off a Vin Diesel character he had separation anxiety with. The genre unlocked the limitations placed on the creativity by allowing a nearly unlimited personalization of characters. It has touched every genre of fiction and non-fiction. And the game mechanics are used not only for D&D but derivatives are also used for a variety of other industries. The impact Dungeons and Dragons had on geek culture stretches far and wide. The fact that D&D rose to popularity as many felt the geeks were taking over, with the rise of computing in general and the reinvention of entire economies, certainly connects it to so many aspects of our lives, whether realized or not. So next time you pick up that controller and hit someone in a game to do a few points of damage, next time you sit in a fantasy movie, next time you watch Game of Thrones, think about this. Once upon a time, there was a game called Chainmail. And someone came up with slightly better game mechanics. And that collaboration led to D&D. Now it is our duty to further innovate those mechanics in our own way. Innovation isn’t replacing manual human actions with digital actions in a business process, it’s upending the business process or industry with a whole new model. Yet, the business process usually needs to be automated to free us to rethink the model. Just like the creators of D&D did. If an insurance underwriter can have such an outsized impact on the world in the 1970s, what kind of impact could you be having today. Roll a d20 and find out! If you roll a 1, repeat the episode. Either way, have a great day, we’re lucky you decided to listen in!