Gideon over at the Awesome Lies Blog has published a most intriguing piece on the origins of tabletop role-playing games. What really caught my eye, however, was a comment he left below the post (emphasis mine):
“I see three main strands to the development of RPGs. First, gamebooks. Branching-path books began in education with the TutorText series (1957 on), but moved into entertainment with Lucky Les (1967), State of Emergency (1969) and the Tracker series (1972 on). Second, wargames. Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor dungeon campaigns began in 1971-1972, and original D&D was published in 1974. Third, computer adventure games. The first, Will Crowther’s original Colossal Cave Adventure, was written in 1975-1977.
The three stands interacted. Gamebooks acquired dice mechanics from D&D in the Fighting Fantasy series (1982 on). Crowther’s adventure game was explicitly inspired by D&D, but later computer adventures were much closer to gamebooks.
These interactions in my opinion led to different attitudes to role-playing over time. In the 1970s gamers were perhaps more likely to come to RPGs from wargames, and so tactical and competitive styles of play were more popular. By the 1980s, players were coming from gamebooks and computer adventure games, which encouraged a more narrative style.
Of course, there were endogenous changes that drove stylistic evolution, as well. Call of Cthulhu (1981) was revolutionary, but I have seen nothing to suggest it arose from anywhere other than RPGs themselves.”
I take him to mean that these three strands influenced the development of RPGs not just via game designers, but also (in fact, perhaps mostly) via players and DMs in terms of how they actually ran and played the games at their tables. Before the Internet and Actual Plays, role-playing was taught not just through reading RPG manuals and hobby magazines, but through experience, by interaction with other gamers. However, particularly in the early days of the hobby, players (and game designers) also drew on their experiences with similar games, such as gamebooks, wargames, and computer adventure games.
Obviously, they also drew on a wealth of fantasy, historical, mythological and romance literature, as well as films and TV, but here I’m primarily talking about gaming (or ‘ludological’) influences rather than cultural influences.
In fact, you could probably add a few more gaming strands as well. Alongside the “more narrative style” coming from computer adventure games like Colossal Cave Adventure (and later Zork), I would add the more crunchy / mechanical early CRPGs (from 1974 onwards). This strand (or sub-strand) began just as early as adventure games (if not earlier), and was arguably even more influential. It would include classic CRPG series like Wizardry, Might & Magic, and Ultima (not to mention Rogue).
Also of interest: the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) was launched in 1978 by a student at the University of Essex in the UK (though I suspect MUDs were less popular, and hence less influential, than early CRPGs).
I would throw boardgames into the mix. Diplomacy, for example, had a strong influence on Braunstein (which itself would then go on to influence Dave Arneson when he co-authored D&D). Plenty of early RPG designers were avid boardgamers. See, for example, Greg Stafford’s White Bear and Red Moon (published in 1975, but in development earlier than that). It’s true that there is a great deal of overlap between boardgames and wargames, but then there is overlap between all the various strands being discussed.
Another strand I might add would be Live-Action Roleplaying (LARP). The Society for Creative Anachronism was founded in 1966 (and included Ultima creator Richard Garriott as a member). Games like Dagorhir were being developed independently of D&D in the 1970s. In 1981, Steve Jackson (who also wrote RPGs, boardgames, and even Fighting Fantasy gamebooks) published a LARP assassination game called “Killer: The Game of Assassination” with the tagline “The live role-playing game for any number of players”.
Broadly speaking, though, all these ludological influences can be divided into three distinct mediums. Paper, physical, and digital. Personally, I’m absolutely fascinated by the liminal space where these mediums interact: paper (i.e. gamebooks, but also game manuals), physical (i.e. boardgames, LARPs, wargames with their lead miniatures, physical terrain, etc.), and digital (i.e. computer adventure games and CRPGs).
If you go back far enough, the distinction between paper, physical, and digital really breaks down. Punchcards predate computers by centuries; before monitors, output was via printed page; books of type-in computer games were once published; early CRPGs like the Dunjonquest series blended paper and digital via “detailed room descriptions (kept in a separate manual)”.
That’s the sort of space I want to explore with my own D&D campaign. I’d like to see how AI-generated content, data analysis software, paper records and hand-drawn artwork, physical and digital battle mats can all interact and support one another. In other words, I want to cross the streams between paper, physical and digital. The medium is the message, after all.
Image from Might and Magic: Book One, New World Computing, 1986