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The Ghosts of D&D: Past

Greg Tito | 26 Dec 2011 13:00
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This series of articles was published before D&D Next was announced in early 2012, telling the story of how the once respected brand became tarnished and speculated on the future in The State of D&D: Present and The State of D&D: Future.

Sitting around a table pretending to be human fighters and elven mages delving through dungeons in search of loot and fame hasn't been a favorite pastime for fantasy fans for all that long. The first tabletop RPG was released a mere 37 years ago, in 1974, but there are now more roleplaying games on store shelves than ever before, - covering every niche of geek culture from the superheroes of Mutants & Masterminds to character-based "story-games," to space exploration in Traveler, to games that meld all genres like Rifts. Through it all though, there was one game to rule them all - Dungeons & Dragons - and even though the rules were revised over the years, the majority of the fantasy-gaming audience have used whatever edition of D&D was currently available.

Confidence in the official Dungeons & Dragons is at an all-time low. Players are split into various camps, viciously defending what they believe is the "true" D&D.

That changed in 2008, with the release of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Many tenets of the game like spell memorization and alignment were thrown away in the name of modernization and streamlining. Confidence in the official Dungeons & Dragons is at an all-time low; on forums, at conventions and at your local game store, players are split into various camps, viciously defending what they believe is the "true" D&D.

To understand the current landscape of the RPG industry, it's essential to comprehend the important events in D&D's past and present before we look to the future. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, lets visit with the ghosts of RPG history to get a better understanding of how the hobby got here, what is happening in the tabletop gaming industry today and what it faces in the future.

The Ghost of D&D Past

In the beginning, there was only one set of rules. Dave Arneson adapted the rules of Gary Gygax's war game Chainmail in the early 70s to concentrate on a smaller group of characters fighting against monsters. Gygax finalized those changes into what would come in a white boxed set called Dungeons & Dragons. He later revised the rules and his company TSR published them as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1978. TSR published a new 2nd edition of AD&D in 1989 that significantly changed the core rules in order to unify much of the supplementary material that had been published for D&D - a move that pleased some players but disenchanted many others. A troubled run in the 1990s nearly bankrupted TSR, but, but the game survived when Wizards of the Coast stepped in and published another edition edition of D&D in 2000. This new edition not only spurred sales, but also fixed many of the previous edition's problems. Another slight improvement, called Edition 3.5, arrived in 2003, followed by yet another edition of the beloved roleplaying game in 2008. By this time, D&D had passed through so many hands and filtered through so many imaginations that playing 4th edition bore almost no resemblance to playing the game created by Gygax and Arneson some 35 years before.

Gygax had a troubled relationship with his own game because he was a much better game designer than a publishing company CEO. In the 80s, a lot of his attention turned to overseeing the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, and a faction within TSR wrested control of the company from him in 1985. Unfortunately, TSR fared no better without Gygax running the books, and Magic the Gathering-owner Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR in 1996 when the D&D publisher was on the brink of bankruptcy. Despite no longer owning the game he created, Gygax still remained active in the hobby, posting on forums and attending gaming conventions whenever possible until his death in 2008.

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