Days of High Adventure
Changing the Game: D&D and Mods

Robert Stoneback | 28 Jan 2010 21:00
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Go to a website like moddb.com and you'll come across mods for hundreds of different games. User-created content like these game mods greatly extend the life of games and helps build a community of like-minded fans. However, before would-be game designers dug through lines of code and modeling programs to make their own mods, dungeon masters were etching out their own tombs of horrors on graph paper. As one of the first easily-modified game engines, Dungeons & Dragons allowed players to customize their experience as much as their imaginations would allow. Just like the experience point and the class system, D&D can also claim moddable, user-generated content as its progeny.

If you are reading this site, chances are you're probably familiar with Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax. What you may not know (unless you're a regular reader of this column) is that the game that became D&D started out as a mod to Chainmail, one of several popular tabletop wargames in the 1960s and 70s. These games largely revolved around historical conflicts, with Chainmail specifically recreating medieval battles like those that took place in the Crusades.

High fantasy generally hadn't been explored too much in these games, but that didn't stop Gygax from publishing a "fantasy supplement" which contained rules for fighting armies of monsters and recruiting wizards who could sling fireballs across the battlefield. Not only was this an evolutionary step towards Dungeons & Dragons, it also served the same purpose of many of today's mods: It explored different gameplay possibilities using a preexisting game engine.

D&D quickly became a hit after its release in 1974 and won many converts to the new world of RPGs. Among them were many fans who thought they could do a better job with the rules than Gygax and soon began expanding upon and adding their own flourishes to the maker's rules. The boom of fan-created D&D content occurred shortly after D&D's parent company TSR published "The Temple of the Frog," the first role-playing game scenario and a precursor to such modules as "The Temple of Elemental Evil" and "Keep on the Borderlands." By this point, many role-playing game enthusiasts were well-versed with creating their own game content; now that people were making money printing their own adventures, why shouldn't the fans jump on the bandwagon?

Where there was a need for more content, the fans went to work and several upstart companies were created to provide unlicensed, home-brewed supplements for D&D. The book "Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games," recounts the story of Bob Bledsaw, an early D&D fan who founded the "Judges Guild Journal" newsletter to provide additional D&D material. In the days before Web sites, the Judges Guild Journal provided a community of gamers with a source of additional rules and scenarios created by their fellow gamers. Bledsaw eventually produced his own line of scenarios, starting with "City-State of the Invincible Overlord." Though Bledsaw didn't have the permission to use the "Dungeons & Dragons" name, his scenarios closely resembled - and were easily compatible with - Gygax's game. Bledsaw's products did not match TSR's in production value or sophistication; nonetheless, fans hungry for more adventures ate them up.

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