Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Happy Birthday TTRPGS!

 Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Marcus Aurelius

Many in the tabletop roleplaying game community have been writing and talking about the 50th anniversary of the release of the original, three-little-brown-books edition of Dungeons & Dragons in January 1974.* I do not own any of those primordial rulebooks, but I’ve seen bits of them and reimagined versions released under the Open Game License (OGL); my own preference remains the Basic/Expert D&D editions from the early 1980s, perhaps a more clear, organized expression of the core concepts expressed in those original little books (and even then I as a 12 year-old spent every moment of an entire weekend reading and trying to comprehend the Basic rulebook). While the rules for original D&D aren’t always clear or accessible (certainly by today’s standards), we cannot deny they represent the first published roleplaying game. We celebrate D&D’s release as an inceptive moment in the adventure gaming hobby; the event represents the birth of tabletop roleplaying games as a form of imaginative entertainment. So while we commemorate D&D’s birthday, we also say “Happy Birthday!” and, I would add, “Many happy returns!” to the tabletop roleplaying game hobby.

Roleplaying games would have coalesced from existing hobby and fandom trends whether in Wisconsin or some other place; Gygax and Arneson happened to move their work past the hobby realm and into a basic small-business endeavor before anyone else, fortuitously having connections with a distributor excited to promote their game to a receptive audience. Readers of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World learn the emergence of D&D and other games published at that time emerged from a fusion of many recreational interests, including but not limited to fan adulation of popular fantasy and science fiction literature, an active tabletop wargaming landscape, and groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) which itself merges interest and research in history, costuming, and medival life with imagination and community events (what I might call a “cos-play adjacent” group today). Peterson himself acknowledges one of these roleplaying game antecedents in his own comments on D&D’s birthday.

One might argue D&D’s success came because it was the first of its kind on the market, took advantage of distribution channels, and turned new iterations of game elements and the game itself into new, evolving product. D&D snowballed from the first stage beyond a hobby endeavor into a growing corporate concern, one rife with the conflicts of egos and agendas that plague any group of humans interacting at both the hobby and professional levels. During it’s 50-year history, D&D has grown from a hobby industry into a small business into a larger corporation, suffered missteps and financial difficulties, nearly folded, and revived under new ownership and ultimately acquired by a monster in the toy industry. Players aren’t always aware of these behind-the-scenes developments; goodness knows as a clueless teenager I had little idea what was going on in the TSR offices until I read about them much later (and several authors have already investigated and shed light on those episodes). New players aren’t always aware of the game’s past iterations or development, experiencing only the game from when they themselves first discovered it. Along the way, however, D&D and the roleplaying game hobby have produced some amazing and inspiring content at all levels.

I regret D&D has become synonymous with roleplaying games (a subject I’ve discussed before). The game certainly deserves credit for being the first roleplaying game, and it definitely still dominates the market despite recent controversies and the generally contentions nature of players in edition loyalties; but so many other fantastic rolepalying games exist, each deserving some credit for an outstanding feature. It makes sense that a hobby so dependent on imagination evolves so verdantly as roleplaying games. From different rules mechanics and graphic presentation to new genres, narrative formats, and even new play styles and philosophies, roleplaying games continue growing like the ever-branching limbs of a massive tree of life. D&D might have been the seed of the hobby, and corporate D&D may be the trunk, but the nigh-infinite non-D&D roleplaying games out there form the branches, twigs, and leaves.

I am slightly older than D&D. My grandmother lived well into her 100th year. I still look dumbfounded back on all the changes in the world her 100 years saw...and I’m just thinking about events and developments on the world stage, let alone in everyday life. Fifty years is a long time for the roleplaying game hobby and industry to not only last, but flourish along numerous, if not seemingly infinite, iterations. It spans players gathered around the kitchen tables and hobby store open-gaming spaces, individual creators, internet “content creators,” hobby and professional publishers, all the way to small businesses and massive corporations. Entire secondary markets for used games and new accessories (like dice...) emerged to support the core play activity.

The roleplaying game industry and hobby D&D founded represents the dawning of an entire branch of the adventure gaming hobby, beyond board and miniature wargames, before the collectible card game craze started with Magic: The Gathering and the rise to prominence of more sophisticated Euro-style board games like Settlers of Catan. Like those milestones, the emergence of D&D inspired a host of games in the same vein, 50 years of amazing creativity, inspired play, and escapist entertainment. Here’s to 50 more years of innovative developments for all roleplaying games.

Let us never know what old age is. Let us know the happiness time brings, not count the years.”


* Alas, this acknowledgment of D&D’s 50th birthday and the beginning of the tabletop roleplaying game hobby has largely gone unnoticed by mainstream media despite D&D having endured the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and slowly become a more acceptable and recognized part of American pop culture. Perhaps after another 50 years....

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