Remembering the Classics: Dungeons & Dragons

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Role-playing games (RPGs) are easily the most diverse genre of game on the market. Each title shares the similar themes of an overarching narrative, complex characters, and exploring vast locales filled with a diverse array of inhabitants. How each game goes about these themes entirely depends on their individual characteristics though. You can have first-person shooter RPGs, massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPG), turn-based or text-based RPGs, the list goes on and on. Almost every major title on the market has at least some RPG elements thrown in whether it’s leveling up your particular character or being able to collect loot from defeated enemies. It’s relatively safe to say that any person who has played video games in the past has at least spent some time on a title that has RPG elements throw in.

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The basic core of an RPG dates back to the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the genre became the modern hit that has permanently influenced the growth of the video game industry. In an attempt to create their own fantasy based RPG, two men named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson borrowed ideas from a whole variety of sources. They infused elements from their favorite authors and weren’t shy on their medieval European concepts. The amount of research they put into their product was immense. The end result was a three-volume set with three books, several tables and charts, and a set of die that controlled how the game was played. It’s name was Dungeons & Dragons, and the creators expected it to become a niche project upon release in 1974. There was no way they could have imagined that, exactly 40 years later, their table-top RPG would be regarded as the grandfather for every modern RPG on the market.

Dungeons & Dragons in its original form is a far cry from the RPGs currently played by millions on home consoles. Unlike modern games where the story and character development is entirely based on whoever actually created the game, D&D was all about player imagination. There were pre-made adventures readily available for those wanting an epic fantasy quest but half the fun was having a Dungeon Master (DM) create their own journey. Each player can create a character from scratch at the very start, setting their job class (Rogue, Paladin, Wizard), race (Human, Elf, Dwarf), abilities, moral alignment, and even background history. Once everything is set up, the players embark on grand adventures and campaigns, rolling polyhedral dice and explaining their actions every step of the way. The dice control every element throughout the game including how much damage you do/receive and whether or not you can open a locked door. If your character dies, they either die permanently or can be brought back with magic, provided you have the necessary skills.

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Over these past 40 years, D&D has grown beyond the books and papers found in the very first box set. It has become an institution within the gaming industry. Many people now regard it as the ultimate pinnacle of geek culture. You can play video games for hours on end and still not be up to “geek par” with someone who plays D&D on the regular. The D&D brand has penetrated every medium in existence with books, comics, films, television shows, video games, and music either directly tied to or referencing the long standing franchise. People who have openly acknowledged that they play D&D range from the obvious, like Wil Wheaton of Star Trek and The Big Bang Theory fame, to the surprising, like two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan. Many people even laude D&D for its innate ability to develop critical thinking and mathematical abilities in children.

But perhaps the greatest gift D&D has bestowed on the entertainment world was laying the groundwork for future RPGs either on paper or in video game form. One company that has benefited the most from what D&D started was Square Enix. Back when it was simply known as Square, a title named Final Fantasy was released in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as their last game before complete bankruptcy. It obviously became a smash hit and subsequently created one of the highest grossing RPG franchises in history. It even bested Enix’s Dragon Quest franchise which started only a year earlier. Final Fantasy was basically what D&D would look like as a turn based RPG and was even mentioned as having a heavy influence on its creation. That’s just an obvious connection mind you. The best selling RPG franchise of all time, Pokémon, has more than its fair of references, along with the mega hit series’ Mass Effect, WarCraft, and Fallout. There’s even a debate about whether or not The Legend of Zelda franchise is an RPG. It’s simply a genre that has bled into almost every form.

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My own experience with D&D is almost non-existent. I only had a passing opportunity to play it in the past and even that one time was very short lived. The truth is, I was born several years after the video game industry started to pick up again. By the time I was at the proper age to fully understand an RPG, video games had already proliferated mainstream culture. Picking up a Pokémon or Final Fantasy game was so much easier for me than trying the clearly complicated process of D&D preparation. It’s really not something you can just start up and play with ease. When it was first presented to me at a still young age, the fact that nothing was directly presented to me to show my progress was baffling. Why would I experience something in my mind when I can watch it happen first hand? Obviously with age comes wisdom and now I have an innate desire to actually grab a couple friends to play some quality D&D. Still hasn’t happened unfortunately but I want to.

Despite the proliferation of RPGs on home and mobile video game consoles, em>D&<D is still going strong after 40 years. A 5th edition with even more features was announced two years ago and a 40th Anniversary commemoration wouldn’t be entirely surprising. Perhaps one of the prominent reasons why D&D is still such a staple is how accepted RPGs have become with the overall populace. The very franchises that D&D influenced are likely the ones keeping D&D alive. If you like an RPG on game consoles, then you’d probably like the imaginative journeys of D&D. It’s also amazing how this franchise has grown from a modest beginning to become the dominant institution for geek culture around the globe. At the rate we’re going in the gaming industry, I’d see no reason why D&D won’t be around for another 40+ years.

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