From the Tabletop to the Computer

16 Aug

Let’s say that it’s the mid-1970s, and that you’re an early fan of Dungeons and Dragons, still a tiny offshoot of the niche hobby that is wargaming. Let’s further say that you have regular access to a computer at your place of education or work, and that you know how to program it. It might seem absurd to imagine a substantial overlap between the tiny number of people playing D&D circa 1975 and the decidedly limited if not quite so minuscule number who had access to a computer at that time, but in fact Will Crowther was hardly an anomaly; there was an inordinate number of hackers among early fans of the game. We can assume that hackers’ love of complex systems brought them to the game, just as it drew them to fantasy and science-fiction literature such as the works of Tolkien, where character and plot were subservient to (or at least equal in importance with) world-building.

So, we have a substantial number of hackers entranced with D&D. Hackers being hackers, it’s not difficult to guess what happened next: various projects got under way to bring the experience of D&D to the computer. This was a task for which, depending on how you looked at it and to whom you talked, the computer was either ideally suited for or woefully unequipped to handle. We’ll take the best-case scenario first.

D&D was complicated. Even the original 1974 rules, which virtually everyone agreed were crude and sketchy in many areas, filled three separate booklets of about 35 pages each while recommending that the players also have on hand a copy of Gygax’s earlier Chainmail rules. But that was only the beginning. Just the core of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the definitive rules for the hardcore which TSR rolled out over the last three years of the 1970s, ran to hundreds of pages housed in three big, close-typed, hardcover volumes. To this ample base were added layer after layer of further embellishment via yet more hardcover volumes and an endless stream of Dragon magazine articles. It’s fair to say that a certain subset of D&D players — those who took after Gygax himself — absolutely reveled in all of this minutiae. Indeed, for some players the baroqueness of the whole endeavor was the major part of its appeal. Plenty of others, though, were like Arneson, in it for the visceral thrill of lived (if imaginary) experience. When they mustered their last bit of carefully hoarded mana to cast Cone of Cold, their last memorized spell, on the Lizard King (apologies to Jim Morrison), these players did not want to spend ten minutes cross-referencing manuals, calculating probabilities, and pondering such unsolvable existential conundrums as just why the hell an armor class of -5 was vastly better than an armor class of 10. They just wanted to know whether their spell sputtered and died, taking with it their party’s last hope, or whether the Lizard King had been turned into a giant green popsicle. Computers were pretty good at crunching numbers, and happy to apply even the most obtuse of rules to them. What if all of those tedious bits could be stuck into the computer, programmed and tinkered with by the Gygax-types of the world who enjoyed such things, leaving the Arnesons of the world free to just play? As an added bonus, the use of a computer might mean they could play all alone on their own time if they wanted to, rather than needing to assemble four or five friends. It seemed like a dream come true.

But wait a minute, said the naysayers (a group which included, ironically, many of the most committed Arnesons). One of the major things that defined D&D as different from any game that had come before was the sheer scope of possibility it offered to its players. A player was free, theoretically at least, to do absolutely anything she wanted to at any time. It was then up to the DM to find the rule he felt applied best from the small library he had lugged with him to the session. Failing that, he had to use his judgment to make up something appropriate on the spot. (We could note at this point that all of those rules TSR was constantly pumping out could never come to cover every conceivable situation anyway, and that there must come a point of diminishing returns where just making things up in such unusual circumstances was preferable to buying yet more rulebooks in the forlorn hope of covering all the bases, but let’s just let that go.) A computer, of course, can’t make judgment calls; it can only do what it’s been programmed to do. Further, it cannot appreciate the dashing rogue of a leather-clad thief with a severe aversion to wood elves (a case of childhood trauma) you have so creatively personified. It cannot craft an adventure into the heart of the forest just for you, during which Dirk Darkstone will have to confront his horror of effeminate green-clad men wielding bows. It can’t even provide you with Tasha Brightstone, the virtuous blonde paladin in the chainmail bikini torn between her desire for Dirk and the Code of the Virgin Warrior to which she has signed her name. Every computer program ever created, games included, must ultimately offer the user only the limited menu of possible actions anticipated by its designer. Whether that set consists of the up-and-down trackball motions of Pong or the various verbs a text-adventure designer has coded his game to recognize, this constraint is immutable. How then can a computer administer a game whose players can do literally anything? The gospel of tabletop D&D tells us that, even when presented with a tempting dungeon to plunder by the DM, the players are perfectly free to walk on past the Ominous Castle of the Mad Wizard Yordor and spend the evening trying to get a really good brawl started in the local tavern instead. So, the Arnesons of the world tell us, D&D and the computer are not such a marriage made in heaven. The computerized D&D player could avoid the Mad Wizard only by turning off the computer and doing something else, after all.

We’ve certainly hit upon a significant limitation, but let’s think about all this again before we go too much farther with that train of thought. I submit that in practice the players of D&D are restricted in their field of action, by social if not rules-derived constraints. How would you feel if you were that DM who had spent his entire weekend designing the Castle of the Mad Wizard Yordor, stocking it with fearsome monsters (but balanced to not be too much for the players to handle if they play it smart) and devious traps (but not so devious they cannot be disarmed most of the time by a thief of exactly the same level as Dirk Darkstone if he is cautious), only to have your players march on past the lot to go grope the local chicks in the pub? I’m guessing you’d consider the players a bunch of ungrateful bastards whom you’d just as soon not play with again. Thus, there is an implied social contract between DM and players, one in which the players, at least in the broad strokes, are expected to, well, do what is expected of them.

Further, I submit that the rhetoric of D&D as a form of improvisational storytelling and the reality of most player’s experience of the game were somewhat at odds. The AD&D Player’s Handbook tells us:

You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric, and Filmar, the mistress of magic! The Dungeon Master will act the parts of “everyone else,” and will present to you a variety of new characters to talk with, drink with, gamble with, adventure with, and often fight with! Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by…

The “fight with” part of the extract above was the really important part to most players, the thing that defined the experience of D&D. TSR released at least a hundred adventure modules that had players descending into one thinly justified underground lair or another to kill things and take their stuff using the 23 pages of combat rules found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide alone, and exactly zero that principally involved talking, drinking, or gambling with new friends. Even Gygax seemed of two minds about the real point of D&D. For all the parallels he drew with Shakespeare and Aristotle, in practice he was a dungeon crawler all the way, dismissive of elaborate role-playing: “If I want to do that, I’ll join an amateur theater group.” I submit that D&D was in practice not mostly played by groups of “artful thespians,” but by scruffy teenage boys and men perfectly happy to remain Jim and Bob as they pondered the best way to kill that group of trolls in the next room. And that experience of D&D a computer could, within inevitable limits, simulate pretty well.



20 Responses to From the Tabletop to the Computer

  1. Sam Kabo Ashwell

    August 16, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    How would you feel if you were that DM who had spent his entire weekend designing the Castle of the Mad Wizard Yordor…, only to have your players march on past the lot to go grope the local chicks in the pub?

    For those of us who were teenage DMs, this is by no means a hypothetical example.

  2. Victor Gijsbers

    August 17, 2011 at 12:06 am

    You very perceptively point out the dual nature of early roleplaying games: on the one hand, these were systems made for a very special purpose and designed to deliver a very specific game experience; on the other hand, they seemed to offer the possibility of unlimited freedom and were touted as such. The problems inherent in early D&D were to plague the RPG-world for an exceedingly long time.

    It wasn’t just that players could break the social contract and skip the dungeon to go and do something else; it was that according to the received view of RPGs, this was not a breach of any social contract. After all, the whole point was that you could do anything as long as it was “in character”, right? On the other hand, it was impossible for the GM to prepare for that. And thus the ideal practice among RPG players became “invisible railroading”, where the GM subtly steers the players through a pre-constructed story, while keeping the illusion of free choice in place. The almost inevitable result: because the players had only control about ephemeral aspects of the story and their characters, they would start spending their energy on those, to the dissatisfaction of the GM… start vicious circle.

  3. matt w

    August 17, 2011 at 1:38 am

    they mustered their last bit of carefully hoarded mana

    Mana? What is this mana of which you speak? I memorize my spells every day and forget them when I cast them.

    Anyway, absolutely right, and (as you’re surely building up to) that’s why “RPG” on computer games has come to mean dungeon-crawler with stat-based combat rather than anything that involves playing roles. I have in my bag now a module for Traveler which describes itself as encouraging players to explore the aspects of the game that don’t involve fighting (you’re on a world with strict gun control and have to schmooze and bribe your way through a bureaucratic tangle to get an exit visa). I bet it didn’t get played much.

    On a fairly related subject, have you seen this great piece from Gregory Weir?

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 17, 2011 at 5:13 am

      Ah, yes, spell memorization. That was one of the rules my gaming group (wisely, I think) chose to just ignore, as I recall. Didn’t clerics have access to all of their spells? (Not that clerics, or anyone else in D&D, had mana per se, of course.)

      • Victor Gijsbers

        August 17, 2011 at 10:51 am

        No, clerics also had to memorise spells, but they could memorise any of their spells (whereas wizards first had to learn them and write them in their spell books). This is at least how it worked in AD&D.

        • Gideon Marcus

          February 11, 2017 at 11:01 pm

          By 1979, we were already playing D&D with spell points rather than pre-memorized spells. Not canon? Sure…but I defy anyone to show me someobe who played completely by the rules. :)

  4. Gravel

    August 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Ha, a lot of the GM’s I know will scramble to put together a secondary story with only mild hard feelings – the same sorts of feelings players get when the trap room slams shut and begins to fill with ravenous dire tribbles.

    I suspect part of the appeal (and intense frustration) of AD&D is the tension between the rules players and role-playing players. There’s a lot of scope for groups to stake out territory and experiment as the group dynamics change; no two role-playing groups are going to have quite the same orientation to the rules-roleplay continuum.

    • Victor Gijsbers

      August 17, 2011 at 8:29 pm

      There is no rules-roleplay continuum. There are just different kinds of roleplaying and different kinds of rules, and all the problems and tensions that arise when you attempt to do kind of roleplaying X with rules that support kind of roleplaying Y.

      If you are not interested in tactical combat, you should not be playing D&D. If you are not interested in playing a character whose life revolves around love, self-loathing, and despair, you should not be playing My Life with Master. If John wants to kill monsters by being tactically brilliant and Mary wants to kill monsters by making Faustain bargains and sacrifices, they should not be playing together: John should join a D&D group, Mary should join a Sorcerer group. All that frustration you refer to is not something inherent in the tension between “rules” and “roleplaying”, but an effect of using the wrong rules or of putting the wrong players in one group.

      The whole idea that there are rules players and role-playing players is completely wrong. A “role-playing player” (being someone who feels constrained by the rules, or who thinks the rules are unhelpful) is just some person who is playing the wrong game; if he were playing the right game, he would be able to use the rules to get better roleplaying.

      • matt w

        August 18, 2011 at 5:55 pm

        This seems to assume that RPGers have an infinite number of people to play with and systems that they have learned and can deploy. And it also seems to preclude the interesting dynamic that Gravel originally mentioned; can’t players with different ideas of what they want from the game ever open each others’ horizons in interesting ways?

        I haven’t ever actually played too many RPGs myself (see my first sentence), so perhaps this never works in practice. But Gravel seems to think it does.

        • Victor Gijsbers

          August 18, 2011 at 10:35 pm

          Maybe the examples I gave were a bit too monolithic: John wants X, Mary wants Y. In practice, people are open to a lot of things, and may have a preference for X but not mind doing Y once in a while, and so on. My main point is that for a long time, RPGs were supposed to be “one size fits all”: you can play anything you want with D&D, and it’s up to the players and the DM to make it work! But that’s not true. D&D will help you if you want to fight tactical combats; it will not help you if you want to tell thematic stories; and it will actively work against you if you want to tell thematic stories as a group. (Because it gives the non-DM players far too little power for that.)

          Maybe John and Mary can get a group going that plays D&D some weeks and Sorcerer other weeks. As long as everybody understand what game fits what play style, they will probably have fun. But it was the idea that any game could fit any play style, and that “roleplaying” was something that you didn’t really need rules for, that was disastrous for the RPG community.

          • Jeff Nyman

            November 15, 2020 at 7:54 pm

            “D&D will help you if you want to fight tactical combats; it will not help you if you want to tell thematic stories;…”

            That’s a fair point. So maybe the better way to frame it might be: “Are you playing such a modified version of D&D that it should no longer be called D&D?”

            That’s an operationally specific question and one that could be answered historically, even though there would still be wiggle room. A game like “Knights of the Old Republic” or “Planescape: Torment” may have used a D&D style mechanic and resolution mechanism. But the former took place in outer space and entirely foregrounded the story over the mechanics. The latter foregrounded existential angst and some aspect of story. Were those “D&D-like” or not at all?

            In fact, they were perceived as a continuum of experience, which largely seems to speak to their enduring popularity. It’s usually the games that tried to stick to an “either-or” that seem to be relegated largely to the dustbin of history.

            “…that was disastrous for the RPG community.”

            My Spidey-sense tingles here. I don’t think any definition of the “RPG community” — which is way too vague of a phrase to make use of — could be considered “disastrous” in that the concept of the RPG has, if anything, broadened and gained in popular appeal, essentially being incorporated into other genres of game, often to the massive success of those games. “Dragon Age”, “Mass Effect” and “Assassin’s Creed” being just the most obvious. But it’s equally clear in games like “Grand Theft Auto” as that series evolved.

            I’m not claiming *any* of those games are D&D, per se. But they certainly incorporated the RPG. If you look at how people engage with them — and if you look at the tug of war between the “role play” and the “rules” that are somewhat inherent in all of them — you see why the notion of the RPG has strengthened by being a continuum rather than locked into an “either-or.”

            I think we’ve seen, historically, that they’ve worked to bring more players in rather than say “Hey, you’re the wrong player in the wrong game!”

      • Jeff Nyman

        November 15, 2020 at 7:40 pm

        “There is no rules-roleplay continuum. There are just different kinds of roleplaying and different kinds of rules,….”

        By definition, that’s a continuum. :) Which is defined as “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct.”

        This is *exactly* how it was as many of us engaged in D&D in the 70s and 80s. It’s also very much what players are currently experiencing with open world games, like “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey”, that have a core narrative arc but with strong elements of “go wherever you want” and use an RPG style background. The extremes become quite distinct — but between those polarities is very much a continuum, and one that has pretty much always existed in this context.

        “….using the wrong rules or of putting the wrong players in one group.”

        There *was* truth to that, I think, for sure. But as gaming, historically, has shown, it’s not quite that simple. It perhaps started off that simple as everything was being designed for the first time. But the evolution of gaming has shown a continuum of experience within the context of one game so that we don’t resort to either-or dichotomies of “wrong rules; wrong group; wrong game; wrong player.” And if you look at gaming with the eyes of a historian, you see that this continuum of experience started very early.

  5. Mike Taylor

    October 14, 2017 at 12:12 am

    Spelling mistake: “miniscule” should be “minuscule”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 14, 2017 at 8:51 am


  6. Mike Taylor

    October 14, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    “just making things up in such unusual circumstances was preferably to buying yet more rulebooks” -> “preferable”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 16, 2017 at 7:23 am


  7. Will Moczarski

    June 15, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    taking it with it -> taking with it

  8. Will Moczarski

    June 15, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    every concievable situation -> conceivable

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 16, 2019 at 1:54 pm


  9. Jeff Nyman

    October 16, 2021 at 10:03 am

    This post focuses on an interesting point: the social contract. A lot of people seem to feel there was this massive tension between a system made for a specific purpose (say, “dungeon crawl with a bunch of fighting”) and some possibility of unlimited freedom.

    But there never had to be “unlimited freedom.” The dungeon master could handle breaches of any implicit or explicit social contract.

    The party decides to go off to the pub? Fine. One of the minions of the Mad Wizard makes its way out of the dungeon and starts killing everyone in the pub.

    The party decides to run from the pub and go to another one? Fine. More of the Mad Wizard’s cronies are emerging from the dungeon to take out the town itself.

    The party just tries to leave the town? Fine, d**n it! The Mad Wizard sits up a magical barrier around the town so that nothing goes in and nothing leaves. And all of those evil minions are still slaughtering everyone.

    So as Victor stated much earlier: “the GM subtly steers the players through a pre-constructed story.” The level of subtlety could simply change based on how the players were choosing to play. Any one who played as a dungeon master got really good at doing that.

    Players weren’t stupid. Just as those of us playing a game today, like say “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey”, that seems to offer tons of freedom — well, we know there are certain guide rails that take us through the narrative or guide what freedom we have. At a certain point, we know that the choices become constrained to, eventually, non-existent. What people now seem to do is assume that players of D&D didn’t understand that just as well as players today.


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