Theory: Early D&D as an Indie RPG

Dungeons and Dragons’ older editions are often treated as progenitors of a genre, historically important but missing key gameplay innovations. Yet, when looked at with fresh eyes the classic versions of D&D reveal themselves to have mechanical and thematic unity, a trait associated with recent trends in role-playing game design. These old games thus have more in common with today’s indie RPGs than one might think.

Over about the last 15 years, a substantial proportion of role-playing games have sought to use their mechanics to reinforce the game’s intended theme. Indeed, this has become an important part of an indie movement in RPGs.* Dogs in the Vineyard, for example, uses poker-style raises to help players think about how far their characters are willing to go to win a conflict. In Polaris, a game about the last defenders of a dying civilization, gaining experience also means being one step closer to succumbing to exhaustion. These games, and others like them, are about something—and their rules meant to drive the point home.

I don’t intend to take up the question of whether aligning theme and rules in role-playing games is a good or a bad approach. That debate has been played out countless times in countless fora. For our purposes here it suffices to say that having mechanics that support a theme is one hallmark—not necessarily the only one or the best one, but a hallmark—of current role-playing game design.

Older editions of Dungeons and Dragons are sometimes criticized as lacking this sort of link between mechanics and theme. These versions of D&D take their cues, it is argued, from The Lord of the Rings; one can play as a ranger like Aragorn, or as a hobbit, or even as a Gandalf-esque wizard, and do the things those characters did. However, the rules are generally focused on combat, with relatively little support for other elements of the LotR story: singing traveling songs, negotiating with the spirits of dead warriors, fighting against the corrupting influence of an evil artifact. The game’s purpose and its rules misalign.

Or so the argument goes. It is fair to say that the early versions of Dungeons and Dragons were combat-focused. Extending that to criticize the games as incoherent, however, is going too far. The early editions of D&D were very good at doing the thing they were specifically designed to do: be games about going into dungeons and fighting dragons.

Paging through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, one sees this purpose very clearly. Over and over, the rules point toward a game-wide goal of supporting players who want to delve underground seeking treasure. The section on the unique traits of humans, elves, and dwarves specifically notes which species can see in the dark. Gnomes get a call-out for their ability to determine whether a tunnel is soundly constructed or in danger of collapsing. Magic spells for creating light feature in the wizard’s bag of tricks. It’s sometimes said today that when a player puts something on an RPG character sheet, she is signaling that she would like that thing to be relevant in-game; it would be difficult to create an AD&D character whose sheet does not somehow indicate an interest in dungeoneering.

That early Dungeons and Dragons was essentially intended to be about underground fantasy combat, with rules directly supporting that activity, is reinforced by the game’s history. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of D&D, were wargamers. The very first iterations on what would ultimately become Dungeons and Dragons were essentially squad-based fantasy wargames. D&D grew beyond that, but the early versions of the game reflect a wargaming background and the expectation that combat would be a central aspect of play.

The fact that one could do other things than fight in D&D, even from its earliest days, does not in any respect undermine this argument. Every tabletop role-playing game offers players a wealth of possible options limited only by their imaginations. Being able to do something outside the norm does not make a game incoherent or indicate a divide between rules and purpose. It merely demonstrates that role-playing games, more so than most games, are toolsets that can be put to unexpected uses. Polaris can be approached as an Arthurian romance, and Dogs in the Vineyard could be played as a comedy of manners, but that does not mean either one is somehow broken.

The early editions of Dungeons and Dragons told players what their archetypal activity was, starting with the title, and then presented rules focused on doing that. In many respects those games were old-fashioned or used mechanisms common at the time but largely dispensed with today. With regard to unifying mechanics and theme, however, they tapped into a line of RPG design thinking that would become prominent decades later. They had more indie in them than they, or we, often realize.

* “Indie” is, admittedly, a term whose meaning has been much debated; which games are indie games, and whether there is one indie movement or several, can be hard to say. With that in mind, I think everything that needs to be true for the purposes of this post is uncontroversial: that there is at least one group of people who design RPGs and who want to have mechanics and theme work together.