Even though back in my Yaruki Zero book I had an entire section about D&D, I’m still grappling with it. There are a lot of reasons for that, the biggest being that it continues to dominate RPGs, even as there are new developments in how people relate to RPGs. Podcasts and other online media have given us actual play shows with a heightened level of polish, to the point where they can develop their own fandoms, but I still find myself feeling the need to remind people that RPGs other than D&D do in fact exist. D&D is also genuinely a very deep an interesting topic though, and we’re belatedly starting to get a clearer picture of its history.
Despite its position of dominance and its massive cultural reach, D&D is a very strange game, even within the weird niche that is tabletop RPGs. It’s not a bad game, but it is an incredibly specific one, in countless ways. It’s situated in a “dungeon fantasy” subgenre that it created, and despite its massive popularity, in many ways it sits outside the mainstream of tabletop RPG design.
D&D evolved out of wargames, and there were more transitional forms than people realize. Wargames are roughly divided into miniatures and board wargames. Board wargames typically come complete in a box, with maps and cardboard chits, whereas miniatures wargames were a surprisingly informal and creative hobby, even though in the 60s and 70s they’d attracted a fanbase that looked down on anything not based in historical warfare. The vagueness of miniatures wargames caused a lot of disputes during play, which led to experiments with having a human referee. The referee role existing led to the referee making rulings on the fly, so that players could conceivably try things that weren’t in the rules. The rulebook might not have anything to say about whether units can ford a river, but a referee can make a ruling and the game can roll on. I think that’s a really interesting development for wargames, and in general it’s rare to see anything remotely like it in tabletop games other than RPGs. These days, while wargame rules aren’t always as clear as would be ideal, they’re closer to board games in that they generally allow for straightforward play without recourse to a referee. (And the most played wargames today are ones with copious fantastical elements.) While this was of course before the internet, the wargames scene communicated more broadly through zines, letting these gamers communicate these ideas around the country and beyond.