D&D nowadays is publically remembered as a cartoon, or a fad. A core of gamers still play it, of course, but the RPG hobby as a whole is a cultish and diminished thing. And yet – unless I’m missing out some really obvious antecedent* – D&D is one of the most important games in leisure history, because of one significant first.
D&D was the first game in which the rules governing the player’s actions change the longer the game is played.**
The specific mechanism D&D introduced for this – accumulating experience points, leading to a rise in character level and a step-change in abilities at each level – has itself been widely adopted. But the principle is more than simply widely applied – it’s hard-wired into 80-90% of computer games as a basic tenet of play. You progress in the game, you achieve things, and the better you do the more you can do. Plenty of pre-D&D games ran on the accumulation of points or wealth – Monopoly, for instance – but in Monopoly you can’t actually do anything different with your money beyond buying items that let you collect more of it.*** In D&D – and the thousands upon thousands of games that came after it – the power-ups often let you interact with the game in significantly different ways.
The notion of a progression of player abilities had a massive impact on gaming in its widest sense. The playing time of a game could be extended – indefinitely in many cases. Solo play became more viable and more challenging. Competition – scoring – and co-operation could mix.
Within RPGs, the experience point mechanism was something non-D&D fans tended to point to as being nonsensical and horribly artificial. Many games preferred gradual increments in a character’s skills and abilities, based on training and practise in the game. (The hugely popular Championship Manager series uses this kind of system). Theoretically, I agree, but they missed the core appeal of the XP-level system, which is that the new abilities that suddenly come with a rise in level allow a re-negotiation of playing styles and interactions, and continually renew the game. XP levels create rewarding staging-posts in the play, which may be a less realistic or mature way of gaming, but is often more exciting.
*I am, for effect.
**OK, it isn’t quite. Draughts contains a power-up written into the rules. Chess kind of does too, with its pawns-become-queens rule, but unlike in draughts the new abilities gained were already there in the game, and also few chess strategies rely on the power-up, whereas all draughts games do.
***Monopoly does have one power-up, the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card, but its only effect is to let you avoid a financial penalty, so it hardly counts.