Jul 06

I WAS A GOBLIN: On The Level

FT7 comments • 1,433 views

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.


  1. 1
    p^nk s on 14 Jul 2006 #

    my grandad had a super-elaborate pirate game with little ships, where particular events could strip a player of powers which they had to build up again

    ie if i remember correctly you had beads for rations and picked up beads for treasure — they threaded onto the little masts — and if you were stuck on a sandbank for [xx] goes the rations ran out and then if the tide turned before you starved, you could only sail one square at a time till you got to port

    also i think you could “lose a mast” in particular circumstances (tho your piece never did)

    it is quite hard to play as the “board” is a rolled up map which is hard to keep unrolled unless weighed down with with books and stuff — if one of these gets knocked the whole board rolls up in a flash

    it is NOT buccaneer but it is called something quite similar

    (also i think old-skool wargaming involved similar heighened/reduced powers for rations and morale…)

  2. 2
    Tom on 14 Jul 2006 #

    I thought there must be power-ups and downs in wargaming, as D&D took nearly all of its mechanics from there.

  3. 3
    p^nk s on 14 Jul 2006 #

    i think’s D&D innovation is the INSTANT power-up (viz = magic) — wargaming had lots of powerdowns (out of bullets, collapse of morale), but all the power-ups i can think happened “off board”

    (this is based on some little handbook i bought aged c.12 plus dim memory — i’m not sure that there was a FIFA-type standard rulebook for wqargaming)

  4. 4
    CarsmileSteve on 14 Jul 2006 #

    plus with wargaming there was less “character development”, so changes to troops tended to be for that game only, rather than something that would be carried over…

  5. 5
    p^nk s on 14 Jul 2006 #

    well that i’m not so sure about — i seem to recall there was an OFFBOARD element with troop movements on maps and such, culminating in BATTLES which constituted the on-board element

    so a “game” = a “whole campaign”

    though doubtless yr mileage varied depending on how much of a LIFE you had :D

  6. 6
    Tom on 14 Jul 2006 #

    Yes this wd be where the RPG term “campaign” came from I guess!

  7. 7
    guerrillafigher on 14 Oct 2012 #

    “A core of gamers still play it, of course, but the RPG hobby as a whole is a cultish and diminished thing. ”

    You are severely misinformed. The RPG hobby is larger then it ever was (2012) at any point. But, you are writing about AD&D in 2006…so your opinions are incredibly outdated.

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