Jul 06

I WAS A GOBLIN: On The Level

FT8 comments • 1,532 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.

  8. 8
    slideyfoot on 16 May 2020 #

    Yep, things have certainly changed since 2006, like Guerillafigher [sic] said in 2012. Things have changed even more now in 2020. Critical Role is very popular, you’ve got well known figures like Vin Diesel visibly excited to play DnD, Stranger Things was huge, there’s even a Rick & Morty tie in now. Like I said in an earlier comment, I am constantly surprised by the reaction I get when I mentioned DnD: a huge number of the people I hang out with have either already played DnD or are interested in trying it out.

    I think 5th edition has helped a lot, much easier to understand than 3.5 and 4th. With the advent of DnD Beyond, it’s become extremely easy to play without understanding the majority of the rules. Basically, players just need to know that they want to roll a high number with a d20, everything else you pick up during play.

    One of my regular DMs made a good point: because DnD Beyond is so good, it acts as a barrier to playing anything else. While we COULD go for a game of Vampire or Pathfinder or whatever, we’d then have to work out all the RPG maths ourselves…so we invariably stick with DnD. ;D

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