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A Critical Hit

How Dungeon & Dragons shaped the modern videogame

Harvey Smith felt like he was slowly freezing to death. It was his eleventh birthday, and he was at Winter Camp, sitting with his friends at a picnic table around the flickering light of an old liquid fuel lantern. Harvey watched dice bounce across the wooden table. His friends were playing a game. It was Dungeons & Dragons.

It wasn't a completely unknown quantity. He was an urbane boy. He knew about D&D and its peers: Boot Hill, Top Secret, Gamma World... but he'd never played any of them. His friends asked him: did he want to? Well, why not. One friend took on the role of the 'dungeon master', describing the setting, the world, everyone the players met.

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Everyone else took the role of an adventurer, their personality and abilities inscribed in pencil on a character sheet. They said what they wanted to do. The dungeon master decided - by the baroque rules, the roll of dice and judicious storytelling - what happened. As words filled the crisp night air, a world filled Harvey's mind. It was like nothing else.

"I was amazed that we were free within limits to push the story in whatever direction we wanted," Harvey recalls. "It was empowering for me to try to come up with clever solutions to problems, and to assume a role, not in terms of character class so much, but in terms of identity and archetype."

A hero, a traitor or a coward, it was up to Harvey to decide. He was amazed. Around midnight, the last member of the group returned from his job at a local restaurant with a crate full of steaks smothered in gravy. "I've been a vegetarian for six years, but back then I wasn't, and that might have been the greatest meal of my life," Harvey says. "Starving, playing my first RPG in the chilly night air, and tearing apart steaming T-bones with my filthy little fingers."

The experience of that night, as he crossed over into the land of the teenager, helped set Harvey on the path that, two decades later, would find him the feted designer of games such as Deus Ex. He wasn't alone. Dungeons & Dragons was a formative influence on a whole generation of gamers, its marks plain to see for those who know where to look.

Without D&D, videogames would be a different place. If you're reciting the traditional history of videogames you begin with MIT's Space War. If you're trying to be clever, you'll cite the Pong-esque predecessor created with an oscilloscope, but that's just quibbling.

The central idea remains constant: videogames began with two-player games, experienced through the proxy of a machine. Two or more humans matching their abilities, with victory and failure adjudicated by hard rules, has remained true, from chess to Pong to Battlefield.

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There's another way of looking at videogames: how the vast majority are able to entertain when there's no other human being there at all, just you and a machine. The machine just exists to interpret your actions and turn them into a world for you to experience. It exists to entertain you, to take you somewhere else, to give you a place to explore. It is a storyteller. This is a different approach to the idea of 'game', and - interestingly - its core emerged at a similar time to MIT's Space War, as if culture was suddenly ready to reconsider what a 'game' could be.

D&D began its life as a mad extrapolation from tabletop wargames written by two boardgame obsessives: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Both were heavily into fantasy fiction, stories in which small bands of roving heroes took on epic quests. Small parties, rather than armies, enabled players to invest more personality and backstory into their characters. In time, battlefields gave way to dungeons, temples and tombs, with much of the real action now taking place inside players' heads.

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