Tuesday, June 2, 2009


A chronological study of some of the most important events leading to the first published modern RPG, TSR's Dungeons & Dragons, 1974.


1893: William Britain, Jr. invents hollow casting in lead.
Wm. Britain, Jr's new hollow casting technique uses less lead which revolutionizes the toy soldier market. The result is little lead men which are less expensive to both produce and ship, making the collectibles more affordable and available in large quantities. Competitors soon followed suit and toy soldiers were being mass produced for the first time in history. Amazingly enough it all started with little Billy who had just inherited the toy company and didn't know the difference between dry measure and liquid measure. Junior went on to sell his toy soldiers across the globe, often delivering them by hand to such remote regions as Paris, France and nearby French Indochina.

1910: The Great War Game, Hanks.
Possibly the first published wargame designed for use with toy soldiers. Date not verified. Marketed in the U.K. as a game for Boy Scouts, it apparently did not prepare them for Tanks, Machine Guns, Mustard Gas or Barbed Wire. Unfortunately the supplement, The Great Dig a Trench War Game, never made it to publication. Interestingly enough, the game predated The Great War itself by four years. That's World War I in case you haven't been paying attention...ever.

1913: Little Wars, H. G. Wells.
Widely considered the first published wargame for miniature figures. By renaming the toy soldiers “miniature figures” and adding serious rules for shooting a toy cannon at them, adults could continue behaving like children in dignity. According to observers, Mr. Wells was notorious for making up house rules on the spot while playing Little Wars. Herbert would later use some of these personal house rules as inspiration for his most famous novels: The Time Machine (take an extra turn), The Invisible Man (add new troops mid game), War of the Worlds (bring random objects such as colanders to the field), and The Sleeper Awakes (enemy soldiers knocked over by Kipper the family Corgi were “dead”).

1929: ShamBattle, Dowdall & Gleason.
First U.S. Wargame for miniature figures. The major advantage on this side of the pond was access to Lincoln Logs, another toy which adults need a good reason to play with. The game's subtitle, Quixotic Reenactment, is one of gaming's strange, ironic twists. Not really. Entertainment trivia buffs will note that one of the coauthors is better known for his ongoing role as the lovable town drunk Otis in the long running television series The Andy Griffith Show.

1936: Real War threatens.
Hints of the struggle soon to come in Europe and across the globe are evident when Germany declares that the first true wargame was the Kriegsspiel, produced by Prussian army lieutenant von Reisswitz in 1824. Seeking to prove to the rest of Europe that England's Little Wars claims were hollow, Germany was gearing up for war. Then a rift in the Kriegsspiel methodology and doctrine divides the military minds into two distinct camps; those insisting on the 1824 von Reisswitz version, and those backing the more modern 1862 von Tschischwitz game. War is averted as die Alte Schule and die Neue Schule create an impasse in the German military machine. That and the imposing Maginot Line had German Officers wringing their hands in frustration for years.

1943: Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game, Fletcher Pratt.
Perhaps if his pal L. Sprague had been involved the title for Fletcher Pratt's widely famous game would've been more clever, but Mr. de Camp was busy revealing the sordid truth behind the H. G. Wells Little Wars myth. Outrageous claims leveled against H.G. included de Camp insisting that the Little Wars subtitle, “a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for the more intelligent sort of girl who likes boy's games and books” was clear evidence that Mr. Wells was an unrepentant male chauvinist. Wellsians to this day have not forgiven the misguided de Camp.

1958: Gettysburg, Avalon Hill.
Gettysburg, along with other Avalon Hill Adult Games series titles, takes the battle away from miniatures and to the military boardgame. Gettysburg took the miniature figures world head on, redefining wargaming forever. Modern versions of this classic game feature Architecture Buffs defending the Cyclorama Visitor's Center and Gift Shop from History Buffs on a headlong Picket's Charge maneuver.

1959: Diplomacy, Allan B. Calhamer.
A military boardgame of strategy, negotiation and psychology with no dice and an optional GM/Judge. Optional as in if anyone wants to go home alive after the game you'd better make sure you have one. One of the first games to encourage lying and backstabbing, Diplomacy has established itself as a true classic. The more realistic house ruled version encourages cheating; eavesdropping and hiding, altering or peeking at notes. The game was a popular pastime behind the scenes during the Nixon administration. CAD (Citizens Against Diplomacy) blame the evil game for Richard's inexplicable activities during Watergate, and have been seeking to ban it ever since.

1966: Modern War in Miniature, Michael F. Korns.
First wargame with individual player-controlled Characters and a GM/Judge. And now we arrive at the first true RPG. Or is it a wargame? Well, it's both, and Modern War in Miniature includes a GM who sets everything up and can explain exactly why the Panzerkampfwagen VI was actually a better fit for the Wehrmacht than the SdKfz 182 Konigstiger. The original manuscripts for the game were tragically lost when the author used too much lighter fluid while melting plastic soldiers in a miniature flame-thrower encounter and set off a brick of fire-crackers. In perhaps history's first display of GM ad-lib aplomb, Michael declared that the battle was postponed on account of the Brits celebrating Guy Fawkes Night.

1966: Fight in the Skies, Mike Carr.
First RPG/wargame with persistent Characters and Experience. Still going strong, this game's newer version is called Dawn Patrol. It is the only game that has been played at every single GENCON since the first, in 1968. Of note is the fact that 2004 was the first GENCON where Mike Carr wasn't the only participant to sign-up for and play the game. Coincidentally, the 2004 convention also marked the end of Mr. Carr's record-setting 35 year run as Top Ace of GENCON. Rumors are that Mike Carr will unveil his “Snoopy Sopwith Gambit” at GENCON 41 this year in one last ditch effort to win back his hard earned title.

1969: Braunstein I, David Wesely.
Considered the first Open-Ended RPG/wargame sessions (not published). If it hadn't been for the players clamoring for another, that would have been the last Braunstein, as Wesely considered the whole thing a failure. Truth be told, Wesely had planned to come up with the worst possible game night ever for the club in hopes that they wouldn't ask him to run anything again. Wesely arrived for the game with no preparations, and figured if he just "winged it" all night his goal would be accomplished. When that backfired David was finally able to escape the constant "More Braunstein!" demands by joining the US Army. Wesely is credited with introducing polyhedral dice to gaming, laying the groundwork for the modern RPG, and inventing Thumb Wrestling.

1971: Chainmail, Gygax & Perren.
First published fantasy wargame for miniature figures. Regardless of which story you believe, Gygax's or Arneson's, it seems quite clear that Chainmail was a vital part of the concept that Dave Arneson formulated the same year with his Blackmoor campaign. Chainmail is an important piece of the puzzle detailing how modern RPGs came to be. Prior to the Fantasy Supplement section, Chainmail was published in two parts in The Domesday Book, the newsletter of the Castles & Crusades Society. Other articles included alongside Chainmail were Fabricating your first Beer Bong, Electric Jello: a How To, Hamms versus Pabst: the Debate Continues, and A Guide to Satisfying the Munchies.

1971: Tractics, Reese & Tucker.
The first wargame to use 20-sided dice. A game of modern tank battles, it required a d20 in order to establish the base 30% (15 or higher) chance to hit another tank. This was before the advent of the 10-sided die. The game borrowed from Michael Korns' Modern War in Miniature in that a GM/Judge was required to adjudicate the fog of war. The rules served to display the greater numeric range and higher level of detail possible with the d20. The game's major drawback was the sheer amount of set-up time involved. The rules were written on a scale of 1:1, meaning real-life tanks had to be employed. Reese and Tucker were last seen trying to secure a refurbished British Comet tank in 2001, near Brighton, Sussex, England. The very first Tractics game should be underway by the end of 2012.

1971: Blackmoor Castle, Dave Arneson.
Dave Arneson introduces Teamwork, Dungeons and other essential fantasy RPG concepts to his Twin Cities Club. Grows into the first fantasy Campaign, eventually defining the modern RPG (not published). Dave Arneson blended, borrowed, meshed and tested anything and everything while running his early, experimental games. It was the concept that continues, to this day, to shine through, no matter what form it has taken. This was the beginning of the modern RPG. Certain details of Blackmoor found their way into published form in The First Fantasy Campaign from Judges Guild. Notable players in those first Blackmoor sessions included Greg “Svenny” Svenson, Stephen “Rocky” Rocheford, Mike “von Ricthofen” Carr and future professional golfer “Fairway” Freddy Funk. The earliest participants in Blackmoor actually took on the role of their real life personae, except for role-playing pioneer Bill “Three-Dollar” Hastings, who insisted on playing as Annette Funicello's Dee Dee from the uproarious 1965 film, Beach Blanket Bingo.

1972: Castle Greyhawk, Gygax & Kuntz.
After seeing how Arneson ran a Blackmoor session, Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz collaborate to create their own version of Blackmoor Castle for their Lake Geneva Club, naming it Castle Greyhawk (not published). Given an outlet for his writing skills, Gary Gygax never looked back. The World of Greyhawk which was born of these early days remains a strong, viable fantasy campaign setting. What really stands out is the passion and verve with which Gary undertook the labor of bringing life to his imaginary world. A world which has seen countless fans and players of Dungeons & Dragons through the decades. It is said the very first expedition into Castle Greyhawk, consisting of Gary as Referee, and his son Ernie, Don Kaye, and the Kuntz brothers Rob and Terry as players, was almost a complete disaster due to Gary's insistence that all participants speak entirely in anagrams. Eventually the session was saved when it turned into an evening of experience point rewards for clever puns and one-liners. Although the dungeon entrance was not discovered on that initial adventure, the characters did happen upon the now infamous Concession Stand of Endless Hot Dogs in the castle ruins.

1972: Don't Give Up the Ship! Arneson, Gygax & Carr.
The first in a long line of collaborations from the creative team of Dave and Gary. Mike Carr contributed research and quite a bit of the writing and design here as well. In fact, he impressed the TSR guys so much that he went on to write the now famous module B1: In Search of the Unknown, and edited the first three AD&D books: Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and the Dungeon Master's Guide. Now he writes about snowmobiles and pursues his first love, World War I Ace Pilots from his secluded Wisconsin mansion, Quasqueton. Sources say there is indeed a room within full of mysterious pools. You guessed it, I don't have anything to say about Don't Give Up the Ship! at all. I'm sure it's a fine wargame, as Naval wargames go. I only wish that Arneson and Gygax had followed the theme of the game's title and continued working together.

1974: Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax & Arneson.
The first published modern RPG. And thus, here we are at the end of the time line. Sure, some things have changed out there in RPG land, but truly the modern RPG is, at it's core, still the same product we were given in 1974 by Gygax and Arneson. The concept is the thing, the rules are secondary. Whether you prefer rolling dice to role-playing, that's fine. Whether you prefer open-ended sand-box play to story-telling narrative games, that's fine. Don't like dice? They're not needed. This rule or that rule makes no sense? Change it. The critics can lay whatever claims they care to at the feet of 1974's Dungeons & Dragons game, but it's the concept that was conveyed within those three volumes that matters. Whether or not Gygax changed every single mechanic that Arneson had devised is likewise irrelevant. 1974 saw the introduction of a new concept in gaming, and the world stood up and took notice. In one form or another, D&D and the concept it unleashed upon mankind will always be with us...until Domesday that is.

Special thanks to Bob Beattie for his Wargaming Time-Line. I make no claims of ownership of the above titles or affiliation with the parties involved. As to my historical facts, parties wishing to dispute my findings may do so over a cold beer at an undisclosed local watering hole.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Chris said...

You had me fooled up until you mentioned France. Ain't no such place! :)

Lior said...

You may want to also include the Prussian general staff's tabletop wargames, starting in the early 19th century.

Timeshadows said...


Damn Prussians with their Old School, New School division.
Oh, wait, I'm part-Prussian.

Sham aka Dave said...

Lior: They got a nod in the 1936: Real War threatens portion.

I should add that von Tschischwitz's descendants immigrated to the U.S. and are now better known for inventing the delectable processed cheese spread, Cheez Whiz.

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Sham aka Dave said...

The truth is out there! The advent of mass produced toy soldiers led to their widespread popularity. It was only a matter of time before someone like Wells or Hanks made games using the little men. These first games had nothing to do with Kriegsspiel, which was written as a Prussian military training program.

More serious minifigs rules arose from the Hanks, Wells, Dowdall games, and the rest is history. The confluence of minifigs enthusiasts in the Midwest (Twin Cities and Lake Geneva) brought about D&D.

tussock said...

In a thousand years, this will be the only thing that speaks of where the world's universal love for RPGs originated.

By which I mean, this comment, found on a microscopic piece of hard drive lodged in the tooth of a fnox beast, on Mars.

Dear future people, we used to live on Earth, when it was blue. Sorry 'bout that.

Sham aka Dave said...

Perhaps these future people will come to appreciate Beach Blanket Bingo the way the French loved Jerry Lewis.

Or perhaps they too will tremble in fear just at the thought of the awesome Maginot Line.

Oh, you meant your comment. Yeah. Could you add something about Baked Beans? That's kind of important.

Timeshadows said...

A rare, long Internetese term: ROFL

The power of the tone of authority. ;)

DHBoggs said...

Nice timeline Dave and an interesting read.

"first modern RPG" Well, I 'spose so depending what's meant by modern. Aside from level advancement, Braunstein pretty much had the basic elements.

In my opinion,"Little Wars" and other childrens books get far too much credit in these sort of histories. I don't see a real connection between "games" of setting up toy soldiers and throwing rocks and sticks at them and the adult wargames rules of Fletcher Platt and others. Kriegspiel, on the other hand was well known, as were a number of "great" chess varients. Kriegspiel had been translated and reworked numerous times. Whether or not miniatures or chits or chess pieces are used isn't particularly important.

Sham aka Dave said...

The fact that miniatures war gamers co-created this whole mess takes us back to Little Wars. I agree with your observations. D&D in 1974 was still sort of a war game niche. In the 80s it of course outgrew this heritage and became recognized as an entirely different gaming concept.