Todd Kenreck: The founders of D&D not only changed the game industry, they changed pop culture. I spoke with Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford about the impact of D&D.
Mike Mearls: In terms of game design, I mean, obviously, any game that uses levels owes a huge debt to essentially what I think of as the big breakthrough of Dungeons and Dragons. There are two. The first one being a game that really isn't a game. It's more a framework for a shared narrative, and this idea that you have a character who will change through success in the game. The scenario, though, the story or whatever that's put in front of you, if you succeed, you gain something from that for your character that carries over to the next game. I don't think a game had ever done that before.
Jeremy Crawford: Gary Gygax and Dave Arnison and their group of friends who helped develop D&D originally, it really was in many ways one of those lightning strikes in popular cultures, where this thing arose, this tabletop role playing game, where there really was nothing like it before. Elements of it certainly existed before. All of us have played make believe without needing rules to do so, and as far as we can tell, humans have played make believe as long as the species has been around. That, D&D certainly didn't make up believe. Early D&D often used miniatures and had a grid that came from war gaming, so D&D didn't invent that either.
Mike Mearls: I think it really comes from this fusion he had of being such a creative person, being such a storyteller, and then having a mind for war games at the time, games that simulated historical battles or theoretical battles in the future. This is the 60's, the 70's where the Cold War is in full swing. I think he was really the first person to bring those two things together to say rather than just rely on history as their guide point, rather than going back and saying, "What was the effectiveness of a T72 tank versus different weapons that NATO might fire at it?", and say, "Well, let's set aside history books, and let's instead grab Fritz Leiber's short stories and say that's our reference book. Now, what kind of reality would we build from that."
It's just amazing to think that's essentially what the mashup he did was. Take a war gaming approach to creating a fictional reality, a reality space that your game's going to take place in, and then what are the rules of this reality? When you think of games up to that point, and to war games were invented, I think it was Charles Roberts who really created the first modern war game. War games were just the tools for teaching for military officers. Games people played were typically abstract like chess. They weren't trying to capture a reality. It was an abstract version of reality, so bringing those two things together, that's enormous. That's modern gaming.
Jeremy Crawford: It was the fusion of those elements, along with the world building and the creation of various pantheons. All of that, all of that coming together, that alchemy, that's the special thing that Gary and Dave and the other founders of D&D did. It's like they mixed these elements up in a cauldron, and I'm not even sure they knew really how special this thing was when they first did it. Of course, fairly early on when it became popular and started spreading like wild fire, well then they certainly saw something special was happening, but I get the feeling that early on, they were like so many of us experimenting with something that appealed to them, and the experiment led from one thing to the next, and suddenly we have this game that we're playing over 40 years later.
Mike Mearls: I met Gary. I had one time I met him beyond just seeing him at a gaming convention, and that was back in, I think, it was 2003. The since closed Higgins Army Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts hosted an event where Gary came in and gave a lecture on medieval weaponry. I think it may even have been focused on pole arms, which if you're not familiar with the early days of D&D, advanced Dungeons and Dragons was infamous for the extensive catalog of all the different types of long, pointy weapons that medieval Europeans used at one time or another. There was this lecture you could pay to go to. I, being cheap, didn't want to pay for the lecture, but there was a free book signing that took place afterward.
I got to meet him there, and I think what happened was if you were a big D&D fan, you paid for the lecture, and you got an entire day to hang out with Gary and ask him questions, and talk about games and medieval weapons. We showed up for the book signing. There's nobody there for the first 30 minutes because I think, like I said, if you're the type of person like me who would show up early to get there just as it starts, you probably just went whole hog and paid probably whatever the nominal fee to go to the lecture. My friends and I had a chance to chat with him for a while. It was really cool. In a lot of ways, when I think of how I try to interact with gamers today, I try to think of that afternoon where he put up with us. He answered all our questions. He was very gracious.
He signed all our products, and he really took the time to try to give us thoughtful answers to the questions we had. We asked him a bunch of questions about why did it work this way in AD&D? He was very patient with us.
Jeremy Crawford: I know from years ago when I met both Dave and Gary, even when they had moved on, they no longer were at TSR, they were no longer working officially on D&D, when I talked with both of them, which was a great honor to be able to do so years ago, it was clear that D&D still had a special place in their hearts. Even though they had moved on, they knew still this game was momentous. Again, that's something we take seriously all these years later that this is a very special thing. It inspires other role playing games to this day. It inspires computer games, board games, and so forth. That creative fire that occurred all those years ago, it's still blazing.
Todd Kenreck: Thank you Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford for talking about the impact of D&D. I'm Todd Kenreck, your host. Thank you for watching.