Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 123 / NOVEMBER 1990 / PAGE 64

Dungeons & Dragons




role-playing games (RPGs) are one of the fastest growing segments of the computer game market. Dungeons & Dragons—type games, such as the Phantasie, Ultima, Wizardry, and Bard's Tale series, and more recent computer adaptions of paper-and-dice RPGs, such as Pool of Radiance and Dragons of Flame, have had a tremendous influence in the computer gaming world. But did you know that fantasy role-playing and computer adventures were both around even before the PC?

Enter the Dragon

In 1974, bored insurance underwriter and freelance game designer, Gary Gygax, decided that full-time game design would be more interesting than the insurance business. Along with his friend, Don Kaye, Gygax opened a game store in a house beside the Pizza Hut in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. There, they sold all types of games as well as their own rule sets for simulating military battles with lead miniatures. These Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) covered all periods from the Civil War and American Revolution to ancient battles and the Napoleonic wars.

An early rule book for miniature battles, called Chainmail, described the rules for medieval battles in which each figure represented one man. By mixing medieval soldiers from miniature sets of various sizes, early gamers introduced giants and dwarves into the battles. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was very popular at the time, and gamers figured a little fantasy would really spice up their battles. Once giants and dwarves began showing up on miniature battlefields, it wasn't long before toy dragons began appearing on the scene. Naturally, if one side had a dragon, the other had to introduce a magic user who was capable of casting fireballs back at the winged beast.

One of the first such fantasy campaigns was created by Dave Arnesson, a player from a Minneapolis/St. Paul miniatures group. It involved a castle under siege by a medieval army. After sending a commando group to sneak into the castle through the sewer system and open the gates, the army discovered a dragon waiting inside. Thus, what was originally a combat game served as the basis for what we know today as Dungeons & Dragons.

Gygax modified Arnesson's campaign and printed 1000 copies of the Dungeons & Dragons rule book. Although it took a full year to sell the books, the game began spreading like wildfire among college campuses and even some high schools. The second 1000 rule books sold in just six months.

For a lot of players, their first exposure to D & D was from a photocopy of the original rules. Unlike the prepackaged fantasy modules that have become popular in the last several years, these first rule books were simply instructions for playing out your own fantasies. It was largely up to the gamers or referees to create the fantasy worlds and monsters that would be encountered there.

Of Dice and Men

Originally, Dungeons & Dragons was based on two six-sided dice, and the referees, or Dungeon Masters as they're frequently called, rolled the dice to generate character traits, resolve combat, and so on. Eventually, dice with more than the standard six sides were used. According to Harold Johnson, director of special projects for TSR, a lot of the growth in the dice industry can be directly attributed to the need for specialized dice for fantasy role-playing. "When D & D started," says Johnson, "the only polyhedral dice you could get were soft plastic dice from Hong Kong. There are now a dozen companies producing polyhedral dice with up to 20 sides." He adds that someone has even devised a "golf ball-like" 100-sided die for D & D gaming. Johnson attributes the phenomenal acceptance of fantasy role-playing to two unusual conditions. First, because the Dungeon Master is the only one who has to know the rules, players are free to try anything. It's up to the Dungeon Master to determine the player's chances of success. Second, because the original rules were pretty sketchy, people were encouraged to create their own rules and ignore those they didn't like or understand. The idea was simply to have fun.

Automatic Pilot

By 1976, the D & D fans who also spent a good deal of their time in computer science labs began to realize that most of the Dungeon Master's chores could be automated. Computers could create the dungeons and, instead of your having to roll dice, you could resolve combat with a quick roll of the computer's random-number generators.

It was also at this time that bleary-eyed hackers, working into the wee hours of the morning, were playing and modifying William Crowther's original mainframe Adventure game. Crowther, an MIT graduate who spent part of the sixties mapping Mammoth Cave in Kentucky for the National Park Service, wrote his text-based game, Adventure, in FORTRAN on a DEC PDP10 mainframe.

Over the next few years, Don Woods was modifying Adventure into Adventure II. Woods had been studying computer science at Stanford University, where he accessed the game through an early computer network called ARPAnet. Other spinoffs included Scott Adams' all-text Adventure-land, which was written for the TRS-80 Model I, and Gordon Letwin's Microsoft Adventure, which was released on cassette tape for both the TRS-80 and Apple II.

Crowther's original Adventure is also said to have greatly influenced the MIT-based designers of Zork, one of the first all-text adventures to be available for a number of microcomputers. The only Dungeons & Dragons player in the Zork group, Dave Lebling, also cites D & D as an influence along with the authors H. R. Tolkien and Jack Vance.

Room with a View

By the end of the 1970s, most computerized adventures still relied solely on text to describe the labyrinths and monsters to which fantasy gamers had become so addicted. However, several designers began to work on games that would let players see what they were up against.

Naturally, the first graphic adventures were crude by today's standards. In 1980, Ken and Roberta Williams founded Sierra On-Line and produced Mystery House, a fantasy adventure with low-resolution black-and-white graphics. Wizard and the Princess followed in 1981, and this time they used color graphics to bring their story to life. Just ten years later, Sierra's 3-D graphics adventures, such as Camelot and Sorcerian, offer superb high-resolution color graphics, dazzling special effects, and high-fidelity stereo music.

Dungeons & Dragons Time Line


Gary Grygax and Don Kaye launch TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.


TSR prints the first 1000 copies of the Dungeons & Dragons rule book.


William Crowther writes Adventure in Fortran on a DEC PDP10.


Ken and Roberta Williams form Sierra On-Line and produce Mystery House, the first graphic adventure game. It features low-resolution black-and-white graphics.


Sierra On-Line creates Wizard and the Princess, the first adventure game with color graphics.


SSI offers the first official Dungeons & Dragons computer game, Pool of Radiance.

Other computer D & D pioneers include Richard Garriott, cofounder of Origin Systems and creator of the tremendously popular Ultima series of role-playing games. Perhaps better known by the name Lord British, Garriott spent a lot of time playing the paper version of Dungeons & Dragons while in high school. His first attempts at creating computerized fantasy role-playing games were actually graded as a school project. Today, Origin still gets high marks for producing quality role-playing games that capture the spirit of early fantasy gaming.

Another fan of paper D & D games who went on to create a successful computer fantasy is Andrew Greenberg—the man behind the early hit, Wizardry. Greenberg was the manager of the Plato computer facility at Cornell University when he met Wizardry coauthor, Robert Woodhead. It was Woodhead, in fact, who did most of the actual coding on the Wizardry project.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons include SSI's Pool of Radiance

Wizardry V Is the latest entry in the popular Wizardry series from Sir Tech.

The Adventure Continues

And what of TSR, the company that Gary Gygax started beside the Pizza Hut in Lake Geneva? TSR is still going strong, producing rule books and role-playing modules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing series. In addition, the company publishes two magazines for RPG fans. Appropriately, one is called Dungeon and the other is called Dragon.

Some of TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) adventures have, in the past few years, been adapted for a variety of computer formats by Strategic Simulations (SSI) of Sunnyvale, California. Initially known for its hex-based war games, SSI had already created several successful RPGs before linking up with TSR. Some of SSI's earlier fantasy hits included the Phantasie and Questron series, Wizard's Crown, and Rings Of Zilfin. AD&D titles available through SSI include Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Dragons of Flame, War of the Lance, Champions Of Krynn, Hillsfar, Heroes of the Lance, and Secret of the Silver Blades.

In addition, SSI's Dungeon Master's Assistant, Volumes I and II, let Dungeon Masters use an Apple II, Commodore 64, or IBM PC to create characters, treasures, and encounters—taking much of the work out of creating paper D & D adventures. Finally, the latest TSR/SSI effort has resulted in Dragon Strike, a dragon-combat simulator that lets you fly into battle on the back of your very own dragon mount.

Today, there are literally hundreds of computer adventures and RPGs to choose from with new titles arriving every month. Many have spectacular high-resolution graphics and beautiful original music. What's more, fantasy games of the noncomputer variety are more popular than ever. So whether your favorite Dungeon Master has a heart of gold or a brain of silicon, the future holds plenty of dragons to slay and dungeons to explore.

TSR's Harold Johnson agrees: "I think there'll always be a market for computer D & D. Because we're such a mobile society, it's hard to find someone to play with. But it won't supplant the paper game because it's a totally different experience. When you have a living, human Dungeon Master, the game is different every time you play. It's a unique experience that's worth sharing and retelling to other people.".