How D&D Grew Out of Historical Wargames

Dungeons and Dragons has had a long history, but it’s longer than many veteran players might realize. It is true that D&D saw its first release in 1974, but D&D‘s roots stretch further back—not just to 1971’s Chainmail, but all the way back to 1812. The path from then to the modern day has spanned over two centuries, but even now, traces of D&D‘s ancestry are still visible even in 5th Edition.

Likewise, the rise of D&D and other tabletop RPGs inspired a slew of now-widespread concepts. Hit points, levels, and even player avatars can trace their heritage far, far back, and every genre from puzzle games to shooters has been eager to adopt them since. As simple as these ideas seem, gaming owes its existence to D&D and its wargaming roots, and it’s hard to picture what gaming as a whole would have been like without them.

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Wargaming In The 1800s and The Lasting Impact of Kriegsspiel

Kriegsspiel pieces on a map.

Abstract strategy games have been around for thousands of years and have spanned the globe. From Go and the ancient Roman Latrones to the Mesoamerican Patolli or the Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur, people have always liked strategy games, but it wasn’t until the last few centuries that more identifiable “war games” took shape.

Starting in the 15th century, Chess and Shogi used game pieces to represent various military units and resources, implementing rules meant to loosely simulate the movements of an army—but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the first modern war games emerged. Initially invented in Prussia in 1811 and refined in 1812, Kriegsspiel is the great-grandparent of many modern games.

While the Royal Game of Ur is just named for the location where it was unearthed, Kriegsspiel actually did begin life as a royal game. Initially a passion project by George Leopold von Reisswitz, the game quickly evolved thanks to the encouragement of the Prussian royal family. What started with a table covered in wet sand soon became an ornate set of porcelain tiles depicting a wide array of terrain features and small blocks that represented various units.

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Kriegsspiel introduced more than just detailed maps though. The game also codified the concept of hit points, a mechanic now seen everywhere from D&D to Fortnite. While Reisswitz lost interest in his game by 1824, his son, Reisswitz Jr., soon began working to both streamline and clarify the rules while introducing a new role to the game: the umpire.

Umpires are a role similar to a dungeon master in a tabletop campaign, handling random events, settling ruling disputes, or even simulating fog of war. Kriegsspiel is also notable for being one of the first mass-produced wargames. Advances in manufacturing alongside the move to topographical maps helped make the game much more affordable than its kingly origins.

Soon thereafter, wargaming spread rapidly. Not only did Krieggspiel grow in popularity and receive various editions, but so too did many other wargames. While many of these pioneers have since been lost to history, those that survived laid the foundation for the games of the 20th century.

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Chainmail, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and The Rise of 2nd Edition

Adventurers accidentally alert a beholder in classic Dungeons and Dragons

Over the next century and a half, wargaming would grow by leaps and bounds, expanding from a single game into an entire genre—but before D&D, there was 1971’s Chainmail. Growing out of the 1967 game Siege of Bodenburg, Chainmail introduced many fantastical elements to wargaming. From dragons to wizards, or even superheroes, Chainmail paved the way for the rapidly growing wargame genre.

The initial release of Dungeons and Dragons followed three years later, though limited at first to a small run of only a thousand copies. While it would be the start of something big, the D&D of ’74 was far simpler than later editions. The only classes were the fighting-man, the magic user, and the cleric, the last being the only one of the three to survive into the modern game.

Over the next decade, Dungeons and Dragons expanded exponentially. Additional sourcebooks were added frequently, and the rules were significantly refined with the release of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in 1977. Classes expanded greatly, the Greyhawk setting eventually became the default, and the nine-axis alignment system was soon introduced.

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Over the ’80s the popularity of D&D slowly grew, spreading from wargaming groups to a more general audience. This is the period that spawned a Saturday morning cartoon, and that Stranger Things calls back to. While nostalgic for many, the rules were still awkward to work with. At least the rules became fully separate from Chainmail, which had previously been used for combat rulings.

With 1987 came both the release of 2nd Edition and the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, home to both the Baldur’s Gate series and the 2023 film. 2e is responsible for codifying the now-classic quartet of fighter, wizard, cleric, and rogue. Second Edition also introduced the somewhat infamous THAC0, meaning “To Hit Armor Class 0,” which was used to determine if an attack hit. Despite the wordy name, it was a streamlined alternative to the systems 1e had used.

Despite its objective improvements over the 1st Edition, 2e never quite sold as well as its older sibling. The exact reason is hard to determine, though theories swirled at the time that the “Advanced” D&D title may have scared away newcomers. Despite poor sales, 2e is still one of the game’s most nostalgic editions for many players. The fact that it inspired numerous video games may have helped.

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3rd Edition, 3.5, and The Move to 4th Edition

A dragonborn patron of the arts from D&D and Magic - The Gathering

With the turn of the turn of the century came a new edition of D&D, now owned by Wizards of the Coast, who had acquired TSR a few years earlier. 3rd Edition introduced may well be the most influential edition, even if 5e has eclipsed it in popularity. Not only did it introduce plenty of gameplay elements still seen today, but it also introduced players to the warlock class and dragonborn.

Despite its influence, 3rd Edition had a somewhat rocky start. While decently popular, it was a sharp change from 2e, and some mechanics were cumbersome, odd, or poorly balanced. A revised 3.5 Edition was released only a few years later in 2003. It would be 3.5 that truly got the ball rolling, with an explosion of sourcebooks, as well as the game’s first true online integration.

The existence of a free System Reference Document—”SRD” for short—made the game more accessible than ever, as well as being an easy way to look up rules mid-game without flipping through a book. It was in this area that many online gaming communities took root, and online tabletop campaigns got their start—initially as play-by-post games, but soon evolved into the first digital tabletops.

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One sourcebook published late in 3.5‘s lifespan would have an unexpectedly large impact on the game’s future. Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords introduced a new system. Based around per-encounter techniques and esoteric fighting styles, this book not only molded what the 4th Edition would look like but also codified the now-common concept of using short rests to recover resources.

Released in 2007, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition included dramatic changes to many aspects of the game. The idea of per-encounter actions had been expanded to apply to all classes; every spell, attack, and ability became usable either once per encounter or once per day. Warlocks became a core class for the first time and the edition as a whole was intended to be far, far simpler than 3.5.

Despite Wizards of the Coast’s high hopes, 4e never quite caught on as the company had hoped. While it wasn’t strictly a failure, many players left 4e to try different TTRPGs or even kept on playing 3.5, using homebrewed and third-party content to expand their game. The existence of the Open Game License meant anyone could create and sell content based on 3.5‘s rules, whether rulebooks, adventures, or entire spinoff systems, and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is just one of many that were created.

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5th Edition And The Future Of D&D

Xanathar the beholder, from the 5e book - Xanathar's Guide To Everything

In 2012, just five years after 4e‘s release, Wizards of the Coast announced a new project, then called D&D Next, which would soon go on to become the 5th Edition we know today. 5e more or less abandoned most of the mechanics introduced in the 4th Edition, though a handful still remained. Instead, it draws more heavily on 3.5, and even some aspects of 2e, succeeding at making a game that’s easy to learn, even if it’s not quite as deep as its grandparent.

While how exactly One D&D will change the game is somewhat uncertain, D&D‘s popularity is at an all-time high. Baldur’s Gate 3 has gotten plenty of acclaim, and D&D has even seen a wildly successful movie release with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves—all built on decades, and even centuries, of innovation. Without the strategy games of the 1800s, there wouldn’t be hit points or Dungeon Masters. Without Chainmail, there might not be fantasy RPGs at all, and without a collection of knickknacks, iconic creatures like the owlbear or rust monster wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The impact Dungeons & Dragons has had cannot be overstated—not just on TTRPGs, but on gaming as a whole. It’s inspired generations of gamers to create new worlds, write new stories, and always keep their imagination alive. With nearly 50 years under its belt and no signs of stopping, it’s safe to say that D&D will continue to inspire many more for years to come.

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