While knowing the history of the game isn’t crucial to dungeon mastering or playing the game itself, it is useful knowledge for those delving into world creation and homebrewing, so you have an idea of what has been done, what has worked and what hasn’t. While I am not going to go over the errata and the differences of various editions or the different rulesets and settings, what I am going to do is give a timeline overview of D&D itself.
Why focus on Dungeons and Dragons? While it may not be the tabetop game you are playing, it is the grandpappy of what we know as Tabletop RPGs today, and it is always good to know where you came from.
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D or DnD) was derived from a miniature war game called Chainmail and the first incarnation of D&D actually required you to have a copy of the Chainmail ruleset. Both games were designed by in part Gary Gygax and published under Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in 1974 and is widely regarded as the invent of the modern day pen and paper RPG.
When released D&D had three character classes (fighter, wizard and cleric) and four races (human, dwarf, elf and hobbit). A two year period after initial release saw the publication of various supplements the most notable being Greyhawk. Not only did Greyhawk separate D&D from its dependency on Chainmail, but also added the thief class.
Eventually D&D branched out into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons or AD&D (1977), introducing a heavier ruleset then its earlier incarnation. D&D still existed as a game system with a more basic ruleset, and AD&D was for those who liked more structure.
AD&D altered and clarified class abilities, combat systems, alignment. Bard, illusionist and ranger were officially introduced, and the grey lines of class and race between elf, dwarf and hobbit were cleared up. The Chainmail combat system was abandoned, and official rules for combat included in the Players Handbook and Dungeon Master Guide. Alignment were expanded into ethics and morals, creating nine potential alignments.
In 1997 Wizards of the Coast (WotC) announced the acquisition of TSR and therefore the rights of Dungeon and Dragons. Soon after WotC started to let go of some of the product that was not selling and focusing on improving a new edition.
The most notable change to the game in 3rd was the addition of the d20 system; THAC0 is replaced by a bonus to attack rolls, Armour Class increases defensive capabilities, rather then decrease as in 2nd edition. Skills are introduced into the game to further define characters. Feats are created, class groups become more defined (some are renamed, such as thief to rogue), sorcerer is added, a new multi-classing system is created, prestige classes added, and more options become available for class/race combinations.
One of the most played editions, D&D 3.5, was released shortly after in 2003 and has become one of the most popular rulesets of all time. 3.5 spawned many supplement books and eventually helped spawn Pathfinder.
Most of 3.5 was fine tuning, barbarians, bards, druids, monks, paladins and rangers all receive updates or reworks. New spells are added, as well as changes to existing spells. There are also changes to some feats, monster scaling, grid-based movement and combat, and damage reduction.
The latest published edition is 4th, released in 2008 to poor reception due to fans feeling that 3.5 was not in publication long enough to garner another release so soon after.
Major changes in 4th edition include: reduction of alignment system from nine to five, revision to saving throws, changes in resourcing for spells and abilities and the addition of the "Paragon Path" and "Epic Destiny" systems. There are also revisions to the multi-class system, healing, and non-combat spells.
D&D Next is finished play-testing and is slated for release in 2014.
Okay, so maybe you are not playing D&D... so here are short histories of some of the more popular non-D&D games.
Traveller by Game Designers Workshop was another popular tabletop that started around the same time D&D did (1977). Based in sci-fi, and is intended to be a space opera (think Firefly). The game right now is in its Traveler5 incarnation released in 2013.
Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium was first released in 1981, and is now on 8th edition published in 2011. It is based in the H.P. Lovecraft story by the same name and falls under the horror genre. It not only has its own official d20, but many other manifestations such as board games and video games.
Dark Heresy is a Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game system based in gothic sci-fi and uses a d100 system. The game system was published in 2008 by Black Industries which sadly folded soon after the games release. Luckily Fantasy Flight Games picked the project up and has released the original and multiple supplements, the latest being Only War (2012).
Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS) by Steve Jackson Games is a system that was designed to allow play in any game setting. It was first published in 1986, and is now in its 4th edition (2004). GURPS uses a d6 system and has a variety of licensed and fan made product.
These are just a few tabletops in a list of hundreds, and within that you have the various editions, rulesets and settings. I encourage you to start with learning the history of what you are currently playing, and then go from there.
Want to learn more about this subject? Check these links:
I welcome questions, comments and your DM experiences in the comments section below! If you want weekly updates on DM related topics, subscribe to the feed to your right, and don't forget to check out our YouTube channel. Until next time, may your pockets overflow with treasure...