Historical Hit Points: An Introduction of Sorts

Before getting into the guts of this piece, first a little context:

I have a fairly extensive background in gaming of all sorts, which is pretty much what one would expect from a child of the 1980s. Growing up, one could always find in my house worn and well-used board games like Life, Connect Four, Risk, Stratego, and Axis & Allies. I also spent hour upon hour faux-coding dozens of simple type-in games into my Commodore 64 computer – and then playing them, of course. And the sheer number of Atari 5200 and Nintendo NES controllers I played until they disintegrated is too ridiculous to contemplate.

However, of all my childhood gaming fixations, the table-top role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons was by far the most important. It was a defining influence on my youth beyond simply entertainment. From D&D, I learned so much about reading and writing, history and culture, and even idiosyncratic vocabulary and other peculiar skill sets like mapping on graph paper or miniatures painting. I can essentially plot out my entire childhood development using D&D markers for the stages, from first playing the Basic Rules edition with my mom and cousin as a seven year old – with  my first character a thief named Luke, an early personal example of Star Wars mania and remix culture at work – to then graduating up to Advanced D&D with a small group of friends while in middle school, and finally ending the decade and beginning high school transitioning to the 2nd Edition of AD&D. And in my adult life, notwithstanding some periods of inactivity or distraction, D&D and other table-top RPGs have remained a stimulating hobby. In fact, I am currently playing in a crazy throwback game of Mage: The Ascension with a bunch of academic types from Central Michigan University that has rekindled my previously low-ebbing interest in table-top RPGs.

And now the point:

When I recently agreed to join Play the Past as a regular author, I knew that I wanted to write mainly about table-top RPGs. If nothing else, my background interests make this obvious. However, there is a wider motivation at work as well. Much of the time when I come across cultural heritage and games-related discussion – whether on the internet or in dead-tree published scholarly work – the predominant focus is on video gaming (computer, console, or whatever). This is not altogether surprising, considering how immersive, dynamic, and addictive video games can be, how popular such games are in terms of their social and cultural reach, and how ubiquitous and defining technology is becoming in our lives today. In fact, some of my favorite pieces on this website in the last year have been engaging explorations of video game series like Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, and Call of Duty.

However, I believe table-top RPGs are in need of further attention in the broader discussion around cultural heritage and meaningful play. After all, table-top RPGs were one of the key inspirations for several genres of early video gaming, which owe much of their terminology, tropes, and game-mechanics topography to RPGs and wargaming. This fact crystallized for me while playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim recently. While Elder Scrolls is a game series I have never played before, I find there is nothing in how the game functions and plays that fails to have an antecedent in D&D, and thus I have had no trouble adapting to it.

That said, table-top RPGs are also not simply low tech versions of video games in which one can transfer conclusions about one to the other. Dungeon crawl games such as D&D or storyteller games like Vampire or Mage still have their own characteristics and quirks that can alter how these games operate and engage cultural heritage as compared to video games. That is to say, there is still much one can write about table-top RPGs that deserves merit in its own right. Or at least that is what I am going to attempt to do here.

Therefore, the purpose of this series of posts – branded as Historical Hit Points – is to turn a more thorough and critical historical eye on the varied ways table-top RPGs like D&D absorb, remix, and transmit history and cultural heritage to their gaming communities. Part theory, part review, part historical narrative, future installments will explore more games than D&D, will examine both the producers and consumers of table-top RPGs, and will eventually (hopefully?) move beyond my own biographical navel-gazing. I look forward to bringing this discussion to the broader Play the Past community over the next few months and picking all of your brains while rolling dice and laughing maniacally.

[Image by Flickr user Jonathan Clede and used under Creative Commons license]


  1. Thank you! So refreshing to someone else saying this! Look forward to seeing these posts. Just don’t steal my dissertation topic. I kid, I kid. Also, on a random note, I know the Flickr user whose imaged you used. Gaming is a small world, I suppose.

    1. Author

      Thanks. Looking forward to writing them. And I don’t think I’ll be in any danger of ganking your diss topic unless you’re planning to write about my all-weekend-Cheeto-and Mt.Dew-fueled D&D binges as a teenager. 😉

  2. Still looking for the low magic, historical medieval RPG to come to PC or console. There was an old paper RPG, Chivalry & Sorcery, that was amazing, right on the sweet spot. The various schools of ‘magick’ were ends in themselves, as opposed to technology. For would-be warriors, the historical context was key, with the possibility to lead armies in the field, as opposed to dungeon crawls and wilderness encounters alone.

    Closest thing to date would probably be Microprose’s Darklands, from way back in the early 90s. Playing Skyrim now, but it’s just not the same, with magic-as-technology everywhere, and a fantasy setting. If you could cross Medieval: Total War 2 with Skyrim, you’d be getting close, or at least closer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.