One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic. Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great. I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used. Remember Detect Magic and Knock? Levitation? How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall? Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death. Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff? Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.
The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym. At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.
While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction. Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session. In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person. Communication was by text only. It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other. Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.
In 1978, just about 11 years after TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons burst onto the scene, a company called Chaoisum introduced a new game: RuneQuest. While there were many, many differences between RuneQuest and D&D, the one people point to most frequently is RuneQuest’s percentile-based skill system, and the fact there were no character “levels.” In RuneQuest, rather than templated character classes (“fighter,” “cleric,” “thief,” etc.) with pre-defined abilities, you placed points into skills, and as you used them, each skill had the possibility to improve. So a character might have especially good skills in longsword and shield if they were a fighter-type, or magical spells if they were a mage. Even more of a shock, your “hit points” almost never increased. Your ability to defend (parry or dodge or block with a shield), could become very high, but your base health stayed pretty much the same throughout your character’s life. A lowbie character with a very lucky roll could defeat a high powered one who made a very bad roll—something unheard of in the D&D world.