Saturday, January 27, 2024

D&D Turns 50, and Something Else Turns 200

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Nailing down the exact release date of a product as informally produced as D&D is difficult: I've written about that before (and amended it a bit further). Personally, I still choose to celebrate it on the last Sunday of January, which this year is the 28th. A lot of things will be happening in 2024 to mark D&D's birthday: among them, a re-issue of my first book, Playing at the World. But 2024 also marks another momentous occasion, one that we should honor along with D&D's release: the 200th anniversary of the 1824 publication of Reiswitz's Kriegsspiel, the game that pioneered many fundamental system concepts that would later underpin role-playing games.

Reiswitz published his Anleitung in 1824 as a training tool to instruct Prussian officers to command troops in times of war. Over the preceding forty years, a number of German authors had built complex chess variants that took the name of Kriegsspiele, but it was the work of the Reiswitz family, and in particular the younger Reiswitz, that laid the groundwork for RPGs with:

  • The idea of a neutral referee (Reiswitz uses the word Vertraute), the only participant who had complete knowledge of the game situation. The referee created the "general idea" of a game, and gave to each of the participants a specific character (a commander) with particular aims. Most importantly, the referee made sure that each player only knew what such a commander in their position would know. 
  • Players use words to describe what they want to attempt to do. Player interactions with the referee took the form of written dispatches: just like an early 19th century commander, players would receive field reports from a referee (e.g. "Squad 3 reports they have seen French troops marching towards Jena"), and would then "move" in Reiswitz's game by writing a response (e.g. "Squad 3 is ordered to hold the nearby hill and wait for reinforcements."). 
  • Dice are rolled to determine how successful players are in the things they attempt to do. When forces clash, the referee rolls dice against a statistical model to determine how efficacious riflemen, artillery, and similar armaments would be. His game had a concept that troop formations could withstand "points" of damage before they were destroyed, and the dice in his game determine how many such points would be inflicted.

Recently, as part of getting Playing at the World ready for its re-release with MIT Press, I was re-reading Ernest Dannhauer's 1874 account of the origins of the Reiwswitz game, and I was struck by the fact that he was writing it to mark the 50th anniversary of Reiswitz's game. Around the same time, Verdy du Vernois substituted a spoken conversation with the referee for written orders in his version of the wargame, and from there, it would be another hundred years before these principles came down to the Midwestern gamers who created D&D. All of this just makes me wonder where, with another century or two of innovation, the principles of D&D might take us.

Happy birthday, D&D - and happy birthday to one of your grandparents as well!


  1. Super excited to hear Playing at the World is getting reissued. It's been a guiding light for me in thinking about the general study of modern history, on top of games.

    You've spoken before about revisiting the subject or updating the book with new research. Is that still in the works? I know you've got a lot on your plate!

  2. Great to see a post from you!

    Will the new edition of Playing at the World be updated or revised in any way?

  3. The first thing I thought when someone posted last week about it being the 50th anniversary to the day was "aaaaaaaaactually, according to Jon Peterson," so I am pleased to see that you posted addressing this and giving us the most up-to-the-minute advice as to when to celebrate.

    Oh, crap, that is today, I gotta start celebrating