When we began work on Meeples Together, our scope was a bit larger: we briefly talked about all sorts of cooperative play. We’ve since focused Meeples Together on cooperative board games, with the plan to walk through other types of cooperative play in a follow-up volume.
When we tightened up our scope, we cut two chapters from the book, as well as four case studies that applied our challenge-cooperative-adventure model for cooperative games to all sorts of play. This is one of those “lost case studies”. It goes slightly beyond the content of Meeples Together itself, but it details an interesting parallel sort of cooperative play that could be mined for ideas.
And Meeples Together of course continues forward on Kickstarter. We recently reached our fourth stretch goal, which means that we’re going to be able to include all the bonus content that we dreamed about in the book.
Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax, Arneson, et. al.
Publisher: TSR (1974-1997); Wizards of the Coast (1997-Present)
Cooperative Style: Overlord-ish
Play Style: Roleplaying Game
Dungeon & Dragons is the original roleplaying game. As such, it gives players the ability to take on the roles of characters — fighters, clerics, magic-users, and (a little later) thieves — in order to engage in fantasy adventuring. In the earliest days that usually meant delving through dungeons to fight monsters.
Over the years, Dungeons & Dragons has changed and expanded. By the ’90s, adventures had become quite plot heavy, and thus players could engage in fantasy stories of all types, from political intrigue to warfare. Dungeon delving has, of course, always remained a prime possibility.
There isn’t really a challenge system in D&D; instead there’s a gamemaster who designs all of the problems that players will face. There aren’t rules for what he can throw at the players, but he typically must abide by the rules of the game once play has started. That means that he could create a really unbalanced encounter that the players probably couldn’t deal with, but he still has to respect the results of the die rolls once a combat has begun.
A D&D gamemaster will often sketch out his encounters before play begins, or even draw them from a printed source. This means that they’re effectively activated with a “set” trigger, or in the case of classic wandering monster table, a “random” trigger. Whether it’s fair for a gamemaster to alter from his prepared notes in the course of an adventure is an open question. (Most people would say “no” for a tournament or organized-play adventure and “yes” for a casual adventure.)
This sort of human-determinant challenge system wouldn’t work in a board game, where there’s more expectation of rules controlling everything. It also wouldn’t work in any environment where the gamemaster (or “overlord” to use our preferred term within cooperative games) has any expectation of winning: you can only allow an overlord to do whatever he wants if his goal is to entertain the other players, rather than to beat them.
Because fairness and (to a certain extent) overlord-victory are desirable possibilities within cooperative play, they require more tightly controlled challenge systems. However, co-op board games like Catacombs (2010), Mansions of Madness (2011, 2016) and Thornwatch (2018) demonstrate that the line can be fuzzy, and that you can have board games where the overlord is more of a storyteller than a full opponent.
Challenge System Elements: Dramatic & Exploration Activation; Random, Set & Overlord Triggers; Environmental, Removal & Interrelated Consequences; Combat & Task Threats; Overlord.
In its earliest days, Dungeons & Dragons was actually somewhat competitive. Players might fight each other to get the best loot, and you even had to watch out for that thief, who might (literally) backstab a party member during combat(!). However by the ’80s and ’90s, players were more regularly working together within the game.
Innately, any D&D party is able to cooperate in part because of its specialization: different players take on the roles of different “character classes” and thus are able to each contribute their own unique abilities to the group as a whole. However, players are also able to fight together, to cast spells upon each other, and to exchange equipment — all of which are meaningful types of tactical cooperation.
It’s tempting to say that there are no limitations on the cooperation in D&D, as it feels like you can cooperate as much as you want. The truth is that cooperation is built so deeply into the rules of D&D that the limitations on the cooperation have become entirely natural. However, they’re there — such as the amount of time it takes to exchange equipment or the restrictions on whether you can cast a spell on yourself or a fellow. What you won’t find in D&D are obviously artificial limitations on cooperation: the ability of the game to make all of its limitations feel natural is one of the best elements of its cooperative design.
If anything, Dungeons & Dragons has grown more cooperative over the years, as successive editions of the rules have increasingly supported players working together as a group. The third edition of the game (2000) moved combat onto a tactical battle grid, which gave players the opportunity for more careful coordination of combat — and also created new cooperative limitations based upon players’ spatial locations. The fourth edition of the game (2008) adapted some specialization lessons from MMORPGs, and thus provided players with a variety of combat styles — by letting them take on the roles of controllers, defenders, leaders, and strikers — which together created an efficient fighting machine.
Adventure games adapt the ideas of roleplaying games to board game play. Thus, we can look at Dungeons & Dragons as the ultimate source of all of the adventure game mechanics that have made their way into cooperative games over the years. As such, D&D has: individual characters who can gain experience; individual equipment; and individual special powers. It’s also well themed, both for its fantasy genre and for whatever setting that the gamemaster chooses to imagine. Finally, it tends to wrap its individual game sessions in plotted stories that might build into plotted arcs over long-term play.
Board games (and thus cooperative board games) aren’t able to adapt all of the adventure game elements that can be found in their roleplaying progenitors. In particular, stories and plots are pretty tough to introduce into board games because they largely require a creative human mind. However, all of the rest of D&D’s major adventure elements have shown up in cooperative games — and games like Mansions of Madness (2011, 2016), Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013), and Thornwatch (2018) have even managed to include plot to a limited extent (and in different ways).
As noted elsewhere, roleplaying games and their adventure game descendents have both been important to the evolution of cooperative games. Thus, Dungeons & Dragons can be considered as a cornucopia of great ideas that can be joyfully plundered for use in cooperative game design.
Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson
The fathers of the roleplaying field, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, stumbled onto a totally new sort of gaming after years of playing tabletop miniatures games. Gygax began the work with the Chainmail medieval miniatures game (1971), coauthored with Jeff Perren. Arneson then began play with those rules to delve into the dungeons beneath his own world of Blackmoor. Finally, Gygax worked with Arneson to merge the Blackmoor rules back with Chainmail to create the published Dungeons & Dragons game (1974).
Gary Gygax founded TSR to publish D&D and afterward ran the company until power struggles arose among its investors in the ’80s. He left the company he founded in 1985. Gygax went on to found New Infinities Productions and later Hekaforge Productions and also produced roleplaying games for GDW and for Troll Lord Games. His later projects include Cyborg Commando (1987), Dangerous Journeys: Mythus (1992), and Lejendary Adventure (1999). Gygax passed away on March 4, 2008.
Dave Arneson briefly worked for TSR, then founded a game publisher called Adventure Games. He also coauthored an RPG called Adventures in Fantasy (1978, 1979, 1981). Arneson wrote numerous gaming books about Blackmoor, including The First Fantasy Campaign (1977) for Judges Guild, a 4-book adventure series for TSR (1986-1987), and a series of sourcebooks and adventures for Zeitgeist Games (2004-2008). Arneson passed away on April 7, 2009.
Authors of more recent editions include John Holmes, Tom Moldvay, Frank Mentzer, David “Zeb” Cook, Aaron Allston, Jonathan Tweet, Rob Heinsoo, and Mike Mearls.