The Rise of Interactive Storytelling in Table-Top Roleplay Gamebooks by Dan Hunt
Since the 1970s, the table-top roleplaying game genre has risen from nerds in a basement adapting wargame literature for fun, all the way to celebrities playing online charity live streams using the most up to date and internationally available content. Now, with a thriving community of content creators, players, non-players, and fans, the table-top roleplaying genre spans wide with a variety of award-winning sci-fi and fantasy games including the prevalent franchise Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) currently publishing its fifth edition. But, where did all this start?
Table-top roleplay games come under the classification of a gamebook: these are pieces of printed fiction that give readers agency in a text so that they might participate in the narrative by making choices. The narrative branches along various paths with different outcomes guided by a game master (or GM) that uses narrative improvisation to be the moderators of play and storytellers for the experience.
Inspired by the ‘choose your own adventure’ series of the late-60s, namely The Adventures of You by Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed the original D&D system by adapting the medieval wargame Chainmail that was released in 1971. Despite Gygax working on Chainmail himself, the two found that there was not enough opportunities for narrative storytelling whilst playing, wanting a story and a world to explore rather than constant battles. So, they adapted it for themselves with a fantasy supplement named Blackmoor for its setting, which eventually came to be known as Dungeons & Dragons – the first ever commercially available table-top roleplaying game in the world.
With the majority of today’s players being men and women from their late-teens to their 40s, there is a wide audience of players. Parents are even teaching their children to play, passing the fun on to the next generation using the D&D 5e Start Set which is geared for new player and marketed as being for ages 12+. However, a lot of D&D’s success is credited to two main factors: its ability to stay fresh and relevant, fixing its previous mistakes with an edited series (much like computer software patches) and that there is a strong sense of community amongst its readers.
Starting with the original first-edition box set, known simply as Dungeons & Dragons, the series was initially published by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974. On purchase the reader would receive three core books as well as six reference sheets of tables and charts to read, enjoy, and play with. Having written further into the world of the Forgotten Realms than intended, there were four supplements released in the following years that included extra playable classes and lore for the world the story was set within, like monsters and factions, before eventually splitting into Basic and Advanced D&D. Each new installment released over the years has since adapted and changed the game with a new ruleset and playstyle that was developed from the previous, going through 3rd to 5th editions – or more commonly named D&D 5e. Now owned, printed, and distributed by Wizards of the Coast worldwide (a subsidiary of Hasbro Entertainment that manufactures other fantasy gamebooks and the likes, such as the tactical card game Magic: The Gathering) the strategy employed by the D&D makers ensures a constant drip of content every now and then to keep the interest of its audience.
By implementing these newer game systems there has been nothing to stop the re-using of older content as well as the writing of the new, such as Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Released in May 2019, it adapts a 1981 release called The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to the current climate of players meaning nothing goes to waste, recycling older pieces to make more money from a modern market of new customers. In 2017, the D&D franchise reached its all-time record sales figures publishing their fifth edition, selling over 90,000 copies of their various manuals, adventures, and adjoining literature filled with new and old content in Canada alone – the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook amongst other products still rank in Amazon’s Best Sellers in the Hobbies & Games section.
On average, a new book for the series is released every two to eight months with supplementary content released in between. The D&D 5e Player’s Handbook was released in August 2014, soon followed by the Monster Manual in September 2014 and the Dungeon Master’s Guide shortly after. The same constant flow has continued ever since with notable titles including Xanathar’s Guide to Everything released in November 2017, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes released May 2018, and the two-part Waterdeep series released in September and November 2018.
As for the community, the most prominent segment is the Dungeon Masters’ Guild (DMs Guild). They pride themselves on being the leading force behind homebrewed, customised fan-made content for the D&D franchise, selling ‘digital and print-on-demand […] roleplaying games and fiction since 2001’ and launching ‘multiple community content programs […] for fans to create content for some of their favourite roleplaying and card games’. With this platform used by amateurs and professional players and writers alike, Wizards of the Coast and other gamebook publishing companies do not have worry about pushing the genre forward when the community is doing it for them. After all, players are encouraged to create their own content as the leaders of play. In the D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide the creators clearly state:
The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has been the most successful compared to its predecessors, namely as its design and structure of the books has been streamlined for anyone to understand, use, and play, although it could be argued as a sheer matter of timing. Being in the digital age, D&D now features on multiple mediums: shows can be streamed on Amazon’s Twitch service and YouTube like Critical Role where fans play the game, discuss the lore, or review the texts. There are online tools like Roll20 and D&D Beyond that make playing the game more user friendly to play online or in-person. The game is frequently referenced in pop-culture, for example in the hit Netflix show Stranger Things where the protagonists play the game on a weekly basis. Also, the already named DMs Guild where fans can buy and sell personalised content – the community reaches globally and has taken Dungeons & Dragons out of the hands of the original creators.
Technically the franchise has a volatile business plan: once audiences have the source material what is stopping them from walking away and never returning, especially when fans are making their own content in place of new official content? There is a strong argument to be made about constantly churning out new editions and the likelihood interest could plummet as there is only so much that can be done between 5th and, possibly, a 6th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Furthermore, the continuation of the franchise’s success is heavily reliant on a previous generation of readers and players stoking the interests of new audience members. I think Dungeons & Dragons has a welcoming community with an evidently success formula, but I do not think much is done in the way of appealing to new players. No matter its popularity, unless Wizards of the Coast make steps towards inviting outsiders, Dungeons & Dragons will continue to be viewed as a complicated game of fantasy, dice rolling, and numbers for nerds in a basement.
by Dan Hunt
 Neima Jahromi, The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons, The New Yorker [Accessed: 6 March 2019]
 Michael J. Tresca, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games (North Carolina: MacFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, 2011) p.100
 Jonathan Strugnell, 'Narrative Improvisation: Simulating Game Master Choices', Interactive Storytelling: 11th International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (Switzerland: Springer, 2018) p.430
 Jon Peterson, FORTY YEARS OF ADVENTURE, D&D Wizards [Accessed: 6 March 2019]
 Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (London: Wizards of the Coast, 2014)
 Jon Peterson, idem
 Wizards of the Coast, Ghosts of Saltmarsh Product Overview, D&D Wizards [Accessed: 6 March 2019]
 Dave J. Browne, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (London: TSR Hobbies UK Ltd, 1981)
 Dungeon Master’s Guild, About Us [Accessed: 6 March 2019]