Dungeons and Dragons Was the First Game to Feature EXP and Leveling Up
Myth

Dungeons and Dragons was the first game to feature "experience points" and "leveling up".

The Origin of “Leveling Up” and Experience Points System in Role Playing Games

David Arneson invented “the experience points system” and “leveling up” (common features in role playing games) while working on a precursor to Dungeons and Dragons called Blackmoor with Gary Gygax.

Thus, Arneson’s Blackmoor, not “Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons“, was the first game to feature “experience points” and “leveling up”.

Specifics aside, these features, along side other key features invented by Gygax and Arneson like the Alignment system, character classes, and armor class, made their popular debut when Arneson and Gygax’s original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) was published in 1974.[1][4]

A Quick Blackmoor Backstory

  • Blackmoor and its mechanics were inspired by Arneson’s wargaming sessions, and fiction like The Lord of the Rings and Dark Shadows.
  • Later, Arneson officially began working on Blackmoor in 1971 – 1972.
  • Meanwhile, Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) was published in 1974.
  • Then, in 1975, Arneson released a Blackmoor Dungeons and Dragons supplement (Supplement II Blackmoor), later he would release more Blackmoor products including a campaign setting.

Thus, we can state the fact pertaining to leveling systems and experience points as:

Dungeons and Dragons was the first popular game to have features like an experience points system and leveling up, but the very first game to feature leveling up and experience points in their modern form was actually Blackmoor. In both cases David Arneson invented these features.”

TIP: See one of the first ever level sheets below!

A history of D&D, showing that EXP and leveling up originate with the Chainmail play sessions and make their way into Blackmoor before becoming popularized by D&D.

How David Arneson Invented Leveling Up and Experience Points

According to lore, Arneson came up with the idea of “leveling up” while play-testing a game he co-created with Gygax called Chainmail (published in 1971).

The play-testing group was having fun and didn’t want the experience to end. Arneson had the idea to let characters earn experience points from successfully completing a game, they could level up their characters with enough points in-between games, and play the next game with their new “higher level character” (Gygax had said earlier he wanted “to allow people to reach higher levels”).[1]

Chainmail never included experience points in its rule-set and Blackmoor’s product release is complex and generally comes after 1974, thus, the ideas Arneson had officially made their debut in the original Dungeons and Dragons rule-set in 1974.

NOTE: Other inspirations include older war games where soldiers could increase in rank, and generally one can look to things like the boy scouts, military, and point systems to see other roots of these features (this is noted again below).

Dungeons and Dragons Was the First Game to Feature EXP and Leveling Up

Leveling Up: From Chainmail to Blackmoor, to D&D

Between Chainmail and D&D in 1974, Arneson worked on a miniature based fantasy war game called Blackmoor. Today we might consider Blackmoor as part of the D&D universe, but at the time, it was more like a separate game that Arneson played with his war gaming buddies in 1971 – 1972.

A official product for Blackmoor wasn’t published until a year after OD&D’s release in 1975 (see “original publication“).[5]

The character sheet from a 1972 Blackmoor game below shows other relatively innovative concepts like character sheets as we know them today, spells (which Gygax had taken from fantasy books), core stats like “brain” which would become “intelligence” and “wisdom“, and weapon specific stats that could get a “+” bonus notice the “+5” to the battle axe stat.

One of the first known examples of character sheets and leveling up. An original 1972 Character Sheet from David Arneson’s Blackmoor (which would become Dungeons and Dragons). Screen grab from role-playing game historian Jon Peterson’s “A History of D&D In 12 Treasures”.

FACT: Dave Arneson used Chainmail in his Blackmoor campaign, and many elements of Chainmail were carried over wholesale into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in 1974. In fact, the original edition of D&D required that the reader own a copy of Chainmail (as well as the Avalon Hill game Outdoor Survival).[6]

An inspiring interview with Dave Arneson.

Experience Points Before D&D

There are a few precursors to experience points and leveling up that predate Dungeons and Dragons, although the naming system wasn’t used until D&D. They are:

  • Military ranks and Boy Scout ranks. In both, you do tasks to earn experience and can advance ranks based on your achievements.
  • Point systems. Point systems were used in older games and video games.

Generally, we can see point systems and ranking systems before Dungeons and Dragons, but the concept of leveling up a character based on experience points originated with Arneson.

A full-length documentary on Dungeons and Dragons.



Conclusion

Dungeons and Dragons was the first major game to feature experience points, leveling up, and other new game mechanics, but the less well-known Blackmoor came first (and Chainmail also tells part of the story). Anyway we phrase it, Arneson deserves the credit.

Generally Gygax and Arneson are the fathers of Role Playing Games, and there wasn’t even much of a fantasy gaming scene before D&D.

Gygax tends to get the bulk of the credit in retrospect, but EXP and leveling up were mostly the creation of co-creator Dave Arneson (see “multiple discovery“).


References

  1. Who created the idea of Experience Points?“. Rpg.stackexchange.com. Retrieved Jan 16, 2016.
  2. Experience point“.Wikipedia.rog. Retrieved Jan 16, 2016.
  3. Dungeons & Dragons“.Wikipedia.rog. Retrieved Jan 16, 2016.
  4. FORTY YEARS OF ADVENTURE“. Dnd.wizards.com. Retrieved Jan 16, 2016.
  5. Blackmoor“.Wikipedia.rog. Retrieved Jan 16, 2016.
  6. Chainmail (game)“. Wikipedia.rog. Retrieved Jan 16, 2016.


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Daniel Boggs on

Wow there’s so much here that’s inaccurate. Was this written by a high school kid? Arneson began Blackmoor games in 1971 – not ’72. The “rules” were not published in 1975. Arneson wrote a D&D supplement book called Supplement II Blackmoor that was published in 1975, but these are D&D rules, monsters and a setting for D&D. Supplement II has no rules to his original game. Yes, experience points and leveling up were both instituted by Arneson in his original Blackmoor game (you can read about details on my ‘blog Hidden in Shadows if you are inclined), but this happened a couple years before Arneson began to work with Gygax on D&D. Also, leveling up wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to Arneson and his group of wargamers because they already had wargames rules that allowed green troops to improve to elite troops in their wargame campaigns. I don’t know what “Blackmoor was part of the D&D universe” is supposed to mean. It sounds like retconning. You might just as well say D&D was part of the Blackmoor universe. Folks were playing Blackmoor 2 years before the first draft of D&D existed.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Ha, well, I’ll skip commenting on the insult and move right on to thanking you (researching this was rather difficult and the article was an early effort on our part… that really did need an edit, good catch). The goal of the site is to get the facts right over time with the help of input from our readers.

Glad to have the extra insight, I have to say our presentation of the facts wasn’t far off from what you say, but certainly you provided lots of helpful details that I will weave into the page. Thank you.

Let me take the opportunity to plug your blog, Hidden in Shadows: http://boggswood.blogspot.com/

Feel free to come back and drop a link to the page you are referencing. I’d be psyched to have more details and would be happy to cite your page.