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. These features would make their popular debut when the original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) was published in 1974 along side other key features invented by Gygax and Arneson like the Alignment system.
Dungeons and Dragons was the first popular game to have an experince points system and leveling up, but the very first game to feature “leveling” and “experience points” was actually Arneson’s previous effort Blackmoor.
Blackmoor was created by Arneson in 1972, but not published until 1975. Somce Blackmoor is considered part of the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and is less well known than its close relative, we can say that Dungeons and Dragons was the first game to feature EXP and leveling up).
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
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”).
The ideas Arneson had would see one more variation in Arneson’s game Blackmoor before officially making their debut in the original Dungeons and Dragons rule-set in 1974.
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 can 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 1972.
The official rule-set for Blackmoor wasn’t published until a year after OD&D in 1975, but early versions of the game included both a leveling system and experience points.
The character sheet from a 1972 Blackmoor game below also 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.
Leveling up With Dungeons & Dragons
Chainmail never included experience points in its rule-set and Blackmoor wasn’t officially published until 1975. Given this, experience points would make their first official debut in a new game created by Dave Arneson, and his war gaming friend Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons published in 1974. The original D&D also included other Arneson innovations such as character classes and armor class.
An inspiring interview with Dave Arneson.
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).
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.