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.
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”).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.