The 13 best electronic versions of Dungeons & Dragons

The world of Dungeons & Dragons needs no introduction. Recently, however, the D&D community suffered the loss of one close and dear as the game's co-founder Gary Gygax passed away after battling for some years with heart ailments. But his legacy lives on: What started as a tabletop fantasy role-playing game in the '70s quickly branched out into books, video and arcade games, movies and more. Although PC gamers may think of the tricked-out Forgotten Realms games when they hear D&D, the game has actually went digital decades ago, and has gone deeper and deeper into the tech world ever since.

From the game's first forays into what passed for "computer" gaming 30 years ago to its presence in Second Life, we've mapped out a timeline of the game's evolution from a tabletop classic to an electronic franchise. Click Continue to explore how D&D went digital.

dnd-interface.jpg1974: dnd
Before personal computers were commonplace, there was dnd, which hit at a time when dungeon-crawling games were in their infancy and only passed around in die-hard geek circles. The simple-yet-solid concepts of advancement and treasure looting laid out in the original tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons helped dnd catch on where other dungeon sims fell short. It was written in TUTOR code for the PLATO systems by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood at Southern Illinois University, and enjoyed several modifications all the way until 1985.

dnd-Computer-Labyrinth-boardgame.jpg1980: Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game

Before turning Dungeons & Dragons into a handheld (see below), Mattel first transmuted it into a simple electronic board game: there's a dungeon, and it has a dragon in it. The "computer" places 50 walls randomly across the board, and then two players can compete head to head as they try to and hinder each another's advances, searching for the treasure from room to room. Just hope you don't chance upon the dragon — it'll take your warrior apart in only three blows. Unlike in regular D&D, death is not the end for a lone warrior, but your opponent will score precious time to find those gold pieces.


Mattel-Dungeons-and-Dragons.jpg1981: Mattel's Dungeons and Dragons

Back in the day, portable games didn't have cartridges — they came as a standalone package like this Mattel unit here. Featuring a state-of-the-art LCD screen and powered by two watch batteries, Mattel's Dungeons and Dragons was all action and didn't fool around. As stated on the unit's box, the object of the game is: "Slay the evil dragon as quickly as you can!"


1982: Intellivision Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
While Atari 2600 users had to make do with the awesomely popular, D&D-like game Adventure, Intellivision owners got a more official version in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It may be surprising to see such young kids playing the game in the above video, but bear in mind this was a year before Tom Hanks flipped out in the movie Mazes and Monsters and made D&D players look like hallucinating suicidal Satanists. Originally being worked on under the title of "Adventure" until Gygax's company, TSR, licensed the game, AD&D was the first Intellivision cartridge to use more than 4,000 bytes of ROM, and featured randomly generated mazes stuffed with monsters, which players searched for new weapons and items as they worked toward the goal of the game: recovering the two pieces of the Crown of Kings. Despite how simple it was, AD&D was a taste of early action adventure gaming. It later became known as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Cloudy Mountain to differentiate it from the next game on our list.

dnd-treasure-of-tarmin-atari-2600.jpg1983: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin

Despite being completed, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin was never released for the Atari 2600. A bit like when your Dungeon Master whisks away loot that's too good for your party at the last second, a horde of sneaky halflings must have nabbed the master copy of AD&D:ToT before it could be mass produced. Or Mattel Electronics went belly up in 1984 a month before the game's release — either way. A version did arrive later on the Intellivision, called Tower of Doom. Tower of Doom showcased the ambitious features at play in Treasure of Tarmin, such as having 10 different adventures to pick from and multiples way to kill monsters.


dnd-pinball-machine.jpg1987: Dungeons & Dragons Pinball

The iconic image of a warrior staving off a dragon lit up the gloomy dungeons of the arcade with Dungeons & Dragons Pinball by Bally, a maker of pinball, gaming and slot machines. The game cost a quarter to play (this was before the dollar sign became a standard fixture in the arcade, mind), and the unit is adorned with everything from magic saves to dungeon level ratings, with score markers trailing up along the dragon's furious plume of fire. Back in the day, pinball machines were fashioned after anything popular — from movies, games or even just a general theme — and you knew you'd made it when your creation became a pinball machine.


dnd-pools-of-radiance.jpg1988: Dungeons and Dragons: Pool of Radiance

The Pool of Radiance series set the stage for Dungeons & Dragons to make a major splash in the video game world. Using the Gold Box engine, it was set in the Forgotten Realms setting of D&D and debuted on Commodore 64 systems. It was so well liked that it was soon ported to the NES in '92. Still, it was only a taste of things to come. Players were limited to only a few of the classes that the D&D world offered and couldn't advance very far in level.


dnd-shadow-over-mystara.jpg1996: Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara

Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, the sequel to the not-as-great Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, is a game that gets the adventurous feel of D&D right despite not solidly incorporating many of the rules. Made by Capcom, this arcade game feels more like the company's Final Fight or King of the Dragons rather than an emulation of a proper paper-and-pencil session. But Shadow Over Mystara does get the hack and slash part right (even the cleric forgoes healing to beat down foes with a truncheon), gives players a shop between levels to spend their loot, and was one of the earliest D&D games to incorporate cooperative play, allowing four players to have a go at it at once.


dnd-baldurs-gate.jpg1998: Baldur's Gate

For some, Baldur's Gate is as good as it gets when it comes to D&D video games. Developed by Bioware and published by the much loved, much missed Black Isle Studios, Baldur's Gate offers players an epic plot spanning dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay. The rules of D&D are more faithfully followed than ever before, and players are faced with important decisions right at the start of the game: Just who are they? Players aren't forced to pick from templates or premade characters, and instead pick out their desired gender, class and attributes, able to create any kind of adventurer they can imagine. Baldur's Gate nailed the customization of the paper-and-pencil experience, and the high fantasy storytelling skilled dungeon masters sought to achieve during sessions.


2002: Neverwinter Nights

Another Bioware D&D title, Neverwinter Nights turned the dungeon crawler into a breathtaking 3D world with the same sprawling epic plot of Baldur's Gate. Again the rules of the pen-and-paper incarnation of D&D were upheld, and again players were able to craft who they wanted to be, this time with enhanced options for appearance thanks to the game's more advanced graphics. The Neverwinter Nights series spawned a whole slew of expansion packs and a sequel, and fan-written modules for the game have not only expanded the scope of Neverwinter, but saw some of the modules' creators picked up by Bioware.


dnd-tabletop-projection.jpg2004: Tabletop Projection fan setup

While not an official extension of Dungeons & Dragons, the Tabletop Projection project is hands-down the coolest way to enjoy the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. A few fans who love the game (too much? Never!) decided to affix a projector to the ceiling over a table and link it to a laptop loaded with high resolution dungeon maps. The dungeon master then uses the laptop as his base of operations. Using Photoshop, he obscures the the map with a layer of darkness, which he erases to uncover tiles, and employs additional layers to show traps and magical effects. It's a very snazzy way to play a vintage game, and we love it.


dnd-second-life.jpg2006: Bringing D&D to Second Life

An integral part of the D&D experience whether it is played on a tabletop, out of a book or simulatd by a computer is the dice rolling. Knowing this, a few Second Life players decided to make the game good for something and cooked up some scripted dice. While virtual dice rolling is something all D&D computer games pretty much account for these days, the benefit of playing some "tabletop" Dungeons & Dragons in Second Life is that players are still treated to a Dungeon Master-run game, and they can use their custom avatars to act out whatever that avatar's character is doing — as long as the player can script it. Thus the insular social dynamic of tabletop D&D is upheld in one of the most complimentary ways — in a digitally hermetic room on the Internet.


dnd-ddo-2.jpg2006: Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach

Developed by Turbine, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is where the D&D universe is currently at in the digital world, and it uses the latest set of rules and takes place in the Eberron campaign setting. Whereas Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights dump players into a world all alone, with parties of characters to control, DDO instead lets players explore D&D in a massively multiplayer game where they can party up and take down everything from giants to beholders. A problem does tend to arise, however — no one ever wants to play as the cleric. Unlike the paper-and-pencil game, you can't strong arm one of your friends into the role, either. No sir, if you want heals, you'll have to learn how to make nice with other people, and it's that social element that's probably keeping DDO from being as big as a success as its offline cousins.


dnd-fuzzy-dice.jpgAnd beyond!
Well, that's it for this stroll along the D&D annals of digital history. But don't drive out of here with nothing - why not take a set of these $10 fuzzy D20s with you? Who knows, maybe having 20-sided dice with you at all times will see some kind of rogue D&D street culture crop up. You'll also be able to pass every cool save against the loser who dares roll around with just a set of six-siders. Sure, those are useful. For working out the damage for a short sword.

However you decide to honor the game, be sure to keep your clerics happy, give your spell casters plenty of rest and wear some iron undies around those xill.


Have a treasured D&D memory? Crazy enough to enjoy playing as a cleric? Sound off in the comments below.

EXTRA HIT POINTS: As a few knights and handmaidens in the commenting fray have pointed out, this list could have easily included Curse of the Azure Bonds, Dark Sun Online, Planescape: Torment, and Atari's D&D Tactics for the PSP. Keep those suggestions coming!