The Early History of Dungeons & Dragons (2006)

I wrote this piece in 2006. It appeared in SFX 146‘s Time Machine. Like most people of my rapidly aging generation, I began my gaming career playing D&D.

I interviewed Gary Gygax once. Like a lot of Americans involved in fantasy, Gygax was bearded, large and voluble, but possessed a level of interest in others that made his bluffness charming rather than irksome. A very nice man.

You enter a rough stone corridor. It looks unsafe, and the wall runs with moisture. Ahead of you is poorly made, if stout, wooden door. Approaching warily, you hear a series of muffled scraping noises and a low growl. What do you do?

If you’re one those who has played Dungeons & Dragons then this kind of statement will be familiar to you. If it isn’t then that’s exactly the kind of dilemma those odd spods with the funny shaped dice used to face, usually weekly, while you were off partying.

Actually, the perception of RPG’s as the domain of the uber-nerd is just one of several misconceptions about the game ­– in reality D&D is no special interest, saddo passtime, but the vanguard of a great gaming revolution that ushered in an age of mass-market wargames, collectible card games and computer gaming – all of which are now multi-million pound industries. Not so nerdy now, eh?

But despite this legacy, D&D the game has had a rocky history. At the height of its popularity, every school had a D&D group (as did many other institutions. “At one time every nuclear submarine had a D&D group,” co-creator David Arneson said in one interview), but then it virtually disappeared off the cultural map. Lawsuits and debt litter its history, and it came to find itself almost destroyed by the industry it created. The story of D&D is almost as hair-raising as an encounter with a Level 19 Gold Dragon in a bad mood.

Dungeons & Dragons was the brainchild of gaming buddies Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Gygax had long been associated with various groups and magazines, including Guidon, a wargames mail-order company. Gygax published various games through Guidon, including 1969’s Chainmail. Written in concert with Jeff Perren, Chainmail allowed players to stage small-scale battles in the Dark Ages. It was not an RPG, but a traditional wargame. However, when Gygax started to add magic and monsters, and Arneson ran a Chainmail game involving a castle sewer (underground adventures are a D&D signature) Dungeons & Dragons slowly began to come to life…

In 1971, Arneson and Gygax completed the first true incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons. But they had difficulty finding a distributor – their earlier publishers thought that the game’s referee or “Dungeon Master” would be so busy running the game he would never have any fun, so it wouldn’t work. Gygax, however, had more faith in their creation, and he and set up Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), with childhood gaming chum Don Kaye. In 1974, with funding from Brian Blume, another old-gaming buddy, they launched D&D’s first edition. The 1000 hand-assembled copies sold out in under a year.

The game was a curious grab bag of ideas. Chainmail and its child were heavily influenced by the models that were available to Gygax and his friends. Back then, there were no large firms making fantasy models, so Gygax and co relied on plastic historical figures. Fine for one’s warriors, but for the monsters the gamers turned to cheap Chinese toys – poly-bagged selections of badly executed dinosaurs and weird flights of fancy. This magpie nature had serious repercussions, as the eager proto-roleplayers also included rules for monsters and creatures from the likes of Michael Moorcock, HP Lovecraft and JRR Tolkien’s works. Lawsuits and quiet words inevitably followed, with the result that various beasties, deities and demons were struck from later editions of the game.

Kaye passed away in 1975, leading to the dissolution of TSR. Gygax then set up TSR Hobbies, Inc, to continue the publication of the game. This was initially on his own, but by the mid-seventies Brian Blume and his son Kevin had a two-thirds controlling interest, something that was to eventually lead to Gygax losing control over his creation…

But for the next few years, D&D was to go from strength to strengh. A more complicated version of the game, named Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released in 1978. This was a huge hit, and became the model for the many copycat games that were to follow. But it was not without its problems. It was beast of a gaming system, requiring multiple books and a maths degree to play. It also unwisely split D&D into two streams, upping production costs and dividing its audience, a problem that was not to be rectified until years later. Finally, AD&D also precipitated a falling out between Gygax and Arneson in 1979. The two went to court over who owned what of their joint creation. Though the dispute was settled by 1981, it was but the first of many business disputes to hit TSR.

And if arguments over Mammon weren’t bad enough, God soon got in on the act. A series of suicides, murders and a missing persons case were all erroneously blamed on the game, and the powerful Christian far tight roundly condemned it as, well, here’s what Christian Life Ministries had to say about Dungeons & Dragons: “Instead of a game [it] is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living colour direct from the pit of hell!!!” Hallelujah.

Gygax appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss the charges, only to have his answers edited and rearranged, or so he maintains. His complaints to the show after his interview was aired went unanswered.

“There here wasn’t a shred of evidence or veracity in any of those claims,” Gygax said recently. “One of the mothers of the children who had committed suicide said the only reason that her son didn’t kill himself sooner was because he enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons and that this was all just a cock-and-bull story.”

D&D was demonised. At the height of the hysteria, the TV movie Mazes and Monsters (1982) came out. This told the story of one youth (played by a very young Tom Hanks) driven mad by gaming. The game in the film may have been called Mazes and Monsters, but everyone knew what they were really talking about. The controversy rumbled on for years, leading TSR to excise references to many of the more dread powers of hell from the second edition of the game, published in 1989.

Despite all this, nothing seemed to dent TSR’s armour, and it began to explore other opportunities for D&D, with Gygax heading off to Hollywood to tout the property. It was a hard slog. Mineral-water quaffing entertainment execs were not easily won over by the mid-western hobbyist. But he persevered, and in 1983 the cartoon Dungeons & Dragons was broadcast on CBS. The Dragonlance novels followed in 1984. These too, were a massive success and transformed TSR into a major player in the booming fantasy publishing market.

However, back at base trouble was brewing. TSR had accrued debts in excess of $15 million, and Gygax discovered his partners had tried to put the firm up for sale. He forced one partner, Kevin Blume, from office, but the problems didn’t stop there. Another court battle ensued as Gygax struggled to retain control, but the law found against him, and he sold his controlling interest in 1985.

After Gygax’s departure, a number of proprietory worlds were developed, and licenses acquired – Marvel Superheroes, Conan and Indiana Jones amongst them; and new gaming avenues, such as card-based play, explored.

But the company’s fortunes could not last. As the decade began to wind down, dozens of games jostled for custom in a crowded market. Worse, RPGs were getting more and more complicated, fewer kids were getting involved, and the average age of gamers increased. With no new blood coming in, revenues dropped, and many companies went under or sold off their RPG properties.

TSR survived, albeit with a smaller, increasingly niche audience, soldiering on through the 90s, until, stuck deep in debt, it was bought out by Magic: The Gathering creators Wizards of the Coast in 1997. WoC was in turn purchased by Hasbro, who consolidated it with other gaming properties to create a gaming division operating under the Wizards tradename.

This marked something of a new start for D&D. A new edition – version 3 – of the rules was created in 2000. This scrapped the division between AD&D and D&D, creating one game. It dispensed with many the different dice the game used, settling upon the 20-sided variety. Gygax, who has undergone a change in thinking over the years, maintains the system is too complicated and damages group co-operation by focussing too much on power-play. Nevertheless, it has proven to be popular, and Wizards have wisely decided to make the system free for all games publishers to use, breaking down walls in the RPG community and generating fat loads of advertising for D&D.

Now, though the game will never be as big as it once was, Wizards estimate that around three million people a month play the game in the US alone. It appears the adventure of D&D will run for some time to come…

A D12 of D&D

Roll your twelve-sided dice to generate a random Wandering D&D Fact!

  1. The game was penned under the uninspiring title of “The Fantasy Game”.
  2. Gary’s surname (his parents were German) is pronounced “Guy-gax”, not “Guy-jax”, as many a poorly informed wannabe wizard would have it.
  3. The name “Dungeons & Dragons” was, according to popular legend, suggested by Gygax’s wife.
  4. Gary Gygax also created GenCon, now the world’s largest gaming convention, and launched Dragon magazine.
  5. Fantasy movie  Krull (1983) went under the name Dungeons & Dragons for part of its developmental cycle, despite having nothing to do with the game.
  6. Though Gygax originally started to put fantasy elements into Chainmail, it was D&D co-creator David Arneson who first restricted players to one model each in his games, establishing the link between player and character.
  7. The game has a magic system where the wizard must memorise spells. Once he has spoken them and set them off, he forgets them. This was directly inspired by the Dying Earth novels of Jack Vance.
  8. Although the term “Hobbit” was removed from the game to stop infringing on JRR Tolkien’s rights, the term “Halfling” remains.
  9. D&D had no setting when originally launched, instead it provided gamers with hundreds of monsters, demons and beasts with which one could create one’s own world. Many of these were drawn from mythology. Tiamat, the multi-headed dragon in the cartoon and game, for example, is a Babylonian deity which represented the salt ocean, symbolic of chaos.
  10. D&D has sold more than 20 million copies, and generated more than $1 billion in revenue.
  11. Many potential RPGers now play online Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying games. The biggest, World of Warcraft, has six million gamers. A D&D MMPORG was launched last year.
  12. Gygax is not a big fan of Tolkien, finding his books dull. The works of Jack Vance, Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber have had far more influence on the game.

D&D on the screen

Not so well done, cavalier

 D&D has had many brushes with the silver and small screens. Not all of them positive. There of course was the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show, which ran for three years and 27 episodes, but we had to wait until 2000 for a real Dungeons & Dragons movie, and then wished we hadn’t. A diabolical mess that featured a bored looking Jeremy Irons (paying for renovations of his Irish castle), that forgettable dude who played Jimmy Olsen in Lois and Clark, Thora Birch, Richard O’Brien and hod-loads of crap CGI, it was closer to the game but further from quality than the cartoon. This is a crying shame, as it was director Courtney Solomon’s life-long ambition to make a D&D movie. He acquired the rights to make the film in 1990 aged just 19 and spent 10 years putting together the money. All for nothing, because it really is awful.

There was a sequel in 2005. Don’t ever see it if you have even one iota of self-respect.



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