The History of Dungeons & Dragons

This lovely image graced the cover of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide.For the next few paragraphs, I am going to talk about the history of the Dungeons & Dragons game, which gave birth to the role-playing game industry. I particularly like this history, because it has a nice moral to it: what goes around comes around.

The story begins in the early 1970s, when a man named Gary Gygax decided to leave the insurance field and go into writing war-gaming rules. He and Jeff Perren created a fantasy war game called Chainmail, which was published in 1971 by Guidon Games. The game became one of Guidon’s hottest sellers, partly because fantasy war gaming was a more or less untapped market at the time. Of Chainmail’s many players, the most significant one was probably Dave Arneson. Arneson found the concept appealing, but made large scale changes to the rules, which he did not find entirely adequate. Among the changes he made was changing the scale of the game. In Chainmail, one miniature represented twenty soldiers, which was fairly standard fare for war games. Arneson scaled things down a bit more, and began running scenarios where an individual player controlled only one character. He and Gygax eventually hooked up, and one weekend Gygax experienced Arneson’s style of play. In another unconventional twist, Arneson set the war game underground, in the ruins of what he called Castle Blackmoor. This was, arguably, the first role-playing game session.

Gygax and Arneson went on to collaborate for a new game called Blackmoor, which would run like a war game but involve a player playing the role of a specific character in connected scenarios. The game was based on the Chainmail rules, but included an optional combat system similar to what Arneson used in his games. Most of their scenarios involved dragons, and they spent long sessions working in Gygax’s basement, which Gygax’s wife at one point referred to as the dungeon. In order to give the game a more generic feel, the title was ultimately changed to Dungeons & Dragons.

In an attempt to find a distributor for the game, Gygax contacted Avalon Hill Games, which was at the time a major war-gaming company. He explained the concept of the game, and Avalon Hill laughed in his face, convinced that such an idea would never work. Ultimately, Gygax, Arneson, Don Kaye, and Brian Blume formed a company of their own: Tactical Studies Rules. Through this company, D&D finally saw release at the local gaming convention Gen Con in 1974. The original print run of 1,000 copies sold out in a matter of months. Avalon Hill called back, offering to distribute future releases of the game for Tactical Studies Rules. This time, Gygax got to do the laughing.

The original Dungeons & Dragons was released in a small brown box, and consisted of three manuals: Men and Magic, Monsters and Treasure, and Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. It also required use of the Chainmail rules and, strangely, Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game. The books were poorly edited, the rules were contradictory, and the art was amateurish. But the game didn’t succeed despite these shortcomings; it succeeded because of them. Gaming groups made large scale changes to the rules, giving them a sense of ownership over the system. As the game was setting neutral, people devised their own fantasy settings for use in their campaigns. The original D&D’s apparent failings only gave gamers a chance to be more creative, practically turning them into amateur game designers. A series of supplemental rules soon followed: Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. These rules introduced everything from the thief class to psionic powers. But like a clichéd episode of Behind the Music, trouble was going on behind the scenes.

Dave Arneson was a very enthusiastic gamer. He was already tweaking and changing things. Many of the rules in D&D came from rules he had created years before. However, it was Gary Gygax who put those ideas into writing, adding some of his own along the way. Gygax became the face of the game, and Arneson wanted more credit. Gygax was not about to give Arneson that wish. Don Kaye died of a stroke in 1975, spelling the end of Tactical Studies Rules. Gygax and Brian Blume dissolved the company and formed a new one, TSR, Inc. The notable person missing from this new company was Arneson, whose disagreement with Gygax had become a full-blown feud. In 1977, the D&D game underwent a revision. In an effort to cut Arneson out of the royalties he was owed as a co-creator of the game, Gygax produced the new edition under the name of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. A series of lawsuits from Arneson followed, and another, more basic and less supported line was formed to appease him. This secondary line was known simply as Dungeons & Dragons, and featured a much simplified version of the game. Basic D&D, as it became known, was supposed to be an introductory platform from which new gamers would jump to the AD&D game. But the two systems were not compatible, and the product lines eventually developed separately, effectively splitting the market. Arneson faded into obscurity in the industry, while Gygax continued producing massive amounts of material for AD&D while delegating D&D to other authors.

As the early 80s began, D&D became a household name. Regardless of the version, the brand name attracted a wide following. Gygax spent more and more time in Hollywood, growing the product into a multimedia goldmine. This resulted in a D&D cartoon, and almost landed TSR a movie deal (not the same movie deal that created the awful Dungeons & Dragons movies of the 2000s, mind you). Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hicks developed the Dragonlance setting, which resulting in a best-selling series of novels and a toy line. As with most new things, some overreactive parents decided the whole thing was evil, resulting in Pat Pulling forming a group called BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons). Such negative hype only enhanced the appeal of the game for rebellious teenagers. But where there’s money, there’s also corporate backbiting. Blume started vying for control of TSR, and made every effort to push Gygax out and collect a tidy sum for himself by selling the company. Gygax rushed back from Hollywood, pulling the rug out from under the potential movie deal in doing so. The two waged war in board meetings, and eventually Blume was dismissed from the corporation. He tried to get it all, and wound up with nothing instead.

The problem here was that Gygax was more gamer than businessman, and Blume had driven TSR to the verge of bankruptcy. Gygax hired a financial consultant named Lorraine Williams, and that proved to be his undoing. Remember what I said about things going around and coming around?

The Blume family sold their stock to Williams, which gave her control of the company. Gygax tried to have the sale declared illegal, but a judge decided in Williams’ favor. Rather than appeal, Gygax sold his stock to Williams, and was done with the company once and for all. In 1989, TSR produced a second edition of the AD&D game, which accomplished two goals. First, it made the brand more parentally acceptable, removing objectionable bits like demons, devils, and the assassin character class. Second, the move was designed to cut Gygax out of the royalties he was owed for AD&D. As the second edition was being developed, TSR also bought the Forgotten Realms setting from Ed Greenwood, and the company poured support into that, which spelled eventual doom for Gygax’s own creation of Greyhawk – another property that he had claim of royalties to.

TSR was now in Lorraine Williams’ control. The problem was, Williams wasn’t a gamer. In fact, she despised gamers, considering them beneath her. Like Blume before her, she saw the D&D brand name as a cash cow meant for marketing and little more. Under her guidance, TSR began focusing on new campaign settings for the game. During the 1990s, TSR produced product lines for dozens of campaign settings, including Kara-Tur, Al-Qadim, Maztica, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Mystara, Planescape, Spelljammer, and Birthright. These were all products for AD&D; D&D still had its own line. The result was that everyone’s campaign was different – not just a little different, as in the way that Dragonlance differed from Greyhawk, but drastically different. Kara-Tur was a land of samurai and ninjas. Dark Sun was a desert world where magic drew life out of the land itself. Ravenloft was a land of gothic horror, and Birthright had the players taking on the role of kings and warlords. There was very little crossover between these lines, but all of them received support. TSR put as much money into producing a Forgotten Realms supplement as they did for a new rule book for the second edition. While TSR teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, Gary Gygax returned to the field. He began working on a game called Dangerous Dimensions, which Williams immediately sued over. She wasn’t about to have Gygax’s name attached to anything that could be mistaken for D&D. The lawsuit was costly, but she eventually stopped publication of Dangerous Dimensions. The game was renamed Dangerous Journeys and published by Game Designs Workshop. Even the title change didn’t satisfy Williams, and she kept the lawsuit coming until the game finally ceased publication.

Between the numerous lawsuits, the fractured product line, and a horrendous online policy that saw several web designers get sued by TSR for their home brew material, things were getting grim for the company. Making matters worse, another gaming company called Wizards of the Coast (WotC) stopped producing role-playing games and started producing a collectible card game called Magic: the Gathering. Magic targeted the same audience that D&D did, but was drastically more successful. Gamers’ dollars went toward card games instead of role-playing books. Ultimately, TSR wasn’t even able to pay their publishing house anymore, and ceased publication of all products for a period of about six months. Williams insisted that this was just a bump in the road—she still paid employees and kept them working on products, but could not hold the writers and artists to any deadlines because there was no way to publish the product. The company was, plainly put, doomed.

Enter Wizards of the Coast, one of the factors that had helped sink TSR in the first place. WotC’s president, Peter Adkison, was an avid role-player; the company was itself named after a D&D campaign of his. He wasn’t about to let the game die. He could have waited for TSR to finally go under and bought out their copyrights one by one, but he had the money and the business acumen to go for a more direct route. He purchased TSR outright, and Williams had to take what she could get. TSR became a part of WotC, and Lorraine Williams went the way of Brian Blume, forced to give up the precious cash cow.

Under Wizards of the Coast, D&D had something that it had never had before: a company that was run by gamers but also run as an actual corporation. WotC went right away fixing up TSR’s mistakes. They canceled or licensed out most of the campaign settings, reuniting a fractured product line. They produced one more product for basic D&D, and then focused entirely on AD&D. These moves were all preparing for a bigger change, however. Adkison settled outstanding lawsuits from both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, and then put together a design team to drastically revise the game. Now that the rights to the game had been resolved, the “Advanced” moniker was dropped, and the game went back to being simply Dungeons & Dragons. This new edition was the biggest revision the game had ever seen, and fixed a number of old issues with the system. No longer did you have to roll high to hit a low armor class or low to succeed on a skill check; now everything was a matter of rolling high on a 20-sided die. Multi classing and dual classing were simplified, and old standards such as the half-orc and the assassin returned. The game became more codified and solidly built than it ever had been. This rigid structure turned off some gamers who liked the malleability of older editions, but even those old grognards got something out of it; WotC made their system open source, allowing any company to produce material compatible with D&D. To WotC, this meant that they didn’t have to spend lots of capital on products like campaign settings and other books that generally sold poorly. To other gamers, it meant that systems like Castles & Crusades or Basic Fantasy Role-Playing, which hearkened back to older editions of the game, could be produced.

Since TSR’s death and D&D‘s rebirth under 3rd edition, the RPG industry has remained as tumultuous as ever. The Open Gaming License brought a boom of new D&D-compatible products to the fray, but also led to a collapse in that same field due to the fact that many companies didn’t properly control the quality of their product. Peter Adkison sold the company to Hasbro, which brought a whole new corporate outlook.

Fortunately, for the most part, Hasbro seems content to let Wizards of the Coast handle their own product lines. I say “for the most part” because there is a bit of debate over the big move by the company in 2008 when they released D&D 4th edition, resulting in a major split in the community. 4th edition was even more different from previous versions of the game than 3rd edition was. Powers got codified so that every class now works in the same way – no more wizards acting totally different from fighters. Miniatures are now all but mandatory, and many non-combat mechanics were either drastically revised or removed entirely. Some people hail 4th edition as a much-needed simplification over the bulky mechanics of 3rd edition, while others see it as a something that is no logner recognizable as D&D. The game mechanics are so different that the OGL no longer applies to D&D‘s mechanics, and key elements like miniatures and D&D Interactive, an online tool that includes rules supplements and a character builder, are either wonderful ways to streamline the game or greedy ways for the corporation to guard against piracy and force gamers to spend more money on a product, depending on who you ask. However, because the OGL still remains in place for the 3rd edition rules, a number of D&D-like games have appeared to reach out to any generation of gamer, from Swords & Wizardry which emulates the original D&D rules to Pathfinder, which streamlines the 3rd edition rules in a different direction than 4th edition. Basically, if you ever had a favorite version of D&D, you can find support for it  somewhere these days.

In truth, WotC/Hasbro’s path with 4th edition D&D is probably somewhere between a streamline of the game and a money grab – corporations do have to make money in order to stay in business, after all. I don’t know where the game will go from here, but I do know this: if the people in charge are smart, they’ll stay as honest as possible. Because every single person who has tried to screw someone over in the name of getting more money out of Dungeons & Dragons has gotten what was coming to them. It’s quite a nice bit of justice that is rarely found in the real world.


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