The History of Dungeons & Dragons (revised for 2014)

AD&D Dungeon Master's GuideFor 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.

I originally wrote this history in 2010 and am revisiting it now in light of the 5th edition of the game being released. To see the original article, click here.


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. This included altering the scope 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 connected, 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 wider appeal, 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.

1974 D&D

If you played this game, you are what we in the hobby call a grognard.

The Brown Box

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, but 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.

D&D Cartoon

This was a thing. Moreover, people still remember it fondly even today.

The Glory Days

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 Weis 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.

TSR was never really helmed by people who knew business, and it wasn’t prepared to handle Dungeons & Dragons becoming the next big thing. The company grew more quickly than anybody was prepared for, and nobody had the financial wherewithal to handle this. Gygax had to struggle just to get a controlling share of the company, and no sooner had he gained that than Blume started vying for control himself. The feuding pulled the rug out from under the potential movie deal, but that was only the beginning of the troubles.

Castle Greyhawk Module

As a way of kicking Gygax when he was down, TSR put out this terrible module that turned his iconic dungeon into a series of bad jokes.

Lorraine Williams Comes In, Gary Gygax Goes Out

In the midst of all this feuding, 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?

In the mid-1980s, Gygax floated the idea of allowing the writers of D&D to retain ownership of the characters and scenarios they created. This was a great idea for writers, but not so great for business. Collecting strong intellectual property is how companies like TSR stayed afloat.

Gygax threatened to resign over the dispute, which should have scared the board into negotiating with him. Instead, nobody disagreed with him. As it turned out, the Blume family had teamed up with Williams to gain a controlling share of the company, giving them the power to force Gygax out. Ultimately, the Blumes would sell their stock to Williams, which gave her control of TSR. 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 GreyhawkGreyhawk did linger on, but the world moved further and further away from anything Gygax could lay claim to. The iconic dungeon of the setting, Castle Greyhawk, became a joke module that got released in 1988, seemingly just to kick dirt in Gygax’s face.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting

TSR created some great stuff under Williams’ watch, but stretched itself too thin thanks to her mismanagement.

The Bad Old Days

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. Product pricing was arbitrary and sometimes outright insane, with some products costing more to produce than the cover price they were sold for.

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 dramatically 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.

3e Starter Set

Uh…very dramatic entrance and all, but you guys might want to turn around and look at the dragon that’s about to eat you.

WotC to the Rescue

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 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.

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 an ability 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.

There were, unfortunately, negative consequences associated with making the system open source.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

Pathfinder quickly became the new top dog in the industry.

The OGL Crash, 4th Edition, and Pathfinder

While the Open Gaming License (OGL) caused a big boom early on, its biggest flaw quickly showed: a lack of quality control. Many small companies pushed out product without professionally editing or playtesting it. By the mid-2000s, the bubble burst and many smaller companies disappeared. Only those whose products had gained a reputation for high quality remained.

During this time, Wizards of the Coast, which was owned by Hasbro, underwent many changes. They used the old corporate practice of frequent layoffs to keep overhead low, which meant that the architects behind 3rd edition and the OGL were all gone within a few years. The change in culture meant a change in corporate philosophy, to the point where the OGL wasn’t seen as a good thing anymore but rather a detriment. At the same time, Hasbro was pushing their subsidiaries to focus only on products that made a huge chunk of money, such as $50 million or more. Smaller lines, such as D&D, were at risk.

The easiest way to get D&D recognized as a major property by Hasbro would have been to profit from the video game tie-ins, but shaky legal situations including a stupid decision that gave the video game rights lock, stock, and barrel to Atari for the long-term prevented that. Instead, 4th edition D&D was designed to use technology in a different way. By producing a number of online tools such as a character generator and encounter builder, Wizards of the Coast hoped to turn the game into something that ran best when combined with the subscription-based D&D Interactive. This met with success, but not enough to meet Hasbro’s goals.

The OGL could not be rescinded, and 4th edition went out of its way to create IP that could be owned by Wizards of the Coast. This included changing the Shadow Plane to the Shadowfell, which could be trademarked, and drastically altering races such as elves, gnomes, and halflings. It meant a very restrictive new license that required companies who bought in to ditch the OGL entirely and which kept those companies from using basic things like page number references in their products. While 4th edition itself was a very solid game that sold reasonably well, it turned off a lot of fans who didn’t recognize it as D&D.

Regardless, the assumption from Wizards of the Coast at the time was that people who didn’t immediate adopt the new edition would still eventually come over. Every edition tended to have stragglers, after all. However, not every edition had a game like Pathfinder to go up against.

Created out of the decision to license the D&D magazinesPathfinder was recognizably D&D in origin, using most of the 3rd edition rules as the basis for its design. Many fans jumped over to the more recognizable fantasy RPG, and D&D dropped out of the #1 spot on the sales charts for the first time since TSR’s demise in the 90s. Unlike that time, it stayed out of the top spot this time. Pathfinder became the #1 selling RPG in late 2010/early 2011 and, as of this writing, is still there.

99% of RPG companies would have been satisfied with the performance of 4th edition, but those companies aren’t owned by Hasbro. D&D needed yet another major revision, and in 2012 Wizards of the Coast started playtesting the iteration we have now.

D&D Next

Like a giant flaming dragon, D&D 5th edition arrives.

5th Edition and the Future of D&D

If Wizards of the Coast learned anything from 4th edition, it was that people wouldn’t blindly follow the game just because it had the D&D logo on it. Thus, the new edition focused on streamlining the rules and, above all else, making sure it got the feel of the game right.

D&D 5th edition got a public playtest, no doubt inspired by the success of Pathfinder‘s public playtest. It discarded a lot of 4th edition’s changes and went back to something that was recognizably D&D. And, according to early sales and reviews, it seems to be doing well. However, that’s only part of the equation.

One thing that is strikingly clear by now is that the glory days of the 1980s are no more and that RPGs as a whole will never dominate pop culture the way they did before. The new D&D is thus focusing less on regular releases for the game line and more on media tie-ins. There’s more of a focus on the D&D MMO Neverwinter now that the legal issues regarding the video game license have been resolved. There’s an attempt to resolve the murky movie rights and put together a (hopefully good) film franchise. And there are all sorts of tie-ins, ranging from comic books like Legends of Baldur’s Gate to D&D-themed slot machines. Will this attempt to turn the game into a mass-media sensation pay off? Check back in 2018 when I revise this article yet again.

Regardless of its past mistakes or current course, one thing that seems very clear about Dungeons & Dragons is that it works best when it’s guided by people who are passionate about the game rather than those who see it as a way to get rich. 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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