Born in a basement in Wisconsin and spun together from a hodgepodge of borrowed rules, Dungeons & Dragons gave birth to an entire industry and remains a cultural icon almost half a century later. Other role-playing games have come along, but none have matched D&D‘s profile in the popular consciousness. In addition to a lesson on how creativity and innovation can create a hobby revolution, the history of D&D provides a very important lesson: 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 sold relatively well and eventually received a Fantasy Supplement which added a number of mythical creatures, magic, and other sword and sorcery elements to the game.
Of Chainmail’s many players, the most significant one was probably Dave Arneson. Arneson found the concept appealing, but also did a lot of tinkering with 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, but Avalon Hill turned it down. 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.
As a fun side note, Avalon Hill is now a subsidiary of Hasbro, as is Wizards of the Coast, the current owner of D&D. As a result, Avalon Hill has published some D&D board games, such as Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. So the license did get there in the end, in an incredibly roundabout way.
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 game 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 and delegated D&D to other authors.
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.
Lorraine Williams In, Gary Gygax Out
In order for Gygax to retain control of TSR, he needed to bring new blood into the management structure. Unfortunately, the person he brought in as a financial consultant, Lorraine Williams, proved to be his undoing. In a roundabout way, this corporate trickery led to the revision of the AD&D game.
Williams wound up allying with Blume instead of Gygax, ultimately giving them the power to force him out. Later, the Blume would sell his stock to Williams, which gave her control of TSR. The matter went to court, but the judge ruled against Gygax. Ultimately Gary Gygax found himself out of the company and stripped of any control he had over the game he created–not unlike Arneson a few years prior.
In 1989, TSR produced a second edition of the AD&D game, which changed the tone more than the rules. While the mechanics of the game did get a slight update (such as the removal of 1st edition’s ridiculously obtuse initiative rules), the biggest shift was in a new emphasis on heroic fantasy. The core books argued fervently against players controlling evil characters. Demons and devils got rebranded as tanar’ri a baatezu. Assassins disappeared as a character class. The moves were perhaps inevitable based on AD&D‘s move into the mainstream, but also signaled that the company cared more about dodging criticism from angry parents than catering to its existing base of gamers.
During development of the new edition, TSR bought the Forgotten Realms setting from Ed Greenwood. The company poured support into that, which spelled eventual doom for Gygax’s own creation of Greyhawk. This was not a coincidence–Williams made every effort to distance the brand from anything Gygax had ever created. Greyhawk did linger on, but went through wholescale changes that redrew the map and altered large portions of the setting. 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.
Fragmentation and Litigation, Oh My!
Up until Williams took control of TSR, the company was run by gamers who were not great at business. As it turned out, Williams was neither a gamer nor a competent businesswoman, and she spent years mismanaging the company in an attempt to get every last penalty out of the D&D brand for herself.
The upside to this for fans was that there was a proliferation of new campaign settings, each with could serve as a brand of its own. During the 1990s, TSR created new product lines for dozens of different worlds, 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.
This settings boom showed off the many directions in which AD&D could expand, as each was markedly different. Kara-Tur was a land of samurai and ninjas. Dark Sun was a desert world where magic drew life out of the environment itself. Ravenloft was a demiplane of gothic horror, and Birthright had the players taking on the role of kings and warlords. But this also led to massive fragmentation. With little common ground between the settings, there was no reason for a Forgotten Realms player to buy a Dark Sun product…and yet the same amount of resources went into each product, sales numbers be damned.
While the costs mounted and sales failed to cover them, 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 an example of costly but frivolous court proceedings that became a hallmark of TSR during the 90s. Ultimately, Gygax’s game came out as Dangerous Journeys, meaning that the TSR legal team had spent a lot of money over a spiteful vendetta that accomplished little. The company took a similar hard line against fan-created content, suing websites that offered homebrew AD&D material and burning away any goodwill the name TSR held for fans.
Between numerous lawsuits, fractured product lines, and a complete misunderstanding of how the Internet worked, TSR’s finances began to crumble. Meanwhile, another gaming company called Wizards of the Coast (WotC) started producing a collectible card game called Magic: the Gathering. This game 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.
WotC Steps In
Enter Wizards of the Coast (WotC), 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 mage guild in an AD&D campaign he played in. 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 had some degree of corporate stability. This became even more true when, for good or ill, Hasbro acquired WotC in 1999. Under the guidance of Wizards, D&D went through a major restructuring. The new owners of the brand canceled or licensed out the multitude of difference 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. 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, adventure modules, 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 fill the void for those who yearned for older editions.
There were, unfortunately, negative consequences associated with making the system open source.
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 brands that made $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 magazines, Pathfinder 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 down for a while, not climbing back to the top food chain until the next edition cycle rallied up more sales.
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.
The 5th Edition Boom
D&D 4th edition solved a lot of problems that had plagued the game for years. It balanced the races and classes out, it smoothed the level curve, and it created monsters that were challenging but not overwhelming. However, in trying to fix many of the game’s age-old problems, the designers overlooked the possibility that what they considered bugs were actually features that drew people to the game.
Maybe it was as simple as requiring an attack roll for the classic auto-hit magic missile. Maybe it was revising halflings to no longer be half-sized humanoids, shifting the alignment system, or creating power systems for fighters. Whatever the breaking point was, many diehard fans saw 4th edition as the game made for people who didn’t like D&D in the first place. Thus, when it came time to reverse course, the next version of the game dove headfirst into nostalgia, embracing (but also slightly streamlining) the weird wonkiness that appealed to D&D‘s core audience.
So yes, now there are save or die effects again. Wizards can teleport halfway across the world, while fighters only get better at swinging a sword. Being an elf means you automatically know how to use bows, even if you were raised by humans. On paper, such things seem like they would lessen the game’s fun, or at least break verisimilitude a bit. But in practice, this is stuff that people love about the game. 5th edition improved the old systems in some ways and did a great job of streamlining gameplay, but when in doubt the designers erred toward making sure that the game felt like classic D&D even if rules balance would dictate something different.
The simplified rules were only one step in D&D‘s resurgence. The brand has grown bigger than the game, thanks in no small part to the insanely popular actual play Critical Role podcast. Through good marketing, fortunate happenstance, and product synergy, D&D has grown more popular than ever and is seeping into pop culture in ways that haven’t happened since the 1980s. In going back to the game’s roots, Wizards of the Coast managed to tap into that broad swath of new and excited young gamers that 4th edition had tried to pursue but failed to capture.
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.
Images: Wizards of the Coast, Marvel Productions