The Story of D&D Part One: The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons

Powered by Geek & Sundry

To catch you up on the history of Dungeons & Dragons, your nerdmates at Geek & Sundry are providing you with this handy-dandy series of stories on the history and impact of the world’s oldest role-playing game!

Dungeons & Dragons: Origins

Dungeons & Dragons is published by Wizards of the Coast in Renton, Washington. Every geek worth her D20 knows that.

But it was not always so.

Once upon a time, Dungeons & Dragons was published by a company named TSR, in a magical realm named Wisconsin, where the hills roll like green waves to the horizon, where the cheese is the bright orange of the sunrise, and the winters are long and dark as death. Dungeons & Dragons was created by a brace of midwestern mages named Gary and Dave, and the tale of the game’s journey from a Lake Geneva basement in 1972 to the cultural institution it is today is one of the great stories of gaming.

Dungeons & Dragons grew out of the fortuitous meeting of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Gamers back in the 60s and 70s often named their gaming groups, a bit like acting troupes or biker gangs. (Sound familiar, Vox Machina?) Gary Gygax, for example, was involved in a group called the Castle & Crusade Society. The society had ranks and peerage, exactly like a medieval realm. The “king”, ironically, was a 14-year-old, but there was also a certain baron from Minneapolis named Dave Arneson.

The evolution of the D&D itself began with  Chainmail, a game written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren to simulate medieval combat. However, at the end of the game, there was a 14-page supplement describing the application of the rules to fantasy. The fantasy supplement provided rules for magic swords, monsters, and spells with names like “Lightning” and “Fireball.”

When Dave Arneson read the Chainmail fantasy rules, he adapted them to a fantasy world of his own creation, Blackmoor – a setting inspired by the Lord of the Rings universe combined with elements of Arneson’s own imagination and various mechanics pulled from other games. The premise was simple:  players would portray only a single character (an idea he lifted from a game called  Braunsteinand would explore underground dungeons where they would face perils and puzzles. Both the characters and the story would persist from session to session, with characters working cooperatively and improving over time.

In the fall of 1972, Arneson drove down to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin from Minneapolis to run Blackmoor for Gary Gygax. Gygax was blown away by the game, and within weeks requested the rules from Arneson. He was mailed 18 hand-written pages. Gygax took them and expanded them to fifty pages, and began testing the game with his children, Ernie & Elise. Gygax named the campaign he was running Castle Greyhawk. Soon, Gary & Dave had codified all their ideas and experiences into a ruleset they titled Dungeons & Dragons.

It would prove to be a revolution.

The Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

Ironically, D&D was unable to find a publisher, so Gygax decided to publish it himself, forming Tactical Studies Rules Inc (or TSR) to publish the game. D&D sold 150 copies in its first month, and by summer, TSR ordered another 1,000 copies. For the first years of its existence, the game was difficult to find, and because of that, pirate photocopies of the rules proliferated. (The game also cost $10, which was considered an exorbitant amount of money at the time for a game, which may also have had something to do with all the intellectual property theft.)

D&D is a game where anything can happen and players have total freedom of action. Furthermore, the timeframe of the game is literally infinite. A game could go on for ten, twenty, or even a hundred years if not limited by the lifespans of the players. Better yet, the players’ characters would improve every session, growing in power and knowledge. These features would combine to make the game a smash-hit.

In the next ten years, Gary Gygax would go from being an unemployed game designer cobbling shoes in his basement for extra income to living in a mansion in Beverly Hills and having a national television show based on the game he created. TSR grew from being run off Gygax’s dining room table to a corporation valued at millions of dollars with offices in Great Britain and Los Angeles. Oh, and the company had a mansion on the Isle of Man. Yes, there were hiccups along the way, such as the Satanic Panic, but TSR, and D&D, seemed powerful and immortal, like a 20th level wizard with the philosopher’s stone.

Then it all fell apart.

The Death & Resurrection Of D&D

It’s a story that isn’t all that unfamiliar: a small creative company becomes a large corporate entity and with it comes boardroom drama (think Apple). Like Steve Jobs, Gary Gygax was forced out of the company he founded and made successful, TSR. There were legal battles over the next decade as TSR would attempt to stop Gygax from creating a competing roleplaying game. It was undoubtedly a frustrating, and painful time for Gygax. Luke Gygax, Gary’s son, said his father felt, “anger and disbelief” during this period.

And like many companies who eschewed their creative founder, the new management engaged in a number of extremely questionable business practices, and in hindsight, those business decisions would ultimately lead to the downfall of TSR.  In the early 90s, TSR felt market pressure to innovate thanks to the rise of games like  Vampire: The Masquerade. They began to experiment with CD-ROMs, games with CDs, games with videotapes, etc. It was all very exciting, but also very expensive.

They found a unique, but ultimately unsound, method of funding it. Random House, TSR’s distributor, paid them for product not when it was sold to bookstores, but when it arrived at Random House’s warehouse. Therefore, if TSR shipped a lot of product, Random House would pay them for it. (Yes, Random House could return product for a refund, but when sales were good, this wasn’t a problem.) This money could then be used to finance things like a CD-ROM of the D&D rules. This structure would lead to overprinting, and TSR failing to pay their printer. Because TSR’s debt to their printer eventually became quite substantial, the company signed a contract agreeing to only print books with them. The printer, having a monopoly on TSR’s business, began to increase their rates.

In 1996, Random House returned millions of dollars of worth of TSR product. Thirty employees were let go from TSR right before Christmas. In the new year, the printer announced they would not publish any more TSR products until they received payment on their debt.

TSR, it seemed, was doomed. Their distributor was returning millions of dollars worth of product, and the printer, whom they were required by contract to use for their printing, was refusing to print anything else. It seemed likely that TSR would be dismembered, and the fate of Dungeons & Dragons, and possibly even roleplaying itself, hung in the balance.

Then a white wizard rode in from the west.

Wizards of the Coast, creators of a little game called Magic: The Gathering, swooped in to buy TSR, and with it Dungeons & Dragons. And that will be the topic of Part 2 this series.

Click here to read part 2 of the series! Make sure you follow Geek & Sundry on Facebook and Twitter to get notified when articles go live. How long have you been playing D&D? Let us know in the comments!

Want more D&D goodness?

All images courtesy: Wizards of the Coast

A special thanks to TSR alum and creative genius Jim Lowder for his invaluable assistance in providing background knowledge and helping to get interviews for this article. Jim is the fiction editor for Chaosium. Thanks also to Luke Gygax, Dale Donovan, Jim Butler, Peter Adkison, Margaret Weis, Steve Wieck, Ryan Dancey, Lisa Stevens, Tim Beach, Dustin Clingman, John Rateliff, Jim Fallone and Jim Ward for their help with this material.

Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on  Twitter, or on the  Plot Points podcast. you can read his novel about the only good orc here.   

Top Stories
More by Ben Riggs
Trending Topics