30 Years of D&D

add1eph.jpgFrom the Science Fiction Book Club’s Altiverse newsletter:

Historians can’t be certain, but Dungeons & Dragons likely began in a dungeon . . . make that a basement. In the early 1970s, Dave Arneson and E. Gary Gygax were two pals who’d cultivated a novel hobby: using homemade miniature figures to stage historical battles. As they honed their pocket-sized epic vision, the pair began to develop specific characters in their landscape, each individual personality determining the outcome of fictive battles and other scenarios. This dynamic “roleplaying” concept–plus an ever-expanding fantasy-medieval universe tinged with magic–shaped the bare bones pen-and-paper games Arneson and Gygax began selling in 1974. Thirty years later, that modestly packaged yet imaginatively supercharged game has evolved into a worldwide pop culture phenomenon. Always growing in complexity and sophistication, Dungeons & Dragons became its own industry, yielding board games, video games, die-cast figures, comics, books subdivided into dozens of specialized series (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and many others) and several TV/movie projects. Just as importantly, it birthed the entire roleplaying game category, and inspired generations of game designers–not to mention artists, writers and enthusiasts.

After some forays into the world of tabletop wargames, I was introduced to role-playing games in junior high when I discovered Traveller. I floundered around a bit, trying to get my mind around the limitless possibilities of the format, when a friend returned from college during Christmas break with an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook and a set of weird-shaped dice.

Twenty years later, here I am.

To say that wargames and role-playing games had a major impact on my life would be an understatement. When approached in a good, healthy way, these sorts of diversions can be not only harmless entertainment, but a sort of training ground for fertile minds and active imaginations.

In high school, in fact, I gave a speech in debate class about the good that role-playing games can bring. I didn’t convince my teacher, although she did give me a note saying that she would consider what I said. I did get an ‘A’, though.

Also from the newsletter:

  • Back to basics: Players can revisit or introduce themselves to D & D’s roots with the new “Basics Set,” a retro-friendly box set modeled after the game’s earliest years, featuring revamped rulebooks, mapboards, dice, and 16 miniatures, to be released in September.
  • Read all about it: 30 Years of Adventure, a coffee-table-worthy oversized book, will feature sumptuous illustrations and essays from big names in gaming and entertainment about the incomparable effect of D&D in their creative lives, with publication scheduled for October.
  • Mini D & D: Last year’s successful launch of D & D Miniatures (the Harbinger and Dragoneye sets) set the stage for over 100 additional miniature gaming figures to be released throughout the year: the monstrous Archfiends set and the Giants of Lore set, all based on the legendary characters and creatures of D & D.
  • Pros and “Cons”: At this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana August 19-22, Wizards of the Coast will host the “gamer gala” to end them all, with special appearances by artists, authors and game designers, a special D & D timeline and a blowout party.
  • I’d like to teach the world to D & D . . . : This October, hobby and toy stores all over the world will be united in a special day sponsored by Wizards of the Coast, one devoted to bringing newcomers into the fold of D & D game play (date to be announced).

I quote so much here because it is only available via email, and I can’t link to it. Pictured is the cover of the Player’s Handbook as it was when I started playing, nearly ten years after the very first Dungeons & Dragons material was available but before the game took off and dominated the game market for years.


  1. I had that book. Even the Dieties and Demigods with the copyrighted stuff they later had to remove. Interesting that you found Traveller first – I stumbled into that a few years later. D&D was the intro for most rpg players in the eighties, even into the nineties. But the best rpg ever was paranoia. Ever.

  2. It started with the second release of the D&D boxed set back in the early 80s for me. Within a year I was playing AD&D, later AD&D Second Edition, and even now I sit on a relatively unused set of D&D 3rd Edition, wondering if I’ll ever find the time and interested parties to start up a campaign. This game has been with me for the majority of my life, and I’ve never regretted a minute of time spent playing with friends. Even now, the itch to play a D&D campaign can sometimes become overwhelming, to the point where I surf subject-oriented web sites and haunt the bookstores looking at the latest wares from Wizards of the Coast. The mention of Traveller is very interesting, since Traveller, and later MegaTraveller, fed the science fiction side of my RPG hunger for a number of years. Even with forays into other genres, such as Heroes and Shadowrun, in the end nothing was as comforting, engulfing, and simply *fun* as a good old fashioned D&D campaign.

  3. I also have the pictured book at home somewhere. I never got too into D&D though. There is a small shopping area next to where I work. When I walk to get coffee, I pass a gaming store. Yesterday, there was a group of young kids inside, sitting around a table painting figures. It looks like there are still a few kids left that are choosing RPG’s (roll playing games, not rocket propelled grenades!)over video games!

  4. i’ve never been much of a gamer, though i did play D&D some in college. but my wife’s barracks roommate, Elonka, when we were stationed in England (RAF Mildenhall, where we met) was a D&D nut, and has gone on to bigger and better gaming and is now a famous code-breaker. my sons, on the other hand, are gaming nuts. they live in the basement, where they paint models of strange-looking creatures who somehow transmigrated here from the warhammer world. every once in a while, i drag them into the outdoors and make them carry their own food and gear for a couple dozen miles into the woods. don’t let ’em bring any D&D stuff, but they do always manage to sneak a deck of playing cards. game on!

  5. Buckethead: Wow. The Deities and Demigods with the Cthulhu and (was it) the Elric of Melnibone world? Wow. That’s sort of a D&D Holy Grail, isn’t it? I had heard of D&D before I started Traveller, but the deck plans for the Kinunur battle cruisers convinced me that Traveller was the way to go. Once the D&D bug bit, though, that was the main draw. Always thought the Paranoia game box was funny (‘The Computer is your friend’) but never played it.

  6. SuperGeek: I know the itch to play D&D, even after all these years. And I’ll admit to flipping through the pages of rule books myself in the book store from time to time. I always felt that Traveller was the better system and setting, but there’s no doubt that we always had more fun playing D&D.

  7. Robert: That’s nice to hear that some kids still play the pencil and paper RPGs. I like computer games as much as the next guy, too, but they don’t work your brain like D&D. In fact, I dug out my old Traveller stuff, the classic ‘little black books’, and have started introducing my son to the game. I’m also on a quest to complete the collection of little black books via eBay. I have fun just reading through them.

  8. Chris Hall: Is this truly Prof Hall of Spacecraft fame? He’s beamed back down! And he’s blogging up a storm! Excellent! Again, I’m glad to hear that some kids still play the games and collect the miniatures. I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say D&D (and other RPGs) really taught me a lot, especially in problem-solving and creative areas. Video games are very cool, and if we would have had Playstation when I was a kid, I probably wouldn’t have played D&D. I’m glad we didn’t have Playstation.

  9. Wow. I’ve pretty much seen all my thoughts on D&D stated well in these comments already. Used to play a lot. Don’t play anymore. Still have all the original AD&D books, and think really hard about playing from time to time.

  10. The great thing about paranoia is that it is just pure fun. The computer is a big brother type omniscient ruler. Except that its completely insane. Mutants are illegal, as are secret soceities. Of course, every character has a mutation and is a member of a secret soceity. But the best part is the gleeful betrayals and backstabbing and narcing your fellow players out to the computer. Surrealistic fun, mayhem and death. ‘Send in the clones!’ Traveller was great – I have a lot of those little black books, too. In fact, this weekend I’m driving back to Ohio to get them from Mom, who is moving and wants my crap out of her attic. I always wanted to run a D&D campaign set in an authentic medieval Europe. Paladins, Priests (not clerics), Sorcerors, Saracens. Wizards would be closer to historical alchemists and black magicians. Druids would be a revolutionary underground, trying to rally the proletariat… well maybe not. There’d only be authenticly European mythical monsters – no gelatinous cubes. Well, maybe one. Okay, they’d be everywhere. Dragons and Goblins but not beholders and such. Dwarves would be as they are in the Norse myths, and rare; and the elves would be similar to the Faerie Queen, and even rarer. No half orcs, no halflings. The campaign would be centered around the third crusade. But sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever run that campaign. And my son, at 11 months, is a little too young to be taught RPGs. (Of either type.)

  11. The idea of an ‘authentic’ European D&D setting also appealed to me at one time. I wanted more of an Arthurian-type background, but your ideas on the Druids and the rarity of dwarves and elves are just what I wanted. Other knights and such would be the primary ‘monsters’, along with the odd Merlin-like super magician. Never really got it going, though.

  12. Arthurian elements, at least Mallory/Le Mort D’Arthur style chivalric stuff, could fit in. Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ and the Chanson de Roland meets the Canterbury Tales is the kind of atmosphere I’d be going for. The conflict with the Saracens seemed fitting, (although much more so now…) in that you’d have a quest, long travel, unknown territory, ancient lands, etc. And the Saracens were a worthy opponent, not just endless hordes of mindless kobolds. (Although once, a DM turned that around on us. Kobold Cong. Scary.) The character classes in D&D really presume a Christian setting. The cleric had the healing spells, turning undead (rather anachronistic, actually), prohibitions on edged weapons, etc. None of these things would have been appropriate for priest of Mars, or Jupiter, or Neptune, or Mithras, or Isis, ad nauseum. It really is a description of the Medieval Catholic Priest or Monk. The Paladin is similarly and obviously modeled on the Christian Knight. The writers of the game took a Christian medieval setting and for some reason grafted an awkward pagan mythos and alignment system on top of it. Later, of course, they began setting up more fully realized worlds, but they never seemed to have a whole lot of verisimilitude to me. The remarkable thing is that there never really has been an rpg (that I am aware of, though the Arthurian rpg comes closest) that actually has as its setting a fantastic or mythical/legendary Europe. There is so much that you could cram into it – dragons, wizardry, black magic, saints, the all powerful church, saracens, secret pagans, money lending or kabbalistic Jews, knights and chivalry, tournaments, the Faerie realms, dwarves (again, Norse style), Vikings, Roman ruins (and where did all the Roman gold go?), Monasteries and scriptoriums (and lost texts of magic and lore), feudal warfare, serfs, the crusades, Byzantium, the Holy Lands, the Mongol Invasion, the Normans, the Templars and Hospitalers… That’s a lot of adventure potential. And you could fine tune the magic levels to suit the realist, or someone who wants full on, Merlin-level magic. Either way, it’d be fun. I’ve really been geeking out this week. I should start thinking about politics and war again.

  13. I had a map of medieval England from National Geographic that I was using as my ‘world map’, although I though some Crusades-type stuff would be cool. I wanted some adventures down in Egypt land after my brother sent me through the ‘Desert of Desolation’ series of modules, as well. I don’t really know why I never got far with it, but that was about the time DragonLance hit the shelves, and I was sold on that for several years. Ahh. The good old days…