As Dungeon & Dragons turns 40 years old, here is a look back at
the history of how this game came to be.
Gary Gygax (pronounced GHEE-Gax) was an insurance underwriter living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in the late 1960s. He made his living calculating the probabilities that an individual seeking to buy insurance would become sick or disabled or die, and he used these estimates to set the premiums and payouts on the policies he reviewed. Every policy was like a roll of the dice: If Gygax calculated correctly, the individual received sufficient coverage at a fair price, and the insurance company had a good shot at earning a fair profit. If he was incorrect, either the individual or the insurance company would lose.
In Gygax’s free time, he loved to roll dice of a different sort: He played war games in his home with fellow members of a club called the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. There, on a giant table in the basement—just as war gamers had done since the invention of Kriegsspiel in the early 1800s (see story on page 251 of Uncle John’s Unsinkable Bathroom Reader)— Gygax and his friends re-created famous battles such as Gettysburg or the D-day landings of World War II and fought them all over again in miniature, devoting countless hours to killing each other’s soldiers with one roll of the dice after another.
THE LONG MARCH
Participating in these games could be a war of attrition in its own right: Mapping out the battlefield took time, and so did setting up dozens and dozens of miniature soldiers just as they would have been positioned in the real battle. War gamers prided themselves on historical accuracy, and this meant that while the main campaign was being fought across the tabletop, countless other battles raged around it as players bickered over one arcane historical point after another, often brandishing military histories and biographies as they argued. Add to this the fact that a single military campaign might drag on for months, with war gamers meeting every weekend in Gygax’s basement until final victory was achieved, and it’s easy to understand why the hobby was popular with only a limited number of people.
Just as they had since the invention of Kriegsspiel, gamers were constantly writing new rules for existing games as well as inventing new ones. Gygax was no exception: In 1968 he took four pages of rules that a friend had written for a game set in the Middle Ages called Siege of Bodenberg and expanded them to 16 pages, creating a new game called Chainmail. Each player still had a dozen or more plastic soldiers, but instead of each figure representing up to 20 men as had been standard in other games, Gygax had each figure represent only one soldier.
Chainmail was an interesting departure from other war games, but after several weekends it started to get boring and attendance at the gaming sessions began to drop off. One afternoon Gygax decided to try something new: He grabbed a plastic dinosaur off a shelf and declared it to be a fire-breathing dragon. Then he took an oversized figure of a Viking warrior and said it was a giant. And then he created a wizard who could throw fireballs and lightning bolts and a “hero” character that had four times the strength of an ordinary character. This fantasy element alienated many of the most orthodox war gamers, but plenty of other people liked it— soon Gygax’s basement wasn’t big enough to hold all the players who wanted to play in his games. He wrote a fantasy supplement to the standard Chainmail rules and published it in 1971.
NEW(ER) AND IMPROVED
One of the early players of Chainmail was a 21-year-old University of Minnesota student named Dave Arneson. He and his wargaming friends began experimenting with Chainmail, keeping what they liked about it and discarding much of the rest. In the process, they created a new game that Arneson named Blackmoor:
• Armies turn into single characters. Chainmail had been a game of combat, with the soldiers controlled by one “general” attacking some strategic point held by monsters or another player’s soldiers. But Arneson’s players got tired of just tackling one military objective after another, so in Blackmoor he got rid of the large armies and had each player assume the identity of a single character. The players rolled dice to determine their characters’ attributes: strength, wisdom, charisma, etc. Then the characters went on decidedly nonmilitary missions, such as sneaking past monsters to steal their treasure or other valuable items that they could sell on the black market. Again, the players rolled dice during each encounter to determine whether or not the mission was successful.
• The birth of role-playing. Placing the emphasis on a single character caused players to identify with their characters in a way that they hadn’t when they were commanding legions of troops. They gave the characters names, invented personalities, and even began to imagine themselves in the role. The players became so attached to their characters that they didn’t want them to die, certainly not during a game—not even after it ended.
• Die hards. Arneson responded by revising the rules of Blackmoor to make the characters harder to kill. In Chainmail, a single roll of the dice determined whether a player died in combat. This made sense when there were dozens of soldiers on the board and the action had to be quick, but it didn’t when each player had only one character—and one life. So Arneson took an idea from Ironclads, a Civil War naval game he’d written. In that game, he used “hit points” to determine how much damage a warship received from cannon fire. It took numerous hits to sink a warship, and the stronger its armor, the more hits were needed. Arneson applied the same concept to the characters in Blackmoor. It would take many successful rolls of the dice to accumulate enough hit points to kill a character; if the character was wearing armor, he was even harder to kill. And since each player had only one character instead of dozens, it was easy to keep track of the hit points.
• You’ve been promoted. Arneson also allowed characters to advance to higher levels after surviving difficult ordeals. The characters grew in strength, wisdom, and other qualities, just like human beings. When one game ended, they carried their points over to the next game.
After a few weeks of playing scenarios in conventional landscapes, Arneson decided to try something different. When his players showed up to play the next session, he told them they were going “underground,” into the dungeon of an old castle. Not only was it an interesting change of pace from the usual outdoor scenario, but Arneson also found that it was easier to draw a finite number of tunnels and rooms than it was to map out an entire countryside.
Moving the action to subterranean tunnels also limited the avenues of escape—instead of scattering in every direction in a “crisis,” the players pretty much had to face whatever Arneson threw at them.
In the process of inserting all of these interesting elements into the game, Arneson also removed many of the annoying elements of traditional war games. Limited numbers of characters and simplified play reduced the setup time to almost nothing and sped up the pace of the action dramatically. Debates over arcane historical points came to an end—how can you argue about the historical accuracy of stealing gold from a troll?
The role of the game’s host—or “umpire,” to use a word from Kriegsspiel—expanded significantly. He was no longer just a referee responsible for interpreting the rulebook during reenactments of historical battles. The host became the creative master of the game as well, part storyteller, part guide, responsible for designing the dungeon and filling it with monsters and treasures to the limit of his own imagination. He became the Dungeon Master.
After more than six months of developing Blackmoor, in late 1971 Arneson and some friends took the game to Gary Gygax’s house in Lake Geneva and hosted a game in which the players tried to sneak into Castle Blackmoor to open a gate from inside.
Gygax was impressed with Blackmoor and especially liked the dungeon idea—as a kid, he had often played hooky from school to wander the tunnels beneath an abandoned sanatorium overlooking Lake Geneva. He sensed that, with more organization and development, Blackmoor might have commercial potential.
So how did an obscure fantasy game grow into a worldwide phenomenon? Part II of the story is on page 477 of Uncle John’s Unsinkable Bathroom Reader. This article was first published in Uncle John’s Unsinkable Bathroom Reader.