A Hard Look at Dungeons and Dragons
by Ron Edwards
It's time to set aside long-established habits of thought regarding the various versions or even conceivably separate games that go by this name. In the culture of gaming, it's quite the thing to diss D&D, or to toss it backhanded praise like, "Well, it was first, but ...", in order to establish some sort of personal cachet as a real grown-up gamer. Enough, already. What the hell was it, anyway?
The following ideas were mainly worked out, for me anyway, on two threads on the Forge: Dungeons & Dragons history - help wanted and Precursors to AD&D2. I am especially indebted to Christopher Pramas, M. J. Young, Julie Stauffer, Paul Czege, and Maurice Forrester, as well as to readers Clinton R. Nixon, Rob MacDougall, Grant Gigee, and Peter Adkison.
This essay is limited to the period from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. Two later periods deserve analysis and essays of their own: the first, from the mid-1980s to the late-1990s, might best be described as "The corporate bear-trap," and the second, about 1999 to the present, as "Frankenstein's lightning-bolt." Most of these discussions concern economics of the role-playing hobby and are best left until my essay about role-playing business and marketing is available.
The following is much less detailed or explanatory than many accounts of these developments available on the internet. My goal is not to provide the Real & Complete Official History, but rather to make a specific point about the origins of role-playing as a hobby. The point is that modern references to earlier "editions" or "Basic/Advanced" versions of Dungeons & Dragons are extremely misleading. There was no "first edition." There is no single "old D&D."
Texts do not equal play, and the origins of role-playing and the origins of D&D are two separate things. No one seems to be able to discuss the history in modulated tones, but I know what I think - that Dave Arneson and a variety of other wargame hobbyists around the country had found that people liked playing characters in the wargaming-worlds, and they even enjoyed the development of those characters through adventures. Chainmail (1971, by Gary Gygax & Jeff Perren) was not a role-playing game. In my view, Arneson (and as I say, he was not unique in the activity) found a system to conduct this new imaginative activity, and Chainmail just happened to be it. His experiences are summarized to some extent in The First Fantasy Campaign (see also the Castle Blackmoor website and associated links).
Chainmail's second and third editions contained supplemental fantasy-setting rules, as well as alternate rules that show similarities to later D&D rules. However, the most memorable published result of the Arneson-Gygax hobby crossover appeared at GenCon, 1974, in a thousand-copy print run, as Dungeons & Dragons, 1974, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It consisted of three roughly digest-sized brown pamphlets in a deepish brown box with white labels. (People are often confused because a very-nearly identical product, marked with "Original Collector's Edition," was released in 1978 in a white cardboard box, hence the mistaken name "white box D&D" to refer to the 1974 product.)
Word about this "new game" spread mainly through hobby store culture and the usual mysterious pop-culture grapevine that seems to require no medium but aether. A larger culture began to develop as well, within certain societal strictures. Wargaming was already a favored hobby among American enlisted men, and many Army bases developed long-running D&D games. Also, APAs (a kind of fanzine that operated like a modern internet forum) began to appear, such as Alarums & Excursions and The Wild Hunt. People were meeting, talking, comparing, and theorizing about play.
One unifying or at least visible factor was tournament play; this new (or new-ish) activity was called "fantasy wargaming," after all, and had first been released and understood as a modification of wargaming. So tournaments were held, and people ran characters in squads against referee-directed dangers. Imagine, if you will, fifty tables of eight players apiece, each one presided over by a single referee. At the end of the set time period, who had survived? Which group had collected the most treasure? Which had killed the most opponents, and how tough were those opponents? If this all sounds odd to the modern role-player, you'll have to put up with knowing, patronizing looks from us old guys. Where do you think Experience Points came from, anyway?
As the culture spread and developed, secondary texts began to appear. Many, many rules and play ideas proliferated in TSR's magazine The Dragon, renamed from its precursor The Strategic Review. A company called the Judges Guild, associated mainly with the tournament scene, published a slew of adventure modules and other support material largely taken from tournaments. The RPGA became active, including their magazine Polyhedron. Dave Hargrave published the first of a nine-volume series of supplements beginning with the Arduin Grimoire, introducing such things as barbarians and critical hits. I cannot over-stress the impact of these publications on the text-hungry culture. These became the texts of play, far more so than any "rules-set" that anyone could actually pick up and read. Soon, they operated as constraints (and some say, as raw material) for the eventual rules that would follow.
Dungeons & Dragons, 1977 (listed copyright in the text included 1974 and, in later printings, 1979), by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, edited by Eric Holmes - a full-sized saddle-stitched blue-cover booklet, contained in a box with a color cover, including chits to be used in place of dice. Significantly, "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" was already in development by Gygax, and this product was written by Holmes mainly as an intentional introduction and commercial intermediary to the forthcoming text.
Speaking of an actual rulebook, as all of this was occurring like wildfire, Gary Gygax's own version of the Dungeons & Dragons book was under way, now referred to as "Advanced." About the sources for this writing, I can (but will not) speculate, but its eventual content clearly deviates from Arneson's play as observed from his later-published The First Fantasy Campaign. Not to put too fine a point on it, Gygax's Simulationist priorities did not blend well with Arneson's goals, which to my possibly biased eyes smack of Narrativism, or with the parallel development of a lively, even fierce competitive Gamist culture. Regarding this new text, Gygax had to deal with the latter as a commercial constraint; the former, frankly, was drowned nearly at birth. Dave Arneson, in the first of very many complex and not-especially pleasant ownership conflicts with the property, was significantly absent from the new version's authorship.
The eventual release of the hardback Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in three volumes (Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide) was a very big deal in the hobby culture, not the least because they were sold in places like Waldenbooks instead of Sid's Train Model and Army Miniatures Hobby Shop. It provided a centralized textual authority for play for the first time. However, nothing changed - the local and widely varying standards and procedures for play were established, more coherent competitor games (e.g. Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, DragonQuest, Traveller, The Fantasy Trip) had already appeared, and these books, frankly, simply added to the raw material for the existing role-players. To newcomers, indeed, things were different: here are the books, hence here is the game, and now let's use the book to play. But that came later.
Oh, just to be clear about some textual issues: in 1983, a series of boxed sets was released from TSR called "Basic Dungeons & Dragons," which some people mistakenly believe to precede "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons." It was re-released at least once more in later years. This series was written mainly by Tom Moldvay and is best understood to be a completely separate role-playing game. All references to "red-box" and "blue-box" D&D, and similar, should be limited to this game alone.
To repeat my point, the concept that Dungeons & Dragons "invented role-playing" is patently false. Rather, D&D was the first publishing epiphenomenon of role-playing as a hobby, intertwined with its development but providing, itself, only raw material, not procedure. It provided the first official role-playing texts, but those texts themselves invented very little; rather they provided patchy stuff that had to be shaped into role-playing at the local level.
Following the appearance of further hard-back supplements, and concordant yet further ownership disputes and editorial leadership, further TSR products were mainly Simulationist in nature, most especially Oriental Adventures, The Wilderness Survival Guide, and the Dragonlance adventure modules, culminating in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (AD&D2). The game, and its radically-changed relationship of text to play, had changed so much that it passes out of this essay.
Early D&D as hobby culture
I think that the available discussions, interesting as they are, about Arneson's and Gygax's relative contributions (a) to the hobby activity and (b) to the actual publication of Dungeons & Dragons is overlooking a crucial issue regarding late 1970s role-playing. Prior to AD&D2, the available texts were reflective, not prescriptive, of actual play. Their content was filtered through authors' priorities which were very diverse. Furthermore, any particular area or group had only piecemeal combinations of the texts. In 1978, one might find a group with Chainmail, ten issues of Dragon, and a copy of the Monster Manual; as well as a group with the 1977 boxed set and three or four volumes of Arduin's Grimoire. No one, or very few people, had all of it, and as I recall anyway, hardly anyone knew much about what books "went" when, or made much distinction between TSR products and anything else.
Rob MacDougall stated it best: we are talking about Cargo Cults. Everyone knew about "this new great game." Everyone had on hand a hodgepodge of several texts, which in retrospect seem to me to be almost archeological in their fragmentary, semi-compatible but not-quite, layered-in-time-of-publication nature. Also, although newly-available texts obviously modified local oral traditions, they also arose from them, generating a seething hotbed of how-to-play instructions in print in other locations. Everyone had to shape, socially and procedurally, just what the hell you did such that "role-playing" happened. How did you know it worked? What did you do it for? All of it, from Social Contract right down to Stance, had to be created in the faith that it worked "out there" somewhere, and somehow, some way, it was supposed to work here.
So everyone just did it locally. I consider role-playing to have been constructed independently in a vast number of instances across the landscape, sometimes in parallel, sometimes very differently. Over time, further unifications or contact-compromises occurred, whether through tournament standards, military bases, conventions, or APAs, or simply by people meeting when they converged on college campuses. Full unification never occurred. There never existed a single, original D&D.
During this time, what was established about role-playing per se? Even if there was no actual, single D&D, the perception that some such thing existed was widespread, and ultimately it became a (partly) self-fulfilling perception. So what was it?
What happened to the subject matter, which is to say, the Explorative content?
"D&D fantasy" became an actual genre of pop culture, later to be reflected in actual bookstore-book fantasy. It's often characterized as high fantasy, epic fantasy, or Tolkienesque fantasy, but it is, was, and is only composed of D&D. My articles Fantasy Heartbreakers and More Fantasy Heartbreakers address some of the resulting effects on role-playing game design.
One cannot properly say "D&D does this," or that a game "plays like D&D," without specifying exactly which D&D one means. It's likely that what's being referenced is far more based on local practices and interpretations than on any actual game text.
An astounding diversity existed regarding role-playing goals and practices all the way from the very beginning of the hobby. It's badly mistaken to characterize early role-playing as Gamist, based on the texts alone.
What characterized specifically-Gamist role-player culture, arising from this subcultural cauldron?
No wonder people either idealize or vilify their youthful experiences playing D&D. On the one hand, it was you and your best-est friends, working something out together and arriving at (quite possibly) your first-ever Social Contract with other people, completely isolated from adults-approved activities. In other words, you remember it fondly not because the game itself was good, but because it wasn't - you remember your repair of it at the Step On Up and Challenge levels, and the good moments, however common or few they were, were all triumphs.
On the other hand, it may have been a horrific degeneration into the worst moments of social breakdown, on a par with any other form of social abuse, and consequently it's reserved in the cellars of your mind with being beaten up in locker rooms, confronted by older kids on the way home from school, or humiliated by siblings.
Hip to geek
The following is strictly a personal reflection from my own experiences of late 1970s and early-1980s role-playing, as a hobby culture. I was 13-14 years old in 1977-79 when I discovered the hobby, and through the age of, roughly, sixteen, I battered my head against (A)D&D in a variety of groups. They fell into the following categories:
Significantly, many groups, even the teen ones, included women in their late twenties who were interested in role-playing and not at all concerned about the propriety of hanging out with boys ten years younger. This was the late 1970s, after all. I remember quite a few such individuals.
By 1983, things had changed drastically; in some ways, it mirrored a general subcultural shift across the entire country (see the film Boogie Nights if you didn't live through it). I'd realized that D&D had become a "pube" activity, meaning 10-13-year-olds exclusively, most of whom played once and then walked.
The content resembled video games of the time: lives, levels, and skyrocketing success scores, with no real loss at all. It was utterly divorced from fantasy or mythic literature, and the comics and fantasy authors of the day disavowed the hobby en masse. Successful play became more and more a matter of who could break the game fastest, and the social gamer became more and more consistently the social-outcast gamer. Gaming communities weren't an edifying bunch, actually; they'd been transformed socially and procedurally by the Cargo Cult context into a rabidly-abusive, nitpicky bunch, in which the Social Contract actually included making others upset.
It had lost its cool factor entirely, just in time for me to go to college in the fall of that year. The aforementioned Willing Female Factor had vanished like smoke, and, my priorities firmly in place, I swore off the hobby. The oath didn't last long, of course. I did find a lot of people to role-play with, including women my own age, but always on the basis that we "weren't like those gamers." Conversations about role-playing ceased instantly if anyone nearby evinced interest in D&D. We played Champions and Stormbringer, and looked forward to the buzz of GURPS.
The honeymoon was over long ago. Even in terms of this first phase of D&D history alone, I suggest that we all would do well to recognize that role-playing as an activity did not stem from a single game text, or most importantly, from a single most-common mode or priority of play. Judgments aren't the issue; whether all this was a good or bad thing is completely beside the point. What matters are the consequences of this recognition, including:
I don't know whether I'll ever get to further discussion of the history of D&D; in many ways, it's out of my sphere of interest except in strictly marketing and industry terms, and I don't have much personal history either as player or professional to draw upon.