Dungeons & Dragons at 40: A history

An overview of the first tabletop RPG and a look back at its four decades of life.

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Forty years young

Come Sunday, Jan. 26, it will have been 40 years since the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was published. Still a geek touchstone a generation on, D&D has had a long and eventful history, and is more than a role-playing game these days.

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Wikimedia Commons

What is D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons, in case you didn’t know, is a role-playing game. What this means is that you and a few of your friends sit around a table and do some improvisational acting as characters in a fantasy setting, with the other characters played by another friend called the Dungeon Master, who figures out things like the plot ahead of time. To decide how successful you are in your adventures, there’s a complex set of rules, under which tests of skill or strength are governed by the roll of dice. Roll high enough, and your arrow slays the dragon; roll low and watch your shot go harmlessly wide.

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Alan De Smet/CC License/Wikimedia Commons


Like Athena popping out of Zeus’ head, D&D sprang from the fertile brain of Gary Gygax, a former insurance adjuster from Chicago. Gygax’s creation blended the sophisticated rules of tabletop war games with a high fantasy milieu, which drew from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Lieber, and Jack Vance. The original three-volume set was published in 1974. (Gygax died in 2008, at 69.)

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Early years

Through a host of different editions, D&D amassed a player base of more than 3 million worldwide by 1981, according to what was then Inc. Magazine, and Gygax’s Tactical Studies Rules company made hefty profits for years through sales of rulebooks and scenarios. He split with co-founder Dave Arneson in 1985, however, leaving the company over a dispute about royalties.

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Despite strong sales and reasonable popularity, D&D didn’t really break into the American zeitgeist until it became a target for fringe religious groups, who publicly decried it as a tool of the devil due to its portrayals of the occult. There was even a characteristically hilarious-by-accident comic book from noted crazy person Jack Chick on the subject. Naturally, this sort of thing only led to increased sales.

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Second edition

The second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – by now the main line of the series – came out in 1989, but publisher TSR was in trouble. In 1997, essentially bankrupt, the company was bought out by rival Wizards of the Coast, best known as the publisher of the card game Magic: The Gathering.

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Open Gaming Foundation

Third edition

Wizards of the Coast put their own stamp on the game, however – doing away with the “advanced” part of the title and dramatically streamlining and overhauling the rules in 2000. Those rules form the basis of the d20 system, which is freely available to publishers and gamers of all stripes thanks to the Open Gaming License. It’s also diversified into a wide range of other media.

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A movie

The 2000 Dungeons & Dragons feature film was, put mildly, poorly received by critics and audiences alike, doing little to dispel the franchise’s reputation as a geeks-only niche. This despite the fact that it had at least a few recognizable names in it, including Thora Birch, Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans.

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Video games

Video games have been a constant companion to D&D, with dozens and dozens of titles coming out, ranging back to 1975. Many have been various flavors of lame, incomplete or shabby, but some – most notably the Baldur’s Gate series, which helped put the popular RPG developer Bioware on the map – are rightly thought of as classics.

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CC License/Wikipedia


Harkening back to D&D’s origins, D&D Miniatures is a tabletop wargame where players battle one another using a version of the d20 system rules used in the role-playing game. 

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There have been hundreds of novels written in D&D’s various campaign settings. Among the best-known are R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy and the Dragonlance Chronicles books by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

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Philip Mitchell/CC License/Wikimedia Commons

And so, so much more

There have also been comic books, TV shows, related board games, and a genuine official soundtrack. But at its core, D&D remains, as it has been for 40 years, a collective game of let’s pretend – a framework around which friends can make up fanciful stories, an improv scenario and a party game all in one.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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