Not many games can claim the trajectory of Dungeons and Dragons. It went from a few people playing with handwritten rules to a mega mainstay of pop culture; to a rise and fall and another rise. That’s all within less than 50 years. In its history, it even got a bunch of Christians riled up. This is the saga of D&D.
The game’s creation
D&D begins with Gary Gygax. With a friend, he wrote a game called “Chainmail,” which simulated medieval combat. At the end of the game, they added another packet on how to turn the game into a fantasy, with rules involving magic swords and spells. Enter Dave Arneson. According to Geek and Sundry’s writeup of D&D’s history, Arneson studied the supplemental rules of “Chainmail,” and created up his own fantasy game where players would each control one character and explore dungeons. The dungeons would change, but the characters stayed the same, building up their skills and relationships with other characters.
In 1972, Arneson met with Gygax to show him the game. Gygax loved it and expanded the rules from 18 pages to 50, using his kids as test players. Arneson and Gygax ended up with Dungeons and Dragons. No publisher was interested. Undeterred, Gygax published it himself, forming a company called Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). The company grew and the game’s popularity spread within the gaming community.
The Satan scare
D&D hit a hurdle in the late 1970’s and ‘80’s. In 1979, a 16-year old disappeared from his home and a private investigator blamed D&D. The teenager killed himself a year later, deepening suspicions of the game. In 1982, another teen died by his own hand, and his mother blamed the role-playing game and its elements of witchcraft, the supernatural, and more. She started suing people, including TSR, but the court dismissed all the cases, so she created the group “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons,” or BADD. That same year, Tom Hanks appeared in a TV movie called “Mazes and Monsters,” where the actor plays a troubled nerd whose interest in a fantasy role-playing game (they didn’t call it D&D) turns into something much more real and violent. Bolstered by society’s suspicion of the game, BADD embarked on an aggressive campaign against D&D using Christian media. They even managed to get on 60 Minutes, with Gary Gygax himself. D&D didn’t collapse, however, and studies showed there was no convincing connection between suicide and the game. In some conservative circles, however, D&D still has a bad reputation.
While the Satanic scare didn’t negatively impact D&D too much, old-fashioned money problems certainly did. While attempting to branch out into CD games and other media, TSR fell behind. In 1996, Random House (the distributor) returned millions of dollars worth of stuff they couldn’t sell, and TSR’s exclusive printer refused to print anything else until debts were paid. It looked like D&D was done for, but then Wizards of the Coast, the company behind “Magic: The Gathering” bought TSR. It turned out to be the best possible scenario for D&D, and within a few months, the game was profitable again.
D&D has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, as board games in general take off and depictions in popular media like “Stranger Things” draw attention to the game. It has also made appearances in other shows like “Community” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Thanks to podcasts, Youtube videos, and celebrities like Vin Diesel geeking out over the game, it’s become cool to play Dungeons and Dragons.
Fantasy and role-playing games like D&D are only getting more popular. You can find lots of examples from this year’s Gen Con, America’s largest board game convention.