In January of 1974, Tactical Studies Rules, a small wargaming company headquartered in the basement of a home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin published a trio of booklets collectively entitled Dungeons & Dragons. As the cliché goes, “and the world was never the same after that.”
While it took 10 months for the first print run to sell out at $10 each (plus an extra $3.50 if you wanted the polyhedral dice), the first Role-Playing Game (RPG) not only created a new genre of game, but sparked an entire multi-billion dollar industry that includes computer games and movies.
Three years prior, Gary Gygax co-developed a set of rules for Medieval miniature wargaming with Jeff Perren. The two were members of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies wargaming group. Perren wrote the initial four pages focusing on mass combat. Gary was inspired to expand the ruleset and it was entitled Chainmail, being published in 1971 by Guidon Games along with a 14-page supplement introducing fantasy elements such as wizards, heroes and monsters – taking extensive inspiration from Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings sagas among other works. It was the publisher’s biggest success, with 100 copies being sold each month through word of mouth and appearances in the small gaming fanzines being published at the time. A second edition was published the next year.
By 1972, Gary was working with another wargamer named Dave Arneson after they met at the table top gaming convention, Gen Con 1 in August of 1969 which held in Lake Geneva. A member of the nearby Twin Cities gaming group, Dave had also been inspired by Conan and other fantasy literature and had created a fantasy world setting known as Blackmoor and incorporated some of the fantasy elements from Chainmail as a starting point. He is credited with bringing the concepts of characters, level advancement, collaborative play and a neutral game master to the game.
Together, they further developed the rules to focus more on the fantasy and individual combat aspects. The heroes of Chainmail became characters in the parlance of this new ruleset. The list of monstrous foes to oppose the characters also expanded. While most were derived from myths and legends, a few were notoriously inspired by a bag of cheap, plastic dinosaurs of dubious authenticity.
By 1973, Gary and Dave were looking for a publisher for their new rule system. After watching them play an early version of the game at Gen Con VI in the summer of that year, Gary’s childhood friend, Don Kaye suggested forming a company to handle the publishing. He and Gary each put in $1,000 to found Tactical Studies Rules. In order to generate enough income to publish Dungeons and Dragons, the company’s first publication was a traditional wargame based on Chainmail entitled Cavaliers and Roundheads. Unfortunately, the game based on the English Civil War did not sell well, so Brian Blume came on board, buying in as a third partner which allowed the rules to be published.
Even before founding TSR Dave and Don had been play testing the new ruleset to work out details through 1972 and 1973. They were joined by Gary’s elder children, Ernie Jr. and Elise, along with friends Rob and Terry Kuntz. Several of their characters became iconic personas within the game’s background canon. Rob’s lawful evil character Robilar was rolled up during the second D&D game on the Gygax family kitchen table in 1972 and went on to become part of the Castle Grayhawk background story in the following decades. Another, later, Rob Kuntz character was the wizard Bigby, who’s name appears attached to a number of spells with the Players Handbook. Don Kaye’s Western-inspired heroic paladin was later immortalized (literally) as part of the pantheon of deities in the Greyhawk setting world of Oerth, his name appearing in a number of fiction books as well as in the rulebooks and several adventures.
Within the gaming community, there is ongoing debate about when Dungeons & Dragons officially launched after the two years of playtesting. The first printing of 1,000 copies of the rules occurred early in 1974 and they were completely sold out by the end of that year. The community holds that this first publication took place in January and the launch was the last weekend of that month. Some credit a legend that it was the Sunday of that weekend – the 27th – when the Gygax family hosted a game at their house to celebrate. But most within the community point to the 26th as being the “official” date.
Ernest G. Gygax, Jr., Gary Gygax’s eldest son, has remained deeply active within the Dungeons and Dragons community from the literal beginning. His wizard Tenser was one of the first two characters within the game, likewise, becoming a canonical figure. Despite this, he doesn’t offer a specific date, saying, “I guess it’s more important to go with legend than to have a hard and fast date and thereby I believe that today (January 26) is the day that it will be celebrated throughout the rest of time.”