From the Basement to the Basic Set: The Early Years of Dungeons & Dragons

From the Basement to the Basic Set: The Early Years of Dungeons & Dragons


Erik Mona takes a first step toward measuring the cultural impact of Gygax and Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons by providing a pocket history of the game’s generation and evolution. Mona explains the addition of character development as a game goal - the innovation that distinguishes D&D from its predecessors, and started the role-playing revolution.

Thirty-one years after the invention of Dungeons & Dragons, the original role-playing game remains the most popular and financially successful brand in the adventure gaming industry. This fact is so well established in the conventional wisdom of the adventure games industry that it’s difficult to find adequate sourcing for the assertion, and it seems ridiculous to even try. In that time, D&D has introduced millions of readers to the concept of role-playing. Even those who eventually move on to other systems usually get their start with D&D. Most gamers’ understanding of “what happens” in a role-playing game is therefore shaped by how D&D explains these concepts. ;An analysis of how D&D’s manuals have explained the duties and roles of players throughout the game’s many printings therefore offers a glimpse at the evolution of the role-playing form itself. If Dungeons & Dragons is the lingua franca of most role-playing gamers, its definition of the role-playing experience defines an important touchstone helpful for critical study of the role-playing phenomenon.

This article gives a broad overview of D&D in its first era, from its origins in the basements of two Midwest game designers to its evolution into a boxed set of simplified rules aimed at the mass market. By the end of this period, Dungeons & Dragons had entered the common consciousness of the American public, and all subsequent revisions (and there have been many) can accurately be described as variations on the original. But how did the original come to take form?

On the Origin of D&D

The current version of D&D bills itself as edition 3.5, but several more significant revisions of the rules have appeared since the first D&D boxed set hit shelves in 1974.The most significant revisions of the D&D rules include Dungeons & Dragons (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, 1974), D&D Basic Set (1 - 7th printing, edited by J. Eric Holmes, 1977), D&D Basic Set (8 - 11th printing, edited by Tom Moldvay, 1981), D&D Basic Set (12 - 14th printing, edited by Frank Mentzer, 1983), D&D Rules Cyclopedia (Frank Mentzer, 1991), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: First Edition (E. Gary Gygax, 1977 - 1979), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Second Edition (David “Zeb” Cook, 1989), Dungeons & Dragons: Third Edition (Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams, 2000), and Dungeons & Dragons: Version 3.5 (Cook, Tweet, and Williams, revision by Andy Collins et al., 2003). All printing references are taken from The Acaeum, the most reliable source on vintage Dungeons & Dragons printings. Arcane differences between “basic” and “advanced” rules resulted in the current numbering system, but more than nine significant revisions of the game have appeared since 1974. The most primal form of D&D actually appeared three years earlier, as a fifteen-page “Fantasy Supplement” in the back of Chainmail, a medieval miniatures wargame written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren.

3.1) Chainmail's fifteen-page Fantasy Supplement formed the basis for Dungeons & Dragons. © 1971 Guidon Games.

Chainmail certainly didn’t invent the tabletop miniatures wargame (Gygax himself had been a member of the wargames-focused Castle & Crusade Society since 1968), but it came along early enough in the popularity of that hobby that the authors devoted a four-page introduction explaining the concept. While much of this text focused on the rudimentary requirements of play such as building a wargaming table and purchasing scaled-down miniature warriors, other passages reveal Gygax’s interest in pushing the boundaries of immersive gaming experiences. “With no other form of wargaming - or nearly any other form of game for that matter - is the player given the scope of choice and range for imagination that miniature warfare provides,” he writes. “You have carte blanche to create or recreate fictional or historic battles and the following rules will, as closely as possible, simulate what would have happened if the battle had just been fought in reality” (Chainmail 1971, 7).Page reference taken from the 1975 third printing by Tactical Studies Rules.

Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement introduced many concepts that have endured through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons, including monsters like elementals and the chromatic dragons and spells like fireball, lightning bolt, and polymorph. Magical swords and arrows appear for the first time, as does the concept of dividing creatures by their philosophical alignment to law and chaos. Yet, despite these creative innovations, Chainmail is not a role-playing game, but rather a set of brief rules specifically meant to be used to simulate battles between large numbers of creatures. Brief rules for small battles and sieges suggest the idea of using one miniature to represent a single character (rather than a whole unit), but the rules contain no suggestion that the player assume the role of these figures or establish any element of their “character” beyond the game statistics used to measure their combat effectiveness.

3.2) "Men & Magic," Volume I of the original Dungeons & Dragons game. © 1974 Tactical Studies Rules.

Three years later, Tactical Studies Rules released a massive expansion of the ideas outlined in Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement in the form of three slim booklets entitled Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. The title page of the first volume (“Men & Magic”) clearly traces D&D’s origins back to Chainmail: “Dedicated to all the fantasy wargamers who have enthusiastically played and expanded upon the Chainmail Fantasy Rules, with thanks and gratitude. Here is something better!” (Dungeons & Dragons: “Men & Magic” 1974, 1)

3.3) "Monsters & Treasure," Volume II of the original Dungeons & Dragons game. © 1974 Tactical Studies Rules.

Gygax’s “something better” was nothing short of a completely new type of immersive play experience. The spark of genius came from Dave Arneson, a fellow Castle & Crusade Society member, who had expanded the Fantasy Supplement with rules for dungeon exploration in which each player represented a single character. Arneson’s dungeon, set below Blackmoor Castle, originally contained the basic monsters in Chainmail, but the voracious appetite of his Twin Cities players spurred him to expand and innovate. “So even in the Dungeon it became quickly apparent that there was a need for a greater variety of monsters, more definition even within the type of monsters, and certainly a deeper Dungeon,” he later recalled (“First Fantasy Campaign” 1980, 3). Reports from the Blackmoor campaign appeared in the Domesday Book, the official newsletter of the Castle & Crusade Society, and thus found their way to Gary Gygax. Arneson visited Gygax in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1972 (Schick 1991, 132), and the two played a game using the modified and expanded rules. Gygax later wrote that Arneson’s additions made Chainmail “a far more complex and exciting game” (Dungeons & Dragons: “Men & Magic” 1974, 3).

A few weeks after this historic meeting, Arneson sent Gygax a packet of rules and notes pertaining to the Blackmoor Campaign. “I immediately began work on a brand new manuscript,” recalled Gygax. “About three weeks later, I had some 100 typewritten pages, and we began serious playtesting … Dungeons & Dragons had been born” (Gygax 1985b).

On the 1st of November, 1973, E. Gary Gygax penned the Forward (sic) of the very first Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. From the first page, he made clear that D&D was more than just another wargame. Gygax’s description of this new concept in social interaction reads like a sales presentation:

While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed. It is relatively simple to set up a fantasy campaign, and better still, it will cost almost nothing. In fact you will not even need miniature figures, although their occasional employment is recommended for real spectacle when battles are fought. A quick glance at the Equipment section of this booklet will reveal just how little is required. The most extensive requirement is time. The campaign referee will have to have sufficient time to meet the demands of his players, he will have to devote a number of hours to laying out the maps of his “dungeons” and upper terrain before the affair begins. (Dungeons & Dragons: “Men & Magic” 1974, 3)

Despite the fact that the rules describe an essentially new experience, they are written with the assumption that the audience is already familiar with wargaming terms like “referee” and “campaign.” Without discussing exactly what it is that D&D players do, Gygax’s introduction hints at staggering possibilities. “There should be no want of players, for there is unquestionably a fascination in this fantasy game - evidenced even by those who could not by any stretch of the imagination be termed ardent wargamers” (Ibid).

3.4) "The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures," Volume III of the original Dungeons & Dragons game. © 1974 Tactical Studies Rules.

D&D’s three rulebooks covered the spells, equipment, monsters, and combat system necessary to run a campaign centered around exploration of a giant dungeon similar to those of Arneson and Gygax (Blackmoor and Greyhawk, respectively).Follow-up volumes in the original D&D edition included Greyhawk (by Gary Gygax and Robert J. Kuntz) and Blackmoor (by Dave Arneson), notable for its inclusion of the first-published RPG scenario, “Temple of the Frog.” Rather than expanding upon the mythoi of the two “official” D&D campaigns, the booklets mostly contain rules expansions such as new spells and classes. Other volumes included: Eldritch Wizardry; Gods, Demigods, & Heroes; and Swords & Spells. Player characters gain experience points for defeating monsters in combat and gathering treasure, and in this manner they gain levels, with each level corresponding to an incremental increase in power and ability (Dungeons & Dragons: “Men & Magic” 1974, 18).The increase in abilities over time that would come to define D&D definitely came from Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign.

3.5) D&D's first sample dungeon. © 1974 Tactical Studies Rules.

Characters do not gain experience points for peacefully interacting with the world, but the rules do suggest a world beyond the dungeon, even if they don’t spend an enormous amount of time offering suggestions to the referee regarding how to handle its exploration. To woo a hireling into service, for example, characters are expected to post notices at inns and taverns, send messengers to distant lands, or frequent public places, but the rules framework provided by the manuals focuses on the financial cost to the character rather than on social interaction (Dungeons & Dragons: “The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures” 1974, 23 - 24).

The most revealing window into the way D&D was meant to be played comes in the form of a two-page “Example of the Referee Moderating a Dungeon Expedition,” presented as a dialogue between the referee and the caller, a player designated to speak for the group (Ibid, 12 - 14). The following is a typical exchange:

CAL: The elf will check out the hollow sound, one of us will sort through the refuse, each trunk will be opened by one of us, and the remaining two (naming exactly who this is) will each guard a door, listening to get an advance warning if anything approaches.

REF: Another check on the hollow sound reveals a secret door which opens onto a flight of stairs down to the south. The refuse is nothing but sticks, bones, offal and old clothes. One chest is empty; the other had a poison needle on the lock. (Here a check to see if the character opening it makes his saving throw for poison.) The chest with the poison needle is full of copper pieces - appears to be about 2,000 of them.

CAL: Empty out all of the copper pieces and check the trunk for secret drawers in the false bottom, and do the same with the empty one. Also, do there seem to be any old boots or cloaks among the old clothes in the rubbish pile? (Ibid, 14)

3.7) The D&D Basic Set brought the game to a much wider audience with a larger format, simplified rules, and professional art. © 1978 Tactical Studies Rules.

While the idea of a single player monopolizing the referee’s time may seem strange from the perspective of a modern gamer, it must have been a necessity for a rules system that suggested an optimal player-to-referee ratio of 20:1 (Dungeons & Dragons: “Men & Magic” 1974, 5). The assumption of such a large group of players came partly from the game’s wargaming roots, but also from the enormous popularity of Arneson’s and Gygax’s campaigns, each of which consisted of more than a dozen active players at their height. Shortly after the publication of the D&D rules, the game’s popularity spread far beyond the campaigns of its creators. In part because the rules left a great deal up to the interpretation and whim of the referee, each D&D campaign was different, patched together with its own “house” rules and assumptions. Several versions of D&D appeared on college campuses across the United States, some of them prominent enough to warrant mentions in The Dragon, TSR’s official magazine (itself launched in 1976) such as a reference to a CalTech high-level variant called Dungeons & Beavers. “Okay,” Gygax remarked. “Different strokes for different folks, but that is not D&D” (Gygax 1985a, 26).

The somewhat nebulous nature of the D&D rules undoubtedly contributed to its early success, but Gygax remained unsatisfied. “D&D was released long before I was satisfied that it was actually ready,” he wrote at the time. “You can, however, rest assured that work on a complete revision of the game is in progress, and I promise a far better product” (Gygax 1985b, 27).

Back to Basics

Gygax’s “far better product” came in 1977 in the form of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, a larger, more visually attractive boxed set that sought to introduce new players to the concept of role-playing by focusing on only the first three levels of play, thereafter directing interested players to the much more expansive Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, forthcoming from Gary Gygax and TSR. Writer J. Eric Holmes revised the original Gygax and Arneson manuscript to make the rules far more accessible to children of age 12 and above. Unlike the arcane manila booklets of 1974, Holmes’s attractive rulebook opens with a compelling description of play:

Each player creates a character or characters who may be dwarves, elves, halflings or human fighting men, magic-users, pious clerics or wily thieves. The characters are then plunged into an adventure in a series of dungeons, tunnels, secret rooms and caverns run by another player: the referee, often called the Dungeon Master. The dungeons are filled with fearsome monsters, fabulous treasure, and frightful perils. As the players engage in game after game their characters grow in power and ability: the magic users learn more magic spells, the thieves increase in cunning and ability, the fighting men, halflings, elves and dwarves, fight with more deadly accuracy and are harder to kill. Soon the adventurers are daring to go deeper and deeper into the dungeons on each game, battling more terrible monsters, and, of course, recovering bigger and more fabulous treasure! The game is limited only by the inventiveness and imagination of the players, and, if a group is playing together, the characters can move from dungeon to dungeon within the same magical universe if game referees are approximately the same in their handling of play. (Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (rulebook) 1977, 5)

The introduction carefully contextualizes the original rules and provides the best description to date of what happens in a Dungeons & Dragons game, limiting the focus exclusively to the dungeon environment. The 1974 edition’s rudimentary guidelines for wilderness play are notably absent, along with the rules handling upkeep of baronies and strongholds (presumably made irrelevant by the game’s focus on low-level characters). The Basic Set’s rules for non-player characters parrot those of the original game, adding nothing to an element of gaming that would see great expansion with future editions.

If the Basic Set’s innovation lacked breadth, it certainly delivered in depth. A section entitled “Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art” suggests using graph paper to map out vast dungeons composed of “interlocking corridors, passages, stairs, closed rooms, secret doors, traps, and surprises for the unwary” (Ibid, 39). A cutaway illustration depicts a seven-level dungeon built into a mountain carved into a giant stone skull. The rulebook also includes a brief sample dungeon (complete with a full-page map), and starting with the fourth printing in 1978, the boxed set replaced two booklets of maps, encounter tables, and treasure lists with In Search of the Unknown, a 32-page adventure “module” describing a dangerous cavern complex of empty rooms meant to be stocked by the Dungeon Master using provided random tables. The game might only be about dungeons, but at least the dungeons were getting a lot more interesting, and an element of play-acting first took stage.

3.6) A typical image from the original D&D. © 1974 Tactical Studies Rules

“Dramatize the adventure as much as possible,” suggests Holmes, “describe the scenery, if any. Non-player characters should have appropriate speech, orcs are gruff and ungrammatical, knights talk in flowery phrases and always say ‘thou’ rather than ‘you’ ” (Ibid., 40). The example of play shows these new suggestions in action:

D.M.: Around the corner come four orcs. “Surface dwellers! Kill them, cut them to mincemeat! Pound them to hamburger!”

Caller: The fighting man is ready. He swings (rolls die). An 18!

D.M.: It’s a hit. Roll your damage.

Caller: (Rolls a six-sided die.) A four.

D.M.: He’s dead. You cut him in half. The second orc is on you. He swings … (The fight continues until all four orcs lie dead.)

Holmes retained the caller as the interlocutor between the players and the referee, but did so only out of reverence for the original Dungeons & Dragons game. “I have never seen a successful game where one of the players was elected caller and actually did all the talking to the DM,” he said four years after the release of the Basic Set. “Usually everybody talks at once. The resulting confusion is much more lifelike; one can hear the characters dithering at the cross corridor as the monsters approach. ‘Run this way!’ ‘Charge them!’ ‘Get out of the way, I’m throwing a spell …’ ” (Holmes and Moldvay 1981).

The caller (along with a host of other rules) would eventually fall from grace with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a three-hardcover overview and massive expansion on the original game written by Gygax and published concurrent to the Basic Set in 1977. The three volumes (the Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, and Dungeon Master’s Guide),Only the Monster Manual appeared alongside the Basic Set in 1977. The Player’s Handbook followed in 1978, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, nearly as large as the previous AD&D manuals put together, finally arrived in August 1979. comprising some 490 pages, laid out a much-expanded vision for the D&D game, ballooning the class and race options available to players and extending the implied duration of D&D campaigns by allowing characters to achieve the twentieth level of ability.Gygax and Arneson’s original Dungeons & Dragons presented classes that “topped out” at varying levels, from the fighter’s 10 to the wizard’s 16. Holmes’s Basic Set focused exclusively on levels 1 - 3. Holmes’s D&D Basic Set was meant as a “feeder system” into the expanded AD&D game (Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set [rulebook] 1977, 2), and while many technical differences exist between what ultimately became known as “Basic D&D” and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the two games are essentially identical in terms of the player’s role and the role-playing experience.

Although much refinement would occur with new editions leading up to the present day, the formula for the success of Dungeons & Dragons and the impression it made on gamers (and future game designers) was well established by 1977’s boxed set. At last, D&D had evolved from a niche product to a true mass-market phenomenon. The invention of the role-playing game was complete.

Works Cited

Holmes, J. Eric and Tom Moldvay (1981). “Basic D&D Points of View … From the Editors Old and New.” Dragon 52 (August 1981).

Gygax, Gary (1985a). “D&D is Only as Good as the DM.” In Best of the Dragon Volume 1. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR, Inc.

Gygax, Gary (1985b). “Gary Gygax on Dungeons & Dragons.” In Best of the Dragon Volume 1. TSR, Inc.

Schick, Lawrence (1991). Heroic Worlds. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Games Cited

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: First Edition. E. Gary Gygax; TSR Inc. 1977 - 1979.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Second Edition. David “Zeb” Cook; TSR Inc. 1989.

Chainmail. Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren; Guiden Games. 1971. (3rd printing: TSR. 1975.)

Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson; TSR Inc. 1974. (Includes “Men and Magic,” “The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures,” and “Monsters and Treasure.”)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1 - 7th printing). Edited by J. Eric Holmes; TSR Inc. 1977.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (8 - 11th printing). Edited by Tom Moldvay; TSR Inc. 1981.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (12 - 14th printing). Edited by Frank Mentzer; TSR Inc. 1983.

Dungeons & Dragons: Third Edition. Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams; Wizards of the Coast. 2000.

Dungeons & Dragons: Version 3.5. Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams; revision by Andy Collins et al.; Wizards of the Coast. 2003.

Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia. Frank Mentzer; TSR Inc. 1991.

First Fantasy Campaign. Dave Arneson. 1980.