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The History of D&D
NPCs mentioned in this Episode:
Here There Be Dragons
The into the past and future of the king of role-playing games
by Benjamin E. Sones
The Sometimes Troubled History of Dungeons & Dragons
What is a role-playing game?
Very likely the first thing that comes to mind is Dungeons & Dragons, a game that has been practically synonymous with role-playing since it launched the hobby nearly thirty years ago. Since then, the game has been reworked into several different products and gone through numerous revisions. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold in 50 countries. It has inspired books'including several New York Times bestsellers'10 different comic book collections, two magazines, a television series, a feature film, toys, action figures, and countless computer games.
The introduction to the 3rd Edition Player's Handbook describes role-playing as a process in which "you create a unique fictional character that lives in your imagination and the imaginations of your friends. One person in the game, the Dungeon Master (DM), controls the monsters and the people that live in the fantasy world. You and your friends face the dangers and explore the mysteries that your Dungeon Master sets before you." That's Dungeons & Dragons in a nutshell'a game so radically different from anything that had come before that it has forever changed the world of gaming. It's a game about pretending, a game about storytelling, and a game that eschews the concepts of winning and losing because the act of playing is its own reward.
Dungeons & Dragons co-creator E. Gary Gygax has his own take on the nature of the hobby. "It seems to me that if anything, rather than 'role-playing' being the most important, 'role assumption' is the most important. That is, to put yourself into the shoes of that make-believe character and try to think and act as would that person. That doesn't mean you have to stand and give a soliloquy to bore the other players with, but to be acting and thinking in-game."
Before 1974, "role-playing" was a term reserved for psychology textbooks. Perusing the new 3rd Edition rulebooks, you might never guess that the game actually evolved from miniatures wargaming, despite the hobby's enduring ties with metal miniatures and wargaming terms such as "campaign" and "morale" (which remain a part of the role-playing lexicon to this day). The road that brought the game where it is today is a long and strange one, however, filled with more obstacles and mine fields than a wargamer's sandbox.
It all started, oddly enough, in Prussia.
According to Victor Raymond's essay A Brief History of Role-playing Games, the hobby of wargaming traces its roots back to the early nineteenth century. A Prussian staff officer'von Reisswitz'developed a game devised to recreate military conflicts with topographical maps and metal miniatures. The game, called the Kriegspiel, used dice to resolve combat and was quickly adopted as a training aid for Prussian officers.
Wargaming grew in popularity not only as a tool for the military, but also as an underground hobby with fans in every corner of the world. By the 1960s, there were wargaming clubs in most of the major cities in America with enthusiasts recreating nearly every type of conflict imaginable, including historical battles. That's about the time that the International Federation of Wargaming appeared.
"The IFW was co-founded by Bill Speer, Scott Duncan and I' oh, I don't know, I've lost track'in '63 probably?" Gygax fondly reminisces. "I said you know, let's do a real organization, instead of one of these 'conquer the world' things. You know, 'we'll beat you at D-Day, and then we own the United States,' or whatever. So we got together and had this organization. I was initially the secretary'I don't really know what I was, really'but we got up to about 600 or 700 people. Which isn't bad, considering that there weren't any computers around in those days. Had there been computers and the Internet, it would have been much larger."
The IFW had a number of foreign members, but for the most part it was based in the American Midwest (Gygax himself lived in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin). There were a number of different special interest groups within the organization, based on specific historical periods. Gygax had a particular interest in medieval battles, and founded his own group within the IFW called the Castle & Crusade Society. Together with Jeff Perren he put together a set of 1:20 (each figure on the battlefield represents twenty men) rules for medieval wargames, based on a set of rules originally created by Perren. After some revision, they added a set of 1:1 rules, in which each figure on the battlefield represents one man, and a set of guidelines for simulating jousting tournaments with teams of knights. Gygax and Perren published these rules in the late 60s under the somewhat unwieldy title Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association Medieval Military Miniatures Rules.
The Castle & Crusade Society was quick to embrace the rules, and Gygax and Perren added new ideas and supplements as quickly as they could cook them up. Inspired by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard, they created a supplemental set of fantasy rules that took wargaming out of the realm of history altogether. Archers and pikemen gave way to orcs and elves, heroes and wizards, fairies and dragons. In 1971 Gygax and Perren republished their revised medieval warfare rules'along with the fantasy supplement'as Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures. The publisher was a tiny company called Guidon Games that operated out of Gygax's basement. "That fantasy supplement was the tail that wagged the dog," explains Gygax.
Chainmail did not pretend to be anything other than a wargame, albeit a somewhat unusual one. Still, it planted a lot of the seeds that would later find a place in the Dungeons & Dragons rules. "Heroes had four dice instead of being fourth level," Gygax explains, "and superheroes had eight dice instead of being eighth level, and wizards were basically two dice guys who could throw fireballs and lightning bolts and so forth. In fact for a long time, the burst radius of the wizard's fireball was the burst circle for a catapult, and the lightning bolt was very much like the old cannons used in medieval warfare. We would use the regular military miniatures rules for the spells."
There had always been an element of role-playing in most wargames, however, even if it wasn't an explicit part of the rules. One player might be playing the role of a Viking chief, another the role of a Thane or the leader of a hill fort. The game was about commanding the troops, but part of the allure was the fact that you were the commander. "Have you ever played Diplomacy?" Gygax asks. "To put yourself in the role of the Kaiser, or the arch-duke, or the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and so forth' there was always a little role-playing in most miniatures games, and in Diplomacy."
An army of one
Dave Arneson was the founder of yet another wargaming group'the Midwest Military Simulation Association, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He was also a member of the IFW, although he didn't meet Gygax until later. "I met Gary at an early Gen Con'1970 as I recall," Arneson says. "We collaborated on a sailing ship game called Don't Give Up the Ship that I tested at that year's Gen Con."
Gen Con started as a small weekend gaming event organized by Gygax and other wargamers from the Lake Geneva area. The name is an abbreviation for "Geneva Convention," something of an inside joke among the wargaming crowd. In 1968, the event became a full-blown official convention, and drew nearly 100 attendees. Last year's convention'which hosted everything from role-playing games to computer games to the old standby, wargames'took place at the 800,000 square foot Midwest Express Center in Milwaukee, where it hosted roughly 21,000 people from all over the world.
Guidon Games published Don't Give Up the Ship, which provided rules for Napoleonic-era naval battles, in 1971. By that time, Arneson and Gygax were well on their way to better things.
In 1970, Arneson created a scenario using the 1:1 variant of the Chainmail rules in which a small group of characters had to sneak inside a stronghold and open the gates from the inside. The scenario represented a remarkable shift in focus from past wargaming by placing the emphasis on heroic adventuring rather than on military conquest. Arneson brought the scenario to Gen Con in 1971, where Gygax (among others) had a chance to play it.
That scenario launched Gygax and Arneson in an entirely new creative direction. Their games rapidly became less about commanding armies and more about enacting the role of a single character on heroic quests. "We were playing this game where you are this guy, right there, and if he got killed, it was over," says Gygax. "The game went a long way into exploring the subterranean world. Then it started to become a matter of whether you had a sword or an axe, and a backpack, and rope and spikes and all these spelunking tools' That was Dave's main thing, to start as a zero level hero and go from there."
The Fantasy Game
The concept of character advancement'the idea that you build your character's skills by accumulating experience points'was only one of the things that Arneson was working on. It was probably the most important from a role-playing perspective, however. Allowing characters to develop and grow in power made players grow more attached to their characters. They were no longer generic men on a battlefield'they were fictional heroes with their own histories and personalities.
The Castle & Crusade Society had a common map that they used for their fantasy games, portraying the territory of the "Great Kingdom" and it's surrounding environs. Dave Arneson laid claim to a portion of the Great Kingdom to use in his own campaign'a boggy area called Blackmoor (an oft-cloned region for role-playing games through the ages)'and began to experiment with a very different style of gaming.
It rapidly became evident that the Chainmail rules were not up to the task. They worked fine for wargaming, but some of the mechanics were not well suited to the theme of heroic adventure, around which Arneson wanted to base his campaign. One of the problems was how damage worked. Characters in Chainmail basically had two states'alive or dead. "I used Chainmail for about a month before switching its matrix-based combat system of 'winner-take-all' to the Armor Class, Hit Points, and Hit Dice system that is still used today," explains Arneson. "After the first game it was obvious that none of the players liked the sudden death of the matrix."
Arneson made modifications to the rules, and recorded all of his changes in a fat little notebook. Role-playing a heroic character became the primary focus of his campaign. "Chainmail had a fantasy section," he explains. "Otherwise it was strictly a set of miniatures wargame rules with no role-playing. Certainly the Spell section proved to be inadequate even by the end of the first dungeon crawl."
The "dungeon crawl" was yet another new concept that Arneson created. Players would guide their characters through dark underground caverns filled with monsters, traps, and treasure. Arneson's dungeon crawl games revealed yet another incompatibility with wargaming, however'it was extremely difficult to represent multiple levels of caverns on a wargaming tabletop. "Blackmoor quickly took the game off the table and onto graph paper," he explains.
Replacing the world of tabletop maps with the much richer world of imagination and verbal description opened up entirely new avenues for the players to explore. "The biggest challenge was the constantly expanding set of rules, drawing maps, and trying to keep the players from wandering into places that had not been made up yet," Arneson says.
When Gygax saw what Arneson had done with his miniatures rules, he was impressed. "I had mines and counter-mines in Chainmail," he explains in reference to Arneson's dungeons. "You know, when you're doing it on a tabletop, though, you still can't dig under the sand; you have to use paper and pencil for that. So Dave said 'look at this, I'm running this campaign,' and I said 'well look at that'I think you have something there.'"
The pair began their second collaboration in 1972. Arneson passed his fat little notebook on to Gygax, who took Arneson's concepts and wrote them up as a new set of rules that they dubbed The Fantasy Game. "Getting it all ready for publication called for a great deal of collaborative work," Arneson recalls, "not between just Gary and me, but including some of the original players like Dave Megarry, who did Dungeon!, and Rob Kuntz, who did Greyhawk."
Dungeons & Dragons
The Fantasy Game had one major problem'nobody wanted to publish it. The team pitched it to Avalon Hill, a well-known board game publisher, but the company turned it down. The game was too open ended, they claimed'no self-respecting wargamer would want to play a game that offered no definitive way to win. Other publishers expressed similar concerns.
In 1973, Gygax determined that if they wanted to publish the game that they were now calling Dungeons & Dragons (a suggestion from Gygax's wife), they would have to do it themselves. He contacted his friend, Don Kaye. "After Gen Con that year we formed a partnership, Don and I, and we published Cavaliers and Roundheads: Rules for the English Civil War, by Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax. We knew that wasn't really our hottest prospect, but it was all we could afford to put out. And then as that sold we were building towards getting enough money to do Dungeons & Dragons." Kaye and Gygax called their new company Tactical Studies Rules. Arneson and another man, Brian Blume, joined the company later. Blume bought in as an equal partner and provided much of the funding for the game.
Tactical Studies Rules finally published Dungeons & Dragons in January of 1974. The game came in a small box and consisted of three rulebooks'Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. The subtitle on the box (and on each of the rulebooks) read "Rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures." As groundbreaking as the game was, it still held firmly to its wargaming roots.
The introduction to the game recommended additional materials as game aids'a board game from Avalon Hill called Outdoor Survival (as a resource for "off-hand" wilderness exploration), the Chainmail rules (as an alternate combat system), and a set of polyhedral dice. The dice are something that Gygax came across in a school supply catalog, and later sold through Tactical Studies Rules. They were small plastic Platonic solids with numbered sides, presumably for use in geometry classes. Arneson had purchased his own twenty-sided dice sometime earlier, from a company in England that later went out of business. "I had the only three sets of d20 known to exist, at that time, in the USA," he explains. Later versions of the game came with numbered cardboard chits that you could draw at random out of a cup; dice did not come with the game rules until 1981.
The rules offered three character classes (fighting-men, magic-users, and clerics) and four different playable races (humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings'the rules interchangeably referred to the latter as "hobbits" until the Tolkien estate stepped in and requested that the company kindly cease and desist). Human characters could be of any class, but elves were restricted to fighting-men and magic-users, while dwarves and halflings could only be fighting-men. You created a character by rolling 3d6 (three six-sided dice) six times and applying the scores to six abilities'Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Each of the first three scores was a "prime requisite" for one of the character classes (Strength for fighting-men, Intelligence for magic-users, and Wisdom for clerics). Gygax also added an alignment system (a rule that Arneson was not overly fond of) to quantify each character's ethical leanings as lawful, neutral, or chaotic.
The game was an overwhelming success, at least by wargaming standards. "In about ten months we'd sold 1,000 copies," explains Gygax. "They were flying out the door. We had thought it was going to do well, because everyone liked the Chainmail fantasy. We didn't have any advertising, though'I think we ran a few little business card-sized ads in a few publications, but basically it was all word of mouth. We got the new order of 2,000 in November of 1974, and that took about five months to sell through." The next order was for 3,000 copies, and the company sold through those in only three months. Fans were eager for new material, and Tactical Studies Rules was eager to give it to them. The company released two new rules supplements in 1975 (Greyhawk, which was based on Gygax's campaign, and Blackmoor, which was based on Arneson's). The company had been publishing a magazine called the Strategic Review; in the spring of 1975 they added another magazine called The Dragon, which was dedicated to their new game.
Dungeons & Dragons was a hit.
Compared to later versions of the game, the rules in the original Dungeons & Dragons were rudimentary, open-ended, and more than a little confusing. The experience tables listed character levels by name (Veteran, Warrior, Swordsman) rather than by number, for instance, but elsewhere the books regularly refer to character levels by number. It wasn't entirely clear whether magic-users were allowed to memorize their spells only once per adventure or once per day. The rules say both in various places, but what if an adventure lasts more than one day?
The fact Gygax and Arneson had intentionally left the rules open to interpretation came back to haunt them, although it bothered Gygax a lot more than it bothered Arneson. "I told them to use the rules that they liked and enjoyed in their games," Arneson says. "Ditch or change anything that interfered with the fun. The referee'and later Dungeon Master'has the final say during a games session or campaign. Gary felt that there should be a rule for everything. We got calls and letters all the time. My phone bill was a horror."
Gygax was genuinely concerned over the considerable confusion that the rules were creating. "I told Brian that we had a real problem in 1976," he recalls. "The game rules were so open to interpretation; there were three groups at Stanford who wouldn't even talk to each other. They all played, and one group thought 'let's go slowly and do a lot of role-playing.' One group was a killer dungeon group, where you rolled up a new character two or three times a night, I guess. And the other one was a 'Monty Haul' type of campaign [derived from the game show Let's Make A Deal where Monty 'Hall' gave away prizes to contestants who had to do next to nothing]. And I thought that we should try to get something that would be a little more' quantified. We needed an advanced game."
Other troubles were brewing at Tactical Studies Rules, however. In January of 1975, Don Kaye died of a heart attack. Kaye's wife inherited her husband's interest in the company and became, in Gygax's words, "impossible to deal with." By mutual consent of the partners, they dissolved Tactical Studies Rules, bought out Kaye's wife, and reformed the company as TSR Hobbies, Inc. Short on cash, Gygax was forced to sell a considerable portion of his stock in the company to Brian Blume and his father, Melvin. By fall of that year, Gygax's interest in TSR has dropped to 35%. It would later fall as low as 30%.
That same year, Gygax and Arneson had a falling out. The two quarreled over the creative credit for the game'Gygax felt that since he had actually written the rules, the game was his. Arneson argued that since many of the concepts had originated in his Blackmoor campaign, he also deserved credit. The original rules credited both men as co-creators, but revised versions of the game published after Arneson parted ways with TSR failed to mention his name at all. TSR also refused to pay royalties to Arneson on later versions of the game, and Arneson ended up taking the company to court in 1979. The matter was settled privately two years later, though both parties agreed not to discuss the details as part of the settlement. "It involved money," Arneson explains.
Basic or Advanced?
After Arneson left, Gygax started work on his advanced version of the game, a project that dwarfed the original game in scale. He set out to provide clear and comprehensive rules that left little doubt as to how players should approach the game. Strangely enough, however, Gygax decided that this advanced version of the game would not replace the original rules.
"John Eric Holmes'Dr. Holmes'contacted me," says Gygax. "His son played, and he was like 'you know, I'd really like to clean up Dungeons & Dragons. And I said 'that's good, but I'm working on an advanced game. Why don't you pass the stuff through me?' So as he passed the stuff through me, he organized the basic rules, and then I passed on the stuff that I was working into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, so there would be a smoother transition between the two, in case somebody wanted to switch from one to the other."
Gygax was confident that simultaneously publishing two versions of the same game would cause no confusion among players. "I've always had lots of respect for gamers, and I though they'd instantly be able to look at one and the other and decide what they wanted to do. There are still people who just play original Dungeons & Dragons. I think it was a mistake'the Blumes were running the company then'to kill the Basic line. It played differently, it was a different game than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons."
In 1977 TSR released the Monster Manual, the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcover rulebook. They followed it up in 1978 with the Player's Handbook, and then the Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979. They also published a boxed set called the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, which came with a paperback rulebook, an adventure module by Gygax called Keep on the Borderlands, and a set of cardboard chits that could serve as dice. TSR was releasing new material as fast as players could grab it up, and business was booming. Role-playing was no longer a cult hobby'it was a pop culture phenomenon.
In the public eye
On August 15, 1979, role-playing attracted the public's attention in a way that nobody had expected. James Dallas Egbert III, a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing, disappeared. After the campus police were unable to locate the boy, Egbert's family hired a private detective out of Texas named William Dear.
Egbert was a deeply troubled teenager. A child prodigy with an IQ of 180, he was a college sophomore by the age of 16. According to Dear, he suffered from chronic depression, was an untreated epileptic, and had a drug habit that he fed by manufacturing his own drugs. Egbert was a self-professed homosexual and had admitted to having sex with older men on a number of occasions, a fact that probably contributed to his social isolation on campus.
He also played Dungeons & Dragons.
Dear was unfamiliar with the game, as were the students that he interviewed. Dear never managed to find anyone on campus who had actually played the game with Egbert, so when the students that he did speak with explained that Egbert went into the steam tunnels beneath the school to act out his fantasies, Dear took it at face value. Dear theorized that Egbert might have fallen prey to a game of Dungeons & Dragons gone horribly awry'that he might have gone down into the steam tunnels alone and become lost.
The media picked up the story and ran with it, and suddenly the news was filled with stories about how Dungeons & Dragons had (possibly) caused the death of a young boy. It was a catchy theory that made for good headlines' and it was incorrect.
Egbert had gone into the steam tunnels, but not to play Dungeons & Dragons. Depressed and desperate to escape the pressures of his overbearing parents, he had been planning to either run away or to commit suicide for months before his disappearance. Eventually he decided on the latter. Armed with a bottle of sleeping pills, he made his way into the tunnels and attempted to take his own life.
He woke up a day later. Having failed to kill himself, Egbert resolved to run away instead. He made his way to a friend's house, and then stayed with a series of friends and strangers in an attempt to avoid the increasingly public search. At one point, he tried to kill himself again and failed for a second time. Eventually he gave up and contacted Dear, who met him and returned him to his parents nearly a month after he had first disappeared.
Fearful of the bad publicity that would plague his family (particularly his younger brother) should news of his drug problems and his homosexuality reach the press, Egbert asked Dear not to divulge any more information about the case to the press. Dear agreed, and facts that would have absolved Dungeons & Dragons remained a secret. Dear eventually did tell the full story five years later in a book called The Dungeon Master, but by that time the media had lost interest. In the public eye, Dungeons & Dragons was judged and found guilty.
Sadly, the story of James Dallas Egbert III lacks a happy ending. On August 11, 1980, Egbert shot himself in the head in the living room of his apartment. He had long since given up role-playing games, but the real pressures in his life had remained unchanged. Egbert died in the hospital five days later.
Rumors of the ill effects of Dungeons & Dragons snowballed into a full-scale crusade. Religious groups preached the evils of role-playing. In 1984 Jack Chick (no relation to our frequent contributor Tom Chick), a well-known author of religious tracts and the founder of Chick Publications, wrote a tract claiming that role-playing games teach children to use "real" magic. The advocated remedy was to put one's faith in God' after a good old-fashioned book burning, of course.
In 1981 an author named Rona Jaffe published a book called Mazes and Monsters, which she loosely based on the media version of the Egbert story. In Jaffe's book, the protagonist (a bright boy named Robbie Wheeling) really does get lost in the stream tunnels while playing a role-playing game. After his safe return, he looses his grip on reality and becomes unable to separate his own identity from that of his character in the game, Pardieu. In 1982 the book was turned into a made-for-TV movie starring an unfortunate Tom Hanks. Thomas Radecki, the founder of the National Coalition for Television Violence, once condemned role-playing games by quoting material from Mazes and Monsters as though the story was a factual account of real events.
A woman named Pat Pulling was another prominent anti-role-playing advocate. Pulling claimed that her son, Irving Lee "Bink" Pulling, had shot himself in the chest after a curse had been placed on him as part of a Dungeons & Dragons game that was run by the gifted program at her son's high school. Pulling sued the school principle, only to have the case thrown out of court. She went on to found an organization called Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) and billed herself as a "cult crime investigator." She provided profiling guides to law enforcement agencies to help them detect children in jeopardy of "cult" (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons) involvement.
Pulling built her reputation on unfounded credentials and misinformation, and in 1990 her work was publicly debunked in a long and incredibly detailed essay called The Pulling Report, by science fiction author and game designer Michael A. Stackpole. Pulling left B.A.D.D. after the publication of the report, and died of ovarian cancer a few years later.
Stackpole also ran into William Dear on one occasion. "We were both guests on a TV show that never got broadcast," he explains. "He was quite reasonable off camera, as was I, and we got along fine. Still, Dear did try all manner of marketing angles for his book, including stressing drug use when that was a big thing, and computer hacking angles when that was hot. He's a showman. Subsequent to meeting him I was on a flight and seated next to a homicide detective from Dallas, who had no respect for Dear at all."
The bad press profoundly disturbed Arneson. "I was upset at first, what with being an elder in my church group. It helped that none of the stories turned out to be true." Gygax considered it to be an annoying but unavoidable aspect of human nature. "Those people aren't going to buy Dungeons & Dragons anyway. I thought it was a terrible mistake when the woman running TSR decided to take out the demons and devils. Sales didn't go up, they went down."
The TSR meltdown
Around the time that Pat Pulling was launching her crusade, Gygax was dealing with an entirely different set of problems. The company that he had helped to found nearly a decade ago was trying to push him out.
Brian Blume and his brother Kevin had obtained a majority interest in TSR, and Gygax was no longer running the company. The Blumes sent Gygax to the West Coast in 1982 to manage the Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Company. "It was then called TSR Entertainment," he explained. "Well, I went out and found out that nobody on the coast liked the name 'TSR,' because they had some dealings with Kevin and Brian, so I changed the name of the company." Gygax produced a hit cartoon series (called Dungeons & Dragons, of course) based on the game while he was in California, but by 1984 it was time to come back home.
"Somebody called me from New York and told me that Kevin was shopping TSR on the Street," says Gygax. "They said 'you'd better get back, we're in trouble.' So I went back and did a quiet little bit of investigation into what was going on, and I wrote an eight or nine page report for the board of directors, which included three outside directors that the Blumes had appointed. One was the CEO of a medical supply company, one was an attorney for a large law firm in Milwaukee, and one was the director of personnel'human resources, in more politically correct terms'for the American Management Association, thankfully now defunct. I referred to them, generously, as Moe, Shemp, and Curly."
TSR was $1.5 million in debt, and Gygax was furious. "I demanded that Kevin Blume be removed as CEO of the company, and said that we should immediately take such measures as were necessary to get the company turned around." This involved selling off 60 or 70 company leased or owned automobiles and nearly half a million dollars worth of unused systems furniture. Some 90 relatives of the Blumes, according to Gygax, were also removed from the company payroll. The executives deferred roughly half their salaries and Gygax didn't take any of his royalty payments. Gygax immediately released two new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons supplements (Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures), and that was all it took to turn the company around. By 1985 the American National Bank was no longer threatening to pull the plug.
The Blumes were incensed, however, and in retaliation they sold all of their interest in the company to Lorraine Williams'a woman that Gygax would come to detest. Gygax believed that it was an illegal transfer that violated their buy/sell agreement, but the courts ruled otherwise. "At that point I said 'fuck it. I'm so sick of the way this company is being run. Buy out my stock, buy out my interest, I'm gone.' And we concluded the deal on December 31, 1985."
The end of Dungeons & Dragons?
Williams had little regard for gamers. "She said openly that they were socially her inferiors," says Gygax. "She did announce that she was going to show the other companies how to properly run a business, which I thought was ironic."
Over the next several years it appeared that Williams was doing exactly that. TSR released the heavily revised 2nd Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons'along with a host of new game supplements and campaign settings'and launched a new magazine called Dungeon Adventures.
In reality, however, TSR was a company in jeopardy. The new 2nd Edition rules drove away a large number of players, and the advent of collectible card games and the growing popularity of computer games likely didn't help. "I thought basically that most of what they did [in 2nd Edition] could have been done in a supplement like Unearthed Arcana," says Gygax, "and made so that everybody didn't have to buy a whole bunch of new stuff for no particular reason." Williams didn't care for either Gygax or Arneson (who came back to the company briefly to write a new series of Blackmoor adventure modules). "When Lorraine took over my contract was not renewed," Arneson explains. "Nothing wrong with the modules, they sold as well as any. She did not want to have anything to do with me." Gygax had his own suspicions about why Williams didn't like him. "I had told her that when we pulled out of this, I wanted to reward all the people who had been working hard, and I thought they should all get shares of stock, and I thought all the creative people should be getting a royalty-like payment. And she said 'over my dead body.' I think we would have run a profitable company that way, but she didn't."
Williams was unavailable for comment, having since left the both game industry and the country. She now resides somewhere in GerTSR under Williams was positively hostile towards its own fans. The company enforced its copyrights ruthlessly, closing down fan sites on the Internet and demanding that people avoid discussing the game in Usenet forums. People began to refer to the company as "T$R," and joked that the initials stood for "They Sue Regularly." After Gygax left the company, he created a new role-playing system called Dangerous Journeys, which he published through Game Designer's Workshop. TSR sued him for copyright infringement. " It was a bogus suit, but they spent us out of court," he explained. Under the terms of the settlement, TSR purchased the rights to Dangerous Journeys and all existing stock for more than the company could afford. "I had to laugh, because that was probably the straw that broke the camel's back," says Gygax.
By 1997 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. "At that point TSR had run up a debt of $26.5 million secured, and lord knows how much unsecured," says Gygax. "So she was even better than the Blumes at running the company into the ground."
Light at the end of the tunnel
A rather unlikely knight in shining armor came to the rescue of Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Coast, makers of the popular collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, purchased the foundering company and all of its properties in 1997. They immediately went to work on a simpler and friendlier 3rd Edition of the rules.
Lead Designer Jonathan Tweet, who created Ars Magica with Mark Rein-Hagen and later designed Everway for Wizards of the Coast, was a long-time fan of the game. "I first played Dungeons & Dragons early in 1978, using one of the early versions of the Basic set, maybe the first version. It was a horrible game, and I loved it. It was the first game I'd found that was so fun I could play it for ten hours every weekend. And I did."
Tweet was delighted to have the opportunity to work on the 3rd Edition. "Monte Cook, Skip Williams, and I each took primary responsibility for one of the three core rulebooks. I got the Player's Handbook, which was a lot of fun." The team labored over the new rules, searching for ways to make the game more playable while still retaining the flavor of the original rules. "At one point, Peter Adkison, who'd given the project its scope and direction, stepped into the team and assumed the role of lead designer," confides Tweet. "He thought we had failed to be bold enough in our design. He was right."
The effort paid off'in the fall of 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the 3rd Edition Player's Handbook, quite possibly the most playable version of Dungeons & Dragons that has ever been published. The new rules had a consistency that previous versions lacked'simple things such as the fact that high dice rolls and numbers are now always favorable (in previous editions, high attack rolls and Saving Throws were good, but high ability checks and Armor Classes were bad). Seeking to heal old wounds, Wizards of the Coast once again credits both Gygax and Arneson for creating the game in the manuals. Gygax currently writes the "Up on a Soapbox" column for Dragon, and both men are open to the idea of contributing material to the 3rd Edition.
"My group and I did some play testing and decided that we liked it a lot better than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," says Arneson, "so we have used it ever since then. And, as usual, have added a few bits and changed a few others." Gygax is equally excited. "I love the Dungeon Master's Guide'it's basically a tutorial on how to do a dungeon crawl. As I read that I said 'whew, all this stuff I'd forgotten.' It's definitely aimed at action and rapid advancement. It's a game made to bring in new young players that want to do slam-bang hack and slash, and it's good at it. My sons Ernie and Luke are working on a d20 adventure right now, and I've seen parts of it in play, and I'll probably contribute a few fun ideas. Boy, how they love it'they're having such a good time. It's going to breathe some new life into gaming."
Tweet is both surprised and pleased with the success of the 3rd Edition. "The new Dungeons & Dragons took off bigger than we'd hoped, so I expect good things from the game in the future. Currently, however, I'm branching into miniatures. I'm the lead developer on the new Chainmail, the Dungeons & Dragons skirmish miniatures game that debuts this October. It's a fun project because it means taking the rules and concepts that I worked on in the role-playing game and porting them into miniatures battles. It's taking Dungeons & Dragons back to its miniatures wargame roots." It seems that after nearly 30 years, the game has finally come full circle.
"Meanwhile, in my personal Dungeons & Dragons campaign, one of the player characters just became king," Tweet adds. "I don't know what to do."
Editor's Note: For a look at D&D in computer games, see our feature on the digital development of Dungeons & Dragons.