Many sources, including Playing at the World, assign to Dungeons & Dragons an initial release in January 1974. Our best evidence comes from contemporary notices like the one above, a letter written by Gary Gygax late in 1973 that foretells the imminent release of the game. Now, with the fortieth anniversary nearly upon us, a burning question arises: when exactly should we celebrate? While there is no shortage of anecdotal accounts describing when, and to whom, the first copy of the game was sold, there is little concrete evidence to indicate any particular birthday. This author, however, will be lifting a die to toast the anniversary on Sunday, January 26th, 2014, on the basis of the following chronology surrounding the release of Dungeons & Dragons.
[Update: do see the more detailed D&D development timeline here.]
The birth of a game is not such an easy thing to timestamp as the birth of a person. A game must be printed, assembled, advertised, and sold. At what point do we consider the game available? When the publishers have copies in hand, that they can distribute to friends? When sales have been made to the general public? Surely copies existed in January of 1974, but the first advertisements didn't start appearing until February, and the game was available to the general public only through the post at first, so formal sales must have come later. Ultimately, there is an unavoidable ambiguity surrounding the release of a product like this, one that probably can't be resolved to any single day. The best we can do is to box the date in between the earliest references to the game, as enumerated below:
June 1973: Around this time, we find the first published hints that Dungeons & Dragons was in process. Above is an excerpt from the June 1, 1973, issue of the Gamesletter, which in a curt blurb first notified the world that Gary and Dave were developing "an extensive set of rules for fantasy campaigns." Gygax inserted another hint in Lowrys Guidon around the same time: “I regret to state that I have been so busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game of late that I have had no time to experiment with any CRTs." Surely this "fantasy campaign game" was Dungeons & Dragons, which was deep in development at this juncture.
September 1973: A notice in Gamer's Guide #40 from the Midwest Military Simulation Association (MMSA), Dave Arneson's group in Minneapolis, tells of the ongoing "Fantasy (Sword and Sorcery) simulation being run in conjunction with Gary Gygax's group in Lake Geneva." From the Twin Cities side, one frequently gets the impression that the interaction with Lake Geneva involved running a game more than designing one.
November 12, 1973: Gygax states in a letter to George Phillies that "we have just formed a firm to produce miniatures rules (Tactical Studies Rules, with the release of Cavaliers and Roundheads in October)." This is surely among the earliest references to TSR.
December 1973: In letter to Jim Lurvey (shown at the top of this blog post), Gygax expands on the plans of TSR: "We have just formed Tactical Studies Rules, and we wish to let the wargaming community know that a new line of miniature rules is available. TSR currently has ECW rules (Cavaliers & Roundheads), and as of January we should have a fantasy campaign set (a really superb game, built from Chainmail and Arneson's 'Blackmoor')."
This is the first hint we see that Dungeons & Dragons was intended for a January 1974 release. While the foreword to Dungeons & Dragons was dated November 1, 1973, the game could not have come out before the New Year, given the copyright date of 1974. From there, it is just a question of how far into the 1974 the game arrived.
February 1974: This month's issue of El Conquistador, a postal Diplomacy fanzine that carried wargaming news and articles, announced that "the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association has now released its set of fantasy campaign rules (Dungeons and Dragons)." For a notice to appear in a February issue, of course, it would have to be sent before the beginning of the month, in most cases. This suggests that as of the publication of that magazine, the game was already available. The notice even invites the general public to play Dungeons & Dragons on Sundays at 1:30 PM at Gary's house in Lake Geneva.
Another data point from later in the month comes in a letter to the Jim Lurvey dated February 27, 1974, in which Gygax asserts that "the LGTSA has been involved in a fantasy campaign for over a year now, using the Dungeons & Dragons rules (Gygax & Arneson) just recently made generally available."
March 5, 1974: Gygax writes to Arneson reminding his co-author that "every flyer you pass out could mean more royalty dollars. Remember, every retail sale we make is $1.00 to you. Put a flyer in all letters, right?" By this point, Gygax is fretting over sales and strategizing about spreading word of the availability of Dungeons & Dragons.
May 1974: Notices of the publication of Dungeons & Dragons were now widespread. These early references to the game have no need to mention a release date, however.
July 1975: In Alarums & Excursions #2, Gygax gave his first concise history of Dungeons & Dragons. The account culminates with the release of "D&D in January of 1974." So in this early account, written eighteen months after the game became available, Gygax reaffirms that the prediction he made in December 1973 was accurate, and that D&D came out in January.
Taken all together, the evidence seems sufficient to support a January 1974 release for Dungeons & Dragons. But no contemporary source gives any indication of when, during the month of January, the game might have come out. Much later sources, for example Gary Gygax's piece in the 1999 Collector's Edition box set, assert that "the first sale of a Dungeons & Dragons game was made in late January 1974." Is it plausible that it was in fact late in the month? Given Gygax's February 27, 1974 remark that D&D was "just recently made generally available," a date in the last week of January seems as good as any. If it had instead been earlier in January, would Gygax still say that the game had "just recently" come out?
For all the reasons listed above, it's probably impossible to narrow in on one date and say with any certainty that this is when the game was released. But if we need to celebrate somewhere in the neighborhood of late January, then the last Sunday of the month (this year, the 26th) seems like the best candidate. As the El Conquistador advertisement above notes, Sunday was the day when Gary invited the world to drop by his house, at 1:30 PM, to have a first experience of Dungeons & Dragons. Since it's a weekend, many of us can clear our schedules to revisit some classic tabletop. So this coming January 26th, 2014, do take the time to celebrate the birth of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games.