Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gary Gygax's 1973 D&D Working Draft

Just in time for the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, some spectacular new historical evidence has come to light: a partial copy of a pre-publication working draft of Dungeons & Dragons, typed and hand-edited Gary Gygax. Credit for discovering this goes to Michael Mornard, one of the original D&D playtesters, who unearthed this material in an old storage box a few weeks ago. Gygax photocopied these selections from his working draft back in 1973, and gave them to Mornard for his personal use. In these “Mornard Fragments,” we can see examples (like the one shown above) of pre-D&D text like that preserved by the Dalluhn Manuscript – in fact, decisively similar to Dalluhn, and unarguably created by Gygax. These Fragments have a good deal to teach us about the development of D&D, and handily they also establish that Dalluhn was in fact a polished version of such a working draft, incorporating the authors’ edits of the time for wider distribution, probably for playtesting.

The current version of my paper on the Dalluhn Manuscript, incorporating the findings resulting from the Mornard Fragments, is available for download here (and the exhibits are here) [updated December 2015].

Sunday, December 15, 2013

When Dungeons & Dragons Turns 40

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.]

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Earliest Dungeons & Dragons Advertisements

In 1974, Tactical Studies Rules had a very limited advertising budget to promote their new game Dungeons & Dragons. Their first advertisements therefore appeared in fanzines, sometimes places that required no payment for running a promotional notice. That was the case with TSR's first advertisement, which Gary Gygax sent to the Great Plains Gameplayers Newsletter in February 1974, surely only weeks after Dungeons & Dragons was released. In it, we see the prototype for the advertisements that would follow in the first year of the game's life.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The First Critical Hits

Nothing is more satisfying than rolling the dice and seeing not only that you hit, but that you hit exceptionally well. The adrenaline rush of critical hits proved so compelling that there is scarcely a game today, be it on a tabletop or a computer, where hits can be scored in which they don't have a chance to be critical hits, dealing additional damage. But the time-honored tradition of getting double damage on a natural 20 did not ship with the earliest version of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, D&D spent decades resisting this idea of critical hits. Even without TSR's endorsement, critical hits still became a part of gaming everywhere, largely due to the impetus of fans like Gary Switzer, who sent the critical hit rules above to APA-L in May 1975.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Origins of Dice Notation

As a previous post here coveredDungeons & Dragons was the first game to make practical use of all five Platonic solids as dice. The first printing of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) did not, however, employ the classic abbreviations of dice notation: d4, d6, d8, d12 and d20. Instead, we see constructions like, "From 2-16 snakes can be conjured (roll two eight-sided dice)." Initially, TSR had no need for dice notation, instead favoring number ranges which assumed players could infer the dice needed: this was the convention through the Holmes Basic Set (1977), which is full of systems of the form, "Damage: 3-24 points." These same conventions prescribe dice throws in the contemporary Monster Manual

The Players Handbook (1978), however, suddenly makes liberal use of dice notation, without any preamble, as if players were expected to recognize a "d20," and more significantly, qualifiers like "5d20." This strongly hints that dice notation had been in use long before TSR embraced it, and we can in fact trace its origins to the very dawn of D&D fandom: as we see above in Alarums & Excursions #1, in an article by Ted Johnstone on "Dice as Random Number Generators."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Character Sheets in 1975

The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons did not ship with any sort of character sheet. The Men & Magic booklet did provide "a sample record of a character" (pg.10) which comprised only the example character's name ("Xylarthen"), his class, his six abilities, and his gold and experience totals: it omits even fundamentals like level and hit points. Nowhere in the original game did there appear a pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank form for recording the vital statistics of characters. The fan community immediately grasped the usefulness of keeping one such form per character, especially in a campaign with many players. It is therefore not surprising that the first fanzine dedicated to a Dungeons & Dragons campaign included just such a character sheet: the one we see above, from the Haven Herald #1 of Stephen Tihor's Endore campaign in New York, dated May 3, 1975.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Arsouf (1969) by Gary Gygax

Years before the publication of Dungeons & Dragons or even Chainmail, the wargaming fan community knew well of Gary Gygax's aspiration to design games. The image above shows the back of a copy of the April 1968 issue of Panzerfaust, an important early wargaming fanzine, which is hand-addressed to Gygax by the editor, Donald Greenwood. Of special note is the sentence Greenwood has jotted in the upper left-hand corner: "Am interested in printing your games." Around a year later, Panzerfaust would serialize Gygax's Arsouf (sometimes called Crusader), a medieval board wargame that represents Gygax's first foray into designs for that crucial setting.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Tactical Studies Hobbies, an Oddity in Letterhead

In mid-1975, the partnership of Tactical Studies Rules underwent a transformation into TSR Hobbies, Inc. A number of factors motivated this transition, including the need to reorganize following the death of Don Kaye, as well as the company's increasing ambitions in the mail-order and retail hobby sales business (the first steps towards the Dungeon Hobby Shop). The newly-constituted TSR Hobbies, Inc. acquired the assets of Tactical Studies Rules, and work on game development proceeded under the TSR Hobbies, Inc. umbrella. If, however, you received mail from TSR at just the right time in 1975, you might have found the oddity shown here: the transitional name "Tactical Studies Hobbies." To explore the territory around this curious company-that-never-was, let's take a tour of TSR's early letterheads.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Dalluhn Manuscript: In Detail and On Display

[EDIT: This post has now been superseded by several more recent articles, most importantly this one about how the CONTAX group in Duluth created this document. Prior to that, it was also superseded here by a post about the "Mornard Fragments," a partial 1973 Gygax working draft of D&D. The rest of this post is left here for people interested in the history of the research around this draft.]

It's been a few months since I've discussed the Dalluhn Manuscript here. In the intervening time, I have conducted a more thorough study of the document, consulted with forensics experts and early gamers, and assembled my findings to date into a paper that I present here along with a few exhibits [updated December 2015]. Those brave few who have complained that they found PatW too short may take solace in this substantial addition. Like the book, this appendix is dense, scholarly reading, but I'm working on a friendlier account that I hope will appear soon (EDIT: in issue #2 of Gygax magazine). For the impatient, I provide a high-level introduction to the evidence below. I believe the paper establishes that the Dalluhn Manuscript preserves the earliest currently known version of the game of Dungeons & Dragons.

The publication of this "interim appendix" coincides with a development in the availability of the Dalluhn Manuscript: I have loaned the original copy of this to the National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. It goes on display there this coming weekend, on April 13th, 2013, as a feature of their Game Time! exhibit, along with many other interesting artifacts from the history of modern gaming. If want to see it first hand, do drop by; there are plenty of other amazing pieces of history on display.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Arneson's Naval Illustrations

Dave Arneson had a well-documented love of boats, especially sailing ships. Around the time that Dungeons & Dragons was developed, we see this especially in his work on the Don't Give Up the Ship naval miniature wargaming rules, as well as his unpublished Ships of the Line campaign system. His interest was not limited to the Great Age of Sail, however: Arneson contributed several illustrated articles to the Domesday Book about medieval naval warfare. Those who know Arneson's drawings only from his monster sketches in Dungeons & Dragons or the cartoons in the First Fantasy Campaign may find the level of detail in these illustrations uncharacteristic - but in keeping with the customs of the time, these illustrations were surreptitiously copied from existing sources. The Viking longboat above, for example, attached to Arneson's article "Tigers of the Sea" (DB #5) is obviously (but without credit) reproduced from Edwin Tunis's Oars, Sails and Steam (1951).

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How Gaming Got Its Dice

For those of us who grew up with Dungeons & Dragons, it is easy to take the polyhedral dice of gaming for granted. Dice had played an integral role in gaming since Prussian wargamers of the early nineteenth century first developed combat resolution tables. Those games and the many works they influenced, however, relied exclusively on 6-sided dice, apart from a few experimental dead-ends (like Totten's 12-sided teetotum in the late nineteenth century). When modern hobby wargaming culture began in the 1950s, it too stuck with 6-siders: the first Avalon Hill game (Tactics, 1954) requires a "cubit" for combat resolution, and the miniature gamers who contributed to the War Game Digest similarly seemed content to rely on the d6. By 1970, however, polyhedral dice had begun to creep into the wargaming community, as we see in the advertisement above from a 1971 Wargamer's Newsletter. Why do we need those funny dice anyway? What purpose did they serve that an ordinary 6-sider couldn't?

[UPDATE: See my guide to identifying 1970s dice here.]

Monday, January 21, 2013

Strategos in the Twin Cities

Twin Cities gamers of the late 1960s found inspiration for their wargaming systems in a pretty unlikely source: Strategos: The American Art of War (1880), a work by Charles A. L. Totten. Strategos was a military training wargame modeled on the German precedents of the nineteenth century, and was therefore not designed with entertainment in mind. By modern standards, it is unwieldy, pedantic and dull.  Famously, Dave Wesely adapted the rules of Strategos to the Napoleonic era, reducing them from the two volumes of Totten down to just twenty-four pages in his Strategos N (1970). But the Napoleonic era was only one of the settings that local gamers fitted to Strategos, and Dave Arneson himself authored two Strategos-based wargames.