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.
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.
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A fine date and well-researched. As compensation for living at the edge of the world, I'll be celebrating D&D's birthday ahead of most readers - so if I am not heard from on the 26th, please remember to check for traps before proceeding!ReplyDelete
Minor typo/thinko above: the Lurvey letter must be 1974, not 1973, correct? (Paragraph after the release announcement image)ReplyDelete
Right you are, corrected!Delete
Will add this to Zappadan in my mythology. Thanks, Jon.ReplyDelete
My mom has the original set that was released with a copyright of 1974 there is a preface in the front of the book that says Nov 1 1973ReplyDelete
I came home from the U of MN in Christmas Break after Fall Semester 1973, and got a copy of D&D from Gary in his basement. The stickers weren't attached yet.
I think Christmas break lasted until the first week of January, but the University archives should be able to tell you.
SO, the actual delivery date of the pallet of printed games was late December 1973.
Certainly, as I say in the post there's some unavoidable ambiguity about what it means for a game to be "out." I wouldn't find it at all implausible that components for the game were available to the publishers, and their close friends, very early in January, perhaps even before the New Year. But what we're trying to capture in any anniversary, I think, is when the game was "generally available" - like when it would be possible for a member of the general public to acquire a copy. For the reasons stated above, I think it's reasonable to suspect that was later in the month. But sure, you insiders probably got to dip into this before us common plebs could have joined in. ;)Delete
Okay, I see what you're saying. Those of us who were actual GREYHAWK players got to get our copies early. Jan. 1974 matches my memory for "official" release. Can't release without your merchandise! Well, at least back then you couldn't.Delete
And we thought Gary and Don were STARK RAVING INSANE for printing 1000 copies. We thought that would be a ten year supply.
This is great!ReplyDelete
I've added it to my Best Reads of the Week series I've been doing to help draw attention to some of the best stuff I've run across. You're welcome to check it out at the following link:
The 26th January is additionally suitable as it's also the day that GenCon tickets go on sale.ReplyDelete
I'm running a 24-hour noon, 25 Jan to noon, 26 Jan marathon D&D game in honour of my youthful exuberance.ReplyDelete
"Now, with the fortieth anniversary nearly upon us, a burning question arises: when exactly should we celebrate?"ReplyDelete
All. Freakin'. Year.
I thought you might like to know that I didn't like the idea of the anniversary sailing past unmarked. I've set up this Thunderclap so that some gamers might all tweet to celebrate the birthday.
If you approve then I'd love your support in promoting the idea!
I do approve of making a social media splash on the 26th, definitely!Delete
I had no idea when I played it in 1974 in college that it was brand new. I'd played Avalon Hill war games a lot before that but was introduced to miniatures and then D&D in the spring of 74. Neat to read this. I still have all of my old stuff but haven't played in forever.ReplyDelete
What CRTs is EGG referring to in this June 1973 letter?ReplyDelete
He means "combat resolution tables" (CRTs) for wargaming, based on polyhedral dice. The CRTs shipped with Avalon Hill or SPI wargames invariably relied exclusively on d6s, though some fan efforts had considered other number ranges.Delete
Aha. Thanks for the info!Delete
This is such an excellent article, Jon. While I don't have a copy of The Original game, I will be fondly re-reading my first copy of DnD today (Red Box). The 26th is Australia Day, and while a public holiday is a mighty opportunity for a game, most of my mates are at a convention today - blast!ReplyDelete
It was Auckland (hehe, Orcland) Anniversary day here in New Zealand. Which meant an old school D&D game in the afternoon and a huge dungeon crawl in the evening.ReplyDelete
Hi. Your great research is reaching us Japanese D&D fans.ReplyDelete
Recently I've read an article, Gary Gygax 'ON DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Origins of the Game' in Dragon#7(p.7). Here he said ---
The idea of measured progression (experience points) and the addition of games taking place in a dungeon maze struck me as being very desireable. However, that did not really fit in the framework of CHAINMAIL. I asked Dave to please send me his rules additions, for I thought a whole new system should be developed. A few weeks after his visit I received 18 or so handwritten pages of rules and notes pertaining to his campaign, and I immediately began work on a brand new manuscript. “Greyhawk” campaign started -- the first D&D campaign!
About three weeks later, I had some 100 typewritten pages, and we began serious play-testing in Lake Geneva, while copies were sent to the Twin Cities and to several other groups for comment. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS had been born.
--- I suppose, if we could identify the date (or dates) that Gygax stated there the birth of D&D, we would get the birth day of D&D. Or if the day they "began serious play-testing in Lake Geneva" means the your suggested day "when Gary invited the world to drop by his house", this article above strengthen the validity of that date.
Anyway, gratz on our wonderful 40th anniversary!