Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Game Wizards: D&D Development Timeline

 

While Game Wizards has plenty to say about the big picture of TSR's corporate financials, it also pays a lot of attention to the early, scrappy days when D&D was more of a hobby than a business to the people who made it. This visual timeline of the 1972-4 process is intentionally pretty high-level, showing sequences of events rather than exact dates, but it is the working model I used for this era as I wrote the book. It is a little different from the timeline certain books (including mine) have given in the past.

Probably the most dramatic adjustment to the traditionally accepted timeline shown here is dating when Dave Arneson and Dave Megarry made their famous visit to Lake Geneva to demonstrate dungeoneering. I am well aware that this contradicts no small number of sources, including Playing at the World, but ultimately, I no longer believe timelines dating that event circa November 1972 are viable. To quickly summarize:

  • At the end of 1972, Gygax planned to do a third edition of Chainmail for Guidon Games, and having read Arneson's pieces in the Domesday Book and Corner of the Table (as well as private correspondence), he wrote to ask him for any Chainmail modifications developed for Blackmoor, promising credit and a free copy of third edition Chainmail when it appeared. Ever cost-conscious, Gygax often mailed quick blurbs using index cards as post cards:

I don't think it's an understatement to say that grungy index card marked the beginning of their collaboration toward D&D as a product.
  • Arneson basically replied that his Chainmail modifications were "fairly minor," citing his changes to the hit point system, but he characterized Blackmoor as mostly driven by the development of the dungeon, its incorporation of Outdoor Survival (then a very new thing), and its famous referee-driven style of play. He volunteered to send Gygax some "chance tables" from the campaign, which Gygax received and studied in the New Year, but he couldn't see quite how it worked.
  • In early 1973, because Megarry hoped that Guidon Games would publish his Dungeon! boardgame, he and Arneson came down to Lake Geneva to demonstrate it to Gygax - the planned date got pushed back, but they apparently got together in the second half of February. After the Dungeon! demo, Arneson ran the group through a Blackmoor adventure, and Gygax was hooked.
  • A few weeks later (early April), Gygax wrote back to Arneson, describing the creation of the Greyhawk dungeon and proposing that the pair of them collaborate on publishing rules for dungeon adventuring. (One not insignificant impediment, as the top half of the postcard above hints, was that Guidon had failed to pay Arneson royalties for their earlier Don't Give Up the Ship, and Arneson was not then interested in doing any more work for them). Gygax busily gets writing, and though Arneson sends him more notes, Gygax's attitude was, "I won't even go into the rest of what you said re fantasy until you've seen the rules I've done." 
  • Gygax sends Arneson the 100-page first draft around mid-1973. Arneson's group begins incorporating some of its concepts into their Blackmoor campaign. Or, as Arneson later described the collaboration in his Pegasus #1 interview: “At the time, they had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules. They sent theirs to us and we fooled around with them for a while. We exchanged letters for a while and just kind of slipped into it.” Arneson continued to send material on things like magic swords, naval and aerial battles, and so on.

Pushing the date of Arneson and Megarry's visit forward leads to a more compressed timeline, where the collaboration of Gygax and Arneson happens largely between the spring and fall of 1973. By the fall, Gygax had embarked on a complete rewrite of the game into its three-volume format (an idea which appears to have originated in the Twin Cities, incidentally).

The other significant difference in the timeline reflects when first print brown box D&D was actually published. Though TSR printed the three little brown booklets one at a time throughout January, Gygax suggests the last volume did not come back from the printers until the second week of February:

Regular readers of this blog may be wondering if this new timeline induces me to push back when I celebrate the anniversary of the publication of D&D, that is, on the last Sunday in January. My earlier posts about this stressed the difficulty of assigning a "release date" to a game produced so informally, pointing out ambiguities like Gygax's claim that January was when TSR received its first order, which could have been true even if the game hadn't been printed yet, etc. Ultimately, I probably won't move my own celebration date, for the reason given on the bottom half of the postcard above: because Gygax could still run the game for a group of 16 on Sundays before the booklets were all back from the printers. But I wouldn't look askance at anyone who raised a glass to D&D on the first (or even second!) Sunday in February instead.

23 comments:

  1. Revisionism! Always good stuff. Sure, not a whole lot different from PatW, but I think this is a highly useful exercise to properly elaborate on the simplified form of the story as merely a "collaboration". Of course there's a lot of interesting other things from the book like the role Dungeon! played in the formation but best not to get too off the rails here.

    The real oddity to me is that they were writing letters on index cards. Really? Is this the actual physical thing that Gygax sent to Arneson, or was this a draft of the letter that Gygax scribbled in his free time and kept laying around? You've never gone much into provenance (I know for some legitimate reasons) but do you know who originally held these index cards?

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  2. re: the index cards - I wonder if this was just something as simple as using them as cheap bulk alterantives to postcards, was there a special postage rate for postcards in the US at the time?

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    1. Correct, using index cards as postcards is just a cost-saving measure. The reverse (blank) side of these contains normal addresses, stamps, postmarks, and so on.

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  3. Do you have more detail you can share about the shift from late 1972 into 1973, Jon---I assume this is covered in the book?

    I ask in part because quite a lot of the initial adventuring in Castle Greyawk has been previously dated to late 1972, with the campaign well-underway by early 1973 and continuing throughout the year.

    Does the shift of the beginning of Dave and Gary's collaboration necessarily shift the beginning of Greyhawk's dungeon play, or are the two perhaps more discrete vs. intertwined? (FWIW, I had assumed that they were closely intertwined).

    Allan.

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    1. The book does not attempt to chronicle the Blackmoor or Greyhawk campaigns as such, it's really just concerned about how D&D became a product. But to your main point here, the data that I've seen does not seem to be compatible with Greyhawk as such existing before circa March 1973. I am well aware that is not aligned with the traditional timeline of events, and I would not be presenting things this way if I could imagine even some far-fetched pretext that made another reading plausible.

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  4. Fantastic! Can I transcribe this text to my Brazilian blog? Of course, I'll put the credits.

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  5. Ditto what Allan said - understanding that we're peering back into the hoary mists of time...!

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  6. Just to be clear, with regard to the entry for "Gygax sends Arneson first draft of D&D", this is the document you've previously referred to as "Guidon D&D"?

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  7. This is very interesting, because while the 1972 date was very widely cited in later years (for example the introductions to both modules WG5 and WG6) it was implicit even as far back as 1976, when Gary claimed that Blackmoor had been active for 5 years to Greyhawk’s 4, and that “over a year” passed between the first and final drafts of the D&D rules. It’s likely those dates were elided both to blur the difference in longevity between Blackmoor and Greyhawk (from 2+ years to 1 year) and also to make it seem like D&D had extensive playtesting than it actually did - “over a year” compared to a few months. And after repeating that so often, by 1984-85 (much less the 21st century) Gary and Rob Kuntz had probably forgotten that “game zero” actually happened in Feb 1973 rather than late 1972.

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  8. Good point. In 1976 game was growing, other companies were already trying to buy in, and I wouldn't be surprised that Gygax felt players would be unimpressed to learn that Greyhawk itself was more venerable than their own campaigns by just a few months, or that some parts of the books had received far less playtesting than others. After enough years had passed to have stopped thinking about all that, the exaggerated heritage was already set in print and memory.

    Players are amazingly consistent in being liberally fuzzy on just how long their campaigns have been running, it's the Big Fish tradition of roleplaying. It's fascinating to see that was always there even in the beginning.

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  9. I’m a bit stunned that post cards were used for sensitive business correspondence. In some ways the past was an alien planet which has got to make your job much harder!

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    1. If you had told anyone at the time that this was "sensitive business correspondence," they would have looked at you funny.

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  10. Will the new book include pictures like these postcards?

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    1. Not postcards as such, but other things of potential interest.

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  11. Interesting blog as always Jon! This part is interesting: though Arneson sends him more notes, Gygax's attitude was, "I won't even go into the rest of what you said re fantasy until you've seen the rules I've done." Did Gygax say that, or is that you summarizing?

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    1. That is a direct quote from their correspondence.

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  12. Looking forward to your book release tomorrow Jon. Gygax said in his "Origins of the Game" article (Dragon magazine #7) that after the famous visit by Dave when he demonstrated Blackmoor, Gygax asked Dave for his rules additions to Chainmail, received 18 pages, and then started working on a rules manuscript. By your new timeline, that would have occurred between the second half of February and the beginning of April, but it isn't described above. When do you judge it occurred? Thank you.

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    1. My sense is that it was a messier process, where Arneson had sent some material late in 1972, and then more chunks in 1973 throughout the development process. The lines in the timeline above are not meant to represent the only times the pair of them were in communication.

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    2. Thanks for the response Jon. Your book arrived, and I've reached the point where you write "he sent Gygax some charts and notes from the campaign at the start of 1973". Can you be any more specific? This was in addition to the chance tables he had sent in late 1972? Thank you.

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    3. My understanding is that the "chance tables" were offered in mid-December but (what with the holidays and all) didn't actually get scrutiny from Gygax until the start of 1973.

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    4. So if I am understanding correctly, Dave offered some chance tables to Gary mid-December, then Gary responded in early January, and then Dave sent some charts and notes in response to Gary's response in early January? Thank you.

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    5. Neither chart above nor Game Wizards aims for the level of precision of a blow-by-blow: just the high level picture that Gygax asked for some stuff in December, got some stuff that he was puzzling over in the New Year, and then became less puzzled after he played with Arneson in February. While it might be possible to drill down further, that level of detail suffices to get across what GW is trying to say, anyway.

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