Hey, I owned those books!

They look so familiar. I might still have them, buried in a box somewhere with my Ph.D. diploma and a pile of old similarly irrelevant papers.

The photo comes from an article on the history of Dungeons & Dragons that mostly takes Gary Gygax down a notch. It’s entertaining, I kind of suspect the tale of the deep dissent between the Wisconsin crowd and the Minnesota gamers is likely true, because even as a young man I heard rumors of the conflict, but mainly I took away these shocking points:

  • Everyone in the 1970s had bad hair, and it didn’t improve as they got older.
  • The main reason D&D used 20-sided dice is because Gygax wanted a reason to sell them.
  • The primary conflict was between story-tellers and rules lawyers.

I’m going to take sides with the Arneson/story-teller idea, because my exposure to D&D in the ancient of days made it clear that the rules were better as a very loose framework for the story between the players to play out.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    The story is blocked by my overlord’s firewall, so I’ll have to read it later. Speaking for myself, I do prefer the “Storyteller” model too, but rules do tend to come in handy.

  2. blf says

    Everyone in the 1970s had bad hair

    They™ were still fine-tuning teh chemtrails then.

    and it didn’t improve as they got older

    However, this hypothesis does not explain hair furor currently occupying the Wacko House.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    My exposure to it, in ’76, was almost all story-telling, as the books were basically outlines, for the DM(*) to fill in the details. This according to our first DM, who introduced the game to us, his dorm-suite collegians. Basically the DM set all the rules, and clever discussions with the DM during the game could get him to bend them with his discretion.

    * DM = Dungeon Master

  4. cartomancer says

    I’ve studied medieval palaeography, and even I’m impressed by your collection of ancient documents. Dig a little deeper and you’ll probably find the cuneiform originals.

  5. blf says

    cuneiform originals

    The mildly deranged penguin points out Atlantis didn’t use cuneiform (other than for some ceremonial inscriptions by graffiti artists), so whilst there probably are cuneiform versions, they are not the original.

  6. says

    Yeah, story telling was most important because those original rule books were awful — vague, contradictory, focused on combat, and tying you up in knots for trivial stuff. There were games I was in where the entire session was one long ugly fight with lots of die rolling, that were actually impeding the story being told.

  7. says

    My 3 book set is on my shelf next to my computer; I can stretch out my arm and just reach them if I needed them.

    For me, it was problem-solving – both as a party member and dungeonmaster.

    My high school D&D group had some innovators in it. One of the guys ran a campaign that was a sort of freewheeling cinema noir gangster thing (picture Miller’s Crossing with magic…) and it didn’t even have a rules system. He used a resolution approach he called “dramatic rules” – which meant that if you were going to shoot someone (or whatever) your success/failure depended on how well you jumped out of your seat and trash-talked/mimed your actions. It was a great deal of fun and he went on to become a theater major.

  8. Kevin Karplus says

    I have that set—I even unearthed them a few years ago to give to my son, though I think he is using 5th edition for his dungeons these days (he just started a campaign with his colleagues at work).

    When I was in grad school, we created our own rule set, which included a rather complicated fatigue system that we kept track of with poker chips. Character development was a big part of our games, as was map making and puzzle solving. Combat was a relatively minor part.

  9. scottde says

    I am close friends with someone who was there when D&D was being invented, was a long-time employee of TSR, played in both Gygax’ first Greyhawk campaign and (once) in Arneson’s Blackmoor.

    I won’t reprint his comments in full, but he felt the article was a bit of a hit-job by someone with a grudge and vastly oversimplified what happened. Arneson was role-playing, but in a largely ad-lib fashion. Gygax systematized the game and wrote rules so others could start their own role-playing games. Arneson never wanted to write anything down, and was a non-participant in the creation of AD&D (nor did he write anything for 1st edition), so his name didn’t appear on the game (and the decision wasn’t Gygax’ alone). Gygax didn’t invent it all, true, it was a team effort, but he was certainly the biggest factor in the creation of D&D.

  10. Oggie: Mathom says

    I gave my copies, along with three of the expansion books, to my daughter’s husband’s sister when she got married. She and her husband initially linked up playing one of the modern RPGs at college. They were blown away. One of their guests, who said he had written a book about the history of D&D (not idea the title, or if it even got published) told me that he had photos of the books but had never actually seen one, let alone the first six. Still with the white box.

    I actually preferred the original D&D to later ones and ran my campaigns (when a DM) using a combination of D&D and AD&D but keeping it as simple as possible. I had reasons that this group of misfits was going on a quest with a real goal. I emphasized the story and tried really hard to keep the action moving. Anyone who tried rules-lawyering got shut down fast. My dungeon. My rules. Those books are suggestions and ideas, not cannon. It worked.

    My Son-in-Law’s sister and her husband ran an original D&D campaign this last summer and really enjoyed it. Of course, they used digital copies of the original books. The books I gave them are now stored in plastic.

    Which makes me kinda sad. Those books were made to be used.

  11. cartomancer says

    I’ve not really had much of a chance to do proper roleplaying games myself. The problem being that I’ve almost never had more than one friend interested in doing so, and it isn’t really the same with just one character and one GM. Even two players and one GM (invariably that’s me) doesn’t really seem to work, particularly when said players are expecting very different experiences from the game, and have an almost pathological inability to collaborate with each other. This is why I’ve tended to stick with fantasy tabletop wargaming really (which has historically been much bigger in the UK at any rate) – you only need a single fellow player for that, and the miniature painting side keeps you busy during the long months and years between games.

    Perhaps it’s because I’ve never actually played Dungeons and Dragons, only other RPGs, that I’ve never really bought into this mythologising. I would point out that the concept of roleplaying with a GM-type referee was actually pioneered in 19th century German theoretical military training exercises, where an experienced officer was appointed to adjudicate the results of wargames to provide a less structured, more open-ended exercise that didn’t just work to fixed rules, like real war tends not to. Which is not to say I don’t have my own nostalgic fond memories of the wargames and RPGs I have played, from the early 90s onward.

  12. brucej says

    Always on the storyteller side…the sign of the best game experience is when people re-tell the story of the game session. But then I started playing in those early days where everyone made their own worlds and tweaked everything in the rules to their own liking.

    And somewhere around the house I have a copy of the original Deities and Demigods book with the Lovecraft, Tolkein and Michael Moorcock material they had to take out…

  13. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve got the very same boxed set from 1975 myself.

    The article reminded me of Wozniak/Jobs, or going even farther back, Tesla/Edison. It seems as if there’s always a genius who comes up with the original idea, and then a businessman/marketer who hammers the thing into a shape where it can get to market (and who ends up with most of the money and credit).

    Full disclosure — I ran a larp that Dave Arneson played in at a Minneapolis convention around 1995. (One of the high marks of my life.) He was a sweet guy, very friendly to everyone, and definitely receiving the kind of adulation from everyone that he deserved.

    But without Gygax, it’s pretty likely that his brilliant invention would have languished with his friends in his apartment, just to be abandoned when a new set of Napoleanic miniature rules came along.

    Can’t the pedestal be big enough for both of them? Who cares whether it ought to be Gygax and Arneson or Arneson and Gygax? Bolt of lightning genius versus the hard work of typesetting and making up tables and finding investors and arranging for printers — they both deserve credit.

  14. gregsneakel says

    So easy to malign the dead when they cant respond.
    Jeff Perrin is not even mentioned.
    Talk about revisionist history.

  15. Akira MacKenzie says

    Finally got to read the article. Awwww… Not one mention of Prof. Barker! Sad.

  16. gregsneakel says

    More BS:
    “I took away these shocking points:
    The main reason D&D used 20-sided dice is because Gygax wanted a reason to sell them.”
    Utter revisionist history.
    David Wesely is credited by Dave Arneson for introducing polyhedral dice. Gygax didnt sell dice. He had to import them (cruddy plastic dice) which added cost to Chainmail.
    The only thing shocking is how wrong your points are.

  17. John Harshman says

    D&D isn’t memorable as much for the rules as for coming up with the idea of role-playing games. But that’s a big deal. Hey, did anyone in the world ever play using the real DNA magic system, based on Vance’s Dying Earth?

  18. microraptor says

    Since the late 90s I remember hearing that Gygax overpromoted himself as being the real founder of D&D while unfairly minimizing Arneson’s contributions, but yeah, that article seems like a hatchet job.

  19. says

    So in the end, Gygax was another Steve Jobs, another Johann Gutenberg, putting together other people’s ideas and commercializing them. Each was important, but not the whole story and got too much credit. After work tonight, I’ll give my own thoughts on D&D.

  20. Artor says

    I’ve been playing a 2nd Ed campaign lately, and what stands out is that early editions of D&D simply were not a coherent set of rules. You CAN’T play the game as written, and it’s vitally necessary to home-brew your own workarounds to make it into something functional. Neither Gygax nor Arneson were professional game designers, as that job didn’t really exist at the time. They were enthusiastic amateurs, and it shows. In my many years of gaming, the best campaigns have always been the ones that relied on rules the least.

  21. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    I’m definitely more of a “story-first” GM. But! The rules help with the story, if done correctly. Basically, one of the ways to make sure that the story is collaborative rather than the GM just reading his novel at his players while they eat pizza and make snarky comments is to have rules. That’s why randomization, despite how frustrating it can be sometimes when you roll a 1 ten times in a row, is important too: it creates failure organically. At its best, a system that uses rules, whether it be D&D/Pathfinder (which are more mechanically dense) or World of Darkness (which is more rules-lite), allows you to create awesome stories just by the system’s pieces interacting. The barbarian who is on his last legs manages to survive in this crazy fight and be almost about to die but saved by the cleric who he’s disrespecting? The party that gets a lot of luck and some good strategies to take down a dragon that they had no right to be able to defeat? The Mal Reynolds moment where the party’s gunslinger or archer takes down the hostage-taking villain in a moment and the story continues to the next threat? You can get all that from the rules.

    What rules lawyers fail to realize is that you structure the rules for the game you want. If you want a game that’s about exploring dungeons or engaging in small battles, then yeah, your rules do need to be able to accommodate combat. If you want a game that’s about intrigue or character drama, then your rules should be oriented at doing that. Which always means that any sensible GM is always adding house rules for their campaign. So as long as something is fun, the rules don’t matter. The rules just keep things fair (and visibly so).

  22. Akira MacKenzie says

    PZ @ 8

    Yeah, story telling was most important because those original rule books were awful — vague, contradictory, focused on combat, and tying you up in knots for trivial stuff.

    Since the abomination that was 4th Ed, there was a resurgence in interest in “Old School” rpg titles, particular “Original” D&D. Since then there has been numerous attempts to restate and clarify the original rules so that make a little more sense than the original product as well as to expand the scope beyond the standard “high fantasy” genre. Most of them are actually pretty good and place a large emphasis on storytelling and minimalist rules.

    Just this winter, I ran a recently released Cthulhu Mythos horror investigation version of one of these OD&D clones (i.e. “Eldritch Tales” — no, I don’t work for the publisher) at a local con, and it went very, very well. Most actions were handled by basic d6 rolls and combat (the little that there was was) was done using classic THAC0 mechanics. Everyone had a really good time.

  23. John Harshman says


    Neither Gygax nor Arneson were professional game designers, as that job didn’t really exist at the time.

    Au contraire. There were several companies full of professional designers in 1975. Avalon Hill, SPI, GDW, and others.

  24. DanDare says

    I started with Chainmail and its fantasy suplement. Purchased the white box set as soon as DnD was published in 74. However I knew about Blackmore through US friends so we took off from the get go playing in a more Arnesson style. Always considered the rules more props for learning a method and then as guidelines. After all there are board games for more constrained experiences.

  25. wanderingelf says

    While I give D&D due credit for being the first RPG, Gygax’s unwillingness to acknowledge its flaws always seemed rather ego-driven. It reminds me of a a gaming joke from the 80s (which I shall herein resurrect):

    A gamer dies, and upon arriving at the pearly gates, asks St Peter if there is gaming in the afterlife. St Peter assures him that, indeed, heaven has an active gaming community, and leads him to heaven’s holy gaming level. Sure enough, there are people gathered around tables, rolling pearly dice of many sides. St Peter points out the added bonus that, in heaven, gamers can actually look like their characters. The gamer looks around, notices a figure at the head of the largest table, and asks, “who is the guy with the beard and glasses?” St Peter replies, “that’s God – He likes to play Gary Gygax.”

  26. Akira MacKenzie says

    I confess, I actually prefer the percenile-based approach to RPGs started by Prof. Barker with ”Empire of the Petal Throne” and great expanded upon by Petersen at Chaosium. The Seventh Edition of ”Call of Cthulhu” is pretty good, while its kissing cousin ”Delta Green” is just about perfect. However, Gygax/Arneson D20 is the lingua franca of most tabletop RPGs (e.g. ”D&D,” ”Pathfinder,” ”Castles & Crusades,” ”Swords & Wizardry, ” ”Labyrinth Lord,” etc.), so I still try to keep up.

  27. blf says

    There were several companies full of professional designers in 1975. Avalon Hill…

    Indeed. Avalon Hill, which apparently still exists, was formed in the 1950s. And, according to Ye Pfffft! of All Knowledge, Gygax and Arneson proposed D&D to them but were rejected… Oops!

    I myself remember being interested in some AH games at broadly that time, but have no recollection of ever acquiring — or indeed playing — any…