Mention the name “Geneva” to most people and they’ll probably think you’re talking about the second largest city in Switzerland.
Mention “Lake Geneva” and they will assume the city has a lake – which it does; it’s one of the largest in Europe.
However, if you inform them that you’re talking about “Lake Geneva, in WISCONSIN” most of them will look blankly at you.
Which isn’t surprising really. Lake Geneva is a small, mid-western town of less than 8000 people, and it’s around 50 miles away from the larger (and better known) city of Milwaukee. It does have a lake, although it’s considerably smaller than its European relative. Although it is popular with tourists from Illinois, it remains largely unknown to the population at large.
Unless, that is, you’re an old school roleplayer.
You see, Lake Geneva, can be argued as being the spiritual home of roleplaying games, because it was there, in 1972, that Dave Arneson – a wargamer from Minneapolis – ran a game set in a fantasy world of his own creation for a fellow wargamer, a Lake Geneva resident named Gary Gygax.
The game took place in a setting that Arneson called “Blackmoor” and it was run using rules Dave had developed from the wargame “Chainmail” – a system that Gygax himself had worked on along with Jeff Perren. Ostensibly created to simulate battles between medieval armies, Gygax had written a fantasy supplement for it that provided rules for monsters, magic items, and spells with which wizards could zap their opponents with.
However, the thing that really blew Gygax away by the game that Arneson ran for him was the scale. Rather than focusing on a pitched battle between two sides, Arneson had conceived a game where each player took on the role of a single character, and together they formed a party to explore a dungeon filled with monsters and treasure. The whole experience lit Gygax’s mind on fire, and before long he had started work on his own setting – Greyhawk – and had asked Arneson for a copy of his rules. Together they collaborated on what eventually became Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax felt that the game would be a hit, so he and Arneson went to Guidon Games – the publisher of Chainmail – and asked them to support the venture.
In a day and age where the sales of D&D are astronomical – recently Hasbro posted figures suggesting that sales of Dungeons and Dragons had propped up their other products that were performing poorly – it will probably come as a surprise then that, new game in hand, Gygax found it difficult to find a publisher for his baby. Guidon Games considered themselves too small for such an undertaking and Avalon Hill – at the time the world’s biggest publisher of wargames – turned it down; unable to understand what this new mutation of wargaming was all about.
Gygax was still passionate about publishing the game and proposed setting up their own company to do so, but Arneson felt that he was unable to commit to such a venture. Undaunted, Gygax and business partner Don Kaye found Tactical Studies Rules – or TSR as they became known – in 1973. The urgent need to publish on Gygax’s part was more than simple enthusiasm for a new fad – he knew that other groups were out there who had similar games, and if they weren’t the first to market they might miss this opportunity. It was because of this that they accepted an offer of funding from Brian Blume in exchange for a one third share in the company. It was therefore possible, in 1974, to release the first commercial version of D&D.
It was an instant success.
The first 1000 copies sold out in less than a year, and sales simply shot into the stratosphere after that. Sadly, Kaye died of a heartattack in 1975 and, after much wrangling over Kaye’s share of the business, Blume and his father ended up owning the majority, leaving Gygax as a minority shareholder in the company.
Dave Arnseon made a reappearance in 1976 – hired as Director of Research – but he left shortly afterwards, citing the fact that he and Gygax still had creative differences over how D&D was being developed.
1977 saw the release of what became known as the Holmes Basic Set – a version of D&D geared towards newer players that got its name from the fact that it was edited by American writer J Eric Holmes. This set was built on both the original D&D set released in 1974 as well as the Greyhawk setting, and was designed to gently introduce new players into the hobby – making the assumption that they might not come from a wargaming background.
It came either as a rulebook, or in a box which contained the book, and some supplemental materials such as maps, monster lists, treasure charts and dice. Later printings replaced these with modules – TSR’s term for adventure supplements – including classics such as “The Keep on the Borderlands”.
The original conception was that players of the basic rules would end up “graduating” to a new product that was being developed by TSR called “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”.
However, the basic set was a runaway success, and by 1978 had seen four printings! In 1981 a decision was made not to have players from the basic set be absorbed by D&D, but instead Basic would be developed as its own product. In line with Holmes’ original vision, Basic continued with its lighter, more personal tone whilst AD&D became increasingly more rules heavy. However, a new set was developed – the Expert Set – that allowed players from third level to move upwards to play characters of levels four to fourteen.
1983 saw the publication of what – for a lot of UK gamers – was their first brush with D&D: the red box edition. Featuring an iconic cover image by Larry Elmore of a fighter locked in a life or death struggle with a dragon, this edition was revised by Frank Mentzer and now included a sixty four page Players’ Manual, a forty eight page Dungeon Master’s Rulebook and six dice that had to be coloured in with a crayon. This probably seems ludicrous to younger players, but this was fairly standard practice for games at the time – I remember first edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle having something similar.
The Mentzer edition also went beyond Expert rules, introducing Companion rules for characters levels fifteen to twenty five, Master rules for levels twenty six to thirty six and Immortal rules from playing gods (where levels didn’t really mean anything anymore).
In an interesting change from the previous editions, the Mentzer edition now included in place of a module, a solo adventure to teach players the rules and an introductory scenario for a Dungeon Master to run.
While not much in the way of rules had changed from previous editions, the presentation of the Mentzer editions were a step beyond what had been released before, and the decision to have the game act as a tutorial to ease new players into the hobby is still seen and felt today in video games, that frequently use their first few levels to introduce players to the basic concepts and rules of the game. All of this has its roots in Basic D&D.
In parallel to the development of the Basic editions, in 1977 Gygax threw himself into the development of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This saw the rules broken up across three books into the Players’ Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual – a format that is still in use to this day. AD&D also included many more options around character including additional classes and a LOT more rules.
LOTS of rules.
It also saw the development of some of the most…well, I’m not sure “loved” is the word…maybe “remembered” is better? adventures for the game. Supplements like Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil and Isle of the Ape were all released in this period of creative frenzy.
By 1980 D&D’s sales had reached the staggering heights of over 8 million dollars!
However, AD&D also brought with it its own share of controversy. In 1977 TSR claimed that AD&D was different enough of a product that Dave Arneson wouldn’t be entitled to any royalties from it. This resulted in a lengthy legal battle which ended with TSR and Arneson settling out of court, with an agreement that Arneson would be credited as “co-creator” of all D&D products and that he would receive a 2.5% royalty on them.
If TSR thought a lawsuit was bad, that was just the calm before the storm. It began in 1979 when a Michigan State University student, James Egbert, allegedly disappeared while playing a live action version of D&D. This wasn’t true – he reappeared several weeks later. Egbert’s disappearance – and his tragic suicide in later years – was an unfortunate result of stress and clinical depression, but it had nothing to do with D&D. However, this furore represented the first shots to be fired in a wider torrent of negative mainstream media attention.
In 1981 a book was published called “Mazes and Monsters” which was a thinly veiled version of the Egbert story as reported by the press. This was followed in 1982 by a made for TV movie starring none other than a young Tom Hanks. The plot was nonsense, but it cemented an idea in the minds of certain people who were largely ignorant of the hobby, namely that roleplaying can cause players to breakdown and lose touch with reality. And then, BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.
In 1982, a Virginian woman named Patricia Pulling founded an advocacy group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or – to use its none too subtle acronym – BADD. Pulling had been a long time anti-occult campaigner, but she founded BADD in response to her son – Irving’s – suicide. Irving Pulling had been an active roleplayer, and his mother attributed his tragic death to a D&D curse put on his character shortly before he took his own life. She filed lawsuits against her son’s school and TSR as a result – both of which were dismissed by the judge.
After this, her campaigning with BADD went into high gear, as she started airing her views that D&D encouraged – amongst other things – devil worship and suicide. Flawed as these opinions were, she managed to get quite a substantial amount of press coverage from a media that had grown fat on stories such as the Egbert Case and Mazes and Monsters. Gygax ended up appearing on a 60 Minutes special to defend the game; a show that included interviews with Patricia Pulling and other parents that claimed their offspring had been motivated to commit various unhealthy acts after playing D&D.
In 1988, a wealthy American businessman by the name of Leith Von Stein and his wife Bonnie were attacked in their home in North Carolina. Tragically, Leith died from his injuries, but Bonnie survived and was able to summon the police. It eventually came to light that Von Stein’s stepson Chris had coerced two of his friends – James Upchurch and Neal Henderson – into committing the crime in return for a promised share of the inheritance money he would receive after his stepfather’s death.
It was a horrendous tragedy motivated by pure greed, but two books written on the subject – “Cruel Doubt” and “Blood Games” – both heavily emphasised the perpetrators interest in Dungeons and Dragons, as if that was what drove them to commit such a horrible crime.
Despite this storm of controversy, D&D continued to flourish, with sales almost doubling to around $16 million.
However, all wasn’t well at TSR. In 1981 Kevin Blume – Brian’s brother – had purchased their father’s shares, and as a result the Blume Brothers ended up having the controlling interest in the company. The end result was that Gygax and the Blumes found themselves increasingly at loggerheads over management of the company. This, coupled with Gygax’s turbulent personal life – which led to an acrimonious divorce in 1983 – saw TSR split into two divisions – TSR, Inc and TSR Entertainment, Inc; the latter of which Gygax was made President of. This saw him flying to Hollywood to negotiate – amongst other things – a D&D cartoon and the production of a D&D movie, whilst the Blumes oversaw the hobby aspect of the business.
It was in 1984 – whilst tying down some details of a D&D movie – that Gygax received word that the Blumes were looking to sell TSR for $6 million. Shooting back to Lake Geneva, he found that although TSR was doing very well on paper – they were grossing over $30 million – the expenses incurred by the business were absolutely staggering, which saw them teetering towards insolvency. He convinced the board to fire Kevin Blume as company president and, to prevent the board from selling the company out from underneath him, he exercised a stock option that gave him just over 50% control.
Appointing himself president and CEO he set to work tasking TSR with the production of new material that he hoped would turn around the slump. He even called upon Dave Arneson again, asking him to produce a series of Blackmoor modules for D&D.
While he was busy producing new content, he hired a company manager, Lorraine Williams, on the basis of her management expertise. Gygax knew of Lorraine through her brother who he had met in Hollywood whilst working on the D&D film. Originally he had asked her to invest, but when she declined he offered her a job, knowing that she had the skills and chops to deal with TSR’s creditors and get the wheels of commerce turning again.
Unbeknownst to Gygax, when he removed Kevin Blume from his position, Brian Blume triggered his longstanding stock option. Both brothers, realising that they had no future at TSR, took the opportunity to dump their stock on a new investor.
That investor’s name?
Despite having created the products that may have saved the company, Gary now learned that Lorraine was the majority stakeholder and she quickly replaced him as CEO. In addition, she felt that his creative direction was not necessarily in the best interests of the company and ordered that his projects be shelved. Gygax attempted to have the stock transfer declared illegal in courts, but he lost.
So it was, in 1986, the Gary Gygax resigned all positions in TSR and left the company he had founded.
1989 saw the publication of AD&D 2nd edition – a move that was seen by some as a way of cutting Gygax off from the royalties of previous editions of the game. This saw the standard three book format, but instead of a Monster Manual, there was a Monstrous Compendium that was a loose-leaf binder. This idea didn’t do well, and it was replaced by a Monstrous Manual in 1993 in the traditional hardback book format.
Conscious of the controversies of the early 80s, the writers of 2nd ed deliberately removed all references to demons, devils and the like. Sexually suggestive artwork was toned down, and the option to play evil things such as assassins were removed.
Probably one of the things that 2nd Edition was most fondly remembered for was the modules that focused on genres other than the traditional, Tolkienesque, European-medieval fantasy setting. Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Al-Qadim were all developed in this era, and classics such as Ravenloft were further enhanced.
However, all was not rosy for TSR. n series of increasingly unwise business ventures including a collectible dice game, CD-ROM accessories and games with videotapes – led to the company once again nearing financial collapse. As a solution, the entered into an extremely sketchy deal with their distributor and printer which ultimately led to their distributor returning boatloads of product and their printer refusing to print anything new for them.
TSR, it seemed, was not long for this planet. The company that had created the roleplaying hobby was facing oblivion just over twenty years after it started. It would take a miracle to get them out of this hole.
Remember that scene in the film adaption of The Two Towers, when Gandalf says “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east”? Well, on the metaphorical fifth day, any TSR employees looking to the east would indeed see a wizard riding to their rescue, but rather than bringing a horde of cavalry with him, this wizard brought financial salvation.
Wizards of the Coast – the gaming company that produced the hit game Magic: The Gathering – rode into town in 1997 and purchased the half-bankrupt husk that was TSR. Three years later they released 3rd edition D&D – making the move to end the split between basic and advanced D&D. They also introduced something called “The D20 System” with the intent on making a core system that could be used for various different genres and settings. More options were given to customise characters and a lot of work was done to make the rules more streamlined and easier to play. A 3.5 edition was released in 2003 – this included a boatload of minor rules changes, but was otherwise the same game.
4th edition was released in 2008, and almost immediately prompted an angry backlash from players who had become financially invested in the 3rd edition. 4th edition was a major revision to the game’s systems, and many who played it have commented that it felt more like a tactical miniatures game than an RPG. The use of a “battlegrid” and – you know – miniatures helps reinforce this. Although the core rules are relatively simple to learn, one of the biggest complaints from players – other than “Why’d you kill 3rd edition???” – is that combat ended up taking substantially longer in this edition compared to the others.
In 2012 Wizards announced the development of a project called D&D Next, and invited players to take part in the playtesting, which would take approximately two years. The end result was D&D 5th edition that was released in 2014. Unlike the wargame-lite that 4th edition was, this edition goes back to the roots of the 1st and 2nd editions and draws from that well. And unlike the complicated mess that some other editions became, 5e is refreshing for its simplicity. There’s the option for a lot of other rules like tactical combat and multiclassing, but they’re not essential to play, or even part of the main body of rules.
Curiously, when 5e was released, it wasn’t being released into a market where the previous version of D&D was the number one RPG at the time. Instead, upon 5ed’s release it was Pathfinder – the game created in response to fans who were unhappy with D&D 4th ed and the premature death of 3rd edition – that was currently sitting at the top of the heap.
To generate interest in the new edition, Wizards released the basic rules as a free PDF in July 2014, roughly a month before they brought out the Starter Set.
It is this edition, and the elegant simplicity of its rules, that has probably led to the massive resurgence in D&D popularity. Wizards estimate at the moment that around 40 million people world wide play the game.
Think about that for a moment.
To put that into perspective, that’s equal to the total population of 23 of the USA’s states!
Numerous celebrities like Vin Diesel, Drew Barrymore, Dwayne Johnson, Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper have all “come out” as D&D players, and the game has been featured repeatedly in mainstream shows – most famously on Netflix’s Stranger Things, which even led to a Stranger Things edition of the red box basic set being released.
Today, D&D is played at meetup events, in pubs and restaurants. That’s a far cry from the days in which players were considered nerds who lived in basements.
Consider the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Now consider the fact that some therapists use D&D in their treatment and research has proven that playing D&D improves mathematical, comprehension and conflict management in children.
Oh, and that whole business about D&D being linked to suicide? Yeah, researchers proved no link between D&D and suicide.
D&D has also become MUCH more inclusive in its recent edition. No longer is every character a white western male European. Gone is the sexist artwork portraying female warriors in chainmail bikinis, or the weak and helpless princesses that were just there to be rescued from marauding orcs like another piece of treasure. And guess what? Over forty percent of D&D players are now women. When I used to play back in the day we had ONE girl in our group and that was considered odd…
D&D is also broadcast online. Last year, over 400 million hours of D&D content was streamed online. That’s an insane amount of hours devoted to allowing players to watch other players playing D&D…. The popularity of shows like “Critical Roll” and “Girls, Guts, Glory” show that there’s actually a living to be made playing D&D.
These days, it’s even possible to hire a Dungeon Master to run your game for you (although, I strongly urge you to be very careful on what you click on after googling “Dungeon Masters For Hire” – you may get more than you bargained for).
It’s insane when you think about it. What used to be the “nerd hobby” that people got bullied for, is now a multi million dollar industry, is played by millions of people, is broadcast worldwide and is considered – dare I say it? – cool.
However, never forget that it all started when a gamer in Minneapolis thought “Wouldn’t it be more exciting to play the role of a single person in this wargame rather than a whole army?”
Dave Arneson, we thank you.