When is Dungeons & Dragons’ birthday? We don’t really know. RPG Historian par excellence Jon Peterson has investigated the issue a few times and come up with the answer that the game was almost certainly printed in January 1974 (though there’s disagreement even on that) and that it almost certainly wasn’t available to most people until February. The copyright registration was made on January 30, 1974 while a few years after the fact, in 1977, TSR claimed that the trademark “Dungeons & Dragons” was used in commerce starting on January 15 of that year. Peterson eventually settled on the last Sunday of January as an appropriate birthday for Dungeons & Dragons, because of Gygax inviting people over to his house to try out D&D on Sundays. This year, the year of the 50th anniversary, that’s January 28th.
So happy birthday to Dungeons & Dragons.
I came to Dungeons & Dragons through Tom Moldvay’s 1981 Basic Dungeons & Dragons set. The one with the blinding red cover and the beautiful Erol Otus illustration that would be so cunningly integrated into the Expert Dungeons & Dragons cover of the same era. From there I quickly jumped to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. That means that I grew up in an era when Gary Gygax was recognized as the father of roleplaying (even if that strangely unknown name, Dave Arneson, did also appear in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set).
Fortunately our understanding of the history of the design and development of Dungeons & Dragons has considerably matured and expanded in the decades since, and thus we can properly recognize the many people who contributed to the game as we celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. Obviously that starts with Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax: Arneson, who made the irreplaceable imaginative leap forward to provide players with individual characters that they could play in a fantasy milieu, and Gygax, who both co-created the mechanical foundation of the D&D game in Chainmail and who organized and developed Arneson’s concepts into a publishable game.
But even they stood on the shoulders of others. Gygax’s Chainmail design originated in medieval miniatures rules authored by Jeff Perren. Arneson’s ideas of individual characters grew out of the Braunstein games run for him by David Wesely. Minus any of these four fathers and grandfathers of roleplaying, it is likely that Dungeons & Dragons and the roleplaying industry would not exist at all. And that’s not even considering the other tropes, mechanics, and concepts mixed into the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons: the many miniatures rules that preceded it, going back to at least H.G. Wells’ Little Wars; the sword-and-sorcery fiction that created the narratives of outsiders delving into eldritch lair to steal away loot, penned by authors such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. On this fiftieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, we should remember all of them as well.
Of course Dungeons & Dragons was not born fully formed, and it has not remained in the same form in the years since. It’s evolved and changed over the decades, and every one of those evolutions is thanks to a specific designer, developer, playtester, or editor. Brian Blume, Tim Kask, Rob Kuntz, Steve Marsh, Dennis Sustare and James Ward all made notable contributions to the original series of OD&D books. Their deities, mechanics, subclasses, and artifacts are today so foundational that they can’t be conceived of as anything but the core of the D&D game. Nonetheless, they came from those individuals. Marsh was one of the contributors of psionics. Sustare created the druid class. Blume introduced Vecna. Kuntz and Ward authored a whole book full of gods, demi-gods, and heroes.
Over the years, Dungeons & Dragons has been re-invented many times, with three major updates leading to D&D as it’s published today. David “Zeb” Cook led the way in 1989 when he for the first time ever rebuilt the Dungeons & Dragons game, creating a more organized and coherent second edition. Then Jonathan Tweet totally reinvented the game in 2000, laying down the fundamental mechanical design of the game that still exists today. Finally, Mike Mearls mixed together the old and the new to create a fifth-edition game that fulfills the needs of new and nostalgic players alike and has brought Dungeons & Dragons to its greatest heights ever. That’s not to exclude their teams, of course, as each of these lead designers was building on the work on numerous others and was in turn supported by developers and editors. It’s also not to exclude the other D&D games, not quite on the main design track for modern D&D, but still crucial to its constant redevelopment, including the Basic D&D games by J. Eric Holmes, Tom Moldvay, Frank Mentzer, and Aaron Allston and the brilliant but for many too-different fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons game by Rob Heinsoo.
Neither does Dungeons & Dragons exist in a void. It’s been influenced by many other RPGs across the industry. Traveller and RuneQuest got skills into the mainstream, a mechanic that D&D increasingly adopted from the mid ’80s onward. Ars Magica provided D&D with its die+bonus roll-over system. MegaTraveller led the industry with a unified task system, another innovation that got brought into D&D with its third edition. Meanwhile, advantage and disadvantage dice are the descendent of any number of dice pool systems beginning with Shadowrun and Vampire: The Masquerade, but especially Over the Edge, which allowed players to roll variable numbers of dice against a specific target. Finally, the entire OSR demonstrated the growing desire for nostalgic gameplay, so games like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord should be included in modern D&D’s genealogy, right alongside the games that proved the OSR was viable in the mass-market, Dungeon Crawl Classics and Swords & Wizardry prime among them. On this 50th anniversary of D&D we should thus also remember the designers from the rest of the industry, such as Marc Miller, Steve Perrin, Joe D. Fugate Sr., Matt Finch, Bob Charrette, Paul Hume, Tom Dowd, Joseph Goodman, and so many others.
Happy birthday to D&D! Reaching a 50th anniversary is a notable achievement. Any number of lesser hobbies have faded well before that date, while D&D is stronger than ever. But also, salutations to the hundreds and thousands of designers, developers, editors, and others who have brought us to this spot, and who continue to improve the industry every day, from Jeff Perren and Dave Wesely to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to the newly minted author who published their first adventure on the DM’s Guild this morning!
Here’s to fifty more!