The History of Dungeons & Dragons

Updated: Jan 29

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is unquestionably the world’s most celebrated and well-known roleplaying game. At its core, it is a staple of the sword and sorcery subset of fantasy, though its open-ended gameplay style also allows for other stories within or even beyond the genre.

There have been many different versions of Dungeons & Dragons over the years. The game was originally created by Gary Gygax and released in 1974. It contained only a few elements of what is recognizable as D&D today. The game was a companion product to Chainmail — a game also created by Gygax — and required the player to own and be familiar with that game. Chainmail was a miniatures wargame, which is a type of tabletop game where battles are simulated through the use of small-scale figurines. The Dungeons & Dragons companion was designed to introduce storytelling and roleplay to the battle simulator. In 1975, Gygax released the supplement Greyhawk, which removed the dependency on Chainmail and allowed D&D to be played as a standalone entity.


D&D quickly developed a niche following and became unexpectedly successful. Gygax created his own company, TSR Hobbies, and significantly reorganized and expanded the game between 1977 and 1979 and re-published it as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (now commonly referred to as “first edition” or “1E”).


Though the game had its loyal fans, it lingered in larger obscurity until it received an onset of negative attention and publicity in the 1980s. Over this time period, “religious groups, law enforcement officers, and even psychologists spread a moral panic about the game and its inclusion of the occult,” claiming that it “indoctrinated the youth of the day to the occult through its incorporation of fantasy elements” (Williams 130). The reaction to the game (and other similar fantasy products) during this time is called the “Satanic Panic.”


The Satanic Panic was not the only challenge the game faced around this time. Gygax left TSR in 1986 following a series of major creative and corporate conflicts. In his absence, the designers at TSR began working on a new edition of the game. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition (commonly known as “2E”) was released in 1989. This is the version that the characters of She Kills Monsters would have played in 1995.


Though the fervour of the Satanic Panic began to wane in the 1990s, the game still failed to garner mainstream appreciation.


The stereotype of D&D players being mostly male, awkward nerds who have never seen let alone spoken to a woman begins to take the place of the dangerous practitioner of Satanism that was found in the previous decade. (Williams 131)


D&D became a punching bag for nerddom and an overused, slap-on aesthetic to easily brand a character in film and television as belonging among its ranks. The stereotype continues even today, when the game’s popularity extends widely to the mainstream.


TSR was purchased by the Seattle-based company Wizards of the Coast in 1997 (itself later acquired by Hasbro in 1999 [Peterson]) and a third edition of the game was released in 2000 (with “Advanced” removed from the title). Following many complaints from players that the game was unbalanced and difficult to play, a revised third edition was released in 2003 (commonly referred to as “3.5 edition” or “3.5E”).


The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released in 2007, much to the ire of players who had invested time and money into books from 3E & 3.5E (Zonk). This version overhauled many of the game’s core systems and was quite complex. An Essentials version of the game was released in 2010 to lower the barrier of entry.


In 2012, Wizards of the Coast tested a new version of the game called D&D Next. This became the fifth and current version of Dungeons & Dragons in 2014. This version of the game simplified many of the mechanics to make the game more accessible and emphasized the release of creative supplements to encourage storytelling and roleplay.


Today, D&D is played by tens of millions around the globe (Peterson). It laid the foundations for numerous other tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) while remaining a leader of the genre. Its popularity rose rapidly following the release of the game’s fifth edition and continues to rise with the success of D&D-centred podcasts like The Adventure Zone and web-series such as Critical Role as well as its positive depiction in mainstream shows like Community and Stranger Things. Despite the physical restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, D&D had its most successful year in 2020 (Whitten) as established players migrated to online-play — using web tools such as Roll20, Discord and D&D Beyond — and new players sprouted in the thousands when people isolated in their homes followed suit (Scriven).


Dungeons & Dragons will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2024 and has announced plans to release a sixth edition of the game to commemorate the occasion (“Day 3”).



References


“Day 3 – D&D Celebration.” YouTube, uploaded by Dungeons & Dragons, 26 September 2021, youtu.be/sxb8xiDU5Kw. Accessed 16 January 2022.


Peterson, Jon. “Forty Years of Adventure.” Dungeons & Dragons, dnd.wizards.com/dungeons-and-dragons/what-dd/history/history-forty-years-adventure. Accessed 15 January 2022.


Scriven, Paul. “From Tabletop to Screen: Playing Dungeons and Dragons during COVID-19.” Societies, vol. 11, no. 125, Oct. 2021, p. 125.


Whitten, Sarah. “Dungeons & Dragons Had Its Biggest Year Ever as Covid Forced the Game off Tables and onto the Web.” CNBC, www.cnbc.com/2021/03/13/dungeons-dragons-had-its-biggest-year-despite-the-coronavirus.html. Accessed 14 January 2022.


Williams, Laura Lea. "Lawful Neutral: The Justice System and Dungeons and Dragons." Cardozo Journal of Equal Rights and Social Justice, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, p. 129-150.


Zonk. “Gen Con 2007 in a Nutshell.” Slashdot, 22 August 2007, slashdot.org/story/07/08/22/1847207/gen-con-2007-in-a-nutshell. Accessed 15 January 2022.

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