Dungeons & Dragons turns 50 years old today, or at least today-ish. The first few copies of the original release of the game hit the wild in late January and early February 1974, although the ad hoc nature of the game's development and release means there's always been ambiguity over the precise date.
D&D was co-developed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two wargamers from Wisconsin. Since the 1960s they'd been playing and designing wargames, starting off in traditional arenas like Civil War and Napoleonic War games, as well as naval titles (including their first co-designed game, Don't Give Up the Ship!). By the end of the decade they had developed an interest in fantasy fiction, with Gygax particularly driven by his love of the works of Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. Arneson and some of their friends were also fans of The Lord of the Rings, which had recently blown up big time (Gygax was cooler on Rings, which he considered boring, preferring the shorter, more focused adventuring of The Hobbit).
Merging fantasy with wargaming seemed an obvious move, and as early as the late 1960s Gygax was organising a play-by-mail campaign set in a fantasy land called "the Great Kingdom." However, assembling a large army of elves, orcs and goblins was difficult, forcing players to substitute models of, say, French line infantry or Prussian hussars. In 1971 Gygax and Jeff Perren collaborated to create a wargame, which they named Chainmail. Drawing on 1968 wargame Siege of Bodenburg for inspiration, the game focused on medieval battles but also had a "fantasy supplement" with rules on incorporating elves, dwarves and magic into the game.
Arneson was a fan of Chainmail but had also been working on a fantasy variation of Braunstein, an experimental rules system allowing for the control of individual characters on the battlefield. As he developed the project, Arneson added elements including character classes and levels, experience points and armour class, as well as a background setting, which he called "Blackmoor." Arneson invited Gygax to play the game and Gygax immediately saw the potential for it. He developed many of the ideas in greater detail and play-tested the first variations at home with his wife and children. He and Arneson agreed to develop the game as a commercial project; according to legend, Gygax's then-two-year-old daughter picked the title "Dungeons & Dragons" from a list Gygax had been mulling over.
Arneson and Gygax set up the company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in October 1973 to handle the project. Their budget for the project was just $2,000 (about $12,450 in today's money), with only around $100 budgeted for artwork. With the budget limited, they were only able to print 1,000 copies, which they sold through local conventions and mail order ads in magazines and fanzines. Arneson and Gygax did not expect big success, but all 1,000 copies were sold within a few months and they rushed through a reprint; more than 3,000 copies were sold in 1975.
To Gygax and Arneson's surprise, they quickly had interest from overseas. In mid-1975 they were contacted by Ian Livingstone and Steven Jackson, who had set up a London-based company called Games Workshop, which was designing boards for popular games like Backgammon and Go. GW became the exclusive European importer of Dungeons & Dragons, which drove the success of both companies. GW later invested in miniatures, co-founding Citadel Miniatures in 1978 and developing a generic line of high-quality (for the time) fantasy figures for use with D&D and other fantasy games like Runequest and Middle-earth Roleplaying. When Games Workshop lost the exclusive distribution licence for D&D, they decided to create their own tabletop wargame using their fantasy figures...although that is a different story.
The popularity of D&D rapidly grew. Arneson and Gygax published several supplements and expanded TSR, launching a tie-in magazine (called The Dragon, later shorted to Dragon) and incorporating new rules and ideas. Notably, D&D did not launch with an established setting or world, instead encouraging Dungeon Masters to create their own world. Gygax and Arneson eventually detailed their home campaign worlds, named the World of Greyhawk and Blackmoor respectively, for supplements, but these remained optional.
The encouragement was well-taken, however, with a young Canadian teenager named Ed Greenwood converting a world he'd created as a little kid for short stories into a D&D campaign world, which he dubbed Forgotten Realms, and started writing Dragon articles in the setting. A very young British writer, Charles Stross, was also encouraged to create his own monsters, "borrowing" the name "githyanki" from an obscure novel called Dying of the Light (by an ultra-obscure writer called George R.R. Martin) for a memorable species for the Fiend Folio tome. Meanwhile, a writer in South Carolina called Oliver Rigney, Jr. agreed to run D&D campaigns for his young stepson and started pondering his own ideas for a fantasy world. In California, the Abrams Brothers were inspired to create their own D&D world, which they called Midkemia. They quickly moved beyond D&D to other rules systems and developed the world further; when a friend from university called Ray Feist asked if he could write a novel called Magician based on the same world, they said okay. Over in the UK a press officer working for a nuclear power plant, named T. Pratchett, invited his co-workers to a D&D night at the local pub and was dismayed when they went totally off the rails and trashed the campaign; he was at least satisfied with one of his creations for the game, an ambulatory chest which ran around on tons of little legs, carrying the adventurers' gear.
Up north in Canada, two archaeology students started playing a D&D game. They quickly tired of the focus on killing monsters and looting their stuff, but became intrigued by applying archaeological principles to the game: who are the monsters, who built these dungeons, and what history led to these events? In 1986 they switched their gaming to the newly-released GURPS system and developed what became known as the Malazan world, with Ian Esslemont penning the first proto-Malazan novel, Night of Knives in 1986 and Steve Lundin (aka Steven Erikson) writing a film script in the same world called Gardens of the Moon; with zero interest from Hollywood he redeveloped it into a novel in 1991, and the rest was, as they say, history.
Back in the late 1970s, Arneson was not hugely interested in working in a corporate environment and bailed on the game, instead happy to collect his royalties as the game's success began to explode exponentially. This irked Gygax, who continued to work in the trenches of game development, writing and making new business deals. According to some theories, Gygax began development of a new D&D derivative which Arneson which would not be involved in, allowing Gygax to claim sole copyright (and thus royalties) over. This resulted in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, aka D&D 1st Edition, which appeared in 1978. Arneson's lawyers were unhappy with Gygax's argument, and later legal deals were settled in both parties' favour. However, the existence of "Advanced" D&D kind of required the continued existence of a "Basic" D&D, which appeared in 1981 (after a prototypical version was tested in 1977). The Basic D&D line eventually became the biggest-selling line of D&D projects, shifting over six million copies.
In 1983, TSR shifted strategies by planning a "multimedia event," one of the first of its kind, with a major new campaign set in a brand new world focusing on dragons. This resulted in the Dragonlance setting, spearheaded by a 16-volume adventure series and a novel trilogy, The Dragonlance Chronicles, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The novels became bestsellers, shifting four million copies before the end of the decade.
In the early 1980s, Gygax decamped to Hollywood to work on a D&D movie and TV show, eventually resulting in the release of a Dungeons & Dragons animated series, but no movie. With Gygax apparently distracted by partying at the Playboy Mansion (as you do), TSR recalled him and manoeuvred him out of the company in 1985.
With Gygax gone, designers felt uncomfortable carrying on using his Greyhawk setting. With Dragonlance featuring many deviations from "core" D&D rules, it was decided to develop a new campaign world. TSR called on Ed Greenwood, who'd been contributing to Dragon Magazine for a decade with articles set in the Forgotten Realms, and bought the setting from him, publishing it in 1987. Tie-in novels also appeared, with the third novel published, The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore (featuring a dark elf protagonist, Drizzt Do'Urden), becoming an immediate big hit. The success of the Realms encouraged a whole slew of new campaign settings, although none became as big as the Realms or the earlier setting: Spelljammer (1989), Dark Sun (1991), Al-Qadim (1992), Planescape (1994) and Birthright (1995).
The 2nd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons launched in 1989, but the game started dropping sales in the early 1990s. D&D had effectively created the entire tabletop roleplaying game industry, resulting in a bunch of other games soon appearing: Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), Boot Hill (1975), Traveller (1977), RuneQuest (1978), Gamma World (1978), Call of Cthulhu (1981), Champions (1981), Star Trek (1982), Palladium (1983), Heroes Unlimited (1984), Paranoia (1984), Doctor Who (1985), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1985), MechWarrior (1985), Robotech (1986), GURPS (1986), Star Wars (1987), Cyberpunk (1988) and Shadowrun (1989), among many others.
Hugely important was Vampire: The Masquerade, which appeared in 1991. With a streamlined rules system and a cool setting with a ton of deep lore, the game quickly became hugely popular, eclipsing D&D in sales. Weird Western Deadlands, which launched in 1996, was also hugely successful in a similar vein. D&D was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and old-hat, with its rules system feeling archaic (with many core features largely unchanged since 1974, despite three distinct versions of the game having existed) and its overwhelming focus on combat over the social side of roleplaying feeling dated. Unbeknown to fans and players, TSR was also in financial trouble, trouble that continued to expand through bizarre business decisions and the policy of creating more product to push through publishers to create churn, even though the products were not selling.
In 1997 TSR effectively collapsed and had to be rescued by Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, the company founded just a few years earlier to sell the Magic: The Gathering card game. Magic: The Gathering was a colossal, ludicrous sales success and it was easily able to buy TSR and settle its immense debts. Goodwill towards D&D was starting to build again, thanks to the success of the tie-in video games from BioWare and Black Isle Studios, including Baldur's Gate (1998), Planescape: Torment (1999) and Icewind Dale (2000), along with the various sequels. Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000 to immediate success and acclaim, reasserting the game's position as the market-leading roleplaying game. The d20 rules system pioneered by 3E soon spawned a whole host of other games.
However, 3rd Edition lacked the long tail of earlier versions of the game, something the release of a "3.5 Edition" in 2003 seemed to exacerbate rather than solve (fans angered by the release of new rulebooks barely three years after the last). Faced with dwindling sales, WotC released the 4th Edition of the game years ahead of schedule in 2008, but the game saw a huge move away from D&D's original rules, resulting in a lot more anger from fans. Many decamped to rival fantasy game Pathfinder, established in 2009 and carrying on the 3rd Edition line of rules. D&D went through a nadir of sales and popularity in the early 2010s, with WotC rumoured to be considering cancelling the game outright. The 5th Edition, released in 2014, was a big improvement, at least in the eyes of the game-buying public, and livestreams of games over the Internet (particularly the Critical Role webseries) soon triggered high sales. The game also got a boost from the major role it played in Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-present). 5th Edition's sales became the healthiest seen for the game since the early 1980s. A revision of 5th Edition is due for release later this year.
It's not always been plain sailing. WotC have been criticised in recent years for ambiguity over AI artwork, trying to cancel the Open Game Licence (allowing third parties to produce compatible material) and a lacklustre approach to D&D's heritage, with very few novels or decent setting material being published. An overzealous approach to copyright protection (resulting in private detectives storming a YouTuber's house after he received a product before its review date) has also proven controversial.
In its fifty years on sale, D&D has shifted around 20 million core rulebooks and sourcebooks, over 100 million spin-off novels and around 30 million video games. A minimum of 50 million people are believed to have played D&D. It spawned the entire tabletop roleplaying industry and played a key role in the development of video games. At least dozens and likely hundreds (maybe even thousands) of published fantasy authors have played the game. Its impact on fantasy, especially secondary world, epic fantasy, might be second only to that of The Lord of the Rings. Hopefully it can enjoy at least fifty more years of success.