In the early 1970s, Gary Gygax lost his job at an insurance company in Chicago. Living with his family in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he started working as a cobbler as a replacement gig. But money was tight, and his children had to put cardboard in the bottoms of their shoes instead of buying new pairs.
Little did Gygax know that his luck would soon change. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the fantasy role-playing game he co-created with Dave Arneson, became a national phenomenon. In the tabletop simulation, players craft their own characters and backstories, becoming anyone from a barbarian to a sorcerer. Working collaboratively over multiple sessions, they explore a fantasy world designed by the game’s all-knowing narrator, the dungeon master, who masterminds the various puzzles and battles the adventurers must face.
Ben Riggs, author of Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, says the game initially proved popular among players like Gygax, who felt they hadn’t yet found a place for themselves in society. He adds, “You have to start there, with very intelligent people, but people who also feel like they’re not part of the fabric [of America] and maybe aren’t going anywhere.”
Since its debut in 1974, D&D has only grown in popularity. No longer a niche game, it’s been played by more than 50 million people to date, according to Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro division that owns D&D.
The game has also moved beyond the tabletop to other mediums, including television, books and movies. The latest adaptation, a film titled Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, arrives in theaters on March 31. Starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez and Regé-Jean Page of “Bridgerton” fame, Honor Among Thieves is set in a fantasy D&D world. It follows a band of thieves who attempt to recover their loot from an ex-member of their crew, who betrayed them and used magic to seize control of the kingdom.
In honor of the game’s turn on the silver screen, as well as its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2024, here are 14 fun facts about the history of D&D and the people who made it.
1. Gygax was a war game fan first.
Before Gygax started developing D&D, playing tabletop war games—strategy games that realistically simulate armed conflicts—was his main hobby. He would often disappear on the weekends to play games that reenacted historical battles. Gygax also tried his hand at designing war games, publishing the medieval-themed Chainmail in 1971. But he enjoyed limited success. “There was no great money to be found in designing a [miniature] combat game in the early 1970s in America,” Riggs says.
2. D&D started as an afterthought to Chainmail, an earlier game created by Gygax.
At the end of the rules for Chainmail, Gygax included around a dozen pages of supplementary rules that went beyond the normal historical fare outlined in war games. “There’s a brief appendix where he’s like, ‘Oh, and also if you wanted to do fantasy battles, here’s dragons. Here’s some rules for wizards,’” Riggs says.
A love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books inspired Gygax to attempt to capture a kind of “swashbuckling action” in his war game, wrote Wired’s David Kushner in a 2000 profile. But Gygax didn’t give the Chainmail fantasy supplement much more thought, particularly after history buffs rejected its “magical aspects … as folly at best, heresy at worst,” Kushner added.
3. Using Gygax’s fantasy rules, Arneson created the first D&D prototype, Blackmoor.
After meeting Gygax at a convention in 1969, Arneson, a war game fan based in Minnesota, took Chainmail’s fantasy rules and ran with them. Instead of strategizing their way through military battles, players in his game explored the imaginary dungeon of a castle called Blackmoor. Over the course of multiple sessions, gamers role-playing as fantastical characters delved deeper into the dungeon’s traps and twists.
Gygax learned about Arneson’s Chainmail spinoff through the war gaming community’s amateur press and newsletters. Soon after, in 1971, Arneson and a friend made the five-hour drive to Lake Geneva to play Blackmoor with Gygax. Impressed, Gygax asked Arneson to share the rules he’d devised. “Arneson sends him between 18 and 24 tightly packed pages of rules,” Riggs says. Gygax then suggested the two co-write a new game building on both of their ideas.
4. Gygax’s children were among the game’s first test audiences.
Gygax spent the next few months expanding the information shared by Arneson into a D&D prototype. As he prepared the game for publication, Gygax tested it on his children. “You’ll hear a lot of different versions of ‘This was the first game of Dungeons & Dragons ever,’” Riggs says. According to Gygax’s son Ernie, however, the initial run-through “took place after school on a weekday, and it was two boys and one girl exploring a scorpion nest” and fighting a band of reptilian humanoids known as kobolds.
5. The first publishing run of D&D was assembled in Gygax’s basement.
When the manuscript of the game rules was finished, Gygax began shopping it around to gaming companies—but none wanted to buy it. At the time, says Riggs, these companies made most of their money selling miniature gaming pieces that allowed players to track the movements of their ships and battalions on maps. The rules themselves sold at a relatively low price.
D&D is traditionally played with a set of dice, a pencil and paper. Given its emphasis on imaginative role-play over material accessories, the game had limited options for making money by selling miniatures. Many companies didn’t see D&D as a profitable venture. Others failed to see its appeal at all. “One company turned [Gygax and Arneson] down because they said no one would ever want to make their own dungeon,” Riggs says.
Unable to find a publisher for D&D, Gygax partnered with Don Kaye to form the gaming company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in October 1973. The duo soon brought on investor Brian Blume as an equal partner.
TSR published an initial run of 1,000 copies of D&D, putting the game’s components together by hand in Gygax’s basement. The game went on sale via mail order in January 1974. Though this first printing took the better part of a year to sell out, sales quickly gained momentum. The third printing, published in 1975, sold out in just a few months. “You started to see this exponential growth in Dungeons & Dragons,” Riggs says.
6. Gygax and Arneson’s relationship was rocky.
Despite D&D’s success, Arneson and Gygax’s bond soon crumbled, and a long-lasting feud replaced their once-innovative partnership. Per the Minnesota Historical Society, Arneson wasn’t initially involved in TSR, as Gygax viewed him as “a designer, not a businessman.” Arneson briefly served as TSR’s creative director but was pushed out of the company in 1976. The following year, TSR debuted a new version of the game titled Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; citing differences in gameplay, Gygax refused to offer Arneson royalties for the second edition. Cut out of the financial windfall, Arneson took TSR to court in 1979.
Riggs says Arneson was in some ways an unreliable partner. He didn’t contribute to game manuscripts as much as was expected of him, and he could be a difficult co-worker. But “he was still the co-creator of D&D, so he should have been receiving tons of royalties,” Riggs adds.
TSR as a whole assumed an anti-Arneson stance after his departure, Riggs says. Relations were so bitter that a company newsletter celebrating the construction of a new office building joked about burying Arneson alive beneath the foundation so he could achieve his wish of becoming a part of TSR’s operations.
Though the lawsuit was settled out of court in 1981, Arneson and Gygax never fully reconciled. Gygax became the face of D&D, while Arneson failed to receive the same level of recognition. “He really had to watch D&D from the sidelines,” Riggs says. After the lawsuit, Arneson continued designing games, though none achieved the success of D&D. He died at age 61 in 2009, one year after Gygax died at age 69.
7. Initially, Gygax and TSR enjoyed huge financial success.
After its publication of D&D and similar games, TSR experienced “meteoric growth,” Riggs says. The operation went from game assembly on top of plywood and sawhorse tables to offices with hundreds of employees. TSR expanded out of Lake Geneva to the United Kingdom and the East Coast of the United States. Business was booming to the point that the company rented a house on the Isle of Man.
D&D made Gygax into a millionaire. According to Riggs, he started “raising horses on the side.” By the early 1980s, he’d separated from his wife and moved out west. “At the zenith of his success,” wrote Ed Power for the Telegraph in 2017, “this devout Jehovah’s Witness lived a life of boozy, womanizing excess in a mansion in Hollywood.”
8. In its heyday, D&D sparked a moral panic.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, D&D entered the national spotlight under unexpected circumstances. Critics—many of them religious fundamentalists—argued the game was corrupting America’s youth by promoting devil worship, witchcraft and violence. (Season four of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” notably references this moral panic.)
The controversy kicked off with the disappearance of 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III in August 1979. A student at Michigan State University with a history of depression and a penchant for role-playing games, Egbert left behind a suicide note before vanishing. The detective tasked with investigating the case theorized that Egbert had entered the school’s steam tunnels as part of a D&D game. Though Egbert disputed this explanation when he resurfaced a month later, his subsequent suicide in August 1980, as well as the detective’s continued claims of a connection, cemented the link in some observers’ eyes. The game was also blamed for a Virginia high school student’s 1982 suicide and the 1984 murder of a Missouri teenager by two D&D-playing peers.
Repeatedly debunked by researchers, the supposed link between D&D and violence earned the game a bad reputation in the eyes of some—but as Clyde Haberman noted for the New York Times in 2016, it also boosted D&D’s popularity, “with the numbers of players leaping from the thousands into the millions.”
9. TSR found itself in real trouble in the 1980s.
The early 1980s proved to be the golden years of D&D. But its parent company, TSR, soon found itself floundering. Facing stagnating sales, TSR started laying off employees in waves. “In one round of layoffs, they started on the west side of the building and worked their way across the building, firing people,” Riggs says. In another set of layoffs, the head of the role-playing game design department, at wit’s end after huge reductions had already taken place, gathered his team together and asked someone to volunteer to be fired. By 1983, TSR had split into four separate subcompanies, among them TSR, Inc. and TSR Entertainment, Inc.
10. Financial woes led Gygax to hire the woman who would eventually push him out of his own company.
In 1984, Gygax hired Lorraine Williams, whose family owned the copyright to the Buck Rogers comic character, to help steer TSR, Inc. back to profitability. The two had a falling out, but Williams liked the company and its staff, so she secretly bought out Gygax’s partners. In a dramatic board meeting on October 22, 1985, TSR’s board voted Gygax out as president and CEO and replaced him with Williams. (She, in turn, led TSR until 1997, when it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast, the company behind Magic: The Gathering.)
“Gygax goes into this meeting thinking, ‘I’m in control of the company. This is great,’” Riggs says. “By the end of the meeting, he is not in control of the company, not in control of Dungeons & Dragons, and he never will be again for as long as he lives.”
11. Efforts to profit from D&D’s popularity spawned products like a successful series of novels.
When it came to D&D, a major question for TSR was how to make money off of players after they bought the game’s rulebook. Under Williams’ leadership, the company began producing novels based on the game. “By the early 1990s, the fiction department at TSR was grossing about the same amount of money as the role-playing game department at TSR,” Riggs says.
Creating a successful role-playing game requires designers, editors, illustrators, cartographers and other contributors. A novel, on the other hand, can be completed by a smaller team of a writer, an editor and an illustrator. As Riggs explains, “When the company was doing poorly, there were rumors that one day, everyone was going to come in, and they were going to be told, ‘We don’t make games anymore. We only make novels. You’re all writers. Now go, go, go.’”
12. The most recent version of the game is the fifth edition, published in 2014. A new edition is on the way.
D&D has evolved over the decades, with each of the five main editions released between 1977 and 2014 adding new mechanics to the game—sometimes to the disapproval of fervent fans. (The 1974 D&D game is generally viewed separately from the numbered editions, which begin with the 1977 release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.)
For almost a decade, players have used the fifth edition of D&D, which is designed to simplify and streamline gameplay, making the experience more creative and less bogged down by charts and details. This version looks markedly different from the 1974 original, which offered four playable species (humans, dwarves, elves and hobbits) and three classes of characters (fighting-man, magic-user and cleric). In the fifth edition, players can choose characters from nine species, such as dragonborn and half-orc, and a dozen character classes, from bard to warlock.
In time for the game’s 50th anniversary next year, Wizards of the Coast plans to release a new edition of rules called One D&D. The revamp is currently undergoing playtesting.
13. Honor Among Thieves isn’t the first time D&D has appeared onscreen.
One of the earliest onscreen adaptations of D&D was an animated series that aired on CBS from 1983 to 1985. The show followed six children who try to find their way back home after being transported to a fantasy world. But it was canceled abruptly and ends on a cliffhanger.
In 2000, theaters screened a cinematic reimagining of the game starring Marlon Wayans and Jeremy Irons. A box office failure, the film nevertheless spawned the direct-to-DVD sequels Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005) and Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012). Honor Among Thieves is a reboot of the franchise rather than a follow-up to the 2000s trilogy.
14. D&D may be in a new golden age.
In recent years, D&D has experienced a surge in popularity. The game’s latest edition is more accessible than previous versions, making it easier for newcomers to understand the rules, Riggs says. D&D has also gained more visibility in pop culture, in part thanks to shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Stranger Things,” which feature characters playing the game. (Wizards of the Coast even sells a role-playing game inspired by “Stranger Things.”)
While the internet and video games are heavy contenders for consumers’ attention, they have also made it easier than ever to learn about D&D. (The D&D franchise boasts its fair share of video games, too.) Still, much of the game’s appeal stems from the sense of community it provides. During the Covid-19 pandemic, old and new fans alike started playing the game virtually, connecting with friends and family from afar.
“It’s not a game. It’s a social experience,” D&D player Nathan Walters told BBC News in 2021. “There is no winning or losing. It’s like you’re sitting down with a few people and you’re collectively writing a novel, all at once in real time.”
Riggs, for his part, says D&D is “one of the few mediums of the 21st century that brings people together instead of pulling them apart. Twitter pulls you apart. Social media rips people up. … This is one of the only things pulling people together that gives you faith in your fellow human beings, and it allows you to enjoy their company in an organized way.”