This History of Dungeons and Dragons
Gary Gygax studying Dungeons and Dragons at TSR at a table in 1970's.

Dungeons and Dragons was produced by TSR, Tactical Study Rules, and became a publishing/media giant, but in due time lost everything, but how? This is their history: Dungeons & Dragons defines the roleplaying game industry as we know it. It is the continental shelf upon which the rest of the tabletop RPG ecosystem rests. But its massive footprint wasn’t always as secure as it was. The company that created it–and founded an entire industry–has since faded into obscurity. The story of Dungeons & Dragons is the story of the rise and fall of TSR.

In 1974, a single publishing company would launch an entire industry with just one thousand copies of a game. For the next nine years, the industry grew by leaps and bounds, and it all started because a couple of hobbyists couldn’t find a company to publish their amateur wargame rules. The creation of TSR is wrapped up in the creation of D&D, so let’s take a brief look at how that came to pass.

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, miniatures wargaming was on the rise in America, complete with its own conventions. Gen Con (a convention whose name you’ll recognize) first debuted in 1968 through the International Federation of Wargamers. That’s where the first influences for D&D come about. At this first Gen Con, Gary Gygax gets involved in medieval miniatures games, checking out a demo of a game called Siege of Bodenberg, which would then go on to inspire the “Geneva Medieval Miniatures” game first published in the April 1970 issue of wargaming fanzine Panzerfaust.

This game would later evolve into Chainmail, a medieval miniatures combat game that adopted two key rules of note: man-to-man combat rules, which are the combat rules that are still at the heart of D&D. These took wargaming from things that had 10 or 20 soldiers represented by a single model and reduced it to a 1-1 scale.

The second area of interest was Chainmail’s fantasy supplement. In just 14 pages, the game introduced heroes and wizards into Chainmail, including iconic spells that are still around today, like phantasmal force, darkness, lightning bolt, and of course, fireball.

But, when Gygax couldn’t find a publisher for their game, he teamed up with childhood friend Don Kaye and the two formed Tactical Studies Rules in 1973. But D&D was not the company’s first game. The nascent company’s first publication is Cavaliers and Roundheads, which was hoped to sell enough to raise the money they needed to publish the first thousand copies of D&D. When that didn’t happen, Brian Blume, another gamer from the early Gen Con era, joined the partnership–and out of these three people, TSR begins, with Kaye taking on the role of President and Treasurer, Blume as Vice President and Sales Manager, and Gygax taking on Editor and Advertising Manager. Though Arneson was one of the co-creators of D&D, he wouldn’t join the company until 1976.

In 1974, however, things were just kicking off for TSR. D&D first became available for sale in January of that year, with one thousand copies of the game selling for $10 (which is about $65 dollars in 2019, truly, the more things change the more they stay the same). The company sold out its print run in the first ten months, printed another thousand copies (heavily supplemented by photocopies of the rules at the time), and the rest is history.

History, incidentally, is what we’re making our way through, so let’s press onward. The initial release of D&D was a success, but it was a slow trickle that faced pushback from wargamers who felt that roleplaying and fantasy elements didn’t belong in wargames. The game was about to take off–but in 1974, it was anyone’s guess, so TSR published a Napoleonic game, Tricolor, as well as TSR published Warriors of Mars, a miniatures game set in the fantasy world of Barsoom, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. However, TSR had neither permission from or payment to the Burroughs estate, and the disappeared.

TSR also published Star Probe a science-fiction board game, planned as a trilogy, which had the misfortune to come out right as D&D was going to be TSR’s first big splash and dominate the future of the company. At the end of its first year, TSR published their own amateur magazine, The Strategic Review to help support their own games, as well as covering the hobbyist scene. But January 1975 is also when TSR faces its first real setback, as company president Don Kaye suffers a fatal heart attack.

And here’s where we admit that the rise and fall of TSR is actually the rise and fall of two companies that bear the initials TSR. Initially, Kaye’s wife, Donna Kaye, took over his shipping and accounting roles, but by September 1975, the assets and accounts of the partnership were transferred to TSR Hobbies, inc. which was a separate company created to market miniatures and games from other companies and based out of a hobby shop, the Dungeon, in Lake Geneva.

As part of the reorganization of TSR, Gygax and Blume had to buy out Kaye’s remaining shares, and here the ownership of TSR shifts in a big way. Unable to contribute a fair share of the costs, Gygax drops to only owning 30% of the company, while Blume and Blume’s father, Melvin Blume, step in as new majority stockholders. This isn’t important now–but years later when Gygax is ousted from TSR, this is where it all begins

With D&D still picking up steam, TSR shifted its focus to roleplaying games, publishing two new supplements for D&D: Greyhawk and Blackmoor, which introduced paladins, thieves, assassins, and monks to the game. The Strategic Review meanwhile introduced rangers and illusionists to the still developing game. This was a big part of TSR’s success–this was the first splatbook. These supplements introduced new rules to the game, offering tweaks to existing rules, new spells, new magic items, and adapting an alternative combat system that helped differentiate between D&D and Chainmail (which saw its 3rd edition published by TSR in 1975).

With D&D still picking up steam, TSR shifted its focus to roleplaying games, publishing two new supplements for D&D: Greyhawk and Blackmoor, which introduced paladins, thieves, assassins, and monks to the game. The Strategic Review meanwhile introduced rangers and illusionists to the still developing game. This was a big part of TSR’s success–this was the first splatbook. These supplements introduced new rules to the game, offering tweaks to existing rules, new spells, new magic items, and adapting an alternative combat system that helped differentiate between D&D and Chainmail (which saw its 3rd edition published by TSR in 1975).

Barker’s world of Tekumel struck a chord when D&D had no central setting. This was a huge innovation and showed both players and designers a new level of quality and detail to the concept of a campaign setting. However, Empire of the Petal Throne sold for $25 (or $105) in comparison to D&D’s $10, and received little support outside of a few articles in the early issues of Dragon magazine, which led to the game’s eventual decline.

1975 is also the year that TSR starts picking up distributors, which would help them reach bigger markets. In the summer of 75, Models and Figurines and Walter Luc Haas signed on as their first two distributors, bringing D&D to Australia and Europe. And just a few months later, a little company called Games Workshop comes on board as the exclusive UK distributor for D&D, selling six copies of the game in their initial run.

Where 1975 is a year of innovation and publishing, 1976 marked massive growth for TSR. As mentioned before, this is the year Dave Arneson joins TSR as its research director. It also is the year that D&D grows out of Gygax’s basement and into The Dungeon Hobby Shop, which gave them a professional space where they could sell their products directly. D&D, now having sold four thousand copies was getting bigger than ever, and TSR was growing as a result.

In 1976, the company continued to grow on D&D’s fertile soil, publishing two more D&D Supplements: Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. These two supplements introduce some core D&D ideas like psionics, druids, demons, and artifacts, as well as a list of gods that you can go fight, kill, and loot. Because of course, you can. Because what else would you expect from D&D? This is also the introduction of James M. Ward to the D&D scene, but we’ll come back to that later. Both of these publications give us the complete core rules for D&D which gets published in 1977.

1976 also sees a few more RPG publications from TSR, Metamorphosis: Alpha, aka D&D in space, but featuring a richly detailed setting in its massive colony ship, Warden. Once again, with a strong setting, the game does well.

However, not all is roses and champagne for TSR. By the end of 1976, Dave Arneson leaves the company, along with many of the game’s early creators. And in 1977, as D&D is publishing its original core rules, as well as the very first AD&D book, the Monster Manual, which is a telling fact for the game, TSR comes under legal threat from the Tolkien Estate, receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Saul Zaentz, producer of Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by way of Elan Merchandising.

But this was far from the only legal trouble that would hit the company. The second, and arguably one of the more volatile lawsuits that would impact the nascent community was the advent of Advanced D&D. This is what we collectively understand as 1st Edition. The AD&D ruleset was a huge revision of the original game, updating the rules, collecting all of them in three easy books, which naturally sparked their own edition wars. But more importantly, Gygax considered AD&D his own property and tried to cut Arneson – who had up until now been receiving royalties from the considerable success of D&D – out of the loop.

This resulted in a lawsuit filed in 1979 that would drag on for two years, taking us from 1979 to 1981. These are important years for TSR. The company continues to grow massively, releasing the Fiend Folio and starting TSR UK after they can’t reach a distribution deal with Games Workshop. This also sees the release of Greyhawk and a mass of adventures. Against the Giants and the Drow series of adventures were helping spread the appeal of the game. Tournaments and even an organized play association had cropped up around it. D&D’s rising star was linked to TSR.

TSR would never go on to find a more successful game. In fact, owing to their deals with Random House and Marvel (which would see the production of a D&D Cartoon in a few short years), it’s arguably the most successful hobby game of all time. 1980 ended with TSR reporting $20 million in gross sales by the end of 1981, just to give you an idea of how rapidly the company was growing.

But in the midst of all this growth, came the first signs of trouble at TSR. Recall back in 1975, when TSR Hobbies, Inc. was formed, and Gygax was reduced to a minority stockholder. Well, as TSR grows, Brian Blume’s brother, Kevin Blume, rose through the ranks, eventually buying out his father’s shares and leaving TSR with three presidents, which ends about where you’d expect.

Things like the much anticipated release of Queen of the Demonweb Pits were completed under the Blumes’ influence. They pushed TSR for rapid growth where Gygax had been more conservative. Under their influence, the company split in four directions. It would never fully recover from that decision, but in the meantime, despite a storm in the boardroom, the ’80s were very good to D&D.

Yet, TSR seeds have already been planted. Yet there is more to this history about Gary Gygax.

Gygax, a high school dropout, had made his living calculating premiums based on factors spanning his clients’ age, race, occupation, medical history, annual income and the chance for long-term disability. These factors all combined to generate one individualized mathematical outcome to best anticipate the risk of future events. It was good training for the work that would eventually bring him fame: the founding of TSR publishing, and the invention of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game with his collaborator, Dave Arneson.

In his insurance days, Gygax nurtured a not-so-secret double life as a passionate wargamer in rural Wisconsin. Before his creation of Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop gaming was a recreational military-history exercise, practiced in small communities around the country. Players controlled blocks of 20 soldiers at a time as they reenacted decisive battles.

Maps and protractors in hand, wargamers painstakingly maneuvered their miniature squadrons through terrain, settling skirmishes with six-sided dice. Gygax was eager to innovate this style of gaming, taking it beyond purely martial subjects to new, speculative worlds largely influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy writers.

Gygax emerged with the First Edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The game was rebuked by history buffs, but embraced by a new community: lovers of science fiction and fantasy, eager to shape stories in imaginative universes bound by clear and detailed laws of physics. Any action is possible, but every action has a consequence.

In explaining D&D to new players, many dungeon-masters propose the following scenario: “You walk up to a door. What do you do?” The answer? You can do anything you want – sing at it, carve your initials, cast a spell, paint it red – but every choice will be accompanied by a roll of the dice, determining the result. (You’d best hope there aren’t any sleeping demons behind there, once you start making all that racket.)

Gary Gygax’s world of wargamers, and then roleplayers, was majority male. As D&D grew in popularity through the 1980s, the stereotypical player was an awkward teenage boy, something of a social outcast, forming community with other fans of math, science, and genre fiction. Such gatherings made some in the mainstream nervous, and D&D players were often painted in the media as undesirable at best, and Satanists, at worst.

Gygax, a biological determinist, spoke of his work as being created for a male audience. “Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.”

But times change, and the intervening decades have proved Gygax wrong – today, more women and girls than ever before self-define as geeks and are pushing traditional fantasy communities to shed old misogynist storylines and assumptions. Roleplaying has moved into the mainstream as Hollywood mines geek culture for material. The success of movies like Scott Pilgrim, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the reboot of Star Trek, and anything from Frank Miller, Marvel, and DC have fueled not just ticket sales, but large-scale comic-cons and fantasy-cons around the country.

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