Home Tech Crawled from the Bottom 50 Years Ago: How the Global Dungeons & Dragons Empire Started in a Basement

Crawled from the Bottom 50 Years Ago: How the Global Dungeons & Dragons Empire Started in a Basement

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Crawled from the Bottom 50 Years Ago: How the Global Dungeons & Dragons Empire Started in a Basement

tHere are 15 of us crammed into a basement beneath a nondescript house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. To the uninformed observer, there is nothing to see down here: just two low rooms, bare walls of wood blocks, a ceiling lined with pipes. However, we all looked at the place in silence and amazement, like tourists looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The people I’m with are journalists, bloggers and historians, most of them specializing in board games, and we’re here because this isn’t just any basement. It sits beneath 330 Center Street, the former home of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax. And in February 1973 something happened here that would change the world of gaming, culture and entertainment forever.

Across town, at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Gary Con XVI is in full swing. The annual convention hosted by Luke Gygax in honor of his father has been held every year since Gary died in 2008. It started with a few hundred devoted fans, but now several thousand come to play D&D and many other war games, from table and role-playing. -playing games. They crowd the building’s many conference rooms and hallways, hunched in groups around large tables laden with character sheets, dice, and snacks; They dress up as warriors and magicians and attend talks. It is evident that many have been playing for decades.

Decades of devotion… players at Gary Con. Photography: Magos de la Costa

This year is special: it’s the 50th anniversary of D&D. It was early 1974 when the first edition was released; a brown wooden box containing three slim rule books. One of the big announcements from the event is that Wizards of the Coast will be publishing a series of nostalgic mid-century celebrations, including two new campaigns based on classic D&D adventures from the ’70s and ’80s, Vecna: Eve of Ruin and Quests from the Infinite . Ladder. There is also a 500-page tome titled The Making of Original D&D: 1970-1977, which reprints the original D&D manuscript, complete with handwritten annotations.

What is immediately clear is how modest and homemade the project was at the beginning. “I’ve been playing my whole life, it’s in my DNA,” says Luke Gygax, introducing a welcome panel. “I was patient zero of D&D. At first, at 330 Center Street, we helped set up the games. I tried many adventures (Against the Giants, The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun) and helped create monsters, magic items, and spells. “It was just part of playing with my dad.”

The Gygax house was a focal point of the wargaming community in late 1960s Wisconsin. Gary was a founding member of the International Wargamers Federation and in 1968 organized the society’s annual Gen Con event at the Lake Geneva Horticultural Hall. At that time, people played tabletop war games like Gettysburg and Stalingrad, or miniature war games, which used models of soldiers and vehicles on large tabletop maps. Both sought to simulate historical battles with dense rules. In his basement home, Gygax met every weekend with his local group, the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association, to play and plan his own variations and rules.

The source… the basement where Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson planned D&D. The sand table is a reproduction of one used in miniature war games. Photograph: Keith Stuart/The Guardian

Meanwhile, 300 miles away, Dave Arneson, a student at the University of Minnesota, was also deeply immersed in the wargaming scene, playing a variety of games with his own highly experimental group, the Military Simulation Association of the Midwest. “They were already playing with some interesting variants of a game called Diplomacy,” says Michael Witwer, author of the Gary Gygax biography Empire of the Imagination and several books on the history of D&D. Diplomacy was a World War I war game in which each player commanded the forces of a different country. However, the unique thing is that it was not just combat; Players also had to form alliances and secret plots. “It’s a really interesting game,” says Witwer. “A lot of interpersonal activity, subterfuge and negotiations.”

Gygax and Arneson first met at Gen Con in 1968. Arneson brought with him some miniature ship models he had made and Gary was impressed. The two hit it off, kept in touch, and later created a Napoleonic naval war game together called Don’t Give Up the Ship.

But a year later an even more important meeting took place. “It’s Gen Con 1969 and we’re in Gary’s basement: Gary, Dave and I,” says Bill Hoyt, a member of Dave’s old gaming group who, in his 80s, still directs war games. “We started talking about games, what we could do with them, and the idea of ​​medieval games, knights, castles and all that came up. Gary said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it! We’ll collect some figures, find some rules, and we’ll come back to Gen Con next year and play together.’”

Gary formed the Castle & Crusade Society in 1970, for players interested in exploring medieval wargaming. Dave Arneson joined in April. The group had their own fanzine, The Domesday Book, where they exchanged ideas; vitally, they even formed their own imagined medieval kingdom, the Great Kingdom. They wrote to each other like gentlemen and lords, informing each other of news from their areas of this fantasy domain. The narrative and character embodiment elements of D&D were already coming into play; The kernel of an idea that was casually tossed around in Gary’s basement was taking on a life of its own.

Gygax co-created a medieval war game called Chainmail, which created rules for man-to-man fighting with armor and swords, and brought in some new and innovative ideas, such as superhero characters requiring multiple hits to defeat. At the same time, Dave Arneson was tinkering with an experimental project called David Wesely’s Braunstein, a Napoleonic wargame inspired by Diplomacy. Instead of controlling armies, players took on the roles of individual characters in the title’s fictional German city, all with their own personal goals.

A legend is born… the studio where Gary Gygax typed the first draft. Photograph: Keith Stuart/The Guardian

Inspired, Arneson created a campaign variation called Blackmoor, in which players worked together as individual characters to explore a medieval city, including its castle and dungeons. He introduced the concept of hit points, so that characters could take damage without dying, and used Chainmail’s combat system for fights with non-player characters. Gary read about this in Dave’s fanzine, Corner of the Table, and asked him to come to Lake Geneva and organize a game for him and his group.

So in February 1973, Dave Arneson and fellow game designer Dave Megarry took the long road trip from Minneapolis to Lake Geneva to play Blackmoor in Gary’s basement. “It seems to me, looking at the remains of those sessions, that Blackmoor was the first game that someone today would look at and recognize as an RPG,” Witwer says. “Gary’s intention was to see that Blackmoor thing that everyone was talking about and how it worked. They played all weekend and Gary lost his mind over it – it was so innovative and different that he had never seen anything like it.”

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Things moved quickly after this. Determined to formalize his incomplete concept into a publishable fantasy game, Gygax spent several weeks writing a 50-page set of rules in his home office. He sent this to Arneson, who sent the amendments. Finally the document reached 150 pages. They had some kind of game. You still needed a copy of Chainmail to play it and the many-sided dice were sold separately, but I was set. This was Dungeons and Dragons.

The finished product was printed in early 1974. Only a thousand were made, each selling for $10. The customers were people already deeply involved in wargaming, reached through fanzines and conventions. At the time, there was little money in it, but Gygax created a company called Tactical Studies Research to publish D&D, obtaining a $1,000 loan from his friend Don Kaye. TSR was run out of Gary and Don’s houses for about a year as sales came in, but slowly word spread about this crazy new game where you pretended to be adventurers in a medieval-themed kingdom. It found its way onto college campuses; In 1975, the British company Games Workshop began distributing it in Europe. At the end of 1975, TSR’s turnover was $60,000; In the early 1980s it was $20 million a year and growing rapidly.

“That meeting between Gygax, Arneson and Megarry in 1973 was the culmination not only of their gaming experiences, but of decades of game and wargame experimentation and design,” says Witwer, who then takes us on a sightseeing tour of the city. “At that moment all kinds of crazy ideas came up; “They started rebuilding things that had never been put together before.”

Before leaving Gary Con I run into Hoyt again and our conversation almost inevitably leads us back to that basement. “I traveled to the Gen Con convention in 1974,” he says. “I met up with Dave Arneson and we went to Gary’s house. We were in the basement and they were opening the second printing of the game. And Dave says, ‘You want to buy one, don’t you?’ Well, we had driven from the Twin Cities and had two idiots driving; They loved to speed, so we were paying money for their speeding tickets all the way. I had 25 dollars left for the entire weekend. But I bought it anyway.” He’s been playing ever since.

‘You want to buy one, don’t you?’ …a 1974 copy of Dungeons & Dragons in its original brown box. Photograph: Keith Stuart/The Guardian

What was it, I ask, about playing the first version of D&D in that basement that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go? Think about this for a while. His mind flashes back to that room, 50 years ago, Gary rolling the dice, Dave Arneson examining random encounter tables. “It’s the story, that’s all,” he says. “It’s about sharing stories. Some people can’t grasp that, they are too concrete; those people will never play. But people with imagination? Oh yes, they will play… They will play.”

In the creative process the place is important. Whether it’s the garage where a punk band first performed together or the bedroom where two brothers wrote their first ZX Spectrum game, the environment fuels everything created there. It’s somewhat poetic, then, that a game about exploring dark, underground spaces was born in a basement, a long, long time ago.

Thanks to Michael Witwer for his help on this article. Keith Stuart accompanied other journalists on a press trip to Gary Con. Accommodation and travel expenses were covered by Wizards of the Coast.

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