This is the first in a series of seven articles about all the Dungeons & Dragons editions over the years. If you’ve ever wondered about the history of D&D, keep reading!
Dungeons and Dragons is a rare game that’s been going for over four decades. Though it has grown and changed over that time, it’s always clung to its roots. The original version of Dungeons and Dragons, now called Original Dungeons and Dragons, was first released in 1974 and was published through 1977. It didn’t go out of print during that time, but was rather supplanted by newer versions of the game. Taking a look at this foundational role-playing game means taking a look at its history, what came in the original box, and how it differed from what would come later.
A Brief History of D&D
The original rules of Dungeons and Dragons are perhaps the purest iteration of the game ever put on paper. These are the rules that Gygax and Arneson worked out on their own, play-testing with their own players and that were largely influenced by the war-games that had come before this edition. If you’re looking for the most original version of Dungeons and Dragons, this is probably the best you’re going to find.
Published by TSR in 1974, this is also perhaps the most complex version of the game ever published. Thanks to the game’s history as a war-game modification, players would have been expected to be far more familiar with the genesis of the product than any subsequent generation. This means that not only was it missing quite a bit of what players would soon come to expect from a role-playing game but that it also did very little to streamline the process of playing. This is truly a niche product that seemed to have no real desire to go mainstream.
The First D&D Supplements
While the original box did have everything one needed to play the game, it was very quickly joined by a host of supplements. As anyone who follows Dungeons and Dragons already knows, it’s the supplements that tend to give the game a great deal of its flavor and that fill in many of the blanks when it comes to playing the game. The subsequent supplements published with Original Dungeons and Dragons not only helped to start a trend of releasing supplementary material alongside role-playing game releases, they also arguably helped turn D&D into the game that it would someday become.
It really should be noted that Original Dungeons and Dragons did release alongside some of the best-known D&D supplements. These include both Greyhawk and Blackmoor, which would go in to inform not only the way that Dungeons and Dragons were played by the way that future players would interact with their worlds. Other supplements helped to flesh out the worlds of Dungeons and Dragons as well as the classes and spells, which would give a bit more definition to the various settings. It should come as no surprise that many of the elements in the early supplements would find their way into the main texts of future releases.
D&D Updates and Re-Releases
The 1974 edition of Original Dungeons and Dragons famously released with three written volumes inside a wooden box. While this version is the true original, it didn’t stay on the shelves for very long. In fact, the game would receive its first ‘Original Collector’s Edition’ as soon as 1976, which would see some minor changes to the format and some new art added to the books. Dungeons and Dragons would stay in print with this edition through 1977, with the game’s core staying mostly unchanged.
If you’re interested in playing the original game but don’t want to hunt down one of the now-rare 1974 boxes, you’re in luck – Wizards of the Coast re-issued the game in 2013. This version once again had the wooden box, but now also includes the supplements that were released during the original run of the game. The game is actually a faithful reproduction, with all of the interior text remaining true to the 1974 original and only the exterior cover art for the books changing. It’s as close as most will get to holding a copy of the first version of the game.
If you’re not familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, the first iteration of D&D is actually a fairly good place for you to start. You’ll find a remarkably consistent tone in the original game, something that would carry over to the subsequent remakes and reboots of the series. It’s the original role-playing game, allowing players a chance to really step out and experience a magical medieval world. It’s something that certainly hadn’t been attempted before in 1974, but today’s players will certainly be familiar with much of what the original game attempted to do.
If you do sit down to play the original version of Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll also be amazed by what the game is not. While Dungeons and Dragons is, by this point, a fairly well-tuned machine the earlier version of the game feels very rough. The game is more of an expansion masquerading as a fully product, one that makes a number of assumptions about what players have done in the past and what they are looking to get out of this game. The product was naturally updated several times, of course, but this game is still worth a look if you want to see the roots of role-playing in general.
The 1974 version of Dungeons and Dragons is, at its core, the same game that is played today. As such, a fantastic number of ideas that are still in use today are present even in the earliest version of the game. While the actual execution is not quite the same as you’d see in a modern role-playing game, you do get nods to what the game would become in the future as well as a number of additions that never really changed. The original ideas of the series are definitely in play even in this first box.
The original edition of the game definitely included the basics of role-playing games, including characters, races, and classes. It also included rules for treasure and for monsters, including an early guide on how to play as a monster if the player so chose. The rules for Dungeons and Dragons combat that players know and love today are mostly in play here as well, albeit listed as an alternate set of combat rules for players who don’t want to use war-gaming rules. There is even an acknowledgment that miniatures are just an optional part of the game, something that’d become more pronounced as the game evolved.
It is, however, a bit astonishing to see what Gygax and Arneson assumed players would know when they wrote the game. While modern Dungeons and Dragons usually has books written with the assumption that the player has never played the game before, Original Dungeons and Dragons was assumed to be for hobbyists that had played Chainmail before and that were already familiar with the rules. As such, things like movement and combat were assumed to already be known and the box itself functioned more as a supplement for those who were interested in role-playing.
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While the assumptions about the types of games players had experienced was, at least for the time, probably correct it also definitely limited the number of people who were able to play the game. There’s no sense here that D&D was meant to be the kind of phenomenon it eventually becomes, nor that anyone outside of hardcore gaming circles was ever really meant to play the game. That’s why it’s so amazing the game ever really moved past the edition, and that the seeds for further growth were even in place at this early point. While there are definite assumptions in the early version of the game, there are also tools to make those assumptions obsolete.
The Cutting Room
While there are a number of great ideas that would go on to form the core of many future versions of Dungeons and Dragons in this version of the game, there are also a good number of ideas that would never move forward. The way that characters, classes, and experience interacted don’t survive much longer than the next version of the game, nor do some limitations of what players can and should do as certain races or classes. There are also a fair number of monsters that will never be seen again, and even more that would have to be changed for various copyright reasons.
There’s also quite a bit missing from what would someday become D&D. The classes, for example, are incredibly limited – and the fighter class is hilariously known as fighting-man. The alignments are likewise shrunk down to a much smaller pool and even the number of races is much smaller than what’s in the modern version of the game. Perhaps tellingly, there’s not yet a Monster Manual or any of the other famous supplements that would soon come to define the game.
As one might expect, the modern-day reaction to Original Dungeons and Dragons is nothing short of hagiographic. This is the game that started it all, so it has a place in virtually every gaming hall of fame. It was generally given credit as one of the best games ever made and one of the most important to impact the industry at large, even if this was done in the midst of lambasting newer versions of the game. You don’t get reactions more important – or overblown – than you get with the original role-playing game.
There’s definitely a sense that players knew the game was special at the time, though. D&D was reviewed very positively, though points were generally taken off for the relatively slow speed of play. Still, strategy gamers at the time tended to vote for the game for all of the various year-end awards and Dungeons and Dragons was actually making it into gaming halls of fame before the original version went out of print. If you’re looking for proof that the game had a positive reaction, though, you only have to look at the number of times it went back into print.
Dungeons & Dragons Legacy
It’s very hard to oversell the legacy of Original Dungeons and Dragons. For all of the hyperbole that surrounds the game, this is the RPG that started the role-playing industry. Original D&D codified certain systems that are still in use today and introduced the elements on which most other role-playing games would riff well into the 21st Century. There’s nothing in this box that would stand out today, but that’s only because everything in the box is still in use. If you’ve played a table-top or computer RPG, you owe at least a bit of a debt to the original wooden box.
It’s also important to note that an industry really did spring up around this game. It became blindingly obvious during the first edition of the game that the rules weren’t great, so alternate rules were very quickly developed. This development showed other companies that they too could create their own versions of Dungeons and Dragons, which in turn led to the robust landscape that exists today. While Dungeons and Dragons may not be as popular as it was in its heyday, every success found in the industry does owe something to the game that was released in 1974.
Original Dungeons and Dragons started it all. With its limited classes, a small pool of races and frankly arcane rules, it did most of the work of laying a foundation for role-playing games in the future. This version was definitely an early iteration on a concept, though, and it wouldn’t last. By 1977, the game had evolved to the point that it had to grow or fade away. The next iteration of the game is theoretically much more like the modern game, but it still evolved from the original box. You can’t get to the truly great stuff in D&D without starting here.
Stay tuned for part two in the D&D Edition series where we’ll take a look at Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977-1985). In the meantime, head on over to the LitRPG Forum to discuss this or other articles!
Care for a side-quest? Check out our list of the best D&D novels!