Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson: The First Dungeon Masters

Last Updated on August 1, 2022

The year is 1974. From the frozen wastes of a fantastical land called Wisconsin emerged a game that would change the face of the tabletop hobby forever. Released as three slim brown booklets inside a woodgrain-patterned cardboard box, Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures comprised the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons

© Wizards of the Coast

Since then, D&D has gone through numerous iterations, five major editions, and hundreds of minor rules changes, tweaks, and additions — some made by the game’s original creators but largely by other designers throughout the decades.

The latest edition of D&D (the fifth edition of the game, known as 5e) might not look or feel all that much like the game first published in the 1970s. Look a little closer, however, and you can see the fingerprints of its original designers (not to mention dozens more who tweaked, revised, and added to it over the years) all over it. 

At its heart, however, D&D still bears a lot of similarities to the game inside those three brown booklets: it’s still a game about brave adventurers in mortal peril who (should they survive their first adventure) get stronger, accumulate new powers and magic items, and become legendary heroes. 

Today, we’re going to profile the two designers who were instrumental to the creation of D&D’s earliest editions, paving the way for modern designers like Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins (the current lead team for D&D 5e) to carry the game forward. We’re going to meet the fathers of D&D, the original game wizards themselves… 

Who Invented D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons was created by a pair of historical tabletop wargamers named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Arneson adapted Gygax’s fantasy rules for the medieval wargame Chainmail into a game where — instead of armies — players controlled a single character, whom they sent on perilous delves into dungeons to fight monsters and get treasure.

Gygax expanded Arneson’s original house rules — which he used to run a longstanding home game called Blackmoor — into a 50 and then almost 150-page first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Priced at $10 (making it the most expensive tabletop product ever released as of 1974), the first edition of D&D contained three brown booklets, no dungeon master’s screen, and no dice. 

The game provided rules for creating characters, casting magic spells (including iconic entries like Animate Dead, Lightning Bolt, and Magic Jar), and exploring dungeons. It provided just three character classes (the fighter, the cleric, and the magic user — which later became the wizard), although the three “demi-human” playable races (elf, dwarf, and halfling) also counted as your character’s class if you chose to play one rather than a human. 

Who Is Gary Gygax?

Gary Gygax
Source: Alan De Smet

From appearances on The Simpsons and Futurama to an annual convention (called Gary Con — also held at Lake Geneva in addition to Gen Con) in his honor, Gary Gygax’s name is virtually synonymous with the game he helped create. 

Gygax penned the rules for the first edition of D&D along with supplement I, Greyhawk (which added the thief class to the game), and III Eldritch Wizardry (where we find mind flayers, psionics, and the murky origins of Vecna). His byline also appears on the first three core rulebooks (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual) for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and more than a dozen other rules supplements. 

In addition to rulebooks, Gygax also wrote (and co-wrote) some of the most beloved (and some of the most notorious) adventure modules in the history of D&D, including G1-3 Against the Giants, T1 The Village of Hommlet, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil. 

However, he’s probably most famous for creating D&D’s most-played module of all time, B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and its most maligned, brutal dungeon, S1 Tomb of Horrors, not to mention the Greyhawk campaign setting, which was based on his own home game.   

The “father of D&D,” Ernest Gary Gygax was born in Chicago in July of 1938. His family moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1946 where he grew up playing chess and board games and reading books by Robert Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and H. P. Lovecraft. In his teens, Gygax (along with his friend Don Kaye) discovered a love of miniature wargames, which they would play using their own house rules that involved live firecrackers as a way of simulating explosions.

A keen tabletop wargamer, it was as one of the founding members of the International Federation of Wargamers (IFW) that Gygax rented out Lake Geneva’s horticultural hall to host the first ever Lake Geneva Convention. It was a huge success. Over the next 50 years, the Lake Geneva convention (which has come to be known as Gen Con), has grown into one of the world’s largest annual gatherings of tabletop gamers. 

At the second event in August of 1969, Gygax met a young gaming enthusiast named Dave Arneson. More on him in a minute.  

After being laid off from his job as a mail clerk (while cobbling shoes in his basement to make ends meet), Gygax and his hobby-shop owner friend, Jeff Perren, released Chainmail. A medieval tabletop miniature wargame, there wasn’t too much that set Chainmail apart from its contemporaries, except for a set of optional rules in the back of the book that allowed for the addition of fantasy combat to Chainmail battles. 

These rules let players add powerful heroes, magic swords, monsters, and spells to large-scale battles. Published by Guidon Games, they proved to be the company’s best-selling product and reached a relatively large audience (for a tabletop wargame). Those rules for Chainmail formed the original skeleton of the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons

Published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) — a three-way venture between Gygax, Don Kaye, and a third partner, Brian Blume — the very first, hand-assembled edition of D&D sold the entirety of its 1,000 box print run in 11 months. The second run sold 1,000 copies in less than six months, and the third printing of 2,000 copies also sold before the year was out. 

The rest of Gygax’s history with D&D is a long, increasingly complex, fraught affair that culminated in his exit from the TSR in 1984. While the game he helped create grew and changed — both under his direction and after he left the company —  Gygax’s fingerprints are indelibly imprinted on the game he helped create.  

© Wizards of the Coast

What Was Gary Gygax’s Legacy?

Gygax and his influences helped cement so many parts of what makes D&D feel like D&D. He introduced Vancian magic — a magic system in which magic users memorized set spell lists and cast them using a limited number of spell slots, inspired by The Dying Earth series of books by fantasy author Jack Vance (whose name is an anagram for a certain iconic Stranger Things and D&D villain). 

It was Gygax’s sensibilities that forged the Medieval European fantasy setting that struck a balance between the sword and sorcery of works, like Conan the Barbarian and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and more classic high fantasy, like Tolkein and The Eternal Champion series by Michael Moorcock.

From this bubbling cauldron of influences — which also included ideas from his own gaming groups and strange knock-off dinosaur toys from China — Gygax invented dozens of iconic D&D creatures, from the owlbear to the beholder. 

He’s also responsible for the addition of the core fantasy races — elves, dwarves, and halflings — to the game, not to mention the exclusion of more science-fantasy elements that other designers were more partial to. Even though his special competition adventure S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is one of the most famous examples of a D&D adventure that blends sword and sorcery with rayguns and a crashed alien spaceship, it wasn’t the only adventure to do so. 

There’s a lot that Gary Gygax contributed to D&D, but to truly understand the roots of the game we all know and love so well, we need to take a look at the other half of its original creator team. 

Who Is Dave Arneson? 

Source: Kevin McColl

While Gary Gygax has enduringly become the name that comes to mind when we think of D&D, there’s another name that, when you dig down into it, can claim credit to just about everything that actually makes D&D… uh, D&D

Born in Chicago in October, 1947, Dave Arneson fell into a love of tabletop wargaming in his teen years, much like Gygax. This led to the two of them meeting at the second Gen Con in 1969. When Gygax released his rules for fantasy battles in Chainmail, Arneson knew he’d hit upon an idea for a new type of campaign (a term borrowed from wargaming to refer to a series of historical battles strung together). 

He borrowed the concept of a wargame in which each player controlled a single character from a (famously chaotic) experimental game called Braunstein that he ran alongside its creator David Wesley. Although Wesley had taken the idea of a wargame and shrunk it down to the individual scale, his game had been closer to a model United Nations than D&D. Arneson wanted something more rooted in fantasy.

Arneson also knew that, for a more heroic feel, he needed his players’ characters (and monsters) to survive more than a single hit. His campaign was the first known instance of applying hit points (a concept that previously only existed in wargames to measure the relative strength of WW2 battleships) to individuals and monsters. 

After a weekend spent “watching about five monster movies on channel 5’s ‘Creature Feature’ weekend, reading several Conan books (I cannot recall which ones, but I always thought they were all pretty much the same), and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper,” Arneson was ready. 

Arneson’s home game was a radical step forward from Gygax’s original fantasy version of the Chainmail rules. It features hit points and Armor Class, character levels, and RPG-like progression from one level to the next. He sent the 17-page draft of the rules to Gygax, who expanded them into the first 50-page draft of D&D.  

Arneson’s home game continued for some years in a setting known as Blackmoor. Much like Gygax’s own (less weird, less science-fantasy; Arneson’s brand of fantasy mashed together spell-slinging elves with raygun-wielding aliens and killer toads with anarchic aplomb) setting of Greyhawk, Blackmoor added to the rich strata of D&D.

It was home to what’s believed to be the first ever published dungeon adventure (The Temple of the Frog, which was later released as the first of three adventures adapted from Arneson’s Blackmoor setting, culminating in his own “crashed alien spaceship” adventure City of the Gods), the first appearance of the Monk class in D&D, and arguably the concept of the dungeon crawl itself. 

Gygax and Arneson never gelled creatively, although in the foreword to Supplement II: Blackmoor, Gygax refers to Arneson as “a man of many talents… the innovator of the ‘dungeon adventure’ concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeon master par excellence.” Nevertheless, the two grew apart, and Arneson was forced out of the fledgling TSR in 1976. 

After his separation from the company, he fought a string of legal battles over Gygax’s attempts to deny him royalties from later editions of the game. He won, but his days as a central part of the D&D story were over almost as soon as they began. For years, his achievements (at least on par with Gygax’s own contributions to the hobby) were largely overlooked.

Final Thoughts 

In the end, both of the men who gave birth to D&D left the company they helped found. The game moved on without them through multiple editions.

Even while they were at the wheel, designers and writers like Eric Holmes (creator of the first D&D Basic boxed set), Tom Moldvay (creator of the rules for the first edition Expert D&D boxed set), Tracey and Laura Kickman (writers of Ravenloft, not to mention the immensely popular Dragonlance saga) were hard at work. Nevertheless, both of their fingerprints are unmistakably a part of the game we play and run today. 

Whether you’re checking your hit points or AC, mapping out your next dungeon crawl, or being devoured by an owlbear, so many of the things that make D&D feel like D&D sprang from the brains of two game wizards in the frozen wilderness of a mythical land called Wisconsin.