Last Updated on January 22, 2023
I started playing D&D in the late 90s back before the internet came out, so it was after the setting of Stranger Things but before Iron Man. Think SLC Punk but nerdier.
Back then, if you wanted to know something about the past, you had to either find a book about it or ask an old person who may or may not lie to you.
So, let me tell you, in a few short sentences, how the history of D&D was told to me by my friend’s nerdy “old man,” who may or may not have been inebriated at the time.
“Back in the old days,” he said, “the founding fathers, by which I mean Gygax, Cook, and Arneson, used to play a historical miniature battle game called Chainmail. It was kind of like World of Warcraft, except it was meant to be historically accurate.
“And then one day, Gary Gygax showed up with a new miniature. This miniature didn’t have a sword and a shield. Neither did he have a pike or a bow.
“This miniature had a staff, a big hat, and an oversized robe. Gygax put the mini down on the table and said, ‘This is a magic user. This is
Gandalf Merlin.’ He had to change the name because of copyright battles with Tolkien’s estate.
“So they wrote up rules for the magic user and created a way to play as t
he fellowship an adventuring party.”
Looking back, that isn’t too bad of an account, as it was told in the prehistoric times before the internet when knowledge was passed via word-of-mouth.
In this post, we hope to give a basic overview of how D&D got to 5e, explain where some of the iconic settings got their start, and make a few predictions about where DnD is headed.
When Did D&D Come Out?
D&D came out in a series of five editions, spanning from 1974 to 2014. Over time, it has been in the hands of various publishers, but Wizards of the Coast is actively consolidating it into a single house.
- 1974 – DnD Original Edition
- 1977 – Advanced DnD 1st Edition
- 1977 – DnD Holmes Basic
- 1981 – DnD BX version / Moldvay Basic
- 1983 – DnD BECMI version / Mentzer Basic
- 1989 – Advanced DnD 2nd Edition
- 1991 – DnD Rules Cyclopedia version
- 1995 – Advanced DnD 2nd Edition Revised
- 2000 – DnD 3rd Edition
- 2003 – DnD 3rd Edition Revised (v. 3.5)
- 2008 – DnD 4th Edition
- 2014 – DnD 5th Edition
First published in 1974, Original Dungeons and Dragons, as it is called, was the first product of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, who were a pair of bell-bottom and open-chested silk-shirts wearing wargamers from the 70s.
(Everyone wore that stuff in the 70s, right? I am from the 90s, and I still have all of my old flannels.)
The rules themselves assumed that the players were familiar with miniature-based wargames, and combat was often resolved using those same rules.
It wasn’t until 1977 that most combat was resolved without miniatures and the game could be played entirely within “Mind’s-Eye Theater.”
1st Edition Settings
Blackmoor was the first official setting to come out for Dungeons and Dragons. Created By Dave Arneson, it was the world in which most adventures took place.
At the same time, Gary Gygax was running games in his world, Greyhawk.
Although Greyhawk did not come out as an official setting until the early 1980s, there are bits and pieces of it being released with the supplemental rules for 1st Edition.
2nd Edition: The Wild West Years
In the 80s, when gamers were all wearing parachute pants and leather jackets with their Metallica and Motley Crue tees, Dungeons and Dragons was being published with two different strategies.
TSR was publishing a Dungeons and Dragons Boxed Set and something called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
The idea was that the boxed set would provide a basic game for those unfamiliar with fantasy wargames while the Advanced books were for players who could add a bit more complexity to their gaming table.
The whole strategy was pretty elitist if you ask me, but old-school Dungeons and Dragons players were very elitist gatekeepers, which has led to a lot of controversy in recent years over who gets to play Dungeons and Dragons.
(Psst: the answer is anyone who wants to.)
Finally, in 1995, TSR combined all of their books and put them together into a definitive volume.
For the next five years, TSR would outsource its publishing to different companies and sub-let the intellectual properties to other publishers for a limited time and scope.
This turned out to be a bad financial move, and TSR would not survive much longer.
2nd Edition Settings
Ravenloft came out as a single adventure that was expanded into a complex setting later.
Conan and Red Sonja came out during this time and was published in tandem with the comics, novels, and films.
Dragonlance, arguably the most important campaign setting in terms of marketing the game, also came out during this time.
Spelljammer was first published in this era and will soon be available for 5e.
Dark Sun was one of the more popular settings of this era and there has been discussion of this being updated and released for 5e.
Forgotten Realms made its first appearance in the 80s and, like Prince, has not truly been succeeded.
3rd and 3.5: The Rebirth
In the year 2000, Wizards of the Coast was circling above the financially flailing TSR and purchased Dungeons and Dragons in its entirety.
This purchase brought everything back under one house (Disney’s house by way of Hasbro eventually because Disney is the evil overlord that is suspiciously becoming cooler as I get older).
3rd Edition brought with it a large collection of new players and greatly expanded D&D’s reach, especially with other fantasy games like Magic: The Gathering.
The rules also underwent an overhaul, and the D20 system we all know today was developed under the Open Gaming License.
The idea was to create a big tent where, even if you didn’t know how to play D&D, you could still play with the dice and either find or create something of your own.
Wizards wanted to bring everyone into a single, large game house.
And it worked.
However, this being Wizard’s first foray into Dungeons and Dragons, they would need to go through a cycle of product -> feedback -> re-package before they could have a solid and dependable system that worked for most people.
This cycle brought about 3.5, which was a re-working of the 3e rules based on customer feedback.
3.5 worked well for a while. Or so we thought.
There were more than a few 3e players who suspected something was up in 2006 and 2007 when Wizards started publishing lots of expanded material (B-sides) that had clearly not been playtested or even properly edited for typos and grammar.
We were right because around that time 4e was announced.
Although not created in 3e, Forgotten Realms got a full treatment by Wizards of the Coast as one of the primary campaign settings.
Same with Greyhawk, which was used as the standard setting for the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide.
When it comes to 3e settings, Eberron is the winner. Literally. In 2002 Wizards held a nationwide contest to find the next campaign setting, and, like Wizards of the Coast does best, they let the players do all of the work for them, and Keith Baker’s Eberron won the contest.
Since d20 became an open system by this point, there were several other settings that popped up from other publishers, such as Kingdoms of Kalamar, Rokugan, and Warcraft.
4th – The Edition That Shall Not Be Named
4th Edition came out in 2008 and was a major departure from 3e. It was an attempt to bring the game back to its wargaming roots, and that was just one major complaint against it at the time.
The other complaints were the mountains and mountains of rulebooks required to buy the game and the complete and utter money-suck the hobby was turning into.
The influence on the board-game-combat aspect made all of the classes less unique and placed a greater emphasis on spending more player money to buy an ever-expanding core rule set in order to keep things interesting.
When 4e Essentials came out, the idea was to streamline everything into a seamless whole, but the damage had been done.
3e players had moved over to playing Pathfinder, and there were not very many open doors for new players into 4e.
The Big Tent strategy of 3e had been lost.
5th – The Redo
Learning their lesson from 4e, Wizards took a longer, gentler, and more player-oriented approach with 5e in 2014.
After several open-play tests and customer-feedback panels, 5e was released, bringing back much of the feel that 3e had but with some of the simplicity that 4e did succeed with.
This edition has been the most popular to date, and while it still has its issues, it is the best and most accessible version of the game.
Settings of 5e
5th edition will see the rebirth of several old settings, such as Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Spelljammer, Forgotten Realms, and Eberron.
Yet expect to see a new setting sourcebook released in conjunction with every Magic the Gathering setting possible since Wizards would never let a cash cow go unmilked.
You will see more settings, like Theros, Strixhaven, and Ravnica, for sure.
Beyond 5th – Oh, Gods, I Hope Not
Wizards is talking about a 5e Evolution to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game in 2024.
Nobody really knows what that means, but many players hope that doesn’t mean we all have to buy new stuff to replace our old stuff if we want to stay relevant.
We can’t keep that up anymore, especially since everything is digital now.
We can hope that Wizards won’t repeat the mistakes of 4th edition; they seemed to do a better job with the 5e release the first time around.
Knowing Wizards, they probably have trolled the boards and websites like ours to see what everyone else is doing before they appropriate what they like and pretend it’s all new material.
But, Wizards of the Coast is a business whose goal is to continually bring new players, and if they are not doing that, they will cease to exist.
And who brings in the most new players? Pre-existing players! So they will figure out what we are already doing and make it cannon.
Can you blame them? I mean, we (meaning you, dear reader, and Black Citadel RPG) are the sexiest, smartest, most inclusive D&Ders on the internet!
So when the 5e evolution comes around, keep your eyes open, and we will see what happens.
Personally, I expect them to make DnD Beyond the official means of play, adding an on-site Virtual Tabletop and a Master Roster for League Play.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I hope not.
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Rich is an avid D&D player and DM. He has been playing since the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd editions. He has run campaigns of various editions with family and friends for over 20 years. Playing DnD 5th Edition in person at local game stores and online with VTT’s over the past 10 years has provided a consistent connection to how the game has grown. He strongly believes in understanding the source material, but catering the games to your individual players. Feel free to ask anything in the comments or drop him an email: [email protected].