IV: TSR & Dungeon History ~ The Year 1973 (Part I)

How many secrets can the past truly hold?

In today’s blog post, we take a look at the fateful beginning of 1973, and Gygax and Arneson’s collaboration on a little game that would come to be known as Dungeons & Dragons.

TSR & Dungeon History:

The Year 1973 (Part I)


As the mists of history crystallize, more and more primary material from the E. Gary Gygax and David Lance Arneson family archives is gradually being released. Newly affirmed evidence forces a reconsideration of the hazy memorial narrative record, in which (as it was stated by Gygax and held for many years) the tenuous origins of the Arneson & Gygax fantasy role-playing collaboration pointed to the end of 1972.

The reality, however, gets a bit more complicated. The two men collaborated on early designs such as Don’t Give Up the Ship! (1971-1972), and there were important preceding communications concerning Chainmail (1971-1972). But it turns out that Dave Arneson and David Megarry did not actually make their drive down to Lake Geneva to demonstrate their dungeon games for Gary’s group – in person – until early 1973.

(For further valuable insights into this time period, please see The Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, by Jon Peterson.)

Here are some highlights as we explore the chronology …

The First Months of 1973:

January 1 to February 28

A chronicle of the year 1973 as it pertains to the history of Tactical Studies Rules, fantasy role-playing games, E. Gary Gygax, and David Lance Arneson.

Disclaimer: This is an historical essay, developed for knowledge and research endeavors, and is freely shared to the public for nonprofit educational purposes as a matter of fair use. All mentioned copyrighted entities remain copyrighted by their respective holders, being corporate for-profit organizations which castleoldskull.com (Kent David Kelly) is neither partnered nor affiliated with. No challenge to such copyrights is intended by specific entity mention in this open historical record.

In the initial months of 1973, E. Gary Gygax and David Lance Arneson collaborated via mail and phone to create a new game that would soon become know as Dungeons & Dragons.

“So I began with a variation of Dave Wesely’s Braunstein game where you go into some Banana Republic. Your object was to become dictator, or try to overthrow the government, or something like that. You had a role that you were playing. I just applied the idea of having a role to being in a fantasy world (an idea I got from reading Conan for a while). … By the time I was done, there was little left of Wesely or Conan, but a lot of rules for fantasy role-playing!”
Dave Arneson

January 1, 1973: New Year’s Day, a Monday. The end of the holiday season. By this date, in Gary Gygax’s estimation, approximately 200 people had heard of the prototype “Fantasy Game”, which would later come to be known as Dungeons & Dragons.

Around this time, Gary will (under?)estimate the number of players for his fantasy medieval wargame, Chainmail (1971), at 2,000 or more.

Also around this time, David Megarry will receive a rejection letter (dated late December 1972) from Parker Brothers, advising him that his proposed dungeon game will not be published by that company. Megarry will soon seek other possibilities for publication through Gary Gygax.

Early January 1973: After the holiday season, Gary takes the time to look over some Chainmail-related charts (“chance tables”) and game notes that Dave Arneson had mailed to him in mid-December 1972 concerning the Twin Cities Blackmoor campaign. Arneson’s innovations are revolutionary and extensive, but his codification is difficult for an outsider to interpret despite Arneson’s retrospectively evident brilliance.

When precisely did this take place? The timeline does not yet seem to be certain, and in the past it was impossible to untangle the truth without sufficient evidence being openly shared. but I do note that Gary usually devoted Friday evenings and Saturdays to gaming matters, and the first Saturday was January 6. So perhaps in the first week of the month he looked over Arneson’s notes.

c. Late January to Early February 1973: Dave Arneson makes arrangements to come see Gary in Lake Geneva, so that he can demonstrate the Blackmoor innovations he and his play group had created for Chainmail. David Megarry is also invited, because in October 1972 he had created an intriguing prototype boardgame based on the Twin Cities group’s Blackmoor dungeon adventures, which is later titled The Dungeons of Pasha Cada (and then after that, Dungeon!, which remains its formal name today). The intended drive down, however, gets pushed back to later in February.

“We were in correspondence with the group from Lake Geneva at that time, so we mentioned that we were doing fantasy stuff on alternate weekends. And they became very interested in it.”
Dave Arneson

February 1, 1973: Gary writes to Arneson that they should plan on publishing their games through Don Lowry’s Guidon Games (the original publishing entity for 1971’s Chainmail), due to Gary’s influence (but also despite Lowry’s financial bungling, which has so far caused him to fail to pay Arneson for prior work).

February 1973: The Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany, is published. (Possible inspirations for D&D include fragile allusions to the mythical philter of love, shadow monsters and magic, and the realm of shadow, which – despite efforts by Gygax, Steve Marsh, and later contributors such as Skip Williams – nevertheless remained elusive for quite some time.)

“… He had come to believe that she had no real part in that house, but was something almost elfin that had haunted it out of the forest … as a ray from the sun may briefly enter a dungeon.”
Lord Dunsany

February 1973: Changeling Earth, aka Ardneh’s World, by Fred Saberhagen, is published. (Possible inspirations for D&D include Orcus, extra-planar monsters, arch-mages, and the ethos of lawful evil.)

February 1973: Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings is published (Lin Carter, Ballantine). Perhaps noteworthy because we know that Gary prided himself on prowling the bookstores and reading all new major fantasy releases, and he was particularly focused on the Ballantine imprint and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Carter discusses Tolkien in the context of the history of fantastical literature, which makes Gary’s later insistence that in creating Dungeons & Dragons he drew upon Tolkien’s sources (the Elder Edda etc.) – and many other sources – rather than Tolkien proper quite a bit more interesting.

February 13, 1973: In continuing correspondence, Gary reassures Arneson that his (Gary’s) ascent in Guidon Games will mean that the current payment issues – Dave Arneson and David Megarry have not been paid by Lowry for their creative contributions – will cease. Arneson would likely be somewhat encouraged by this news.

Mid- or Late February 1973: Arneson and Megarry make it down to Lake Geneva for a weekend of dungeon gaming. First Megarry demonstrates his prototype boardgame, The Dungeons of Pasha Cada. Arneson then demonstrates his refereed blind game of dungeon exploration, as a representative play mode from the Twin Cities Blackmoor campaign. Gary will be deeply inspired to pursue publication (and his own co-authorship) of both games with Arneson and Megarry.

Rob Kuntz’s personal reminiscence of the Arneson dungeon session would later be printed in Wargaming magazine as follows:

“Gary, myself and a few other local wargamers were the first ‘lucky’ fellows from Lake Geneva to experience the rigors of Blackmoor. This idea caught on deeply with Gary after an exciting adventure in which our party of heroes fought a troll, were fireballed by a magic-user, then fled to the outdoors (being chased by the magic-user and his minions), fought four (gulp!) Balrogs, followed a map to sixteen ogres and destroyed them with a wish from a sword we had procured from the hapless troll earlier.”

Rob Kuntz

When did all of this occur, exactly? There were only two full weekends of course in the second half of February, with dates being February 16-18 (Friday-Sunday) and February 23-25 (Friday-Sunday).

Since some recollections of this fateful road trip feature a snowstorm between the Twin Cities and Lake Geneva, I personally tend to lean toward the (snowier, according to fragmentary weather records) ~February 23 date as a matter of ongoing speculation.

Mid- or Late February 1973: The day after Arneson and Megarry depart – heading home for the Twin Cities – Gary apparently tries (and fails) to emulate the Arnesonian Blackmoor refereeing system, with Gary acting as explorer (player) and Rob Kuntz acting as game master.

Clearly, Gary would need to learn more of Arneson’s techniques before his side of the development of Dungeons & Dragons could continue.

(As always, dates, details, and misassumptions will be corrected as further information comes to light. ~K)

The Castle Oldskull blog research chronology will continue to be revealed in Part II of this series. Stay tuned.

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