As a kid, I loved board games and computer games. (Still do!) Whether it was Fireball Island or Castle Wolfenstein, the blend of escapism and structure gave me a world to live in and to master. I loved poring over a game’s rules, learning them more deeply than the rest of my family had the patience for. We kept our exhaustive collection piled haphazardly on a table in the basement.
One day, while picking through our assortment of games, I came across one I didn’t recognize. It was a red box with fantastical cover art featuring swordsmen and dragons. Curious, I lifted the box’s lid to find a thick rule book. This was in the days when computer software still came with printed manuals, and the contents of this book were consistent with that of a very sophisticated game. It walked me through the process of assembling a party of fantasy characters, just like in my Apple II games — dwarves, fighters, clerics, each with their own abilities. It detailed magic spells like “magic missile” and “clairvoyance” with mathematical precision in their range and duration (that’s a new word I learned: “duration”). I imagined what kind of game it must be that would let me apply such intricate rules. I dove back into the box, looking for a floppy disk or a fold-out board or a deck of cards.
Except there was nothing of the sort: all the box contained was the manual! I found out from my mom that the game belonged to my brother Dan, so I asked him: where’s the rest of it?
That’s when Dan told me: there was nothing missing; that was everything. Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t a computer game or a board game: it was played with dice, pencil and paper, and imagination.
It wasn’t until ten years later that I found a group to play Dungeons & Dragons with, but I didn’t spend that decade idly waiting. Once I finished memorizing the original rules, which I learned were the Basic Set, I moved onto the Expert Set, and modules like Keep on the Borderlands and the Isle of Dread, and then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and the Monstrous Manual. The more structure I was given, the more it fueled my imagination.
I didn’t need to play D&D; the very idea of it was enough for me.
Last month, I was driving back from Richmond, Illinois, to Madison, Wisconsin. Having passed an MBTA bus on the way to Richmond, I wondered what adventure I might have going the other way?
I pulled out my map and noticed my route took me just a few miles south of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The name tickled a distant memory of an annual Midwest event I’d never been to: Gen Con, a Dungeons & Dragons convention. I couldn’t remember why Gen Con, which is now held in Indianapolis, was named after this city, but I typed “Dungeons & Dragons, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin” into Google Maps. It returned one surprising result: the Gary Gygax Memorial.
While I was fuzzy about Lake Geneva, I had no such hesitation about Gary Gygax. He and Dave Arneson had co-created Dungeons & Dragons back in 1974 — a history I’d thoroughly researched in my undergraduate thesis. I’d recently backed a Kickstarter to fund a documentary about Gary’s life, making it an even more recent memory. And here was the opportunity to visit a memorial to Gary, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 69 — in Lake Geneva, the birthplace of Dungeons & Dragons.
It didn’t take long for me to make my way to the Lake Geneva shore, where Gary’s memorial is found. Instead of a statue of the man or his dragons, the memorial is an unassuming brick, one of many with tributes inscribed on them.
Unfortunately, this photo is as close as I could get to Gary’s brick, since the area was fenced off and under active construction the day I was there. But here’s a tweet from someone who got a closer look.
Undeterred from having my own experience of Lake Geneva, I did a bit more research, stumbling across the website of the Dungeon Hobby Shop Museum. I went to its stated address of 723 Williams Street and found what is now a residential home.
There was no sign outside the house, but it was the original home of Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, the company Gary founded to publish Dungeons & Dragons. This address housed the TSR Hobby Shop, whose catalog I would intently study, marveling at the arcane board games and legendary miniatures. (I still have the hundred-sided die I bought from that catalog in fifth grade!)
On the way to the former site of TSR, I passed a grill and bistro whose mythical neighbor likely inspired its name: Medusa.
There’s more history in Lake Geneva than I could discover on a dreary April Sunday during a pandemic. The Geneva Lake Museum is planning an exhibit in memory of Gary Gygax. An Indiegogo campaign to create a Dungeons & Dragons museum in Lake Geneva failed in 2012 — but maybe there will be a new attempt in time for 2024, the game’s fiftieth anniversary. And the aforementioned documentary of Gary, now a year overdue, is still in development.
As a nomad, I don’t carry my dice and rulebooks with me — at least, not materially. But the fantasy worlds that were created in Lake Geneva defined the reality I grew up in. Although I rarely played the game, it taught me to always seek adventure and never stop gaining experience.
A nomad’s world is wide and fantastic. I never know what I might find hiding in a basement or in an unassuming stop on the map, if only I have the curiosity, patience, and courage to explore what’s right in front of me.
(Image by Mitaukano from Pixabay)
Were there games that shaped who you are today? Share your memories by leaving a comment!
2 Replies to “The origin of Dungeons & Dragons”
I can’t believe you found so much DnD history on your adventures! I also didn’t know you were so well-versed in DnD history. Your undergrad thesis is fascinating, and it’s quite interesting to see how attitudes have changed towards the game since you wrote your thesis. Podcasts like Critical Role and Naddpod have huge followings that have helped popularized the game and shown the goofier sides of the community. More recent studies I’ve seen show the mental health benefits to RPG’s and collaborative story-telling, often benefits associated with theatre, but are now being applied to DND.
This was a great post. Thanks for sharing!
Hey, Rachel! Thanks for stopping by. You’re right, fantasy is more mainstream now, thanks to Marvel superheroes and Game of Thrones — we’ve come a long way since Tom Hanks starred in Mazes & Monsters (which is available in its entirety on YouTube!). Role-playing games in particular are still pretty niche, though; mainstream media coverage tends to be framed as, “Do people still play that? ????”
But you may appreciate this recent article, set right in Massachusetts: “How Covid-19 is changing ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’ maybe forever“.
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