First published in January 1974, the original edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons would go on to see six different printings. This edition is for the Original Collector's Edition released By Wizards of the Coast in 2013, which was itself a revision of the 6th and final printing, the "Original Collector’s Edition" or white box edition.
You get all three books contained in the original boxed set: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures plus the Reference Sheets booklet.
Great to read and still great to play, the original edition shows you where the roleplaying hobby began and the original version of the game that spawned a hobby and so much more.
The Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974), by Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, is the debut edition of the world's first tabletop roleplaying game. It was published in January 1974.
The origins of Dungeons & Dragons have been discussed at much greater length elsewhere. Jon Peterson's Playing at the World (2012) is the premier source, while this historian's own Designers & Dragons: The '70s devotes a full 10 pages to the subject. What follows is only a synopsis.
Origins (I): Finding the Fantasy. Gary Gygax became intrigued by medieval miniatures wargames at Gen Con I (1968). He then formed the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association in 1969 to support his new interest, where he was joined by Donald Kaye, Jeff Perren, Rob Kuntz, and others. However, Perren decided to do more than just play: he wrote a few pages of rules for medieval miniatures wargaming. Gygax developed Perren's rules, then published the "Geneva Medieval Miniatures" in the Panzerfaust fanzine (April 1970), later expanding them in Domesday Book #5 (July 1970).
When Gygax became editor of the "Wargaming with Miniatures" series for Guidon Games he led off with a further expansion of the LGTSA Medieval Miniatures rules: a miniatures rulebook called Chainmail (1971). It included a 14-page "fantasy supplement" that featured rules for heroes, superheroes, and wizards — the last of which had spells like fire ball, lightning bolt, and phantasmal force. At this point, some of D&D's core ideas were obviously beginning to appear.
Origins (II): Traveling to Twin Cities. The next step in the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons came thanks to another collaborator: Dave Arneson. His story begins with the "Braunstein" games of Dave Wesely, who was running Napoleonic miniatures games where players took on the roles of individual characters.
After Wesely's Army Reserve unit was called up to active duty, other players ran Braunsteins of their own, sometimes in different settings. One of these was Dave Arneson's "medieval Braunstein", which he called "Black Moor". Arneson used Gygax and Perren's Chainmail game for its combat, but otherwise it followed the Braunstein idea of players running individual characters.
At first, Arneson's players fought medieval miniatures battles that were typical of the genre … other than the fact that they had characters that gained experienced over time. Then in late 1971 or early 1972 the Blackmoor group moved into the dungeons (using a plastic kit of a Sicilian castle that Arneson owned).
Arneson showed Gygax his Blackmoor game in late 1972. Gygax then began to revise and expand these proto-D&D rules, publishing drafts to the miniatures gaming community in 1973. By mid '73, he was ready to publish their game, but both Guidon Games and Avalon Hill turned him down.
To bring Dungeons & Dragons to market would require a leap of faith …
Origins (III): Creating a Company. In 1973, Gary Gygax and Don Kaye decided to form a game publisher called Tactical Studies Rules, named after the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. It was funded by $1,000 raised by Kaye cashing in his life insurance policy.
The newborn TSR still couldn't afford to publish D&D, but they decided to get the ball rolling with a miniatures wargame written by Gygax and Perren called Cavaliers and Roundheads (1973). They hoped to use its profits to publish D&D … but still came up short.
Enter Brian Blume, the newest member of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. He put up $2,000 to publish the first thousand copies of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) — now called Original D&D or OD&D. The books rolled off the printing press in January and were sold over the course of 1974.
Releasing the D&D Box. OD&D was published as a boxed set of three digest-sized books: the 36-page "Men & Magic", the 40-page "Monsters & Treasure", and the 36-page "The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures". This is sort of a Player's Handbook, a Monster Manual (with treasure), and a Dungeon Master's Guide, but D&D wouldn't fully settle into that standard set of books until the release of AD&D (1977-1979). Six pages of charts and tables accompanied the booklets.
The first edition of the box was wood-grained with white stickers. It would become a white box with the fourth printing (November 1975), then would become the "Original Collector's Edition" with the sixth printing (1977) — by which time OD&D was being revamped as AD&D (1977-1979).
About the Components: The Platonic Dice. Though D&D was clearly innovative for its style of play, it also had another ground-breaking element: its wacky dice. To find the origins of those dice, we first have to go back to the preexisting wargaming community.
Historian Jon Peterson notes that traditional wargames used six-sided dice, but players were becoming interested in randomizing events based on percentages as early as the release of Michael J. Korns' Modern War in Miniatures (1966). Mike Carr demonstrated this in his fourth edition of Fight in the Skies (1972), published by Guidon Games. It included a chart for generating percentiles with six-sided dice, but it was crude and only went in 5% increments. The holy grail for generating percentiles was a twenty-sided die — which tended to be numbered "0" to "9" twice in those days. Len Lakofka was an early proponent, but in the late '60s and early '70s, these dice were only easily available in faraway places like Britain and Japan.
Enter Dave Arneson who purchased three pairs of red and black 20-sided dice while visiting London during a European trip. He hoped to use them in wargames, but (surprisingly) found the wargamers resistant to change. He eventually got to use them in his Blackmoor game. Twenty-sided dice were thus part of the fantasy game when Gygax began to revise Blackmoor as D&D … but supply was still a problem.
At some point, someone (perhaps Dave Wesely, perhaps Gary Gygax) found a twenty-sided dice supplier in the US: Creative Publications of California. However they sold their dice in packs of five, including a d4, a d6, a d8, a d12, and a d20. Notably missing was the d10, which didn't appear until Gen Con XIII (1980). There was one problem with Creative Publications' dice: D&D only needed the d6 and the d20. TSR decided to use the full sets to avoid having to sort out the other polyhedrons when they sold them. As a result, OD&D added some rules for using the other dice — particularly in the number appearing charts for monsters. Nonetheless, they were pretty scant.
And that was how polyhedron dice came to D&D.
Except OD&D wasn't actually packaged with dice. Players had to order them separately, which got them a pack of Creative Publications dice (minus the information on the publisher). They were multicolor: a yellow d4, an orange (or pink) d6, a green d8, a blue d12, and a white d20. They were also "low impact", which means that they were made out of soft plastic that would round over time as the dice were rolled.
TSR would only include dice in their actual game with the publication of the first Basic D&D (1977) set.
Continuing the Premium Reprints. The original D&D game was kept in print long after it become irrelevant due to the release of AD&D and BD&D. As the sixth printing announced, it had become a "Collector's Edition". Wizards of the Coast similarly brought OD&D back into print in November 2013 as the Original Edition Premium Reprint (2013). It was the capstone of their Premium Reprint program that bridged the gap between 4e (2008-2012) and 5e (2014-Present).
The Original Edition Premium Reprint was sumptuously produced as a padded wooden box that included OD&D, the first four supplements, and (varying from the original OD&D) a set of dice. Unlike the other Premium Reprints, the OD&D reprints featured all new (black & white) cover art on the seven books. However, Wizards maintained the interior art, though it was placed in an updated layout. Chainmail and the OD&D mass-combat system, Swords & Spells (1976), were notably missing from the Premium Reprint.
The Original Edition Premium Reprint was later released as PDFs (2016) through DnDClassics — albeit with the core books and supplements published separately (and once more without the dice).
Creating the D&D System: The Heroes. The fact that OD&D was an incremental development of Chainmail is obvious from its classes. There are just three. The magic-user is Chainmail's wizard with many of the same spells, while the fighting-man includes Chainmail's hero and superhero as level titles. The third class is the cleric, which may have been an innovation from Arneson's Blackmoor game. Notably missing is the thief, who would be introduced later in the year.
Creating the D&D System: The Races.OD&D has a similarly limited set of races: dwarves, elves, and hobbits. These demihuman races have severe class restrictions and also level restrictions: theycan only progress to 4th, 6th, or 8th level in various classes. This was because Gygax wanted humans to remain the dominant race in the game, but it would be an issue for play through the '80s.
Creating the D&D System: The Characteristics. In OD&D, characters are defined in broadly the same way as they would be in later editions of the game, but with less definition. For example characters already have six abilities, but the modifiers from those abilities are pretty minimal. Similarly, characters have alignments, but there are just three options: Law, Chaos, or Neutral.
Armor class remains the most mysterious personal characteristic of OD&D because of its inverse (descending) ratings. The best armor is AC 2 (plate and shield) while the worst is AC 9 (no armor or shield). There's never been a reasonable explanation for this oddity, but we know some of AC's origins. The list of armors in OD&D matches that in Chainmail, while Arneson says that he came up with the idea of armor class itself, adapting it from American Civil War ironclads wargames — possibly Fred T Jane's The Naval War Game (1912) and Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game (1943). How OD&D took Chainmail's categorized armors and Arneson's idea of armor class and created an inverse range from 9 to 2 may remain forever unknown.
The last characteristic of note is experience points: the way that characters get better. They're of course gained for killing monsters, but characters can earn even more XPs just for collecting gold (XP earned = 100 * level of monsters + value of loot). This clearly demonstrated the emphasis in early D&D on collecting stuff.
Creating the D&D System: The Combat. The combat system of OD&D is notable because it's almost nonexistent. That's because OD&D expected players to be using Chainmail: all combat stats are linked to that game. A brief "alternative combat system" takes up just a page. It's a pair of charts for hitting the various armor classes (based on character level or monster hit dice) and a note that every attack does "1-6 points damage". (Giants get to do two dice of damage!)
Creating the D&D System: The Spells. Clerics and magic-users cast spells, but the rules for doing so are quite terse, which caused some confusion about how the rules worked in the early days: "The number in each column opposite each applicable character indicates the number of spells of each level that can be used (remembered during any single adventure) by that character. … A spell used once may not be reused in the same day."
This "fire-and-forget" spellcasting system has become known as a Vancian spell system, because it was based on the spells in the Dying Earth (1950+) of Jack Vance, where spells had to be rememorized after they were cast. It's always been somewhat controversial because it limits magic-user tactics and is a prime cause of the "five-minute workday" where characters blow through their once-a-day abilities, then stop for the night. Fans in APAs quickly offered "spell point systems" as an alternative, allowing magic-users to cast what they wanted as long as they still had spell points.
Creating the D&D System: Other Rules. The most notable thing about the rest of the rules in OD&D … is how sparse they are. Oh, certainly, there are some rules for some really specific things (such as shearing off oars in naval conflicts!), but the OD&D rules generally fit into just three categories: characteristics, encounters, and conflict.
Beyond that, the game is pretty open, and there's a reason for that: the rulebooks are said to be merely "guidelines" that "provide the framework" for fantasy adventuring. GMs in OD&D were given tremendous freedom to creatively interpret actions with the game as they saw fit. This would be in direct opposition to the attitude of AD&D (1977-1979), just a few years later.
Adventure Tropes. The third book of OD&D, "The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures" reveals what the first D&D games were like. As the name suggests, it focuses on dungeon adventures and outdoor adventures.
The dungeon section kicks off with an example of what would later be called a megadungeon. A diagram shows a beautiful six-level structure with multiple sub-levels and multiple means of traversing them. It's a sneak peak at the style of dungeons built by D&D's creators in Blackmoor and Greyhawk. However, no dungeons like this would show up in actual D&D products for at least a decade! A nearby "sample level" shows what a typical dungeon might include. It contains monsters and traps, but its most notable element is probably the confusing mapping challenges, showing how important exploration was to the early D&D game.
The wilderness section talks about "unexplored land, cities and castles". The game surprisingly suggests using the board from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival (1972) for wilderness play — demonstrating how OD&D was just semi-professional when it was originally released. Wilderness adventures wouldn't be a focus of published D&D play until the release of the D&D Expert Set (1981) some years later.
OD&D offers one other trope for adventuring: rulership. It contains extensive rules for constructing castles and ruling from them. Play reports from early campaigns verify that this was an important element of the hobby's primordial games, but it was another thing that would be largely ignored by publications for some years … until the release of the D&D Companion Set (1983).
There's one more surprise to be found amidst OD&D's adventure tropes: the suggested player count. OD&D says that a referee can run "four to fifty players", but suggests a "1:20" referee to player ratio. These are unthinkable numbers for the modern day, which settled on party sizes of four or five. They thus demonstrate how different the early game was.
Introducing the Great Wheel (Sort Of). These first rules for D&D also contain the first hints to its cosmology. The "Contact Higher Plane" spell allows magic-users to communicate with "higher planes of existence". These planes are simply numbered, with no details, but it was a first sign of the Great Wheel to come.
Mind you, OD&D was just as happy to talk about other "planets" as "planes".
Monsters of Note. OD&D provides very brief descriptions of more than 50 monsters, many of them drawn from Greek myth. A few of the monsters in the book are particularly notable:
- Dragons appear in their classic array of chromatic colors: black, blue, green, red, and white. There's also a golden dragon, which is the only lawful dragon.
- Giants similarly appear with their classic categories of hill, stone, frost, fire, and cloud giants.
- Humanoids are already proliferating, with goblins, kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls barely differentiated. Gnolls are strangely said to be a a "cross between Gnomes and Trolls"!
- Undead also appear in great numbers, including skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, wraiths, mummies, spectres, and vampires.
- Finally a few original D&D monsters debut, including black puddings, gray oozes, green slime, invisible stalkers, and purple worms. (It's actually a surprisingly small set.)
Future History. The miniatures wargame community wasn't one where you necessarily supplemented your games. Instead, you wrote something, put it out there to play, and then moved on to the next thing. TSR thus moved on to the Napoleanic Tricolor (1974), the Burroughsian Warriors of Mars (1974), and the science-fiction Star Probe (1975).
However, they'd soon show the innovation of the D&D game by returning to it for its first supplement, Greyhawk (1975).
Legal Trauma. The original printings of OD&D include many references to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, such as hobbits, ents, nazgûl, and barrow wights. In 1977, Saul Zentz and Elan Merchandising (who held movie rights to Tolkien) asked TSR to cease treading on their intellectual property. The sixth printing of OD&D (1977) then expunged most of the Tolkien references. Hobbits in particular became halflings, creating D&D's first original race.
In later years, Rob Kuntz and Gary Gygax would claim that D&D wasn't well suited for Tolkien play and that Tolkien hadn't been an actual influence on the game anyway.
Whoops! The earliest printings of OD&D contain an entry for monsters that reads "% in liar". It was meant to list the odds that they were in their lair, but was corrupted by a typo. A few years later, The Arduin Grimoire (1977) used "% liar" as an actual stat to determine a monster's honesty.
Several other errata items existed, and were noted with an errata sheet that shipped with early printings. They were fixed by the fifth printing (1975).
About the Creators. Gygax and Arneson are of course the creators of the whole roleplaying hobby. They'd previously worked together on Don't Give Up the Ship (1972), with Mike Carr.
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.