In the 1980s millions of teenagers world-wide would battle dragons armed with just a few dice, paper and pens. D&D became part of youth sub-culture but as the game celebrates its 30th birthday – is anyone still playing?
In 1974 two men in the US Midwest, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, created Dungeons and Dragons, the first ever role-playing game.
Developed out of war gaming using table-top miniatures, the paperback rule books were an instant success, a genuine phenomenon which spawned an industry and influenced a generation of film-makers, writers and videogame developers.
An estimated 20 million people worldwide have played D&D since it was created, with more than $1bn spent on game equipment and books.
“I thought we would sell about 50,000 copies,” remembers Gary Gygax.
Co-creator Dave Arneson recalls: “When we started playing we thought we were kind of crazy. It seemed to start quite well and sold better, and better and better.”
The game spread by word of mouth and became a cult in schools and in universities across the globe.
It was even a cult at a Wisconsin naval base. “At one time every nuclear submarine had a D&D group,” says Arneson.
D&D is game in which a group of friends create and develop characters by rolling dice which determine skills and abilities.
The characters are taken on adventures which are plotted by a separate player – the Dungeon Master.
You can be a fighter, a thief, or a magic user, perhaps even a bard, a druid or a cleric. But there is no board or counters – just pen, paper and an active imagination.
“I get to be braver, stronger, wiser, smarter, faster, handsomer, and just generally more than I am in real life,” says current player, Joshua Turton, 29, from the San Francisco Bay area.
“I can perform miracles, save damsels, slay dragons, cast spells, right wrongs, raid tombs, drink ale, and live dangerously.”
Brad King, author of Dungeons and Dreamers, which charts the influence of D&D on early videogames, says D&D should not be confused with board games.
“It was the first really interactive game. If you play board games there is always an objective or goal.
“D&D is the opposite. It’s about sitting down and telling stories with your friends.”
At the height of its popularity in the 1980s the game became a target for cultural conservatives.
The game was wrongly implicated in a missing persons case, a teen suicide and a number of murders. Some schools banned the game, and many parents refused to let their children play.
The controversy inspired a 1982 TV film, Mazes and Monsters, starring Tom Hanks. A later cartoon series and a more recent film kept the brand name alive among non-players but were derided by D&D fans.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, lawsuits began to fly – Arneson and Gygax sued each other over the development of the game.
Neither man has any current official involvement in D&D – both selling their royalties to publisher Wizards of the Coast in the 1990s.
Arneson says: “We see each other at conventions. He does his thing and I do mine. There’s no stabbing each other in the back.”
D&D’s popularity began to wane in the early 1990s as the videogame boom began.
“D&D never went away,” says Liz Schuh, marketing director for Wizards of the Coast. “It was huge in the 1980s and then dropped off the radar screens but it never went away.”
“D&D was so successful that it spawned an industry that ate it,” says Mr King.
There are now hundreds of different, competing role-playing games which have all taken a bite out of the market dominance D&D once had.
But the game remains – even thrives. Wizards estimates that three million people play in the US each month.
Angus MacDonald, a 45-year-old D&D player, who lives near San Francisco, has been playing on and off since 1975.
“The game is social, it is a form of storytelling, and it has allowed me to develop deep friendships with people over the years.”
Delwin Shand, a 47-year-old who has been playing for 30 years, says: “The reason the game has survived is that it allows us the chance to play out a dream of being the classical hero – the slayer of dragons, the hero who saves the land from some terrible foe or danger.”
Gygax and Arneson are still actively involved in the industry and are revered by D&D players for their creation.
Gygax says: “There is something in D&D that strikes a chord in many people; the call of adventure.
“I am certainly happy that it has made people happy and brought so many people together. There is a great fellowship among role players.”
Ed Stark, special projects manager at Wizards, says imagination is pivotal to the game. “People often say playing D&D is like writing your own movie at a table.
“But of course there are no million dollar special effects – so imagination must fill in the blanks.”
In the age of the iPod, mp3s, DVDs and online videogames, it is perhaps remarkable that a game based purely on pen, paper and dice remains so popular.