Cecilia D’Anastasio on Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and Dungeons and Dragons’ Origins

Covenant Game Design - Cecilia D'Anastasio on Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and Dungeons and Dragons' Origins

Sean here. While researching Covenant, I decided that I needed, for whatever reason, to figure out what a roleplaying game is and how the differ from other types of games, like computer games. I put that to my gaming friends, and one of them (I think it was John, Roll20 has apparently eaten the message) gave me this interesting scenario.

Imagine a rope bridge spanning a deep gorge and separating your character from the monsters. My friend John said that, in a roleplaying game, you could tell the Dungeon Master (DM) that you want to burn the ropes holding up the bridge with a fireball spell, and the DM would decide whether the ropes would burn and if the bridge would fall into the gorge. The DM could even decide to have the monsters walking across the bridge when you cast your fireball because, well, he’d almost have to.

I mean, come on. It’s a rope bridge. What else are those things good for in a game, if not for pitching mooks into a bottomless pit?

You can’t do that in a computer game, though, said John – not unless the game developers programmed the bridge’s ropes to burn. That’s not necessarily a detail that the devs would think of or have the time to program.

That’s the main difference between roleplaying games and most other types of games: a referee who can make it up on the fly.


Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is considered the first roleplaying game. It was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, both wargamers. Gygax brought his Chainmail wargame, which had a fantasy supplement for elves and fireballs, and Arneson brought the Braunstein-style wargames that he was playing the Twin Cities area, and somehow out of that Gygax created D&D.

That’s the official story, at least.

While I was researching my roleplaying game, I decided to do some casual research into the first roleplaying game. What I found ran against D&D’s official story.

Gygax’s Chainmail was just a wargame. It was skinned for fantasy wargame, but in the end it was a fairly standard wargame without roleplaying elements.

Arneson was a different story. His Braunstein games had everything I’d associate with a roleplaying game, including:

  • Persistent characters that players could take from game session to game session
  • “Theatre of the mind” game play
  • A referee who could make judgments on rules and even new rules on the fly

Keep in mind, this wasn’t some kind of Bernstein-and-Woodward investigation. There was no man-on-the-inside, no Deep Throat, no midnight meetings in vacant lots and parking garages with a pistol in my pocket. Instead, I used Google when I had the time, and sometimes not even then.
But it did nag at me.

This recent article in Kotaku by Cecilia D’Anastasio, Dungeons & Deceptions: The First D&D Players Push Back On The Legend Of Gary Gygax, crystallized those dobuts in my mind. Here’s a long quote from D’Anastasio’s article:

Chainmail, or more specifically its fantasy supplement, is widely considered to be the prototype of D&D. This is stated in all the books: in the Gygax biography Empire of the Imagination, in the graphic novel Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D, and in Playing at the World. It’s stated in the articles, the forum posts, the oral histories. Despite all of this, Chainmail was decidedly not a role-playing game. It wasn’t structured around campaigns. There were no experience points. Characters weren’t acted out, or represented as being anyone other than the player.

In his Minnesota basement games incubator, Arneson ran a game of Chainmail. He loved the medieval setting and the fantasy trappings in the supplement, and played the game consistently for about a month. One day after the game of Chainmail had wound down, Arneson was at rest, binging five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend, gobbling down fistfuls of popcorn, playing with some graph paper, flipping through a Conan book.
Chainmail, he thought, could make for a solid combat ruleset for a more expansive sort of game, an ongoing one like Braunstein. That restful day, Arneson idly considered bringing Gygax’s new combat ruleset into the developing game tradition he and his friends were carving out: role-playing.

“There will be a medieval ‘Braunstein’ April 17, 1971, at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis,” Arneson advertised in his wargaming group’s small-circulation newsletter, Corner of the Table Top. “It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll’s bridge between sunup and sundown.”

Players took novice characters—“flunkies” in their terms—and implanted them in Blackmoor, a medieval setting of Arneson’s own invention. Arneson’s map of the town perfectly resembles an early Dungeons & Dragons map, with roads and wilderness that eventually give way to a central, barricaded town. Giants roaming the land would send the players scrambling for the safety of the town. Later, there would be evil wizards and castles and gold, dungeon exploration mechanics. Chainmail’s armor class and hit point mechanics, Stormberg says, Arneson expanded on to fit Blackmoor’s gameplay.

According to Secrets of Blackmoor, on that April day in 1971, Arneson gathered his friends around his ping-pong table, on which he often taped down a layer of brown paper maps. What transpired there, three years before the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, could very well have been the first-ever session of a fantasy tabletop role-playing game. There were no complicated miniature armies, no rulers, no graph paper. It was dice and imagination. Arneson played the “referee,” like the one in the rules of Braunstein, who conjured descriptions of what the players saw. For the most part, the game existed in Arneson’s head.

I’m not saying that Gygax was the Steve Jobs to Arneson’s Steve Wozniak. Gygax was capable of designing games, and you could argue that Arneson’s game would never have made it to a wider audience without Gygax’s drive.

You could even say that these aren’t Arneson’s ideas. Braunstein was invented by David Wesely, one of Arneson’s friends, and the idea of refereed wargames goes back at least to Charles Totten’s 1880 book Strategos: The American Game of War.

Arneson does deserve more credit, though. Maybe he didn’t invent D&D out of whole cloth, but his innovations were critical to its development.


I’m not sure why I posted this. Maybe it was to take advantage of something that’s currently in the gaming zetigeist.

However, it is good to know that my hunches about one of my favorite hobbies was correct, too.

Published by radiofreecovenant

A podcast about the science-fiction roleplaying game "Covenant" and the urban fantasy novel "Crossing the Line", soon to be published by Black Opal Books.

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