Out of the Dungeons

Published 40 years ago this month, the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons promised “a world where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!” To outsiders, it may seem impenetrably complex or impossibly nerdy, but the tabletop role-playing game has inspired a generation of writers and filmmakers and is credited with giving birth to the modern video-game industry. Happy birthday, D&D!

Players Worldwide:
More than 30,000,000

How to Play

Short version:
Sit down with friends and pretend you’re the heroes of a fantasy story narrated by one of the participants (“the Dungeon Master”) and mediated by a few rules and rolling dice.

Long version:
Study more than 300 rule books and supplements. Spend hundreds of dollars on dice, figurines, and maps. Find friends who are willing to do the same.

Necessary Equipment:

Counterclockwise from bottom: four-, six-, eight-, ten-, twelve-, and twenty-sided die. Photo: Diacritica/Wikipedia

The Origin Story:
War-gaming fans start a club called the Castle & Crusade Society where Dave Arneson, security guard, and E. Gary Gygax, part-time cobbler, meet. Together they author the first-edition rules.

Fan-Favorite Monsters

The Beholder
A giant floating orb with one Cyclopean eye, a mouth full of pointy teeth, and ten smaller eyes.

The Gelatinous Cube
A mound of transparent jelly that fills an entire dungeon hallway and digests anything it touches.

The Owlbear
A large bear covered in fur and feathers, with the sharp beak of a bird.

The Catoblepas
A bison’s body, a hippo’s legs, a giraffe’s neck, a lizard’s tail, and a warthog’s head.

Sample Vocabulary

Campaign: An entire D&D adventure, usually continued across multiple game sessions, sometimes years.

Critical hit: An attack that does extra damage, usually obtained by rolling twenty on a twenty-sided die.

Monty haul: A derogatory term for a Dungeon Master who awards his players too much treasure.

Munchkin: A player who exploits the rules to his advantage, to the detriment of the story and everyone else’s fun.

Famous Players

Photo: Patrick McMullan

In television:
Stephen Colbert created D&D characters based on the personalities of his eleven brothers and sisters.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

In film:
Jon Favreau says that D&D helped make him a good director. “It gave me a really strong background in imagination.”

Photo: Patrick McMullan

In books:
The protagonist of Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a devoted D&D player.

D&D in Popular Culture

“Discos and Dragons,” the 2000 final episode of Freaks and Geeks, features James Franco’s character, Daniel, playing D&D for the first time.

Weezer’s “In the Garage” begins with the lyrics: I’ve got the “Dungeon Master’s Guide” / I’ve got a twelve-sided die.

In E.T. The Extraterrestrial, young protagonist Elliott appears onscreen trying to talk his way into his brother’s D&D game.

Out of the Dungeons