The Making of Original Dungeons & Dragons: 1970-1977 – Review

Red-and-gold dust jacket cover of The Making of Original Dungeons & Dragons: 1970-1977, on a orange-to-black gradient background

What do you do, friends, when a mysterious traveler (i.e., a mail carrier) leaves a tome of extraordinary size (576 pages!), esoteric in its content, on your doorstep? You review it! The book comes to stores tomorrow: June 18, 2024.

The book, in this case, is The Making of Original Dungeons & Dragons: 1970-1977 from WotC, with document curation and commentary by Jon Peterson. What the title alone doesn’t quite communicate is that it is chiefly a reproduction of early documents, starting with “Grayte Wourmes” in 1969 to an excerpt from the first issue of The Dragon in 1976.

The production quality of this book is absolutely stellar. It’s hardbound, with a very handsome dust jacket and cover. There are four bookmark ribbons, and an understated sectional color-coding on the bottom of the pages. Priced at $99.95, I’d have a hard time saying that it’s for casual fans. This is for lifelong fans, scholars of gaming history, and people who want the full retrospective experience of celebrating D&D’s 50th anniversary. I’m 3-for-3 on that list, how about you?

Now, as I’ve said, it’s a large volume—enough so that I’m not setting out to detail everything that is here. There are some incredible deep cuts, though—things I certainly never learned about while working on the History of the Classes or the Edition Wars podcast. Some of the most revealing and new-to-me is the close looks at the creative friction between Gygax’s D&D and Arneson’s. There are specific quotes on Arneson’s displeasure over lack of creative control in the final stages of design.

The book has special treats in store for Greyhawk fans, with iterations of early Greyhawk maps and some early development history. Reproductions of handwritten and typed correspondence between Gygax and Arneson include the first appearance of the name Greyhawk in print. In the same document, Gygax details the level limits for dwarves and elves—but as Peterson points out, he hasn’t yet embraced the term “level,” so he’s talking about three classes (warrior, magician, or cleric) each having a number of classes (that we would now call levels). Peter Mark Roget really needed to be the third D&D designer, is what I’m saying.

Another standout for me is the book’s window into late 60’s/early 70’s fandom, in the form of “Thangorodrim,” a zine supporting a Middle Earth hack of Diplomacy, along with several other documents. “The Battle of Brown Hills” after-action report, submitted to the UK publication Wargamer’s Newsletter (and, as Peterson notes, taking a lot of backlash for being fantasy-based rather than historical) is fascinating, in light of all that has come since.

It’s an amazing text of watching the early stages of a great creative undertaking: armor, weapons, hit points, monsters, and spells all go through changes from manuscript to manuscript, sometimes even with surviving character sheets and examples of play to show us more about how that worked in play. It really is the depth of detail and insight that makes this book such a treasure.

The worst I can say of the work as a whole is that I would have enjoyed more commentary from Peterson: the book leaves a substantial amount of blank space, and Peterson is interesting. As should be clear, this isn’t a serious critique. This book is very nearly everything I could have wanted it to be.

For the merely curious, make plans to check this book out from a local library. (Libraries are cool and you should support them.) For serious fans, collectors, and historians of D&D and TTRPGs generally, the book is a must-have, even if it means you need to install additional industrial-grade shelving.