Is The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 worth getting?

Author: DHBoggs /

Released as part of Wizards of the Coast's promotion of the 50th anniversary of the publishing of D&D, The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 has hit the shelves and begun arriving in pre-ordered copies.

I have heard a number of folks express reservations because of the price or the content, and thought it might be worthwhile to lend my thoughts to the matter since I have the book.

The answer to the question of worth for you, is going to depend on your expectations and your interests.

If you were expecting a glossy corporate history prepared without the involvement of any actual Historians, lionizing the corporate founding father while giving the obligatory acknowledgements of modern social progress, you will find expectations met.

If you were expecting a book brimming with early documents, both published and previously unpublished, and with succinct but often thought provoking commentary you will also find your expectations met.

In other words, the book is meeting everyone's expectations.

I'll expand on the critique first. The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons is not a scholarly work, but it is a work for the scholarly minded, both amateur and professional, to pour through and ponder over. 

True, the book exposes no cracks in the usual Pater Families image of Gary Gygax and also true Arneson is presented in accord with the usual grubby-handed lout trope. It is best to keep in mind the long-standing "Papa Gygax" and gollum-like Arneson narratives are well suited to the story Hasbro wants to tell about the past of its popular property. There should be no surprise that The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons doesn't challenge these tropes in what is essentially a coffee table book, not meant to ask probing questions.

For example, a brief letter from Arneson to Scott Rich published in Great Plains Game Player's Newsletter #9 is mentioned but unfortunately not included. In this 2 paragraph letter Areneson covers only two things - Dungeon stocking and Hit Point generation - that he had wanted done differently in D&D and failed to convey to Gygax convincingly, but the commentary overdraws the un-shown letter as an example of Arneson lacking any interest in supporting D&D - an odd conclusion given that he was running public demos of the game shortly after publication. The loutish Arneson trope perhaps comes through more strongly in the noticeably unbalanced treatment found in the section on Supplement II Blackmoor. The commentary strings together hearsay from persons notably unkindly disposed toward the man with the singular rebuttal that one of these assertions *might* be "uncharitable". The commentary also raises the expectation that of a copy marked by Gygax with notations will inform who the true author was. The choice to present this particular marked version in this 50th anniversary book is itself interesting (and appreciated, frankly), but in looking at the actual text we see only a few sections in the first 13 pages are so marked, and the new information to be gleaned there, is that apparently both Rob and Terry Kuntz contributed some of the monsters, seemingly some of those we formerly presumed were Steve Marsh's.  As we learn from a new-to me quote from Steve Marsh that many of his submitted monsters were missing or "simplified". 

The earliest texts are not presented in chronological order, but rather in groups. This choice of materials and the order in which they are presented strongly insinuates the primacy of the Gygaxian chain of creation, from writing about Dragons to the production of CHAINMAIL, but we do get a decent amount of Blackmoor material interrupting the chain, some of it very hard to come by, and the commentary here is interesting. I could continue with examples of the Gygax as Pater Families trope, but I'm not interested in beating this horse and I think you got the point. 

Regardless of the implications of the selected content and order, it is material that is great to see in its original and all collected together. While I have tossed out a fair bit of criticism, including that of reductionist tropes found in the commentary, in fact one of the beauties of this book are the little nuggets here and there in the text of information not widely known. Jon Peterson, the principal author of the text, has access to a wealth of written material, some of it very closely guarded, and his commentary often reflects the deep knowledge he has of the extant documentation.

It is inevitable that researchers will have differing perspectives on past events and people - that's not a reason to avoid discussion, and in this case, not a reason for avoiding this book. There is a great deal of information, and ideas and I certainly don't want to leave the impression that it's all flawed - far from it - and it is all important data.

Anyone interested in the growth of the game is going to find a treasure trove, both in the rare and wonderful (to quote Smaug) documents printed, and in the contextual information presented in the commentary.  I suppose what I'm saying is that The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 if treated as a Resource and not a Bible is wonderful.

And speaking of wonderful, let me say a few things about the physical book. I don't know what may have been foreshadowed concerning the book because I only watched the one WotC video, but I have to say the quality of the book was a really pleasant surprise. The first surprise upon pulling off the shrink wrap was to discover a flyer over the back cover that has on its reverse a full size reprint of an original blank OD&D character sheet - sweet!  The book is thick and heavy due to the use of heavyweight semi-gloss paper. The layout is crisp and easy to read. It is smith-sewn and separated by pleasantly muted edge coloring into five sections, which are also divided by four colored ribbons - again sweet!

Jon Peterson is to be greatly thanked for the very existence of this book. I believe it was his idea from the start, and he certainly worked closely with Hasbro to make it a reality.  Regardless of what I might have liked to have seen done differently, The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons is a fantastic work full of ur documents long sought after by those interested in understanding the development of the game.  

The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 guides the reader to also investigate The First Fantasy Campaign booklet published by Judges Guild in 1977. Of course I agree, but would insist that anyone purchasing The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons should also acquire Blackmoor Foundations as a necessary companion book. Having both will give one a much more complete and rounded understanding of the early days of the game. I might also humbly suggest, less insistently, The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg.

So there you have it. Hopefully I have conveyed a frank but insightful critique of a book I generally think is a must-have. I should mention that my name does appear in the book, and in Blackmoor Foundations just as well, should that influence your purchasing decision at all, but I did not have any communication or opportunities to review The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 prior to publication. YMMV.


Dennis Laffey said...

Aside from getting access to those original documents included in the book, does it provide any insights in the commentary beyond what Peterson included in Playing At the World? (Which I already have)

DHBoggs said...

Dennis, that may depend on which version of PatW you have. I haven't seen the new one. There are documents in the D&D book that weren't available back in 2011/12 when the original version was published.

Dennis Laffey said...

I have the original edition of PatW. I'm curious about the original documents in this new 50th anniversary book, but I think the price is a it high for me if the other content of the book is mostly what I already have in PatW.

Post a Comment

About Me

My photo
Game Archaeologist/Anthropologist, Scholar, Historic Preservation Analyst, and a rural American father of three.
Powered by Blogger.

My Blog List