How an early lawsuit altered the history of Dungeons & Dragons

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & DragonsThe new book, MIT Press’s newest, is now available for purchase in shops starting on Tuesday. Jon Peterson, a New York Times bestseller and author of The MIT Press’s newest book, chronicles the beginnings of the university. Dungeons & DragonsThis chart shows its evolution from a niche experience to an international phenomenon by the 1980s.

Polygon met with the author this month to talk about his project. and to contemplate what D&D might look like today if Gary Gygax had retained control of TSR. But much of the book details the years-long feud between Gygax and collaborator Dave Arneson, including the legal maneuverings that impacted one of the game’s most popular boxed sets. Polygon today presents this piece, which was taken from the last book.

The original Module B1, the Holmes Basic Set, and The Keep on the Borderlands. From Jon Peterson’s personal collection.

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Jon Peterson, Photo

Adventure “modules” have long been an important way for new players to learn games like Dungeons & Dragons. This pre-designed adventure can be used to teach Dungeon Masters how to make their own adventures. TSR began selling modules as a business in the summer 1978. It would take months for the first Holmes-sized module to be published. D&D Basic Set Shipment would include a special module introducing the product: The Unknown: In Search Mike Carr. It contained a lot of useful starting guidance on running an adventure that you wouldn’t find in the D&D There were no books at that time. This is how the module was included in the Basic SetIt is fascinating to read about why he would stay for only one year.

TSR was aware that Dave Arneson was set to sue TSR at the end 1978. Ever since Arneson left the company late in 1976, he had repeatedly questioned whether he was being paid his fair share of the royalties for D&D, which he had co-authored back in 1974. With the publication of the first issue, the situation reached a head. Basic Set In 1977, Arneson discovered that his 5% royalty was missing from the total $10 price. Basic SetDo not rely on the actual copy of the Basic D&D The rulebook was shipped in the original box and then separately sold for $5.

Other items that are shipping to the Basic Set were a set of polyhedral dice, a few pages of dungeon “geomorph” tiles that could be quickly arranged into a suitable underground, and a slender booklet of pre-generated monster encounters for beginner dungeon levels. As TSR would argue, Arneson had never previously received royalties for dice sales, accessories, or supplements created by other people, and it was unclear what about packaging those things in a set with the D&D Arneson was suddenly given a cut for rules contained in a small box. TSR felt that the contract Arneson had signed for the “game or game rules called Dungeons & Dragons” applied only to the rules themselves.

However, there is one thing that was missing. Dungeon Geomorphs Monster & Treasure Assortment Then shipping to the Basic Set were credited to Arneson’s D&D Gary Gygax was coauthor and President of TSR. Royalties would follow that credit. In effect, Gygax received a royalty of 5% on the $10 price for the cover. Basic Set Arneson. TSR, which was still a small company in 1977 when it began, continued to be a successful business. Basic Set was only selling one or two thousand copies a month—the amount of money at stake wasn’t all that much. Arneson was able to obtain legal relief because of this. His subsequent dispute over whether the Advanced D&D game was the same game as original D&D is more famous, but it was really just tacked on to his original complaints about the Basic Set

Wood block prints of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Image: Andrew Meger/MIT Press

As Arneson’s lawsuit loomed, TSR made a very pointed substitution to the contents of the Basic SetThey rotated the Dungeon Geomorphs Monster & Treasure Assortment booklets, replacing them with Mike Carr’s The Unknown: In Search Module. Carr, an old friend of Arneson’s (and a player in his original Blackmoor campaign), had remained on staff after Arneson’s 1976 departure, and was now TSR’s general manager. Carr agreed to be a writer. The Unknown: In Search to help beginning players learn the ropes of D&D. Adventurers will learn about the fate of Rogahn (and Zelligar), powerful characters from years ago and what happened to the huge treasure found in the Caverns of Quasqueton.

It was a good idea to target a module at beginning dungeon masters — but it also had clear implications for the legal situation. Arneson had previously sought a royalty of 5% on all contents. Basic Set, he was effectively asking for money that was going into Gygax’s pocket. Instead, he asked for money for Mike Carr. Carr had agreed to a 2.2% royalty on all $5.50 copies. The Unknown: In Search Sold in either the Basic Set Or sold individually

If anyone hoped this would alter Arneson’s calculus, it came too late: Arneson’s lawsuit would drop in February 1979. Surprisingly though, the legal case was not the largest. D&D News of 1979. News of 1979. D&D to mainstream attention. With that came increased sales Basic Set The number of people who voted for the steam tunnel incident soared dramatically. The steam tunnel accident was just before it. Basic Set One month, it might have sold up to 5,000 copies. The book was selling more than 30,000 copies per month by the end 1979.

The Basic Set Carrying The Unknown: In Search Now, Mike Carr’s 11 cents per copy has started to make real money. This is especially true in the pre-1980 dollar dollars. The quarterly royalty payments would probably exceed the salary of an average TSR employee. Basic Set sales kept growing, it could easily overtake Carr’s own salary. Carr had some difficulty getting the Blume brothers, Gygax’s business partners, to honor the agreement — though eventually, they did. A module such as this could have significant financial benefits for its author.

It was then that Gygax apparently grasped that, in light of such dramatic sales volumes, maybe he shouldn’t be so concerned about how attractive the Basic Set Arneson could view it as a legal target. TSR might actually try to substitute a module for the one that is being used. Basic Set — one of Gygax’s own creation, Do not lose sight of the Borderlands (B2) which was first shipped in 1980. It’s a classic, beloved module, whose Caves of Chaos owe no particular debt to Carr’s Caverns of Quasqueton, though much of Carr’s enlightening text about the art of dungeon mastering was effectively paraphrased in Gygax’s version.

The history of D&D is full of contingencies like this, influenced as much by business and legal circumstances as by game design and innovation. Because Do not lose sight of the Borderlands Shipping with the Moldvay Basic Set, at the height of the D&D boom in 1981, it became one of the most widely known modules in D&D history, selling 750,000 copies a year. It might never have served as the gateway to adventure for so many players if it hadn’t been for a certain legal dispute and its consequences.


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