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Small Beginnings
James Maliszewski

This month, we look forward to the release of Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins, the latest of the game's miniatures faction packs. To take a further look back at the interplay of miniatures within Dungeons & Dragons, Grognardia's James Maliszewski delivers this latest installment of D&D Alumni.


I f you've ever seen the cover of one of the little brown rulebooks that first appeared in early 1974, what you'll immediately notice is that they all carry a subtitle beneath the familiar words Dungeons & Dragons, which reads: “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” Compared to the inspired simplicity of the game's title, that subtitle is a confusing mouthful. Yet, it's also an important touchstone in understanding the history—and prehistory—of what we today call “roleplaying games.”

I say “today,” because nowhere in those original three rulebooks is the term “roleplaying game” ever used. Nor is the term used in any of the supplements TSR produced for D&D between 1974 and 1976. The term didn't appear in connection to the game until wargame designer Richard Berg used it in a column printed in the October 1975 issue of Moves magazine and, from there and other sources, it slowly gained wider currency throughout the hobby. By the time that the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes appeared in 1977, TSR had adopted it, calling their new release “The Original Adult Fantasy Role-Playing Game.”

Why did it take so long for the term to be coined and used to describe D&D? A big part of that answer can be found in looking at the subtitle mentioned above. Dungeons & Dragons was an outgrowth of an earlier set of game rules called Chainmail, written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Written to simulate medieval warfare by members of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association, Chainmail was later published in expanded form by Guidon Games in 1971. A significant part of its expansion was a “Fantasy Supplement,” which included rules for monsters, spells, and magic weapons so as to allow players to “either refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers; or . . . [to] devise your own 'world,' and conduct fantastic campaigns and conflicts based on it.”

It would take several more years of development—kickstarted in large part by Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign in Minneapolis—before the fantastic miniatures wargames campaigns envisioned by Gygax would become something recognizably like roleplaying as we know it today. Even then, Gygax and Arneson continued to view D&D as a type of miniatures wargame rather than as a separate kind of entertainment. For example, in Gygax's November 1973 foreword to D&D, he repeatedly addresses his readers as “wargamers.” Again, this may simply reflect the lack of a better term to describe the “fantasy buffs” (to borrow another phrase Gygax employs in his foreword) whom he was addressing, but I suspect it also reflects the expansiveness of the word “wargame” at the time, which could include more than massed battles on the tabletop.

Even so, it's worth noting that, despite the game's subtitle, miniature figures are not listed under D&D's “recommended equipment,” while “Imagination” and “1 Patient Referee” are! Elsewhere, it is stated that “miniature figures can be added if the players have them available and so desire, but miniatures are not required, only esthetically pleasing.” The rulebook goes on to state that “varied and brightly painted miniature figures” add “eye-appeal.” The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, though published five years later in 1979, evinces essentially the same attitude, saying “Miniature figures used to represent characters and monsters add color and life to the game. They also make the task of refereeing action, particularly combat, easier too!”

The attitude of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide is not at all surprising. D&D had arisen out of miniatures wargaming and, for several years after its appearance, still advertised itself as a miniatures wargame, albeit of an unusual sort. Likewise, many of the game's earliest players were themselves miniatures wargamers and had been introduced to D&D through the medium of wargaming clubs and conventions (such as Gen Con, whose first formal gathering in 1968 was sponsored by the International Federation of Wargamers). Consequently, editions of Dungeons & Dragons prior to 1981 retained many conventions derived from miniatures wargaming, such as measuring movement in inches (one inch equaled ten feet indoors and ten yards outdoors), in part because those conventions were well understood by the game's earliest players and those who learned to play D&D from them.

Prior to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, there were very few sources of fantasy miniatures for use with wargaming. Consequently, both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had to be creative in finding ways to represent wizards, elves, monsters, and similar fantastical beings. In a Wargamer's Newsletter from October 1972, Gygax explained that he made use of his plastic 30mm and 40mm Elastolin and Airfix models in his Chainmail battles, and he supplemented with “an assortment of plastic prehistoric animals.” Among these “prehistoric animals” were strange creatures that would later serve as the inspirations for many iconic D&D monsters, such as the bulette, the owlbear, and the rust monster. Gygax also modified some of these prehistoric animals to create dragons, hydras, and similar reptilian foes.

Of course, not every player of D&D, even those already playing miniatures wargaming, was interested in kitbashing their own fantasy figures. That's why, starting in 1977, the first official line of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures appeared, produced by Minifigs of the United Kingdom. In 1980, Grenadier Models was granted the license to produce official D&D miniatures, retaining it until TSR started producing its own figures in 1983. In later years, other manufacturers would take up the task of creating and selling official D&D (including, most recently, Wizards of the Coast), continuing a tradition going back to the earliest days of the roleplaying hobby.

The earliest licensed D&D figures were crude by modern standards, but what they lacked in detail they made up for by hewing as closely as possible to the descriptions and illustrations found in the Monster Manual and similar sources. Whereas Gygax and Arneson had to make do with Robin Hood figures and plastic dinosaurs, the advent of D&D miniatures meant that gamers could get their hands on not just dragons to face off against their players' characters but dragons that looked like those described in the game's rulebooks! This was a great boon to many players and referees alike, especially as D&D's popularity expanded beyond the miniatures wargaming community out of which it grew.

Today, miniature figures and even terrain remain firmly associated with Dungeons & Dragons, despite the fact that their use has been optional from the start. Yet the link remains—a reminder of where D&D came from, even forty years after the fact.

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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