Thirty-one years after the invention of Dungeons & Dragons, the original role-playing game remains the most popular and financially successful brand in the adventure gaming industry.
This fact is so well established in the conventional wisdom of the adventure games industry that it's difficult to find adequate sourcing for the assertion, and it seems ridiculous to even try. In that time, D&D has introduced millions of readers to the concept of role-playing. Even those who eventually move on to other systems usually get their start with D&D. Most gamers' understanding of "what happens" in a role-playing game is therefore shaped by how D&D explains these concepts. An analysis of how D&D's manuals have explained the duties and roles of players throughout the game's many printings therefore offers a glimpse at the evolution of the role-playing form itself. If Dungeons & Dragons is the lingua franca of most role-playing gamers, its definition of the role-playing experience defines an important touchstone helpful for critical study of the role-playing phenomenon.
This article gives a broad overview of D&D in its first era, from its origins in the basements of two Midwest game designers to its evolution into a boxed set of simplified rules aimed at the mass market. By the end of this period, Dungeons & Dragons had entered the common consciousness of the American public, and all subsequent revisions (and there have been many) can accurately be described as variations on the original. But how did the original come to take form?