A visit to the basement where Dungeons & Dragons was born
Ethan Gilsdorf celebrates the origins of D&D and presents Jon Peterson's exclusive video tour of the place where E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson set out on their first adventures
With the 40th anniversary of the iconic and influential role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons upon us, and the release of the game’s new version this summer, many wonder, where exactly did D&D begin?
Here’s an exclusive look at a video that answers that very question.
Some background: Fans and scholars know that D&D’s co-founders, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, met in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Gygax’s hometown. Lake Geneva became the headquarters of Tactical Studies Rules (later known as TSR, Inc.), the company that published D&D and other role-playing products. Lake Geneva was also home to GenCon, the war game convention Gygax founded that would go on to became the world's largest such event. (Today, some 40,000 gather each August at Gen Con in Indianapolis). GenCon is also where Gygax first met Arneson.
Many of Gygax’s early gaming sessions took place in the 1960s and early 70s at Gygax’s modest home at 330 Center Street. In its basement, Gygax and his gamer pals --- known as the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association --- tinkered with their miniature tabletop strategy games and began adding fantasy and role-playing elements in collaboration with Arneson, testing and perfecting the rules with fellow gamers. These rules would eventually become the first version of D&D.
Consider this Gygax basement the original geek lair. (Yes, the stereotype of a nerd gamer in the basement has a basis in reality.)
The home is no longer owned by the Gygax family. But at a small gaming convention called Gary Con held this March in Lake Geneva, a select group of people were allowed to visit, and play, D&D, in this home. D&D historian Jon Peterson, author of Playing At the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games,was one of those chosen few, and shot a video, “Gaming at the Gygax House,” to document his time there.
"Descending into the Gygax basement, it was like being an adventurer exploring some ancient dungeon where the heroes of old had killed the first monsters,” said Peterson. While the modest house is also where Gygax and his wife raised five kids, “the adventures that started in this old basement,” he said, “changed their lives forever, and changed so many of our lives, too."
In this video, Peterson (who also serves as its narrator) takes us on a brief tour of Lake Geneva, including Horticultural Hall (first venue for Gen Con in 1968). That hall was only a block from the Gygax house, which is where the tour goes next. We first see the ground floor at 330 Center Street. Then we’re led down a steep and rickety set of stairs to the basement, where Gygax had constructed a giant "sandbox" tabletop surface for his war games. “Gaming at the Gygax House” shows a reconstructed sandbox set up by Paul Stormberg, a gamer and auction agent from Omaha.
Peterson explained that people traveled from all over the Midwest to play with Gygax on his famous sandtable, be it a WW II miniatures war game, battles of Alexander the Great, or the nascent fantasy game that became D&D.
During the special D&D session at the Gygax house, for which Stormberg served as Dungeon Master, Peterson said he experienced Gygax’s Castle Greyhawk dungeon “just like they did back in the day.”
For gaming historians, or those just eager to glimpse a piece of D&D history, Peterson’s video visit induces chills. Look for the moment in the video where we can still see carved on the bulkhead door the words "Entrance: Wargames Room."
Gygax and Arneson may be dead. The Gygax family has moved elsewhere. But as the video reveals, 330 Center Street provides a key missing link in the origin story of D&D. The house resonates with the thousands of adventures played there. It was appropriate to bring gaming back to the basement. Surely the house missed it.
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