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'Slaying the Dragon' explores Wisconsin roots of Dungeons & Dragons and storied past

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Did you know, the first game of Dungeons & Dragons happened right here in Wisconsin?
Cover of 'Slaying the Dragon' by Ben Riggs.
Cover of 'Slaying the Dragon' by Ben Riggs.

Dungeons & Dragons revolutionized the gaming world when it was first released in the 1970s. Not only did the game become hugely popular, it revolutionized tabletop games and created a new category now known as role-playing games.

But did you know, the first game of Dungeons & Dragons happened right here in Wisconsin? In fact, the game and the company it created were founded in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. A new book called, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, unveils this history and the controversy surrounding it.

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, is often thought of as the "father of role-playing games," but this book complicates that narrative. Gygax lived in Lake Geneva and was an active in the wargames community. He'd created a game called Chainmail in 1971, with little commercial success. Meanwhile, another game designer named Dave Arneson had created a game called Blackmoor, which he played for Gygax in the basement of his Lake Geneva home. Gygax was captivated by the game and the two began working on what would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons.

But that is where things get complicated. To distribute the game and start working on more projects, Gygax co-founded the company Tactical Studies Rules (known as TSR) in Lake Geneva. As Dungeons & Dragons grew in popularity, Gygax attempted to distance the company from Arneson and his contributions as co-creator. As the money from D&D grew, their legal challenges over ownership and copyright only added to the problems TSR faced. Despite the controversy, Dungeons & Dragons remains an icon of the gaming world, and Gygax's and Arneson's legacies have cast long shadows in the community.

"To be considered great, you either have to be the first at something or you have to be the best and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were the first. They were the first people to create a role-playing game. The term didn't even exist when Dungeons and Dragons was created. The term role-playing game came about to describe Dungeons and Dragons," says Riggs.

Although much of this history is set in Lake Geneva—including the first gaming convention still known as Gen Con—Riggs says the community hasn't capitalized on that legacy.

"It is the birthplace of role-playing games, and going and seeing the old TSR buildings is a religious experience," says Riggs. "You go and see the house where Gary Gygax played games on the porch with other luminaries. You walk the streets that he walked, and you see the things that he saw."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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