ungeons & Dragons' origins date back to the Castles & Crusades Society (1970–1972), a group focused on medieval wargaming. From there, it gestated in the medieval wargame Chainmail (1972) before finally being born as OD&D (1974). It’s no surprise that the resulting RPG is heavily based in the medieval milieu. Even in its earliest days, D&D experimented with moving beyond feudalism by incorporating other genres into its medieval worlds. These experimental genres culminated in a pair of groundbreaking releases in 1985—eleven years after D&D’s creation.
Greyhawk Origins: 1974–1985
In the beginning, the game of D&D was largely synonymous with the world of Greyhawk—which was revealed in a series of adventures beginning with Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). Through many of these early adventures, D&D created an entirely new fantasy genre: the dungeon crawl. The battles of Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), the investigations of Tomb of Horrors (1978), and the explorations of White Plume Mountain (1978) were largely unlike the high fantasy of the Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) and the dark fantasy of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (1939–1988). They were the most similar to the sword & sorcery genre that was popularized in Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan (1932–1936), but they were also something entirely new.
Dungeon crawling influenced by sword-and-sorcery elements was just one aspect of the D&D game. Its medieval origins, inherited from the Castles & Crusades Society, also appeared in those early D&D adventures. The Village of Hommlet (1979) was the first publication to really push this medieval setting. It featured an entire village and a nearby moathouse—together forming a well-detailed feudal community of a sort that hadn’t previously been seen in AD&D.
Basic D&D offered another feudal backdrop several months later with The Keep on the Borderlands (1979), but it was really The World of Greyhawk Fantasy World Setting (1980) that nailed down the idea by detailing vast realms full of medieval kingdoms. The cover even showed a series of heraldic shields that represented the various countries.
This was largely the world of D&D through its first decade of existence: a mix of medieval feudalism, dungeon exploration, and gonzo fantasy. If you picked up a D&D module any time in the 1970s or early 80s, it was most likely to fit into these categories—whether it was officially set in Greyhawk or not. However, the earliest days of D&D were also a time of experimentation and so several other ideas were crossed with this core setting, in large part thanks to the inclusion of a trio of genres that varied D&D’s medieval fantasy.
Pulp, Horror, and Science Fantasy: 1975–1987
The early D&D game wasn’t yet ready to create settings that went beyond the medieval world, so instead it experimented with three different genres in its medieval adventures: pulp, horror, and science fantasy.
Pulp appeared in D&D primarily thanks to the interest of two early adventure writers: David “Zeb” Cook and Tom Moldvay. Together they wrote about a half-dozen adventures that featured lost civilizations, buried cities, forbidden jungles, and primitive societies. The most famous is The Isle of Dread (1981), which was created to have a “Lost World / Skull Island feel”.
The most interesting pulp adventure might have been Castle Amber (Chateau d' Amberville) (1981), which was a licensed adaptation of the pulp writing of Clark Ashton Smith. Smith was also known as a horror writer, and so Castle Amber (with its werewolves and creepy family members) is also a story of horror, a topic that we’ll return to momentarily.
Horror in D&D games may have gotten its start with Castle Amber, but it was made famous in Tracy and Laura Hickman's Ravenloft (1983). This gothic masterpiece, originally written as a Halloween adventure, was heavy on atmosphere and might have been the first adventure to really put a scare into D&D adventurers.
The horror genre is notoriously difficult to manage well, so it didn’t get a lot of attention at TSR after Ravenloft, but it would reappear in the 90s, when TSR was finally growing confident enough to create settings based on some of its nontraditional genres.
Science Fantasy was a part of the DNA of D&D from the very beginning, thanks to Dave Arneson’s land of Blackmoor, which featured weird technologies of all sorts. Despite that, it didn’t get much attention in TSR’s early publications, with the exception of the infamous Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980), which gave players the opportunity to investigate a crashed spaceship. Other than that, early D&D players interested in the science fantasy genre instead needed to look at the publications of Judges Guild or Grimoire Games, both of whom played with aliens and technology in the 70s and early 80s.
Then 1985 rolled around—a pivotal year for the worldview of D&D. It was the year that the game truly moved beyond its medieval origins, beginning with a more whole-hearted adoption of the science fantasy genre. This came about largely through Basic D&D adventures such as Earthshaker! (1985), which featured a humongous robot, and Where Chaos Reigns (1985), which was about meddlesome aliens. Then, Arneson briefly returned to writing for TSR and revealed the scope of science fantasy to be found within Blackmoor in the “DA” adventures (1986–1987). Science fantasy would largely disappear from the worlds of Greyhawk and Mystara after the 80s, though that was in part because of the creation of another nontraditional setting that fully embraced the genre.
Heading into the fall of 1985, TSR had experimented with the pulp, horror, and science fantasy genres. In fact, horror and science fantasy publications continued with books like Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill (1986) and City of the Gods (1987). However, these genres appeared as minor variations of D&D’s existing medieval settings like Blackmoor, Greyhawk, or Mystara, or in totally generic adventures such as Ravenloft.
For D&D to take the next step beyond its feudal foundation, it had to create new worlds that looked at D&D in new ways. That happened not once, but twice in the waning days of 1985.
The Adventures of Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser: 1985–1996
Like science fantasy, dark fantasy was a part of D&D’s DNA from the beginning. After all, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon books were listed in the Appendix N list of inspirations in the original Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). However, TSR didn’t have any adventure writers who were interested in writing that sort of module… until they opted to produce licensed adventures directly based on the works of Fritz Leiber.
Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985) was the first of over a dozen Nehwon books published by TSR over the years. It presented a new world that was still medieval, but which was much more urban in nature (as the name indicates). Genre-wise, its stories were sometimes darker—mixing medieval fantasy, urban escapades, pulp adventure, and cynical horror together in varying amounts.
At the time, Lankhmar might not have seemed like a big step for TSR, but its creation of a new setting that didn’t follow the medieval-gonzo-fantasy norms of D&D was notable. It was a stepping stone—and one that would be extended just a month later with a much more far-flung realm.
The Adventures of the Orient: 1985–1990
Prior to 1985, D&D had included a few brief looks at non-Western worldviews—most obviously in Deities & Demigods (1980), which listed divine beings from American Indian, Sumerian, and Asian mythologies. TSR’s October 1985 publication of David “Zeb” Cook’s Oriental Adventures (1985) took the next step. Though it was in some ways limited, it presented TSR’s first-ever non-Western setting for the D&D game.
Gary Gygax had originated the idea, calling it a “second volume of [the] Players Handbook” in Dragon 90 (October 1984). By saying this, he suggested that only half of the medieval world had previously been seen, and that D&D players were going to now have the opportunity to see the rest.
When Cook’s published book became available, it was indeed quite different. There were no fighter, thieves, and magic-users here, but instead bushi, ninjas, and wu jen. The spells were different, the races were different, and even the vocabulary was different. Oriental Adventures supplemented those rules for Asian roleplaying with a very brief description of a new setting: Kara-Tur. For the first time ever, players could play D&D games that were set in a world that was far different from the western settings of Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and Mystara.
It was another important step toward the fully featured worlds that would expand D&D beyond western feudalism starting in 1989. Meanwhile, the world of Oriental Adventures would also get expansion in the years that followed thanks to eight adventures (1986–1990), some of which extended the world of Kara-Tur.
The genres of pulp, horror, and science fantasy helped D&D to wear away at the western ideas that bound its earliest creation, and then Lankhmar and Oriental Adventures broke those bonds entirely. Afterward, the experimental genres of the 70s and 80s would first morph into the regional sourcebooks then the innovative settings of the 80s and 90s—both of which expanded D&D beyond its feudal foundation.
Though the experimental genres of D&D’s youth died out as a result, it was only because they were incorporated into the settings that were part of D&D’s next wave of expansion. Science fantasy returned in Spelljammer (1989), horror in Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990), and dark fantasy in From the Ashes (1992). Further down the road, Asian fantasy made its return in a new Oriental Adventures (2001), then (at long last) pulp reappeared in Eberron (2004).
We’ll touch upon these settings in a later article that looks at how D&D continued to grow beyond its Feudal beginnings in the 2E, 3E, and 4E eras.