Has the Earliest Version of D&D Been Discovered?

Pictured here: View of dungeon map from Dalluhn manuscript next to map from later, published edition of Dungeons & Dragons. (Image: The Strong)
Pictured here: A dungeon map from the so-called “Dalluhn manuscript” (left), shown next to a map from the published edition of Dungeons & Dragons. (Image: National Museum of Play)

Followers of gaming history care passionately about how the beloved and groundbreaking game, Dungeons & Dragons, was created. A newly-analyzed manuscript sheds light on some of the mystery surrounding D&D’s origins. But the document also raises further questions.

According to a statement released by The Strong National Museum of Play, “A rare manuscript believed by some experts to be the earliest existing version of Dungeons & Dragons” is now on display at their Rochester, NY, museum, as part of an exhibit called Game Time! that explores three centuries of “games, puzzles, and public amusements.”

At issue: two hand-typed volumes known as the “Dalluhn Manuscript,” now owned by D&D scholar Jon Peterson, which details aspects of D&D gameplay such as combat, spells, magic items, monsters and alignment. The manuscript may be pivotal to solving the puzzle of how D&D’s early rules were developed.

The Dalluhn Manuscript, Peterson said, “I believe is the earliest surviving version of D&D.” Peterson is the author of the book Playing at the World, which charts the vast and complex history of tabletop role-playing and simulation games.

So was the Dalluhn Manuscript used for play-testing D&D? Or was it actually an early prototype for the game? Peterson thinks he knows the answer.

“I’ve spent the past couple of months analyzing this document and I think I have a very solid foundation of evidence that the rules in this document predate D&D, and that D&D is derived from the system it contains.”

Exhbit K (Image: Jon Peterson)
Peterson’s “Exhibit K,” showing the relationship between the Dalluhn Manuscript and the first published version of D&D, known as the “White Box” or woodgrain box “original” D&D, or OD&D (Image: Jon Peterson)

Peterson said the 50-page manuscript “was found in the garage of one of the early Twin Cities players along with some other very early gaming material.” (That garage belonged to, as it turned out, M.A.R. Barker, author of Empire of the Petal Throne game.) It’s called the “Dalluhn Manuscript” because of its previous owner, Keith Dalluhn.

In a recent email exchange, I pressed Peterson further to be more definitive and specific. Here are his thoughts:

“I think my research demonstrates pretty conclusively that the editors of D&D (Gygax and Arneson) had this system in front of them when they were producing D&D, and that the system preserves early ideas closer to Chainmail and Blackmoor that were eventually discarded or modified for inclusion to D&D.” This version of the rules, Peterson wrote, probably circulated in the spring of 1973 for editing and most likely playtesting.

In his statement in The Strong’s press release, Peterson was also quoted as saying, “The Dalluhn Manuscript preserves a transitional set of rules developed during the creation of the game Dungeons & Dragons. It captures the system at around the midpoint of development, with the core concepts of dungeon exploration and fantastic combat in place, but it lacks some features of the mature game and exhibits a few intriguing variations.”

So who actually produced this draft? Gygax? Arneson? Someone else? Who held the pen for the various drafts of D&D’s rules? That question is harder to know.

“It’s a bit tougher for me to say conclusively who typed and Xeroxed it (in fact the document shows signs of multiple persons working on it), but actually that’s a tough question to answer about many things in the published D&D game as well,” Peterson said. “My analysis doesn’t answer every question about this, but I think it does establish that essential causal chain showing that this document is a stepping stone between the early Chainmail/Blackmoor work in OD&D.”

Some people have claimed that Gygax borrowed (or, less charitably, “stole”) key ideas Arneson, or that Gygax adopted idea from other people and never credited them. Peterson was clear that this manuscript does not prove that either man borrowed or stole ideas from anyone.

“Exhibit C” showing the similarities in the combat system (Image: Jon Peterson)

Whoever wrote or typed it, clearly the manuscript combines elements contributed by both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, “including many discarded concepts,” Peterson said, “that can be proven to have been in use at the time Dungeons & Dragons was written.”

In a comment in response to a comment about the manuscript, posted on his website, Peterson proposed a plausible explanation as to why at this time, we still can’t know the manuscript’s exact chain of influence. “I have gotten the impression that most of this history has not only been forgotten, but for the most part people have forgotten that they ever even forgot anything about it.”

Maybe it was a purer version of the game that Arneson had shown to Gygax. “It might be ‘MY DRAFT.’ The one I sent Gary way back when. OR his first draft back. Either way it is VERY COOL,” Peterson reported Arneson as saying when Keith Dalluhn had contacted Arneson after finding the document. Or maybe it came after D&D, as Gygax himself had claimed when Dalluhn contacted him. Gygax, who saw some excerpts of the document, reportedly claimed that it “seems to be a rip-off of the D&D game that I’ve never seen before.”

But then again, memory is not terribly reliable, especially when “No one at the time knew that the gaming events of 1973 would be worthy of remembrance,” Peterson continued on his website. “The moral of my story is that even if I put a document *you wrote* with *your name on it* in front of you, that doesn’t mean you’ll remember it. You don’t get to choose what you remember. You may still deny you wrote it because you don’t remember it. But as historians, what should we believe?”

As a finaI note, Peterson said he was optimistic that, eventually, we will learn more about how the Dalluhn Manuscript came to be. “We just don’t have the evidence to solve that question today. New evidence comes to light all the time, however. I just felt that there was sufficient evidence today to make the most important claim: that there is a surviving pre-publication draft of Dungeons & Dragons. We have a lot to learn from it.”

[NOTE: This is a corrected version of the original post, which had made some of the issues of authorship unnecessarily mysterious. Thanks to input from Jon Peterson, these points have been clarified.]

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Gilsdorf writes regularly for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, PsychologyToday.com, Washington Post and wired.com. He has published hundreds of articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, gaming, geek culture and travel in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. He has also published dozens of poems in literary magazines and anthologies. He is a core contributor to the blogs "GeekDad, "Geek Pride" on PsychologyToday.com, and Boston NPR affiliate WBUR's Cognoscenti blog. He is also a book and film critic for the Boston Globe, and is the film columnist for Art New England. He and author Noble Smith geek out and wax nostalgic about D&D and other nerdy pop culture relics at Dungeons & Dorkwards. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. More info fantasyfreaksbook.com or follow on Facebook fantasyfreaksbook