WotC recounted much of D&D’s history in 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D began when Dave Arneson met Gary Gygax at a gaming convention and produced “The Fantasy Game,” a modified miniature wargame that became First Edition D&D in 1974, when Gygax formed his company, Tactical Studies Rules. The game spread among members of Gygax’s International Federation of Wargamers, until copies reached colleges across the country. From 1975 to 1976, The Strategic Review was TSR’s official newsletter.
The way news of D&D spread in 1976 is like the way pass-along readership works in magazines today: by word of mouth. TSR succeeded as a company because it fostered a devoted fan base for its products: in 1976, TSR became the owner of GenCon, a massive convention that in 2006 had over 85,000 attendees. Also in 1976, The Strategic Review became The Dragon. The premier issue featured a goofy teal dragon on its cover and the melting reptilian letters that would serve as its title font for the next twenty-six issues. A “Conversation with Fafhd & the Mouser,” by renowned American fantasy author Fritz Leiber, was the main feature story. The issue’s thirty pages were printed in black and white, with incredibly small type and few drawings. Compared to the robust illustrations of issue #359, The Dragon #1 looks quaint, though in 2002, collectors priced it at $800. On the topic of these “early days,” recent editor Erik Mona writes that the game had a strong root in medieval history and a fondness for canonical fantasy authors. “You could get away with an eight-page article about the origin of shields and their use through the ages,” writes Mona, “because D&D predated computer games and there was not yet a cottage industry for D&D novel fiction.”
In the next years, the game took off. The Dragon had a staff of five, and D&D was grossing over one million dollars each year. Total paid circulation of the magazine leapt from 20,155 to 48,119. In the early eighties, a laughable Satanism scare fueled by fundamental Christians fouled D&D’s name in the media when fundamentalists accused D&D of being responsible for the disappearance of a college student. Though the incident’s connection to the RPG remains to this day unsubstantiated, detractors argued that the game’s inclusion of demons in its Monster Manual proved the game’s “occult ties.” Not surprisingly, the eighties were D&D’s heyday: Dragon‘s highest paid circulation, 118,021, was in 1984. By the late eighties, TSR Hobbies translated D&D into fourteen languages, founded the Roleplaying Gamers Association, and made legends of fantasy writers Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, who wrote the Dragonlance Saga adventure modules and novels.
When TSR faced financial troubles in 1987, a Chicago businesswoman named Lorraine Williams bought control of the company. During the next decade, TSR would enter its most profitable era. At the same time, Dragon discovered D&D’s most iconic campaign setting, Forgotten Realms, through long-time fan and contributor, Ed Greenwood. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien breathed life into Middle Earth, Greenwood mapped out the fantasy continent Faerûn, set on an Earth-like, medieval world called Abeir-Toril. This setting first appeared in Dragon #30 and later was incorporated into the D&D Core Rules. But even in 1989, with TSR’s sales topping $40 million after the release of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the company’s downfall was right around the corner. Erik Mona writes that after TSR ousted “vocabularian” Gygax, the company’s material was written by “whatever English majors happened to live within twenty-five miles of the TSR headquarters at Lake Geneva and were willing to work for the company’s legendarily scrooge-like salaries.” He names Kim Mohan and Roger E. Moore as editors who were crucial to Dragon’s creative development. But because of an eventual lack of interest in the magazine on the part of Moore and later editors, “the whole franchise seemed to flounder. The air was rapidly escaping from the balloon, and Dragon started to suck. It got really bad in the early to mid-nineties… when TSR stopped publishing in 1996, Dragon stopped publishing too.”
TSR’s woes were due to several product marketing blunders and financial troubles with TSR’s distributor, Random House. Coupled with its inability to pay shippers, presses, and warehouses, as well as competition from rival companies such as Games Workshop and WotC, TSR shut down. Inevitably, Lorraine Williams sold TSR to Five Rings Publishing Group, a gaming company that arranged to be purchased by WotC, without Lorraine’s knowledge, at the same time Lorraine signed away TSR. Shortly thereafter, WotC’s visionary, Peter Adkison, involved himself in the redesign of D&D, Third Edition, which WotC released in 2000. Adkison intended to diversify TSR’s portfolio of games while at the same time making D&D’s rules more amenable to the video game industry. It was only a matter of time before WotC would become the veritable Microsoft of RPGs.
In 2000, three years after WotC became a subsidiary of Hasbro, WotC licensed the magazine to Lisa Stevens, CEO of newly formed Paizo Publishing. Dragon‘s design was undoubtedly strongest under Paizo’s stewardship. Just over one-hundred pages, the monthly issue of Dragon cost $6.99. Yearly subscriptions were $39.99. Paizo created some of the most visually stunning issues in Dragon‘s history; the polished art in these issues can be traced back to Peter Adkison’s decision to free D&D from the 80’s and introduce more “realism” into D&D’s art. Dragon hybridized the dynamism of America’s top comic book publishers with the sleeker, more abstracted style found in Japanese animation. The consistency of this style helped WotC solidify the D&D brand, which Dragon exemplified. Amber E. Scott, Dragon‘s freelancer, enjoyed many “happy hours” gaming at Paizo. “Inside the office it was like Willy Wonka’s factory taken over by Cthulhu. The ‘guys’ are endlessly creative, endlessly energetic, and endlessly, gleefully, twisted… They love their jobs: their cubicles are plastered with old magazine covers and timelines, plushies and action figures and statues cover all available surfaces, and the meeting room with its big office table and whiteboard holds boxes and boxes of Dwarven Forge modular terrain for impromptu dungeon-building. Being in the office made me feel as if I were sucking up creativity through the air, by osmosis.”