Originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game derived from miniature wargames. The initial idea was that instead of commanding an entire military formation and playing against another player, multiple players would each control a single character in an attempt to reach a goal set by another member of the game, the dungeon master - sometimes referred to as the game master, or the storyteller, or other similar titles. It is the job of the dungeon master to set the stage for the adventure, provide adversaries for the characters to vanquish, and rewards for them when they accomplish their goals.
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Since its initial conception in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has gone through multiple iterations and spawned numerous competitors. Dungeons & Dragons itself has had several incarnations, beginning with a brand split in 1979 between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the relatively less rules-heavy original version. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would have a second edition published in 1989, before the two brands were reunited in 2000 under as Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. Most recently released in the Dungeons & Dragons line is Dungeons & Dragon 4th Edition, released in 2008. Ownership of the Dungeons & Dragons brand has also changed since its earliest days, with the original publishing company, Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.
As the first in what would become a crowded marketplace, Dungeons & Dragons has long held a competitive edge over other entrants, but several companies have made significant contributions to role-playing games in general. Boot Hill, also partially designed by Dungeons & Dragons designer Gary Gygax, took the role-playing concept to the Wild West. Even early competitors such as Tunnels & Trolls (a less serious early fantasy role-playing game) and Bunnies & Burrows (based on the classic novel Watership Down) still see occasional resurgences of popularity, though usually under newer rule sets.
Though there are often significant differences between Dungeons & Dragons and its competition, most have the same basic premise in mind - a group of players each controlling a single character, moving toward the accomplishment of a task set to them by a game master. Despite superficial differences (games might be set in science fiction settings, paranormal modern settings, historical settings, or any of a variety of other periods), most of these games still rely on a number of similar concepts. Even today, however, Dungeons & Dragons and its closest descendants still have the majority share of the role-playing game market.
As Dungeons & Dragons is a direct descendant of tactical wargames and involves somewhat complicated rules for movement and ranges, it is generally assumed that the game will be played with some sort of figures to display relative location. Though any small item such as coins could be used for these purposes, an industry of figurines has grown up around the hobby. As in tactical wargaming, these figures are generally referred to as miniatures, a reference to their origin in miniature wargaming. Today, pre-painted plastic miniatures are relatively common, though older style metal miniatures that the owner is intended to decorate him or herself are still widely available.
Dungeons & Dragons can be enjoyed on many levels and on many different budgets, but even a relatively low amount of money spent can really improve the quality of a home game. Even owning a handful of miniatures can help clear up a lot of questions regarding who is located where and whether a marker is an enemy or an ally, even if the actual miniature in question isn't an exact match to what it is supposed to represent.