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Dungeons and Dragons Turns 30

Wizards and barbarians take note: Saturday is "Worldwide D & D Day", a celebration of 30 years of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Players use maps, miniature figurines and dice to fight monsters and find treasure. But the D & D franchise has been through its own share spine-tingling adventures.

Inside a dark, gloomy castle, an intrepid band of explorers comes across a ghastly sight.

"What you see most immediately is a nest of ghouls, scrabbling over grisly remains of some previous adventurer."

The scene gets uglier as the bloodthirsty ghouls attack the group. The explorers' real-life counterparts -between swigs of soda and the occasional bathroom break - roll multi-sided dice to wound the creatures or protect themselves from special attacks.

Thirty-six-year-old speech therapist Tom Peterson has his character lunge an enchanted dagger at one of the monsters. "I got'em, 10 points." ...."Ooh, that's lovely," he says.

At the head of a table littered with paper, dice and soda cans, 39-year-old Tristan Brandhorst narrates the adventure for his six friends. By day, Mr. Brandhorst is a mild-mannered vaccine researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But every few weeks, he's a Dungeon Master who runs adventures. Mr. Brandhorst and Mr. Peterson have played for more than 20 years, a hefty investment of time - and more. "I think I've spent $800 in modules, accessories - gaming devices," says Mr. Brandhorst.

Such dedication still astounds D & D's creators. A few hours away in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Gary Gygax recalls publishing the first rulebooks in 1974 with Dave Arneson. Mr. Gygax says they never predicted a peak following of eight million gamers: "We were sure there was an audience of somewhere around 50,000 people," he says. "We underestimated just a little but it certainly was a labor of love driven by great enthusiasm."

A company called Tactical Studies and Rules - or TSR - made and distributed the game. By the mid-1980s, Dungeons and Dragons's popularity soared, with annual sales between 20 and 30 million dollars. It wasn't long before a television cartoon came out based on the game.

But not all of TSR's attempts to promote and profit from Dungeons and Dragons were successful. For example, TSR purchased a needlepoint company and even issued a line of sandwich meats based on D & D. When these ventures failed, the company came close to failing as well.

"We went through at least four changes in management that I can remember. There were two to three layoffs. We didn't know if were going to come in to work the next day because rumors were that the doors were going to be locked," says Margaret Weis, a former TSR editor and author of the DragonLance book series. She says bad business decisions and corporate excess landed TSR nearly $27 million in debt by 1997. The company was poised for bankruptcy when it was saved by a man who loves the game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Peter Adkison was CEO of Wizards of the Coast, a Seattle, Washington-based maker of fantasy games. That company bought TSR in 1997. Mr. Adkison and his team revised the Dungeons and Dragons game into a simpler version. The adaptation was not meant to denigrate TSR's previous efforts. In fact, Mr. Adkison says, it was under TSR's stewardship that games such as Dungeons and Dragons became mainstream. "Throughout the entire span D & D has been around, society has grown comfortable with fantasy. In the early days of D & D, parents were understandably cautious. Now, 20, 30 years later, fantasy is just a fact of life," he says.

And Bill Slaviscek, director of Role-Playing Game Design and Development at Wizards of the Coast, says, at 30, Dungeons and Dragons is still going strong. "We have 4-million active players, with sales over 3-million units. You can find the game in Germany, France, Japan. I've seen it in Hebrew in Israel. The game's got expressions in many forms, from role-playing to board games to card games to novels to computer games," he says.

Even though Dungeons and Dragons doesn't enjoy its former widespread popularity, the franchise is robust. Today, millions of gamers will pop open soda cans and ready their dice for fateful encounters with giants, vampires, and ogres. Few know of Dungeons and Dragon's own harrowing adventures, and for the game's publishers, that's probably something else best left to the imagination.