Game experts believe they've uncovered earliest known version of D&D

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Apr 29, 2013, 1:46 PM EDT

Is this a rare missing link in the history of the world's most famous RPG?

This month The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., opened a new permanent exhibit titled Game Time!, featuring 300 years of gaming history. Though game lovers of all sorts will likely find something to interest them in the exhibit, fantasy lovers will be particularly interested in a somewhat mysterious pair of typewritten documents collectively known as the Dalluhn Manuscript. Named after a previous owner, Keith Dalluhn, the manuscript bears many striking similarities to the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and gaming experts now believe it's actually the "earliest currently known surviving version" of D&D.

That assessment of the mansucript's importance comes from gaming scholar and RPG expert Jon Peterson, author of the book Playing at the World and the current owner of the Dalluhn Manuscript. Based on his analysis of the manuscript's rules, language and mechanics, and the history of D&D, he believes it dates to the spring of 1973 (the year before D&D was first published), and was probably used for playtesting by the game's legendary developers, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

"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," Peterson said. "While many questions remain about the exact circumstances under which it was produced, the Dalluhn Manuscript provides the most important window into the invention of role-playing games since the 1977 publication of Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign.”

According to Peterson, the Dalluhn Manuscript "preserves early ideas" from D&D precursors Chainmail (co-designed by Gygax) and Blackmoor (a campaign setting designed by Arneson that's still used today) that were later either scrapped or heavily modified. In some places the system is very different from the original D&D, while in others it's very similar. For example, the image above shows a page from the Dalluhn Manuscript (left) next to a page from D&D.

Though there are many examples where the two versions differ, one standout is the names given to the six character abilities used by players. We're all familiar with the six classic D&D abilities, right? There's Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity and Charisma. In the Dalluhn Manuscript, only two of these abilities (Strength and Intelligence) are the same, while the others are instead named Cunning, Health, Appearance and Ego (or Loyalty). 

So if it is indeed a working draft of D&D, who wrote it? According to Peterson, among all the unanswered questions still floating around the Dalluhn Manuscript, that might be the hardest to answer.

“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.”

So, it seems an important building block to one of the biggest games ever has been uncovered, thanks to some clever gaming historians. If you'd like more information on all the similarities and differences between the Dalluhn Manuscript and D&D, you can head over to Peterson's blog for detailed analysis. If you'd like to see the manuscript for yourself, you can head to The Strong and visit it.

(The Strong via GeekDad)