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Plugged In

Happy 40th birthday, Dungeons & Dragons!

Plugged In

Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop game that introduced fantasy role-playing to most of the world, turns the big four-oh this weekend -- and it's showing no signs of slowing down.

While D&D is almost a recurring character on some prime time TV shows these days (hat tip to you, producers of "The Big Bang Theory"), it spent years as the calling card of the socially awkward. No matter how fun the game is, toting around bags of polyhedral dice and regularly consulting the Monster Manual for hit-point data was never a way to get in with the cool kids.

For fans, though, that never mattered. The journey into the game's imaginative world was a respite from the pressures of the real world, a chance to be the hero and save the day.

D&D wasn't the first game to explore role-playing, but it was the first to do so in a non-wargaming setting and the first to break big. Drawing upon the work of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P Lovecraft, countless mythologies, and their own vivid imaginations, creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson launched the groundbreaking game on January 26, 1974, the best date we have for the game’s official birth.

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The original D&D set (Credit: Wizards of the Coast)

The first version of the game -- called OD&D, for original Dungeons & Dragons -- was a small set of three books. It sold just 1,000 copies in 1974, but tripled sales the next year, and they kept climbing.

The game hit its stride in the 1980s after the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which, between 1977 and 1979, led to three hardcover rulebooks that became indispensable to fans: the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual. Further revisions came in 1989, 2000, 2003 and 2008.

To date, Dungeons & Dragons has generated well over $1 billion and has been played by over 20 million people. And that number's expected to rise this year thanks to the release of a new set of rules for the game -- the first update in six years.

The new take, called Tyranny of Dragons, is due this summer and will give players a chance to battle Tiamat, the five-headed queen of the dragons. A constant villain in D&D, Tiamat was also a key character in the memorable Dungeons & Dragons cartoon in the early 80s.

D&D's influence on pop-culture has been extensive. It was responsible for seminal video game franchises like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Pool of Radiance, and it influenced countless others, from Ultima to The Elder Scrolls. It was supported by a pair of magazines ("Dungeon" and "Dragon," naturally), and it's produced tens of millions of dollars in sales of dice, miniature characters, and other game tie-ins.

Like any new form of entertainment, it had its critics, too. With Satanic-looking demons, illustrations of topless female monsters, and a heavy emphasis on spellcasting, the game was opposed by some Christian groups, who claimed it was leading youth down the wrong path. Much like today's critics of video games, opponents sought to blame the game for many societal problems.

Psychologists later stepped in to disprove these theories, but not before Tom Hanks -- yes, THE Tom Hanks -- landed his first major lead role in the so-bad-it’s-good TV movie, “Mazes and Monsters,” in which he plays a geek who can’t separate reality from fantasy:

Despite the protests -- and the social stigma some people attached to playing D&D -- the game has continued to draw a huge audience, including celebrity fans like Mike Meyers, Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert and even Dame Judy Dench. Actor/director Jon Favreau says the game gave him "a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance."

Us too, Jon. In honor of the game's birthday, we're digging out our d20s and crumpled character sheets for a good, old-fashioned run through "The Keep on the Borderlands." How about you? Share some of your favorite D&D memories in the comments!

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