It’s a well-heeled joke that tabletop RPGs are a tiny industry where everyone knows everybody else, but RuneQuest studio Chaosium shared a story about co-creator Greg Stafford that gives the theory more than a little credence. According to Stafford, he inadvertently owned - and then lost - the first copy of Dungeons & Dragons ever sold.
Stafford spent his later days at Chaosium, the company that sprang out of the success of both RuneQuest and his first war game White Bear & Red Moon success back in 1975 - it's now preparing for the King Arthur Pendragon RPG’s upcoming 6th Edition. But we all start somewhere, and Chaosium celebrated D&D’s 50th anniversary with Stafford's crossing paths with the D&D back before it was played in every basement, library and dormitory in the Midwest and beyond.
The original blog post recounting Stafford’s tale was posted in December 2015 but was reshared by Chaosium, which took the opportunity to note that RuneQuest credited D&D’s co-creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, in its first edition. When the story begins, though, Stafford is selling belt buckles in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
“Through the various circumstances described elsewhere, I'd decided to publish my first board game, White Bear & Red Moon, on my own,” Stafford wrote. “As I was finishing up work on it, I got a package in the mail from my old partner Jeff. His cover letter said, ‘I was picking up my catalogues from the printer the other day and there was this guy waiting for his stuff. I asked what it was, and he said it was a fantasy game. I said, ‘Hey, my buddy in California is doing one too! Can I buy one from ya?'”
The “strange little box” that Stafford received was a wood grain rectangle decorated with a mounted knight and emblazoned with the words ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ on the top, marketed for the low price of $10. Years later, he apparently directly asked Gygax if the box of rulebooks that was mailed to him in California was the first copy he and a very young TSR ever sold, which Gygax confirmed. Ahead of anyone else in the world, the creator of RuneQuest and King Arthur Pendragon had snagged the world’s most successful tabletop RPG.
Did he retain such a remarkable and weirdly insular artefact, mouldering on a bookshelf in his home or office? You’ll likely be frustrated to find out that it went the way of so many books and games: “Man, do I ever now wish that I'd not lent it to my DM,” Stafford said at the end of the anecdote. “I never got it back!”
If you want to read more about the RPG that many consider to be Stafford’s own Dungeons & Dragons in terms of artistic accomplishment, if not financial success, check out our interview with King Arthur Pendragon 6E’s design team, carring the torch after Stafford passed away in 2018.
Update: Certain details and phrasings now correctly address Greg Stafford's passing in 2018.