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Monday, June 21, 2021

What was the first Dungeons & Dragons novel?

For over four decades fantastic Dungeon & Dragons novels have been published for the publics reading pleasure. For over thirty years, we’ve had novels set in the Forgotten Realms, but before the Realms became the flagship setting, there were novels for other settings, such as Dragonlance and Greyhawk.

To explore the origins of the D&D novel line, we should first touch on the campaign settings that constitute the published fantasy worlds of D&D today. The first official setting was Blackmoor in 1971, three years before OD&D was released. This was David Arneson’s world for his wargames and early D&D games. One year later, in 1972, Greyhawk started taking shape. Beyond creating these original settings, Arneson and Gygax are the co-creators of D&D as a whole. 

So back in 1978, D&D was rather young, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons --the more direct ancestor to the current fifth edition-- was not quite a thing. While some fiction, particularly a novella published in pieces in the first editions of Dragon Magazine, had already been released, 1978 was the chosen year for the first full length novel. The author would be none other than Andre Norton, winner of a Gandalf Grand Master award, SFWA Grand Master award, and an inductee of Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. Norton was also featured in Gygax’s famous Appendix N found in the original Dungeon Masters Gyide, which lists the speculative fiction that influenced his D&D works.This novel would be Quag Keep. It came about after Norton played a single session of D&D with Gary Gygax. The novel takes place in Greyhawk, but seeing as The World of Greyhawk wasn’t released until 1980, this is really proto-Greyhawk. 

Before its official setting release in 1980, Greyhawk had been featured in a number of adventures, such as S1 Tomb Of Horrors, S2 White Plume Mountain, and T1 The Village of Hommlet. In 1975 there was also an additional rule set released for Original Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax and Rob Kuntz titled Supplement I: Greyhawk, though it only actually makes two references to Greyhawk.

So Quag Keep, apart from being set in the still forming world of Oerth (the planet of Greyhawk, as Toril is for the Forgotten Realms), was also quite different from subsequent D&D novels. It’s an odd sort of portal fantasy, a type of fantasy with the most popular example being CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. People from our world are somehow, in a magical way, transported to fantasy-land. The plot here is really interesting, as in Quag Keep, instead of coming to Greyhawk just as normal mundane persons from Earth, in this case they take the place of the fictional D&D characters, specifically ones designed by a new miniature company. Somehow this company transports the players into this fictional world for real. The novel actually features dice, attached to an un-removable brace on each of the seven characters. These dice roll during key moments of fate. The players/characters are bound by geas to complete their quest, this geas bringing the unlikely companions together. There is also an interesting take on alignment, which involves certain smells that go with people of chaos or law.

It's an odd mix of science and fantasy, and the blurb on the back even describes it as so; along with calling D&D a wargame, which may seem odd to those who know it as "the world's greatest role-playing game" (See Jon Peterson's The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity for more on this). At the end of the novel, many questions are left unanswered, though there is a sequel where some could be answered: Return to Quag Keep was released in 2006 by Andre Norton posthumously and Jean Rabe.

Being the fist novel for D&D marks Quag Keep as a special book. Its success for the medium paved ways for Weis and Hickman's premier Dragonlance novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, in 1984 and the first Forgotten Realms novel by Douglas Niles in 1987: Darkwalker on Moonshae.

I read Quag Keep in my off time from posting in the last few months after finding it for $2 at a used bookstore. I have yet to read the sequel, but I would like to eventually, and I'm interested to see if it continues along in the proto-Greyhawk world, or in the later more fleshed out and final version.

What was your first D&D novel? Have you read Quag Keep? Let me know! My next article I hope to explore some of the lore and other things that can be had in the upcoming release of the video game Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance. I would also like to take a moment to notify any readers that I will now be posting on the first and third Mondays of every month to put less of a burden on my already busy schedule. I may also throw in bonus posts every now and then, so keep an eye out.

You can track my current progress here.


  1. Man, I can't remember my first D&D novel. Had to be the Dragonlance Chronicles, if I had to guess.

    1. Seems a popular place to start! I'm enjoying it so far, I'll likely share some thoughts here.