In a recent post, I inadvertently coined a couple of terms that seem to have struck chords with a couple of my fellow bloggers: the Silver Age and fantastic realism. At the time, I intended both to be throw-away terms that would let me distinguish between the era of D&D under discussion -- that of the mid-80s -- and the preceding one. Looking back on it, though, I think there's a lot to be said for establishing a lexicon for describing the various "ages" of the game, if only because it'll save me a lot of time in future. Even if people don't agree with the precise way I characterize a given age (or its extent), they'll at least know what I mean by it.
Prehistory (1811-1973): In general, this period doesn't get a lot of discussion on this blog, because, though I have played wargames and enjoyed them, I'd never call myself a wargamer and it's wargames of various stripes that inhabit this era. Nonetheless, the period is very important, as it produced several games besides Chainmail that had powerful influences on the development of D&D.
Golden Age (1974-1983): This is the era of D&D's ascendancy and, for me, its perfection. The argument could be reasonably made that the "pure" Golden Age ends somewhere between 1979 and 1981, depending on whether one considers the completion of AD&D or the mass marketing of the game through the Moldvay Basic Rules to have struck a heavier blow to the culture of early D&D. If one wants to make such fine distinctions, the period between 1979/1981 and 1985 (or thereabouts) is the Electrum Age, which straddles the tail end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver. The Golden Age is one of "gonzo pulp fantasy," with a hodgepodge of influences, particularly Howard, Vance, Leiber, de Camp, and Pratt. The dungeon remains the linchpin of adventure design and the sandbox is the assumed role for a campaign setting.
Silver Age (1984-1989): The Silver Age is a transitional age that marries a sophisticated (some might say "decadent") interpretation of Gygaxian naturalism with a growing concern for "dramatic" coherence. The Silver Age is one of "fantastic realism" and the construction of believable worlds and stories is its great concern. It's also the age where the Great Wyrm begins to eat its own tail, being influenced not just by epic fantasy generally but more specifically by second or third order epic fantasies that were themselves influenced by D&D. The Silver Age is when the mass marketing of the game begun in the late Golden Age reaches its fullest flower.
Bronze Age (1990-1995): The Bronze Age is the age of the boxed campaign set. Whereas the Silver Age generally retained a Golden Age sensibility about the necessity of building one's own world (even if the principles behind that construction were quite different), the Bronze Age is characterized by world consumption. During this period, TSR published no fewer than seven new campaign settings for AD&D, in addition to supporting -- and considerably expanding -- holdovers from previous ages. Most are exhaustively detailed through many products, some of them impressively so. D&D came increasingly to be seen as a generic vehicle for the publication of a wide variety of "fantasy" settings, almost none of which bore much resemblance to the game's literary roots in the Golden Age. This age encompasses not only of the apotheosis of the gaming novel but also when such novels become the primary drivers of product development.
Dark Age (1996-1999): The Dark Age is one of decline and fall. D&D products during this era vacillate wildly between recapitulations of works from earlier eras and bold, if often eccentric, experimentation intended to find an elixir vitae that might sustain the slowly dying beast for a few more years. The acquisition of TSR by WotC in 1997 resulted in an attempt to roll back the worst excesses of the Bronze Age by discontinuing most of D&D's campaign settings and to focus on the "core" elements of the game. Ultimately, this proved unsuccessful, resulting in the perceived need for a new edition of the game.
Whether what followed was in fact a rebirth of Dungeons & Dragons -- a new Golden Age -- or its replacement by something else is beyond the scope of this brief post. I will say, though, that my own growing feeling is that it's probably most constructive to sidestep the entire "D&D/not D&D" debate entirely by making a distinction between "TSR D&D" and "WotC D&D." Even if WotC D&D shares certain bits of TSR D&D's genetic material, both mechanical and thematic, its origins are sufficiently different that it ought to be judged on its own terms rather than as a continuation of the Gygaxo-Arneson lineage. In any case, post-2000 versions of D&D are mostly outside my area of interest in this blog and I intend to avoid discussion of them in the future, except in cases where it has direct bearing on the topic at hand.