Dungeons, Dragons and Us

The e-mail from my friend was simply a stark subject line: "Gygax is dead." The co-creator of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, E. Gary Gygax—the man who made possible my countless (I'll say it before you do) nerdy all-night sessions of battling bugbears and kobolds with graph paper, miniature lead figures and polyhedral dice—was gone. My first self-defensive reaction was to reply with an easy crack about Gary losing his "saving throw" roll or whiffing a necromancy spell on himself, but his passing quickly brought out a weird melancholy in me. I'll be honest: I really liked D&D, and I miss playing it with my friends.

Role-playing games—particularly ones in which Elvish might be spoken sans irony—are much-maligned and mocked by those who know of them. But I would argue that those who've at least crawled through a handful of imaginary castle keeps would recognize the appeal of an open-ended story played out with friends. For the uninitiated, table-top fantasy games fundamentally involve creating "characters" on paper with qualities and skills and reacting to situations described verbally by another player (the "dungeon" or "game master") as part of a greater adventure (the "campaign"). Each quality and skill has a numerical value taken from a roll of the dice—and those numbers define your character's chance of success or failure at tasks. You don't "win" at D&D—the storytelling interplay between you, your companions and the Dungeon Master is the point. Although there is a fair amount of make-believe gold hoarding and drooling over make-believe magic weaponry that goes on.

The complicated evolution of Dungeons & Dragons from a modest three-volume set of books in 1974 to a vast array of glossy, expensive "open game content" "d20 system" fantasy games shelved in your local big-box bookstore indicates somebody is still buying this stuff. What's more, D&D is at the root of modern videogames: what is World of Warcraft or blazing through Halo 3 on Xbox Live, if not playing a role? And hey, "coach," you and your fantasy sports team may have stemmed from rotisserie baseball, but your time spent adjusting your roster bears a noticeable resemblance to picking out spiffy chain mail and a nice "plus one" sword for a paladin. Just saying.

Gygax had his share of troubles with TSR's management (Tactical Studies Rules, the company he cofounded to produce the game) in the mid-1980s, and sold out his remaining interest. While he had critical success with subsequent creations, the niche games he produced never reached past the core audience of table-top game enthusiasts. Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, now runs the Dungeons & Dragons brand after having acquired TSR, and D&D 4.0—the fourth edition of the game—is due for release spring and summer of 2008.

So I've asked my colleagues Carl Sullivan, Patrick Enright and N'Gai Croal to fess up to our gaming past and present—maybe even our future—in the wake of the original Dungeon Master's death, and walk our readers through various aspects of the widespread cultural legacy of Dungeons & Dragons. Bonus points for naming your first campaign. Mine: the classic 1979 "Keep on the Borderlands," module B2 ...

Carl Sullivan: Wow, Rolf. I'm impressed you remember the name of an actual campaign! My memories from the early '80s, when I played D&D for several years, are much more vague. What I do remember is the easy escape into hours of being holed up in a friend's bedroom, rolling strange-looking dice on the floor and keeping track of our adventures with pencil and paper. It's hard to explain to the uninitiated the appeal of this decidedly low-tech game where your imagination does all the work. We didn't even have the game pieces to represent our individual characters when we played, though my friend Mark did really cool drawings of what each of our characters looked like. My character was a human fighter (you could also choose to be an elf or dwarf, and either a wizard or cleric). I named him Sir Martin, and he had high strength, dexterity and charisma, but average intelligence (all of these abilities were determined at the beginning of the game by rolling the dice, and they could increase or decrease depending on what happened to you in the game). We'd meet at the home of our Dungeon Master (the player who runs the game) once a week or so for ongoing adventures, where we'd meet monsters and acquire treasure. Sir Martin eventually found a talking sword which sometimes offered advice in sticky situations. D&D was so fascinating because it presented ethical dilemmas where your choices had consequences for the other players. I loved watching how the other players made decisions and the sense of working together as a team. And for the awkward teenage me, the chance to inhabit someone else's skin was very appealing.

Patrick Enright: You guys are such nerds, and I say that with the greatest affection. Is it that much of a surprise that a kid whose mother picked out his clothes and cut his hair until he was 17, a kid who scarfed up Piers Anthony's fantasy novels and the Dragonlance books like Jolly Ranchers—that that nerdy, nerdy kid was into 20-sided dice and die-cast models of monsters? I came to D&D kind of late, in the mid-'80s, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. But my friends and I spent uncountable sunny afternoons huddled in dark rooms rolling dice and telling each other tales of swordplay and spell-casting. Partly the appeal lay in the fact that the landscape of D&D was totally foreign to us Southern California boys (and yes, we were all boys); you couldn't get much further from the sun-baked San Diego beaches we grew up on than dark, wolf-infested forests or ominous, cloud-shrouded mountains. And partly it was just an excuse for us to make up stories. (By the way, Carl, I was always a physically weak but mentally astute mage. Read into that what you will.) We never worried too much about strictly following the rules, and we traded off on who got to flip through the Monster Manual and guide the rest of us through our adventure. Sometimes we rolled dice to see how badly one of us was mauled by a giant spider or a bog monster, and sometimes we didn't, but we made sure to each have our own hand-sewn cloth bag holding a dozen of the multicolored acrylic polyhedrons. Ah, memories. I also blame/thank Mr. Gygax for my current love of wizard- and sword-themed heavy metal.

N'Gai Croal: I discovered D&D through classmates of mine in elementary school. But it wasn't until we got to junior high that we really began to play in earnest. Myself and three other guys—all of whom are still good friends of mine today—would go to the library every Saturday morning and play from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., taking breaks only to hit the bathroom or to run over to the nearby Safeway and fill up on the samples.

What I liked best about D&D was that it was a form of shared storytelling. Like all fine young geeks, we were all into fantasy and sci-fi, and this was a way to create and participate in our own variants on those high adventures. We could be heroes, just for one day, until the next Saturday came along. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I quickly gravitated to the role of Dungeon Master. I started out using the classic quest Temple of Elemental Evil as my training wheels, but after a while I started crafting my own adventures. I loved poring over the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Monster Manuals, the Deities & Demigods book. With these pages of evocative drawings, skillful descriptions and, of course, the stats, TSR provided the raw material for aspiring storytellers like myself to create entire worlds in the minds of my buddies. We were the medium. And it was fun.

The irony is that while I loved D&D—and I'd play it again in a heartbeat with my friends, as we did for kicks a couple of Christmases ago—I have no appetite for role-playing games on PCs or videogame consoles. My eyes glaze over when I see attributes and stats, as if my mind simply Does Not Compute. Ultima Online? EverQuest? World of Warcraft? No interest whatsoever. When I play videogames, I want action—the faster and more furious, the better. But Gygax's death triggered a handful of twilight memories of how it felt to disappear inside a pen-and-paper role-playing game for hours and hours, only to all of a sudden look up and wonder where all the time had gone.

Enright: The cool thing, like Carl points out, is that D&D allowed us to create worlds in which we could do anything, which forced us to make up our own ethical guidelines. If you suddenly wanted to attack your traveling companions with a broadsword or a Finger of Death spell, there was nothing stopping you. The amazing thing is how rarely that happened. Unless the neighborhood bully joined in (and almost never did those tanned, skinned-kneed fellas venture into our dank lairs), we all helped each other and together defeated whatever dragon or monster we were battling. Yes, I'll say it: Dungeons & Dragons taught me everything I need to know about teamwork.

Admitting the following might severely hurt my cred with hardcore fans and get me pelted with well-worn copies of "Fiend Folio." But I was so into D&D that I got up early on Saturday mornings to watch the half-hour TV cartoon based on the game. (Before you scoff, know that the ever-reliable Wikipedia calls it "unusual … in children's television for the amount of ethical awareness and empathy displayed to and encouraged in the viewer.") And don't even get me started on the arcade games that clearly owed Mr. Gygax a great debt-into which I dumped pockets full of change: Dragon's Lair and especially Gauntlet. Oh, 2-D dungeon crawl games, how I miss thee.

I'm sure that one of these days I'll be digging through a box in the basement and come across an old copy of "Unearthed Arcana," and I'll leaf through it and think of how Gary Gygax shaped my youth. But until then, I'm going to cue up High on Fire on my iPod and pop in the extended DVD of "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." It's as close as I'm going to get.

Sullivan: I remember stumbling across my old D&D folder in my parents' attic a few years ago. It was stuffed with pencil-smudged graph paper where we drew maps of our quests. I'll definitely have to dig that out again the next time I head home. We spent hours creating floor plans for our own castles and lairs, even though they were never used in the actual games. It was just an extension of the very detailed lives we fleshed out for our imaginary characters. For us, D&D was a lot like the Harry Potter obsession for many of today's kids, but we weren't just reading about adventures; we were living them. This vivid fantasy life was not without controversy. Our Dungeon Master and another player were the sons of the pastor at our Southern Baptist church. In fact, we usually played at the preacher's house, sequestered in dark air-conditioned rooms on hot summer days. This was an era where we were told by our Sunday school teacher that playing rock records backward would reveal hidden messages like "praise Satan" and "smoke marijuana." And D&D, with its sorcerors and magic spells, was looked at with great suspicion. "What are those kids doing all afternoon in that dark room?" Just escaping the boredom of small-town America, ma'am. And finding a place where we finally felt like we belonged. A place where a scrawny unathletic kid like me could be a brave monster slayer who protected his friends and for once, could be a hero.

Ebeling: Personally, I've favored rangers of the half-elf ilk—skulking around forests, night vision, fancy archery gear. Think Viggo Mortensen crossed with Orlando Bloom in "The Lord of the Rings" movies, all icy stares and ridiculous accuracy.

I too was introduced to D&D in elementary school. I can remember sitting outside my third-grade classroom "rolling up" characters at recess—cheating on key traits, of course—and frankly, getting stalled right there. No one really knew how to run a game properly, and it wasn't until high school that my various friends with similar interests (science fiction, comic books, the wit and wisdom of Conan the Barbarian) coalesced and decided to avoid the tedium of parties and girls and start serious plundering exploits into the Tomb of Horrors. My best friend Ryan—our regular DM—was a skilled organizer and storyteller, and we spent many afternoons and evenings together in each other's houses with our regular crew of brainy misfit pals, eating too many Skittles and arguing about hit dice tables. We were so out of control.

However, we did leave D&D behind ... for other games. In the mid to late '80s, new genres of RPGs [role-playing games] came on to the market, and we were off investigating mysteries in Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu (based on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft) or battling it out with a Russian invasion force throughout a postapocalyptic Texas in Game Designers Workshop's Twilight: 2000 (think John Milius's "Red Dawn" with a healthy dose of Tom Clancy novels). Ryan and I still joke in detail about bizarre, had-to-be-there moments in games we played more than 20 years ago. It's also fair to say my brief flirtations with screenwriting were a direct result playing or running games—they were a great tool for learning the mechanics of plot and pacing.

Postcollege—and on into marriages and kids and all-consuming jobs on opposite coasts—my friends and I have had to settle for occasional sojourns into the digital firefights of Xbox Live as our only means of replicating the golden gaming years (for a brief and very fun time, we managed to wrangle a group together to play and drink beer, but the complexities of real life managed to break up our band of brothers). We looked into Warcraft, but like N'Gai, the digital descendents of D&D have not caught our imagination. To date, they've lacked the deeper socialization at the core of table-top games, and my friends and I have all gravitated primarily to online action titles. Sure, we catch up on each other's lives via headset while we frag and clear the enemy's bunker, but it's not the same as laughing at each other's dumb jokes in person around a fold-out card table. Now I'm left to snicker knowingly at the occasional pop-culture reference to Gygax's work, from "live-action role-playing" viral video classics to "The Sarah Silverman Program" to the unbelievably density of geek-lore that is "The Venture Brothers".

As Stephen Colbert put it at the end of his show last night, we'll roll a 20 missing Gygax. Wait a minute. Let's see—between us, we've got a human fighter, a mage, a ranger and a Dungeon Master ... Gentleman, I'll bring the dice, and Carl, make sure Sir Martin brings that talking sword.

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