Pretending I never played Dungeons & Dragons

“But for all the imaginative freedom the game affords its players, the impulse of the war-game hobbyists who built it – at first Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax — was toward a standardization and classification of the elements of fantasy.” – Alan Schurstel, reviewing  “Playing at the World,” the first serious history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons and the dawn of adult simulation and role-playing games.

It’s hard to think of a less respected subcultural phenomenon that did more to change the world than Dungeons & Dragons.

Comic books – many of which have been inspired by D&D – are doing billion dollar box office and have geek chic.  Some people (erroneously) even consider them to be among the fine arts.  Video games – the most successful of which owe a direct and well acknowledged debt to the rules that Gygax built – are also moving billions of copies and have obtained a cultural aura of youthful invincibility.  It’s not a sin to play video games, just to be bad at it.  It used to be a sign of social leprosy to be in a school’s AV club:  now everybody wants to be friends with the guy who can make YouTube videos.

D&D  however,  never made it out of the ghetto.  That’s not to say it hasn’t made progress:  at first it was seen as literally evil and fit only for the demented.  In an era before school mass school shootings, kids who played D&D were seen as potential school shooters. 

That hysteria was waning by the time I was a high-school gamer, though it still inspired strong feeling in some quarters.  The games I played even included a few of the “popular kids” … and I was, by many measures, one of them by the time my senior year rolled around.  But our getting together on the weekends to play D&D was an open secret politely ignored.  People didn’t bring it up when we were around out of respect, the way no one would tell you that the scar on your face makes you hideous and unlovable.  We were well liked in spite of it, and the price of keeping a foot in both worlds was to live by a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.  Admitting you played D&D, let alone telling stories about it, could at best be seen as a cry for help, akin to getting drunk at a party and talking about suicide.

Things have, so I’m given to understand, gotten even better for players – but nobody respects them for it.  Video gamers and chess clubs and spelling bee aficionados get respectful treatment in documentaries and film.  D&D players, by contrast, are still widely portrayed as losers who can’t hack it in the real world.  Witness 2012’s film “Unicorn City,” about a group of gamers who … well … can’t hack it in the real world. Nobody would ever do this if they had a better option.  Witness “The Big Bang Theory:  when the writers want to demonstrate that the central characters have no social lives, what social game does it have them play together?

And yet, despite nearly 40 years of cultural hostility, Dungeons & Dragons has influenced some of the major cultural trends of our time.  Books, movies, TV, the visual arts – and especially video games – all owe what we now regard as many basic conventions to the game with the weird dice.  It’s a sign of just how deeply it’s penetrated into the zeitgeist that you don’t know how much you actually know about D&D.

Yet most of what we know about D&D’s creation has been passed down like folk lore through a kind of oral tradition.  Everything I really “know” (or think I know) about D&D’s creator, Gary Gygax, was told to me by other gamers who heard it from somebody.  There were the occasional magazine profiles, but those were mostly done by what you could call “in house” sources – “Dragon Magazine” rather than “Time” or “Life.”  Prior to Wikipedia, if I’d wanted to know where to find out more about the history of role-playing games, no librarian could have helped me.

Now I read, from my former colleague and editor Alan Scherstuhl, that a serious history of D&D’s origins has finally been published.  That it’s taken this long tells you everything you need to know about how little society thinks of this past time:  “Second Life” has already had several histories written, and its impact on the culture can largely be reduced to a few very good sitcom punch lines.   (That said, Wagner James Au’s a terrific writer and you all read his fascinating accounts.)

I am grateful this oversight has been corrected … but that’s about the extent of it.  I’m not excited, and despite an interest in the subject I don’t know if I’ll buy the book (Alan’s middling review doesn’t help).

Because honestly, for all that I am defending D&D as a legitimate way to spend time, I regret all the time I spent on it as a kid.  If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t do it at all.

Scherstuhl nails the reason why in the quote that starts this essay:  for all that even the lowliest D&D campaign is an imaginative triumph compared to a traditional board game or cutting edge video game … for all that it is humanistic in the sense that it requires you to interact with real people right in front of you … for all that it requires original thought and quick wits to make a game fun … it is also an attempt to formalize the imaginary and the fantastical.  It takes every element of the magical, the fantastic, and the divine, and reduces them to an engineering problem.  How do you represent this in your system, and having represented it, kill it?

This is bad enough … and I think it’s atrocious … but worse is the fact that, as a truly immersive game, it trains you to think this way.  I realized just how much damage it had done to me when, having read my way through so many bad fantasy paperbacks and played so much D&D, I wanted to write my own bad fantasy paperback – and discovered that I could only imagine in D&D terms.

I wasn’t the only one.  A whole collection of college friends who tried to write fantasy stories failed, over and over again, to capture those basic qualities that make fantasy worth reading.  Each time, I saw, it was because they were thinking of their stories as role-playing games, rather than as stories:  we had trained ourselves to think of the fantastical as a series of numbers, and the result was that we wrote textbooks instead of novels.

Once I realized the problem, I set myself to unlearning everything my favorite high school pastime had taught me.

It’s many years later and I have a new set of friends now, one of whom is an unapologetic D&D player.  I find, in his presence, that I am embarrassed by the fact that I can keep up with him.  He likes to organize games, and has dragged me into one.  I still have the habits of a min/maxer trying to milk the system for all it’s worth … but they’re put to different ends.  My wizard doesn’t want to conquer the world or become a God:  instead, he’s trying to launch a line of premium cigars.  My friend keeps telling me to focus on the dungeon, the fighting, the treasure … but I keep wandering out, wondering how you build a really efficient business when you owe your soul to a demon lord.  What kind of HR department do you need?  What kind of supply lines can you set up?  How do you keep trade secrets?

I have taught myself to focus on the intangibles.  To some extent, this means I can’t play the same old games anymore.  It’s worth it.  These musings in my head are far, far, more interesting than the modules.

But the story of D&D should be told, and I’m glad someone’s done it.  I just wish it got a better review.