Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Dungeons & Dragons

In 1981, my mother surprised me with something she had seen on her errands.  "I thought it looked like something you'd like."  I looked at the box she placed before me, the box you may see above.  I had the vaguest idea what I was looking at -- I had never heard of Dungeons and Dragons.  In the eldritch purple gloom of a dungeon, a sorceress and a warrior prepare to do battle with a dragon who has just surfaced from his subterranean lake to protect his treasure.  In short, this was a game that promised Everything.  Apparently my mother knew me well.

Little did I realize that I was about to be caught up in one of America's historic cultural crazes.  Little would I have cared at that moment that it would come to bear the weight of cultural stigma by marking one not simply as a nerd, but as Nerdosaurus Rex (heck, I thought dinosaurs were cool back then, too.)  How far I was from predicting that in the days to come, hysterical mothers, ignorant and mendacious people from the margins of American religious life, and sensationalist media would perpetrate their own campaign associating the game with Devil worship or its secular equivalent, Mental Illness.  For the moment all I knew was love and the opening of another imaginative gate.

Over the years, a game one played with friends, imagining heroic characters in a fantasy world exploring, braving dangers, killing monsters, and finding treasure grew increasingly complex in terms of the details of story world, characterization, plot, themes and fantastic elements.  It also turned one unto fantastic fiction on the one hand and ancient and medieval history on the other.

Years later, I still wonder at the social anxieties that seem so real to many of our supposed fellow adults, that is, that these anxieties are about something substantive and real (the Cool vs the Uncool*) rather than that they are merely social fictions used for social control, likely masking something going on in the Shadow of the Unconscious of the people attempting to control others (whether you want to take these as technical Jungian terms or apt metaphors for their psyches.  See my first post on this blog, Texans, Gods, and Monsters.)   I know of highly successful people who hide their love for the game, if not because they have internalized the shame, at least because they don't want to have to deal with the social consequences.  It makes me think about how I might pick up and perpetuate popular cultural assumptions and impose them on people without really being aware of what I am doing.  But back to happier matter.

If you loved the game as a kid and have nostalgic longings for it, or if you were one of those people who were always curious about it, you may be surprised to learn that it is still around.  The current official incarnation of the game, now owned by Hasbro, is something I cannot recommend, not only because I do not like it, but because it will not be the game you remember or that you remember other people playing.  (These are fighting words for fans of the current game, but I stand by the statement, ready to delete comments as necessary.)  The old editions of the game are still out there, whether you want to find and re-purchase your old game materials or find people who can teach you how to play.

In addition to the out-of-print material in the secondhand market, there are two important sources of support for the game that are keeping its spirit alive.  One is a professional publisher, Paizo, whose Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is a sleek and shiny, but more complex, version of the game.  However, keep an eye out because soon they will offer their own basic introductory version of the game in a boxed set.  The other source is a group of do-it-yourselfers and self-publishers that are very active online, and not only sell their wares but give tons of gaming material away for free, especially in the form of legal clones of the old D&D games (in electronic form.  Print copies will cost you.)  They are collectively referred to as the OSR, but like the cantankerous settlers of the Old West, they can't agree on what OSR stands for (or what it is or whether they belong to it), and they have no central organ, but they are generally talented and generous, if highly opinionated.  These old school gamers are all over the web and it is hard to know how to introduce an outsider to their sprawling online network (rather like an enormous dungeon complex), but perhaps this guide to free resources would be the best place to start.  Maybe others will make their recommendations in the comments.

I will close today with a literary selection:
"If the days of chivalry have really passed away, let us try to hope that it is more because dungeons and dragons have become rare than because swords and arms have become craven."
An Artists Proof, by Alfred Austin (1864)**

Some of us, at least, are still bearing them boldly in our imaginative play and creating because, happily, dungeons and dragons are always in supply in just the quantities needed in the realms of the imagination.

*And so I neatly avoid the incessant terminological debate over the meanings of Nerd vs. Geek.
** I am beginning to suspect that the majority of problems in Blogger seem to be caused by the use of italics.  Hence no apostrophe.  Curse you, Blogger, how are we supposed to live without italics?!

EDIT: Here is a more updated list of free gaming materials.


  1. Don't forget that although the game lies now in the shadow of today's media, its effects are still far-reaching. The game Everquest was originally the developer's homebrew D&D world. Many of the tropes and tricks of D&D live on cybernetically.

    I predict it will come full circle when the computing power gets to the point where you can build customizable MMORPG formats. No more rolling dice, perhaps, but what of it? Imagine a world where you and friends can adventure, letting the computer (with input from the GM, natch) do all the heavy lifting of scene creation, NPC populating and the like.

  2. CCMonkey: Good point. D&D's effects were far reaching: "levels," "hit points," all kinds of elements of design are common place in video games. D&D cannibalized numerous stars of fantasy literature, and in turn, World of Warcraft cannibalized D&D. Back when Gygax died, there were numerous articles out there about how D&D changed the world. If the truth were known, I wouldn't be surprised if D&D would prove more influential than Star Trek. But I want to turn back to the literary side.

    It fed the tropes of fantasy through the game, and then through its recommended reading lists, it turned gamers onto fiction: some of it old works they would likely never gotten turned onto. Unlike lots of kids, I had switched almost entirely to reading nonfiction after a turn I started about third grade. It wasn't until I was in college that I started discovering many of the authors in D&D's reading lists.