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  1. #1
    Symbolic Herald Vasilisa's Avatar
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    Feb 2010

    Post Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

    Dungeons and Dragons Saved My Life
    By Jon Michaud
    July 18, 2014
    The New Yorker

    Dungeons & Dragons turns forty this year. The game, which I played in my youth, is entering middle age just a few years behind me. My interest in—or, I should say, my obsession with—D. & D. coincided with the height of its popularity, in the nineteen-eighties. D. & D. was more than just a fad or a hobby. It was a subcultural sensation that popularized the idea of role playing and ushered in a seminal change in the way games were created and enjoyed. Instead of pieces or figurines, there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board or a terrain table, there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace in our online lives and our recreational activities, but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D. & D.’s addictive quality. By 1981, more than three million people were playing Dungeons & Dragons. It soon joined “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” in a kind of high-nerd trinity—one that, with “The Matrix,” “Harry Potter,” and “The Hunger Games,” has long since entered the mainstream pantheon.

    For much of its existence, D. & D. has attracted ridicule, fear, and threats of censorship from those who don’t play or understand the game. It is surrounded by a fog of negative connotations. David M. Ewalt, the author of “Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It,” writes, “If you’re an adult who plays … you’re a loser, you’re a freak, you live in your parents’ basement.” The game has been accused of fomenting Communist subversion and of being “a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft.” One mother, whose D. & D.-playing son committed suicide, started an organization called Be Against Dungeons & Dragons (BADD).

    Though that negative perception is changing, as popular culture and the fantasy milieu become increasingly synonymous, I believe that the benefits of D. & D. are still significantly underappreciated. Though its detractors see the game as a gateway to various forms of delinquency, I would argue that the reverse is true. For countless players, Dungeons & Dragons redirected teen-age miseries and energies that might have been put to more destructive uses. How many depressed and lonely kids turned away from suicide because they found community and escape in role-playing games? How many acts of bullying or vandalism were sublimated into dice-driven combat? How many teen pregnancies were averted because one of the potential partners was too busy looking for treasure in a crypt? (Make all the jokes you want, but some of my fellow-players were jocks who had girlfriends; sometimes the girlfriends played, too.) How many underage D.U.I.s never came to pass because spell tables were being consulted late into the night? (It’s hard to play D. & D. drunk; it requires too much concentration and analytical thought.) Just this week, the Times published an article about the game’s formative influence on a diverse generation of writers, including Junot Díaz, Sherman Alexie, George R. R. Martin, Sharyn McCrumb, and David Lindsay-Abaire. (To the Times’ lineup, I’d add a murderers’ row of Ed Park, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul La Farge, Colson Whitehead, and Sam Lipsyte.)

    D. & D.’s positive legacy can also be seen outside the worlds of literature, cinema, and video games. The predatory dangers of a dungeon are good preparation for the cutthroat world of business. My friend Paul Taylor, who was the Dungeon Master for many campaigns I participated in during the eighties, went on to found two successful technology companies, the second of which was acquired by Google. In an e-mail to me, he said that Dungeons & Dragons helped train him for the rigors of tech entrepreneurship. Furthermore, he said, he sees a parallel between the unpredictable ways in which people use new technologies and the ungovernable ways that players navigate their way through a D. & D. campaign: “No two versions are alike.” Snooping around the Internet, it didn’t take me long to discover a list of Leadership Lessons from Dungeons & Dragons.

    A forthcoming documentary about the game characterizes D. & D.’s origins as akin to Facebook’s: “A cautionary tale of an empire built by friends and lost through betrayal, enmity, poor management, hubris and litigation.” Wizards of the Coast, the company that has owned the D. & D. franchise since 1997, is marking the anniversary by releasing a new starter set this week; the “Tyranny of Dragons” digital story line will launch in August, along with a revised print edition of the player’s handbook; in September, the new monster manual will be published, followed by a revised Dungeon Master’s guide, in November.

    In the past forty years, Dungeons & Dragons has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the basement of E. Gary Gygax, a high-school dropout living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Gygax was working as an insurance adjuster and a self-taught shoemaker when he turned his hobby playing war games into a vocation and a business. Dungeons & Dragons emerged from the world of military war games—complex scenarios in which great battles of the past are reënacted with miniature plastic or metal soldiers. Through a series of collaborations with other war gamers in the mid- to late seventies, Gygax and a Minnesota gamer named Dave Arneson came up with an initial set of rules, which as a work in progress were known simply as the Fantasy Game. With borrowed money from another gamer named Brian Blume, they, along with Don Kaye, formed a company called Tactical Studies Rules (T.S.R.) and printed an initial run of a thousand copies. The first sets were assembled by hand in Gygax’s basement and went on sale via mail order in January, 1974. (If you want the full origin story, read Paul La Farge’s 2006 essay on D. & D. for The Believer, pick up a copy of “Of Dice and Men,” or wait until the documentary is released.)

    The war gamers that Gygax and Arneson knew took up the rules with great enthusiasm, but the first run of D. & D. sold slowly. (Gygax said later that he estimated the potential audience for the game would be fifty thousand people.) Gradually, word spread, and sales picked up. It took nearly a year for the first thousand copies to sell. The second thousand went in four months. T.S.R. also introduced other games, including one based (without permission) on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels. A regular newsletter was launched. Soon they were printing supplements to Dungeons & Dragons, licensing the product to other vendors, and expanding their business horizons. The rapid growth was accompanied by a soap opera of broken friendships, lawsuits, changes of ownership, and failed initiatives. Gygax lost control of T.S.R. and ended up moving to Los Angeles, where, separated from his wife, he lived in King Vidor’s Beverly Hills mansion, hosting hot-tub parties and pursuing a deal for a movie based on the game he had helped to create. Further turmoil followed. T.S.R. went into debt and was sold to Wizards of the Coast. Gygax moved back to Lake Geneva, where he died in 2008. His funeral turned into an impromptu gaming convention, which is now called Gary Con and meets each year on the anniversary of his death.

    Just as D. & D. evolved from traditional war gaming, my interest in the game was primed by my father’s love of strategic and military exercises. In the late sixties, my father, a U.S. Foreign Service officer with a lifelong passion for military history, began reading a bimonthly magazine called Strategy & Tactics. Each issue of S. & T. included a new game and a scholarly essay about the battle or campaign that served as its basis. S. & T.s editor, Redmond Simonsen, is a legendary figure in the history of strategic board games. A talented designer, Simonsen worked on book jackets, album covers, and Kool cigarette ads before starting Simulations Publications, Inc., S. & T.s parent company, with James Dunnigan. Simonsen designed more than four hundred games during his lifetime. Dunnigan later claimed that, by the mid-seventies, S.P.I. had manufactured half of the war games sold worldwide.

    Inspired by Strategy & Tactics, my father created his own global war game called Empire, which expanded on the popular board game Diplomacy. I still have his boxed set of Diplomacy, which includes an ersatz communique from the Embassy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, inviting the purchaser to participate in a “WAR GAME” in Washington, D.C., where we lived. The Diplomacy board is a map of Europe on the eve of the First World War. Each player assumes control of one of the Great Powers. The object of the game, according to the rules, is to gain control of the continent. “Since gaining control of Europe takes a long time, it is generally advisable to set a time limit for the game,” they helpfully observe. “The player with the most pieces on the board at that time is the winner.” Unlike most war games, Diplomacy does not rely on dice. Chance plays no part, and winners are not always decided through combat. Control of supply routes can be just as decisive. Empire, my father’s game, used Diplomacy’s diceless system in a global conflict that reflected the geopolitical realities of the Cold War. Though his Foreign Service colleagues enjoyed Empire, the gaming company Avalon Hill passed on it, saying that it was too similar to Diplomacy. My father moved on to other endeavors, including writing a book about the potential consequences of human contact with alien civilizations.

    In some regards, my childhood was nothing more than a rota of increasingly complex board games, from checkers to Stratego, Space Colony, Risk, and, finally, Diplomacy. Ours was the only house I knew where pads of hex paper (hexagon-patterned graph paper) were always within arm’s reach. Playing with my father usually meant losing; going easy on his kids was not something his competitive nature would permit. At a certain point, I gave up the war games and board games and retreated to the basement to co-habitate with the TV. A typical Saturday schedule for my twelve-year-old self looked like this: 8 to 11 A.M., cartoons; 11 A.M. to noon, Pro Bowler’s Association; noon to 3 P.M., Notre Dame football; 3 to 6 P.M., Movie of the Week; 6 to 8 P.M., Dinner, chores, family obligations, personal hygiene; 9 to 10 P.M., “The Love Boat”; 10 to 11 P.M. “Fantasy Island”; 11 P.M.: bed. It was not a glorious time in my life. I hated reading. My grades were mediocre, and my parents were worried about my prospects. I didn’t know it, but I was simply waiting for the right game to come along—a game in which there were no winners or losers. That day finally arrived in the spring of 1979. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Dungeons & Dragons saved my life.

    I was introduced to the game by the three Nugent boys, who lived down the street from us. The brothers cut against the stereotype of role-playing gamers. All three were athletes. The oldest, Chris, was a runner who broke the middle-distance records at his high school. The younger brothers, Greg and Brian, were bodybuilders, baby Lou Ferrignos. For them, D. & D. was fun, but it was just one of many recreations. They could not have known how profound a change they brought to my life. In a matter of weeks, I was obsessed with the game. I spent all of my meagre earnings from a paper route on advanced D. & D. books, modules, dice, and figurines. I proselytized, converting my brothers and even my sister. (That, again, was atypical. It’s an undeniable fact that female D. & D. players are few and far between. As La Farge notes, “In one 1978 survey of fantasy role-playing gamers, only 2.3 percent of respondents were female; in another, only 0.4 percent.” Lamenting this is like lamenting the fact that there are no orange trees at the North Pole.) When my father was assigned to a post in Northern Ireland, the following year, I took my books with me, hoping to spread the gospel overseas. There was no need. In my first week of school in Belfast, I walked past a red-haired kid manipulating a set of polyhedral dice in his open palm. It was Paul Taylor, the future technology entrepreneur.

    As many writers testified in the Times article, D. & D. is a textual, storytelling, world-creating experience, a great apprenticeship for a budding author. But, more fundamentally, you cannot play D. & D. without reading—a lot.

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  2. #2
    Wake, See, Sing, Dance Cellmold's Avatar
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    Mar 2012


    Thanks for the link @Vasilisa

    I've only ever played a few trial DnD games but this just encouraged me to get more involved in some of the groups at my wargaming club. It's also hard to deny the influence of DnD on so many of the games I've played. I think in the early days of Warhammer etc... it used to be advertised in a magazine alongside DnD and they used that popularity of DnD to help foster interest.

    I do genuinely enjoy the group antics, although it can depend on the people involved.

    Thanks again.
    'One of (Lucas) Cranach's masterpieces, discussed by (Joseph) Koerner, is in it's self-referentiality the perfect expression of left-hemisphere emptiness and a precursor of post-modernism. There is no longer anything to point to beyond, nothing Other, so it points pointlessly to itself.' - Iain McGilChrist

    Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
    "Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
    Piglet was comforted by this.
    - A.A. Milne.

  3. #3
    @.~*virinaĉo*~.@ Totenkindly's Avatar
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    Apr 2007
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    Instead of pieces or figurines, there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board or a terrain table, there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace in our online lives and our recreational activities, but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D&D’s addictive quality.
    Totally. Can't be overstated. It really changed the face of games and led into things that have now permeated the online world (such as avatars). I suspect a number of computer guys were into D&D and similar things; I know the only reason I started using computers at first was to play Zork plus other early games that were modelled after D&D to some degree, and then my interests expanded due to an affinity for computers... but those are the minds that contributed to the PC computing and then Internet revolution.

    If you do the research, the "kids dying" crap was pretty much about 4-5 kids who were having issues to start with, who happened to play RPGs. I.e, , not a cause, just an outlet... especially compared to the zillions of people who played them and benefited from them. (The mother who started BADD was a piece of work herself and couldn't accept her child had issues, and pursued a grudge against the game for maybe two decades until she finally couldn't find any more traction for her views?) The main case I see quoted (I forget the kid's name, but he was the model for the kid in Rona Jaffe's "Mazes and Monsters" famously played by Tom Hanks in the TV movie) ended up being fabricated; the boy was a genius who had trouble coping (he was far younger than his academic peers and never fit in), who was also gay and dealing with the fallout from that, leading to his suicide attempts and/or pretending to suicide while fleeing from his family; the detective who originally investigated the case came clean later with a book explaining that it wasn't RPGs but his personal issues and situation that led to his early death on his second attempt to end his life.

    Anyway, just getting back to my story -- I am an old-time gamer. My first boxed sets were bought in sixth grade, somewhere around 1980 or so... the pink and blue basic and expert sets with the Earl Otus covers and dice you had to color the numbers in with an enclosed wax crayon. A guy friend of my parents had the hardcovers and I just fell in love with these books when I saw them at his house -- I had never seen anything like this before. I never actually played much in high school, but I was a dungeon/story designer; it fueled my creativity, my interest in various reading topics, my artistic drawing pursuits, etc. And it helped me socialize when I finally went to college and joined a real group as a player; it was basically a collaborative story experience we built together.

    I think the "comprehensive knowledge" thing is a big deal. The more you know, the more you can do in-game. You can end up reading books on anything from comparative religion/mythology and medieval craft pursuits to astronomy and geology and engineering. That's the kind of "game" this can become... you learn in order to be better at your character and what you do in-world. Plus it's an avenue for socialization and creativity synergy for those who might have a harder time in other venues. Some people even go the LARP or SCA route and learn these skills IRL (fighting, riding, weaving, smithing, potting, etc.)... thus providing them with real abilities all as part of exploring their character(s). It's one of those "games" that ends up being expansive rather than restrictive, and more collaborative than competitive in ways.
    "Hey Capa -- We're only stardust." ~ "Sunshine"

    “Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” ~ H.P. Lovecraft

  4. #4

  5. #5
    Senior Member Habba's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    I just bought Starter Set for D&D Next. Even though the rules seem fine and simplified enough, I'm somewhat disappointed that it's more like version 3.7 than a new edition. I feel they are still years behind the modern state of game design. However I'm rather positive that my board game group that's inexperienced with pen-and-paper role-play games is going to like this one.

    I think I've played every version of D&D, except for 4th, for which I only created a character.
    "The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine."
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