Jon Michaud in The New Yorker provides a brief history of the game Dungeons & Dragons, and his own history with it.
D&D changed the pop cultural landscape, and 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.
I am a fan of none of those things: D&D, LoTR, Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games. I liked “Star Wars” fine but it doesn’t occupy any kind of special place in my heart — it’s just a movie I enjoyed. I’m more of a “Star Trek: The Original Series” guy.
I also don’t read comics, beyond The Watchmen and a couple of others. I don’t play games. I don’t watch many sf/f movies.
I’m part of a relatively small group of people who read a lot of print sf books and not much fantasy or partake of those other things Michaud describes. I do love a couple of sf/f TV series — Doctor Who, Haven, and we’re now rewatching Stargate SG-1, for example. — but that’s about it.
My point is that even within geek culture, there are subcultures.
But this is Michaud’s story, and D&D’s, not mine.
Michaud talks about the history of D&D, and the backlash from misguided parents and authorities who thought it was some kind of cult. He references a New York Times article about how D&D influenced a generation of writers, including literary writers. Tech entrepreneur Paul Taylor says D&D prepared him for the world of business.
And Michaud also talks about how D&D saved his life:
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. Ed Park, in an essay on D. & D. (included in the anthology “Bound to Last”), celebrates the magnificent vocabulary of the game, which introduced young players to words such as “melee,” “portcullis,” “kobold,” “thaumaturge,” “paladin,” “charisma,” “halberd,” “wyvern,” “homunculus,” “scimitar,” “buckler,” “basilisk,” and “cockatrice.” Combined, the player’s manual, the Dungeon Master’s guide, and the monster manual (the core books of advanced D. & D.) add up to four hundred and sixty-eight pages of small-print, double-column text. I read them with studious devotion and headlong glee. Almost immediately, television all but disappeared from my life. When I wasn’t playing D. & D., I was reading about it or reading books set in worlds like the game’s. Crucial in this regard was “Deities and Demigods,” my favorite of all the advanced D. & D. books. Along with creatures from Norse, Sumerian, Greek, and Native-American mythologies, “Deities and Demigods” included characters from the novels of H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. Moorcock, in particular, became a favorite of mine. I tore through the many volumes of his “Eternal Champion” cycle. From Moorcock, it was a short leap to Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez, and, lo and behold, I was a reader. And then, a writer.
Image: “D&D Game 1” by Philip Mitchell – http://www.dwarvenforge.com/dwarvenforums/viewtopic.php?pid=15595#p15595. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.