Writing this post will likely be my greatest feat of online bravery, because I’m stepping into a realm about which I know very little, inhabited by some of the most passionate storytellers and game players in the world, and in which I don’t expect to ever be anything more than a sympathetic observer. Yet, valiantly, I type. I hope true D&D fans will bear with me.
Though anyone can play (including preteens), entering the world of Dungeons and Dragons isn’t for the faint of heart. My most recent exposure to D&D came in my own home, when my twenty-five year-old son invited a small group of friends—three men and one woman, a fairly representative sample I think—to come over and go on the epic adventure that he, the Dungeon Master, had prepared for them.
In fact, this was the culmination of weeks of meticulous planning on his part, trying to anticipate every possible twist and turn in the story he and his friends would create together: lots of evenings spent online nailing down the details of the quest; imagining, defining, refining the world in which the characters (his friends) would struggle, collaborate and overcome everything he and chance might throw at them.
Each character was chosen from among the standard classes which possess their own particular forms of magic, power, knowledge and skill:
Barbarian /Cleric /Druid /Fighter /Paladin/ Ranger/ Rogue/ Sorcerer/Wizard
and the following races:
Elf/ Human/ Dwarf/ Gnome/Halfling/ Half-Orc/Half-Elf/ Dragonborn/ Tiefling
Each player was tasked with naming their alter ego and creating for him/her a backstory.
All of this happened before they sat down together to play a single second of the game. On the actual day, I was a fly on the wall (I live in a small house and they were playing right next to the kitchen), and couldn’t help eavesdropping on them (occasionally).
When you first hear and observe a D&D quest being played, it can seem pretty intimidating and esoteric. That’s largely due to the very specific language of the game, in which everyone sounds like they’ve stepped out of a Tolkien novel and aged several generations. It’s wonderful really. They sound oddly anachronistic because they’re conforming to the etiquette of the D&D world (though even the most erudite players can’t help but …like…add a few…like…contemporary speech patterns into the mix).
It’s also due to the game’s complexity. Imagine sitting at a bridge tournament and hearing everyone’s thought processes during bidding and play spoken aloud. Imagine the same for chess! What I was in fact hearing was also the expression of the cumulative expertise and game experience of some pretty great D&D players.
Though the roots of Dungeons & Dragons are found in such literary works as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a tale of chivalry in the Arthurian tradition, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, its auspicious start made some suspicious.
Dungeons and Dragons was co-created by Gary Gygax (a jarring name that sounds made up) and Dave Anderson, and burst onto the gaming scene in 1974. In an interesting article written for CNN, Larry Frum writes that:
“By the early ‘80s, as the game grew in popularity with wargamers, then college and high school students, it drew the attention of some religious groups that claimed—as they would with Harry Potter decades later—that the game encouraged witchcraft and demon worship.”
It seems strange that anyone should have worried about a game that CS Lewis himself would probably have enjoyed playing, that kept kids at home and in sight, required pencils, paper, dice, maps and lots of reading, and cost almost nothing to play.
To this day, D&D retains its geekiness, but it now comes with some serious star power and a significantly more mainstream profile. Actor Vin Diesel is known to have been a passionate D&D player for years (you can watch him playing on Youtube), and just recently, D&D appeared in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, where it was a significant element of the plot.
In fact, Gygax’s game was a seminal creation:
“In today’s culture, D&D has found its place as a leader and influencer over storytellers across so many different mediums,” said Nathan Stewart, brand director for D&D at Wizards of the Coast the company publishing the game. “From game designers and musicians, to scores of screenwriters and film directors, D&D has had a profound effect on those who have brought fantasy and geek culture to the foreground.” (From Larry Frum’s “40 Years Later”)
Dungeons and Dragons is a brilliant game that is played face to face over a period of several hours—a wonderfully entertaining afternoon or evening and sometimes beyond. It’s highly social and the success of each quest depends on the imagination, wit, problem-solving abilities and cooperation of all of its players. But I think that what I love about it the most is that it not only elevates language, it’s the purest generator of narrative I’ve ever observed outside the mind of a writer.
Think of a small group of people sitting around a table producing their own story plot in a universe they’ve all agreed to imagine together, in the skin of characters who may be as different from them as it’s possible to conceive.
It has the makings of epic storytelling, doesn’t it?
Note to readers:
The Library has all kinds of books of interest to anyone curious about the D&D universe.
I. The first of these relate directly to game play:
- Advanced dungeons & dragons, legends & lore / by James Ward
- Dungeons & dragons. Master’s guide : roleplaying game core rules / James Wyatt.
- Dungeons & dragons. Monster manual : roleplaying game core rules / Mike Mearls
- Dungeons & dragons. Player’s handbook : arcane, divine, and martial heroes : role playing game core rules / Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, James Wyatt.
II. The next are for anyone interested in the history of D&D:
- Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, Michael Witwe
- Of Dice and Men: the story of dungeons & dragons and the people who play it, David M. Ewalt
III. The novels of R.A. Salvatore are part of the Dungeons and Dragons universe, including books from 3 series:
- Forgotten Realms: Neverwinter Saga, Books 1-4
- Forgotten Realms: Transitions, Books 1-3
- Saga of the First King, Books 1-4
IV. Last but not least, if you have any hesitation about playing or encouraging your children to play D&D, do read this lovely piece that appeared in The Guardian on October 22nd, titled “How I Became my Sons’ Dungeon Master‘, by Dan Jolin.