How "Dungeons & Dragons" changed my life

Middle-aged men are rediscovering the geeky game that once fueled their imagination. I should know: I'm one of them

Published March 9, 2011 2:01AM (EST)

The author dressed as a knight.
The author dressed as a knight.

Every Friday night, from my eighth grade to my senior year in high school, I fell into a realm of wizards' towers, battle axes melees and exploding fireballs. This was an age before 21st century diversions -- no Internet, e-mail, cell phones or social networking -- and Dungeons & Dragons was my total escape. When I wasn't sleeping or in class, I'd draw maps of my Middle-earth-like lands, plan the exploits of my characters and scheme elaborate back stories of my world. From 1979 to 1984, I was under D&D's spell.

But wanting to be a cooler, beer-drinking, girl-bedding kind of guy, I stopped playing D&D when I went to college. There was shame in them thar imaginary hills. So I shelved that yearning for fantasy heroics, which looked so weak and antisocial. I told myself, You don't need D&D anymore.

Boy, was I wrong.

When I hit 40, I discovered my cache of D&D rule books and dice some two decades after I'd last laid eyes on it. Stirred by nostalgia, I wrote "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks," a travel memoir/pop culture investigation that records a year spent "re-geeking" myself and reintegrating D&D and its ilk back into my life. Thanks to the widespread acceptance of gaming and fantasy subcultures -- from "Lord of the Rings" to "Harry Potter" to MMOs (online role-playing games) like "World of Warcraft" (aka WoW) -- that re-geeking was easier than I expected. I emerged from my hobbit hole and saw a kinder, more tolerant world. A real world where it's safe to make peace with one's "inner geek" without risk of reprisal from the jocks. And I'm not the only one making peace with my 20-sided die. "Your story is my story," countless men tell me. We are ready to embrace those nights of unbridled game-playing and storytelling as crucial, formative experiences that were as real and memorable as any heroic feats on the football field (from which, of course, we were excluded).

OK, you check for traps, says the Dungeon Master. The coast is clear.

But wait, you say. Didn't D&D disappear?

Didn't the role-playing game succumb to controversy and those evangelical, just say no-era rants that linked the game to overweight kids listening to Judas Priest, practicing satanism and committing suicide? Besides, who has the patience for D&D? The world of books is dying, CDs are dead, and print magazines are swirling the toilet. Word has it the local youths can't tell or write a story longer than 140 characters. Is it humanly possible in our hyperspeed, hypertext moment that biped mammals, amped on shots of Mountain Dew, could still gather in dimly lit Holiday Inns to scratch out combat strategy with knife-sharpened pencils?

It turns out D&D is alive and well. And it's being played more or less the way it was played back in the Dark Days of the Reagan administration, on real tabletops, not virtual desktops, with dice and graph paper and miniature figurines. There's nary a pixel in sight.

Why does this primal form of gaming and group narrative continue to have such a hold on guys like me? It's more than simply a failure or refusal to grow up. Because I've had enough "life experiences" to level-up a 60th-level druid. For gamers of my generation, a sense of wistfulness -- or even regret for having left behind these realms -- plays a role in the resurgent status of D&D. Gen-X gamers like me, folks in their 30s or 40s (yes, mostly men, sigh), we want back in.

Can I roll again? I want to ask my Dungeon Master of yore.

Yes, the Dungeon Master says in my mind. You may proceed deeper into the dungeon. Pick up where you left off ages ago.

- - - - - - - - - -

Today, those 25-year-old fears of D&D-as-devil-worship seem quaint, even laughable. The harm of sitting around with guys plotting how to defeat a 10 foot-by-10 foot gelatinous cube (not easy: It's invisible and stings you) and predicting what effect fireballs have when cast down narrow subterranean passageways (think Kentucky Fried Chicken) seems as tame as Tiddlywinks compared to the panic over video games like "Postal 2" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the latest scourge on America's youth.

It's true that Dungeons & Dragons -- the first tabletop game to combine strategy, improvisational theater and Cheetos and let players describe their action in character to an impartial referee, the Dungeon Master -- may not be as popular or attention-grabbing as it was in its heyday. But I see people rediscovering it all the time (including a fair share of womenfolk, too -- certainly more than played back in my youth). In the past couple of years, I've been appearing at fantasy, science fiction and gaming conventions, from the biggies like Gen Con, Dragon Con and Pax East (which comes to Boston this weekend, March 11-13) to the many local "cons" that have sprung up like so many regenerating trolls. These mostly low-tech, old-school cons aren't devoted to the latest first-person shooter game for XBox Live, nor are they backed by a Hollywood studio plugging the latest fantasy, sci-fi or superhero movie franchise. Come to a con like TotalCon, in the metro Boston area near my home, and you won't see corporate booths hawking the latest MMO on banks of bright and flashy video screens. The bulk of the event is simply hundreds of gamers huddled around dozens and dozens of tables.

"I used to play D&D," a goateed dude around 40 will say. "I really miss the game. I'm here to get back my mojo."

"D&D is intrinsically nostalgic," Tavis Allison told me in a recent e-mail. Allison, 40, is a fundraiser for a hospital in New York City and an avid D&Der who also moderated a panel discussion called "Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art" at a New York City gallery this fall. "The art in the oldest books is weird and crude and like a medieval manuscript; even when it was new it reeked of some strange past, and part of the appeal of fantasy in general is this longing for a past that never was. Can you be nostalgic for something you never had?"

Yes. Yes you can.

Pure and simple, for many, D&D represents a lost age: It was an individualized, user-driven, DIY, human-scaled creative space separate from the world of adults and the intrusion of corporate forces. As Allison rightly noted, D&D recalls that day "before orcs and wookiees were the intellectual property of vast transmedia corporations." Back when you had lots more free time than money --- before girlfriends, job, kids. Life.

But it also reminds me of a part of my creative imagination that I lost touch with as well. Artist Timothy Hutchings curates a Web-based archive called PlaGMaDA, whose mission is to preserve and celebrate dungeon maps, or other maps made while playing text adventure computer games, in all their bad penmanship and wanton imagination.

Looking at PlaGMaDA, I remember how D&D taught me to love maps and hand-draw them myself. In that trove of old gear I found at middle age, I had discovered my beloved backdrops for heroic stories and imaginary derring-do: the Craggy Hills, the Untreaded Lands, the Lorsearch Plains. Mountains called Ramen-Nashew I'd painstakingly scribed with a blue quill pen. Here, an evil wizard's lair etched in Magic Marker. There, an underground labyrinth guarded by traps and monsters, with rooms numbered from 1 to 37, which I had drawn on aqua-lined graph paper, now smudged, almost sepia-tinged with age.

But by playing RPGs (role-playing games), I was not only teaching myself shoddy draftsmanship. I also learned to be confident and decisive, and to feel powerful. Even feel cocky. Some of the guts and nerve I role-played began to leak into the real world. By the time I graduated high school, I had transformed. I had used escapist fantasy to gather strength for later, when I was ready to come out of my shell. In this sense, the wave of nostalgia I've felt also springs from a desire to pay tribute to D&D. To thank the game for the gifts of creativity and self-actualization it bestowed upon us.

At a sci-fi event this winter called Boskone, four gamers served on a panel called "Playing With Dice" and re-animated the game's manifold influences. As Peter V. Brett, 38, bestselling author of the "Demon Cycle" series, said, the Dungeon Master had to build the world and play all the extras: the innkeeper, the drunk goblin at the bar, the sphinx who challenges characters to a riddling contest. He had to improvise. He learned how to work an audience directly, and could see when players just wanted to joke and when all they wanted do was draw swords (and dice) and kill monsters. "I don't think I would be half the writer I am now without D&D as my training ground," Brett said.

Myke Cole, 37, another author on the panel -- the first in his military-fantasy "Shadow Ops" book series is forthcoming -- echoed Brett's thought but added one more wrinkle: "We are socially enfranchised and successful because of our D&D days." A nine-year veteran of military operations and federal law enforcement, he's been to war three times. "I wasn't raised to the sword. My parents were committed aesthetes who eschewed violence and the institutions that wield it, and worked hard to instill those values in their children," he wrote me in an e-mail after Boskone. "It was D&D that permitted the pasty, scrawny weakling child that I was to imagine myself as a broadsword-wielding knight of the realm." He played a lot of fighters and paladins before he became one in real life. "That game gave me a gift I will never forget: It stretched my mind around the possibilities that hover around us, unnoticed, all the time. D&D taught me to imagine, and that was the first step to bending the world to my will."

And, as someone described it, if you can run a D&D campaign -- a months-long series of adventures requiring infinite attention to detail, exacting execution and on-the-fly problem-solving -- you can run an advertising campaign. Or run an IT company.

To my mind, the game has finally come into its own as a powerful cultural force. In recent years, I've seen it finally taking its rightful place in the Valhalla of other game-changing phenomena. Alongside "The Lord of the Rings" (published in 1954-55) and "Star Trek" (first aired in 1966), one could argue that D&D (created in 1974) had been equally instrumental in establishing fantasy and science fiction's rule over the box office, bestseller lists and the pop culture's imagination. And of course, the tropes of leveling-up, collecting experience points, and role-playing a character -- "Ha! I will strike the She-orc with my +3 broad sword!" -- wouldn't exist without the D&D adventuring party of dwarf, elf, wizard, ranger, hobbit. They have collectively blazed the trail through dungeons dark ahead of us. Without D&D, MMOs would not exist.

The game can be seen as a common "nerd experience" that taught millions of geeks to socialize, empathize, level-up (in game and in real life) and emerge from the dungeons of their solitude to tell heroic stories. Now in their 30s, 40s and 50s, these geeks have shown their quality. They forge and hew the media you consume: movies, television, music, novels, art and, of course, video games. They are the generation of creators now telling the biggest stories. And for that, they're thanking D&D.

Every week it seems there's another BoingBoing posting about troves of scanned dungeons maps. Even Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel admit to their D&D pedigree. Google "Basic D&D" or "Advanced D&D" (versions of the game popular in the late '70s and early '80s) and "art," "television" or "YouTube" and it doesn't take long to find a trail of bread crumb artifacts. And when you pore over uploads of the endearingly amateurish artwork from the 1977 edition of the "Monster Manual," it's an easy leap to that memory of hours spent in your room, lying on your "Star Wars" bedspread and gawking at pictures of kobolds, owlbears, purple worms and that hot, half-lady, half beast, the lamia.

It was by casting the magic spell called "Internet" that I encountered Tavis Allison, who moderated that panel discussion at New York's Allegra Laviola Gallery in conjunction with an art show called "Doomslangers" -- paintings and drawings of swords, spiders and skeletal hands, and polyhedral ceramic sculptures, all inspired by D&D. The panel looked at art and D&D as "forms of ritualized human creativity."

"Now we are living with the consequences of a nerd-run world," Allison told me on the phone, after I'd met him in New York. "WoW is now seen as a public health problem." We're in the midst of "the 'baby boom' of Dungeons & Dragons" and people are desperate to establish their "nerd cred." Looking back at your own childhood, he said, people now can claim, "Hey, I was at ground zero when this whole wave was taking over."

People who were into D&D at its peak of popularity are now in a position of freedom to talk about it. With the shackles of an insecure youth shaken off, confident and mature, they can even get a show produced that's all about a D&D session. In the recent episode of NBC's "Community," featuring a misfit dubbed "Fat Neil" getting his revenge on Chevy Chase's evil character "Pierce the Insensitive," the writers both paid homage and poked fun at D&D, in a good-natured way. (Self-deprecating jokes about D&D did not exist back in my day.)

"By referencing D&D, you are not saying 'I'm just an ordinary orc-killer,'" said Allison, who runs an after-school D&D program in the New York City public schools and just launched a D&D birthday and bachelor party business called Adventuring Parties. "You're saying, 'I'm an original D&D gangster.'" You get a new form of respect: street cred points.

Poke around the blogosphere and in short order you'll find cult hits like "D&D Monster Man," a video of an actor's mock audition mimicking monster sounds. Literature too: Sam Lipsyte's recent New Yorker short story called "The Dungeon Master" evoked the cruel, power-tripping aspects of the game. "The Kobold Wizard's Dildo of Enlightenment +2" (an adventure for 3-6 players, levels 2-5) is a tongue-in-cheek novel about D&D characters who, once aware they're fictional, try to find freedom from the tyranny of their players. (The jacket design is made to resemble one of the game's pre-packed gaming adventure "modules"). In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," author Junot Díaz describes his eponymous hero as "a dork, totally into Dungeons & Dragons and comic books." In the reality-TV web series "I Hit It With My Axe," name-brand porn stars play D&D.

In my day, luring a girl to play with my gang would have required a +5 Necklace of Enchantment.

- - - - - - - - - -

When I returned home from TotalCon, a red box was waiting on my doorstep: the new "Starter Set," a streamlined, no-frills introduction to D&D, released last fall by Wizards of the Coast (the Hasbro subsidiary that owns Gary Gygax's old RPG empire). The "Red Box" contains two thin rule books, some cardboard counters and a flimsy map, and embodies the appeal of "original D&D," before the game pimped itself out with cumbersome game mechanics and mountains of hardcover rule books. Wizards wants to lure back your old gaming group that disbanded but still hankers to play. They hope the Red Box is just the ticket.

I spoke to Mark Jessup, 40, Wizards' director of marketing and communications, who told me about the Red Box and also the "D&D Encounters program," a weekly game session that takes place at game stores around the world, expressly designed for players whose lives don't permit them to play an entire D&D adventure

"Everyone daydreams. You don't have to hold onto those dreams," he said, recalling his core game-playing years as a teenager. "With D&D, you would build on them, make them more ambitious."

Which made me think of the other reason why D&D is back: Gamers are married, making babies. They are encouraging their kids to discard their Xbox consoles in favor of the communal storytelling experience that is the cornerstone of D&D. They want their beloved dream-making experience to survive.

"As a parent nowadays, we want to pass that on to our sons and daughters, that gift of the imagination," Jessup added. "We want to make that fire inside them." (By the way, Jessup's brand team got a call from the producers of the "Community" episode, who wanted D&D's blessing. Jessup worried if the show would be a "lovingly accurate or a cheap character sketch, a lampoon." He was pleased it was both respectful and funny.)

Like Tavis Allison's program, other youth programs like the Game Loft in Belfast, Maine, are teaching leadership and social graces via role-playing games. I met an evangelical priest at TotalCon who was running D&D sessions in his church basement. Times, they have a-changed.

But like so many people my age, I miss that Friday night realm of paper and pencil. That camaraderie, that connection to open-ended storytelling. D&D was an experience we made for ourselves, for each other. Was D&D then a "better" imaginative experience than "World of Warcraft" today? I like looking back on my primitive game and scoff at these younger generations of video gamers. All I needed to "immerse" myself in fantasy worlds were pencils and paper, not PlayStation consoles and pixels, I snort.

But I'm not 17 anymore. My hand-eye coordination sucks. And who knows how my mind would be wired in new ways, were I from Generation Y, strapping on my headset and playing "Halo" or "Gears of War" for 20 hours a week

Meanwhile, I feel compelled to post some of my old dungeon maps on PlaGMaDA. Aside from my failing memories, those faded maps and character sheets are the only evidence I've got of the places I once created. That I was a hero back then, and I wandered those realms, and that I was victorious.

By Ethan Gilsdorf

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” He can be reached at and onTwitter.

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