Thursday, January 27, 2011


The great thing about Dungeons and Dragons is that it's not just a game, it's a lifestyle. To really commit, you gather a shelf of source books and bags of dice that look like gems and/or candy. You have trays of tiny monsters and painted miniatures, and maps that spread out across a kitchen table, which then get saved in tattered stacks into perpetuity. You speak a new language with other gamers. Phrases like "critical hit", "marching order" and "save versus death magic" all become coded references you share with a select few. Names like "Mordencainan", "Vecna", and "Bigby" bring to mind important historical figures, looming larger than many past presidents (and let's be honest, Garl Glittergold is much more interesting than Millard Fillmore).

The books that guide you into this other world are evocative and exciting; the Fiend Folio, the Tome of Magic, The Manual of the Planes. Creatures with strange names (like Beholders, and Drow) have entirely new biologies and cultures to discover. Arcane rules and complicated charts guide you. You know that this is a Special Game because it has it's own dice. Unlike Monopoly* or Sorry**, you can't just use plain old six-sided dice (or "chance cubes", as George Lucas calls them). You need a new variety of polyhedrons that have to be tracked down in specialty stores, often hidden under sales-counters like pornography. The term "D12" has meaning now. You only use that dice for one thing***, but still you will need it.

Dungeons and Dragons is a Fantasy Role-Playing game, which means that you will want to be a fantasy fiction fan to truly appreciate it. That is a world unto itself, that should be explored even before the first character sheet is scribbled on with the requisite number 2 pencil. Where and when the standard, modern fantasy tropes began is hard to pin down. Folklore, Nothern European mythology, and fairy tales all played a part, and the idea of supernatural, humanoid creatures like dwarves and elves likely threads back to our earliest stories as a race with a shared narrative. Dragons and heroic quests and magic are concepts that exist in every culture, but the current and typified genre we call "fantasy", and corral into a ghetto on the bookstore shelves, probably begins in earnest with an amateur boxer named Robert Howard, and was codified by Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He is, as they say, the line of division.

There was certainly fantasy fiction before these fellows, but the common signifiers we know today all came together in the pages of CONAN and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The ideas of a medieval world where magic lives alongside armored cavaliers on horseback, and hooded rangers fight goblins in dark forests, are not new. These existed in folklore, but the wholesale packaging of them in literature, with maps of fictional worlds and histories that could be memorized and studied, came to us in the last century. Wagner updated the Ring Cycles of the Vikings, but he was just retelling existing myths. Howard and Tolkien were creating their own mythology, and this is the key difference.

Dungeons and Dragons started as a supplement to a tabletop strategy game, created on the fly by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The initial game was historical in nature, but when they decided to add a fantasy element, the lure of Middle-earth stared at them like Sauron's eye. Dungeons and Dragons owes almost everything to Tolkien, and even in the earliest days of its creation this influence was worn right on the sleeve. "Halflings" are a non-copyrighted version of Hobbits, and the versions of Elves, dwarves, and orcs the game presents us with are straight out of Numenor. But where Dungeons and Dragons becomes genius is the next step. It adds more. It adds Lovecraft. It adds Howard and his world of Barbarians and thieves. It adds Fritz Leiber, throws in some Lord Dunsany, and peppers it all with liberal doses of Arthur myths, history, Jack Vance, and Robin Hood. Thorin Oakenshield joins Kull the Conqueror to destroy Shoggoths alongside a yeoman fighting the French at Agincourt. Then it gets even crazier, as Gary Gygax starts to make shit up.

Many of the early monsters in D&D were simply weird things Gygax created because he had small toys that looked funky, and needed names. There is no "rust monster" in the Prose Edda. It came from a vending machine full of cheap Japanese toys. A whole universe of monsters, gods, spells, and races came to exist on the whims of Gary Gygax trying to come up with new ways to kill the characters of his players. And now they are memorized by the devoted few who worship at the altar of Greyhawk.

Everyone who has ever played Dungeons and Dragons has a character with a history as rich and as amazing as any from fiction. Usually more than one. Every time they sit down to roll dice, there is an epic about to take place. I have a character that has been around since I was fifteen. I have known him longer than most of my friends. He his older than my niece. I know his history, his dreams, his wants, and his tragedies. When he goes on an adventure, his life gets richer, and I am there for it. On paper, he's just an elf archer with a silly name****, but in a larger sense, he is a connection to that first gaming table I sat at, one I got to by bumming a ride with my buddy Tommy because I was too young to drive. I created him while drawing next to Tony, and trading sketches. (Both of those guys also work in comics, proving something, although I'm not sure what.) This elf was there while I was bonding with people I am still friends with today, shooting monsters with a magic bow while we laughed and ate junk food and quoted BEASTMASTER.

Dungeons and Dragons, for all the stereotypes and jokes about nerds in basements, is a social activity. It encourages creativity and puts you eyeball deep in a mix of clever problem-solving and the luck of the dice. It brings people together, and requires genuine interaction and shared experience. The variety of people that play runs the gamut from truly awful geeks to perfectly cool and normal people. All ages and backgrounds can sit down and be equals. Everyone is the same at the wrong end of an ogre's axe.

This ridiculous game has given me escape, entertainment, chances to create, and friends I would not have known otherwise. It has introduced me to fiction I would not have found, and taught me the difference between a "geas" and a "guisarme". Most importantly, it let me roll the dice while Tarkas Polo and his magic bastard sword Gutcleaver killed a Red Dragon in the mountains of Taltosia. That is awesome.

* a game for jerks
** a game for stupids
*** Barbarian hit points. Respect.
**** Ruprecht Redwine. Don't judge.

Extra Credit: Patton Oswalt's amazing new book ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND has an essay on D&D. Here is an excerpt.


Mr. Rice said...

I was actually working on a draft of "D&D is awesome" myself, but it could not have been as good as this.

What I will say in the simplest terms, is that in this game, you get together with friends and make stuff up together.

It's like what everyone wishes "improv" is, but without the people that do improv.

Alex! said...

Improv people are the WORST

Mr. Rice said...

I want to be aggressive when they are near.

AWOL said...

Hey, credit where credit's due:

I believe Tarkas had a bit of help with that dragon..

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