"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."
THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.
Monday, May 21, 2012
HATS OFF TO DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS
Once upon a time, in the magical land of Wisconsin, a pair of men printed out a thousand or so copies of a game. It was amateurish and badly-edited, a Frankenstein’s monster of historical war-gaming (where grown men use miniature soldiers to re-enact battles like Thermopylae and Waterloo), world mythology, J. R. R. Tolkien, pulp fiction, and fairy tales. In my mind’s eye I like to imagine its creators wearing white scientist smocks, in a ruined castle or dungeon, bringing it to life during a thunderstorm. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder, did Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson know, could they have ever even imagined, that their little folio-sized game was about to change the world?
Mere hyperbole? No. That game, Dungeons & Dragons, not only went one to earn more than a billion dollars in sales over the years, it also helped generate hundreds of billions more in video games and online gaming like World of Warcraft. You could not have played WoW, or something like Fable or Final Fantasy, if Dungeons & Dragons had never existed; the stamp of D&D is on almost every aspect of such games. And then there is publishing. D&D practically reinvented the fantasy genre, which prior to the game had been lumped in with somewhat better received sibling science fiction. Inasmuch as most fantasy series are bad recyclings of The Lord of the Rings, most also show the hand of D&D, which has produced hundreds of novels tied-in to the game and its settings.
But let’s back up a second for the non-geeks in the audience (and if you stuck around this long, more power to you). Dungeons & Dragons, aka D&D, is a “role-playing game.” In fact, it invented the role-playing game, a pursuit that might best be described as “improvisational radio theater.” In D&D, one person takes on the role of creating a story, with a setting, characters, and very open-ended plot. The others each create a single character, to act as their alter-egos or personae in the game. In effect, they are each responsible for a protagonist in a story, while the fellow running the game sets the scenes and plays the role of the antagonists. There are of course rules, and numbers, and dice, and these define what a character is capable of doing. For example, all characters had have attributes like “Strength” and “Intelligence.” These come with a numerical value, so a character with Strength 16 is stronger than one with Strength 9, while one with Intelligence 12 is brighter than Intelligence 7. All this should be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever even been near a computer RPG. But unlike a computer game, the action is described verbally, and takes place more or less in everyone’s heads. It is a social experience that focuses on cooperation, communication skills, imagination, and math. All of which in my humble opinion makes it an infinitely superior experience to sitting in front of the video screen.
I owe my introduction to D&D to my elementary school, and to Ms. Virginia Nyahay. My mother had suggested the game to me before, after seeing an advertisement for it in Boys Life magazine. But my real introduction came later. Brought into the school’s “Gifted and Talented Education” program (and really, don’t those words just describe me perfectly?), G.A.T.E. coordinator Ms. Nyahay (who I learned recently went on to become a school principal) gave us a set of the 1977 revised D&D “Basic” rules, revised and edited by neurology Professor and child development expert John Eric Holmes. This was just before the D&D backlash, when grieving mother Patricia Pulling, understandably struggling to come to grips with her son’s suicide, decided to very publically blame the game for his death. It was also before the Christian Right started accusing it of teaching witchcraft (the way the same idiots blame Harry Potter today). No, in those days, it was seen as a good thing for kids, pretty much for all the reasons I mentioned above. Because of my interest in telling stories (or running my mouth and making up things, if you prefer), I took on the job of “mastering” the game. It was the dawn of a life-long love affair.
Aficiandados will of course know that the game has undergone several revisions and changes over the last 36 years, and that there are quite literally hundreds (if not thousands) of similar games produced by other companies. The internet is filled with long and often heated debates between fans of one incarnation or another arguing the inadequacies of all other versions. For my part, I will be the first to admit that I have played and preferred many other role-playing games to D&D, but this does nothing to dilute my affection and respect for the game. The latest version, the very badly named “4th Edition” (there have been at least 8 or 9 major versions, not 4) has been sharply criticized for making several changes to the game, and wildly cheered for the same reason. Playing it last year, however, was like being ten years old again, a heady whiff of nostalgia. No matter how much she has changed, the old girl is still at the core the same.
I mention all this now for a reason. Some time back I returned the favor Ms. Nyahay did for me all those years ago by starting a D&D club at my school. Dungeons & Dragons is, after more than three decades, still going strong enough that the latest version always gets translated into Japanese, and I thought it would be a good way to shift kids’ interests from PlayStation and Nintendo into something a bit more educational. The mother of one club member bumped into me in the hall this morning and ended up thanking me. Her son, who had always been ostracized and a loner, prefering to stay in his room with the computer, now has friends. They come over to play D&D. She says it has completely changed him. He laughs, jokes, has fun with them. He used to dread coming to school but now looks forward to it. I suspect that for every Patricia Pulling, there are a hundred other mothers with stories like the one today.
For me, I remain convinced that D&D helped strengthen my communication skills, and by running all those games and teaching others to play, the ease with which I can walk into a classroom and get kids to learn things I owe in part to the game. I also wonder if I ever would have gotten a Master’s in the field of religions and mythologies if not for D&D and its cousins. Nor do I think I am alone. Heather Burton, who has become a remarkable artist, told me playing D&D all those years ago helped spark her imagination. And I know a lot of other people reading this will have similar accounts (feel free to share).
And so I say, three cheers to the grand old game.