I’ve written before about my childhood love of Dungeons & Dragons. When I was 11 years old, D&D transformed me from a kid who loved The Hobbit and the D’Aulaires’ books of Greek and Norse myths into someone who wanted to make his own mythic stories. D&D (and related role playing games like Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia and Traveller: 2300) were one of the few ways I interacted with other human beings during a challenging early adolescence: my friends and I would gather in my dad’s basement to roll dice and shout about spells and orcs for entire weekends, for long, oppressively hot summers.
I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I tell people that I play D&D every Sunday evening. Anytime I mention my adult D&D habit to a casual acquaintance, I fight the urge to explain that it’s not what you think. Thanks to the Internet’s capacity to link the shy and geeky with one another, we celebrate nerd culture today in a way that I could never have imagined when I was 13; however, Dungeons & Dragons has remained a cultural signifier of beyond the pale nerdity. We’re all nerds for something, for Star Wars or Game of Thrones or Fallout, but the ones who play D&D, they’re, well, nerd nerds.
Popular culture has never been very kind to D&D players, holding us up for a special kind of ridicule:
One might argue that the treatment of D&D in shows like Stranger Things is more sympathetic and sweetly nostalgic, and I suppose that’s correct as far as it goes. But even here the Duffer Brothers built their series opener around D&D as a canny quotation of the D&D scene in the movie E.T.–and in both E.T. and Stranger Things the D&D scenes serve to establish the main characters as misfits and somewhat ridiculous young nerds:(Viewers who rolled a successful spot check also noticed that the Stranger Things lads were playing an adventure in which the characters were facing the awful demon prince Demogorgon, a name-check which also dredges up the old 1980s terror of D&D as a plot to involve children in devil worship. D&D thankfully survived that literal witch hunt.)
Why do I continue to play a game that people typically regard as an obsession for socially awkward tweens? The short answer is that it’s great fun, and I suppose I need no more elaborate an answer than that. But as I reflect on why I still have fun playing D&D, it occurs to me that tabletop role playing games mean something more than nerdly entertainment. Role playing games represent a distinct art form, a mix of fiction and theater and puzzle that is hard to appreciate as a spectator. But when it’s played well–and I acknowledge that D&D is often not played very well–the game can be transformational for participants.
D&D is a kind of collaborative storytelling in which each of the participants plays the role of one of the characters. Players choose to a large extent the characters they want to inhabit–their backgrounds, their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses. The Dungeon Master acts as a kind of stage director and omniscient narrator, describing for the characters what they can see and hear, acting out the reactions of the characters’ enemies and friends and environment.
It’s a historical accident that these stories generally take place in a Tolkien-esque (some would say highly derivative) fantasy world of elves and dwarves and dragons. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, tried adding a Tolkien-influenced “fantasy supplement” to his tabletop medieval warfare game Chainmail, largely in an attempt to boost his game’s popularity. The first role playing game could just as easily have developed from a science fiction concept, or from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, or from film noir. It just so happened that Gygax was obsessed with medieval warfare and that his players were Lord of the Rings addicts (ironically, Gygax hated Lord of the Rings–he considered it bloated and lacking in action).
The key to Dungeons & Dragons is not the dungeons or the dragons. It’s the idea of a person creating a story whose outcome can only be determined by the others at the table, those people who in ordinary storytelling would be the listeners or the readers. If the Dungeon Master is a good storyteller, and if the players are decent actors–or at least willing to play along with a bit of enthusiasm, the experience is, well, magic.