At 40 Years Old, Dungeons & Dragons Still Matters

Ethan Gilsdorf looks back on four decades of pen-and-paper role-playing tradition.

Dungeons & Dragons, that ground-breaking role-playing game, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Specifically, the game's big "4-0" comes this month. It was in January of 1974 when the game's co-creator, Gary Gygax, officially announced in a newsletter that "the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association has now released its set of fantasy campaign rules (Dungeons and Dragons)." In that announcement, Gygax invited folks to drop by his Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, home some Sunday afternoon to experience Dungeons & Dragons themselves.

But lo, those four decades ago, when D&D first debuted, no one knew what to make of it. D&D was intended to be a new twist on traditional war games. New, because "role-playing" games as a category did not exist. Newcomers found D&D to be weird and complex and confusing and trippy. You want me to "play" a dwarf fighter named Frowndorf? You want me to tell you how my hobbit thief is going to kill the gang of orcs? These dice have how many sides? WTF?

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But to those who were intrigued, the “Huh?"s of doubt quickly turned to “Hey, this is fun.” No one guessed Dungeons & Dragons would be revolutionary.

Never before had a game asked players to assume roles of individual characters and jointly imagine the world where those adventures would take place. With D&D, you don't beat your fellow players, you cooperate. Sure, there were war games with miniature figurines and maps. But here was a game that said that there's no "win"—there's just the ongoing story, and the next adventure.

I first played D&D back in the 1970s and 1980s. Like millions of mostly male and young American proto-geeks, I too got sucked into the game's vicarious derring-do and heroics, playing wizards and warriors —idealized versions of myself — who wielded incredible power, acquired cool stuff, killed nasty monsters, cast spells, and inhabited fantastical places.

Today, deep in the digital age, I'm happy to report that the game still exists. In fact, the new edition of D&D's rules is slated for release this August. And only now, as a 47-year-old who still plays the game, can I appreciate why Dungeons & Dragons still matters in 2014.

To be sure, there's lots to say about how D&D was a game-changer and eternally influenced geek culture. Much has been said about how the game practically cemented the foundation for the modern video game industry. D&D pioneered concepts like avatars, characters, and levels. It measured armor, health, and personal attributes numerically—hence, my elf's 17 charisma makes him hotter (and a better leader) than your 11 charisma loser. Each iteration of D&D, and its many copycats and variations, also made ubiquitous that "dungeon crawl" experience that so many electronic games—from Doom, Quake and Myst, to World of Warcraft, Halo, Portal and Call of Duty—have all employed to such addictive effect. D&D also encouraged the popularization of Tolkien and fantasy. Dress-up "cosplay" and story-based live-action role-playing came from roots steeped in D&D. The game inspired the first interactive fiction.

Like a 3rd level Spell of Suggestion, D&D generated subtle repercussions through the culture. The role-playing game opened new pathways for creativity, new ways for kids and young adults to entertain themselves. The game led a DIY, subversive, anti-corporate revolution, a slow-building insurrectionist attack against the status quo of leisure time and entertainment.

The conceptual space that D&D organized was infinite. Suddenly, for kids who "got" the game and understood how it worked, options for "play" were no longer limited to basic board games such as Risk or Monopoly. The game “board” was limitless. This game was played with words scribbled on character sheets, and books, even as its world existed largely in your head. Like a new movement in theater or literature, D&D invented not only a venue for homegrown storytelling, but a new game genre: the role-playing game.

The lesson of Dungeons & Dragons has always been this: make your own entertainment. By sitting around a table, face to face, and arming yourself with pencils, graph paper, and polyhedral dice, you can tap into what shamans, poets and bards have done all the way back to the Stone Age. Namely, the making of a meaningful story where the tellers have an emotional stake in the telling, and the creating of a shared experience out of thin air.

To go on this new adventure, you don't absorb a movie or TV show passively, on the couch, or merely "read" a book. Nor are your options for “interacting” with a fantasy experience limited to collecting merchandise or playing with action figures. Best of all, the essential quality of this unique, narrative gaming experience can't be co-opted as commercial entertainment. Role-playing games like D&D are a way to experience unstructured free time while imposing upon it a structure, a story.

The rules books are guidelines, not stone tablets. Don't agree with how much damage a long sword should do, as listed in The Dungeon Master's Guide? Make up a new rule. If you want more of this swords and sorcery world, the tools are there to build addenda and archipelagoes yourself. Try that with Clue or Stratego. D&D became not just entertainment, but an art form.

Along the way, D&Ders like me learned about stuff. We discussed hit dice and saving throws, ballistas and halberds. We studied, without encouragement from our parents or teachers, arcane subjects such as architecture, history, languages, and statistics. I learned how to draw and map. I learned battle tactics, how to bargain, how to empathize and negotiate with those not like me—be it undead kings or jocks. And a lot of introverted, socially-inept kids found friends and fellowship. I got socialized, and I learned how to be a leader. Bored and dissatisfied with my real life, I created a more exciting one, again and again, where I got to save the day and have agency.

The tools of D&D gave me permission to imagine a better me, and a better story for myself. They gave me the courage to imagine a different future. And taught me how to change myself. Not happy with lowly Level 1 Ethan, I worked hard to level up to my better, stronger, faster level 17 version today.

As a result of the many millions who logged countless hours with their Monster Manuals in dungeons dark and deep—with nary an iPad, iPhone, or screen in sight—Dungeons & Dragons created a generation of dreamers, do-ers, and writers. Would-be actors and historians and programmers flocked to the game. Those who "got" D&D were people who were curious about the workings of the world—but also other worlds.

Today, we're proud of how sophisticated and immersive electronic games have become. But D&D beats digital hands down. Video games are limited to what the programmers can program. In D&D, the virtual game board and the place where is all takes place was always the players' collective imaginations, huddled around a table in a living room, den, or basement, fueled not by venture capital or terabytes, but Mountain Dew, Doritos, and banter.

D&D is still my springboard into dreaming. Me and four other guys, all in our forties, embark upon these imaginary adventures on Sunday nights. How can I give this up? I leave my computer behind and dip into an amorphous, enigmatic current of magical thinking that humans rarely swim in: something epic and unknown. The other night, my character, Renn, revealed to his compatriots that he is not fully human, but a half-elf in hiding. In a world where elves are outlawed, this is not only a plot complication, it's a big deal for my character, his group, my group, game, the world.

We need D&D and role-playing more than ever. If for no other reason than to help us take back our creativity, our storytelling mojo, from the things that take them from us: Hollywood, publishing, even social media.

Just choose your enemy, roll a 20-sided die to hit, and then, tell us what happens next.

Published 10:00 am Fri, Jan 31, 2014

About the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston GlobeSalon.comBoingBoing.netPsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.

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