It’s 1984. A little girl eavesdrops outside her older brother’s bedroom.
Inside, he and three of his teenage friends are clustered around a card
table littered with exotic dice, tiny metal figurines and complicated
She listens. They talk about “hit points” and “melee rounds” and the
all-powerful “Dungeon Master.” They visit the “elemental plane.” They
encounter a “water weird” and a “gray slime.” She’s fascinated. The door
to his room opens slowly and –
Hey, let’s get Julie to play! We need a thief! Come on, we’ll teach
And I was introduced to the dreamy, shadowy, utterly fabulous world of Dungeons
and Dragons. For years, my older brotherhad been a huge fan of J.R.R.
Tolkien, whose characters and plots doubtlessly influenced D&D. Though
I’d seen the cartoon version of
The Hobbit that was released in 1977, the
Lord of the Rings Trilogy was a bit too
wordy for me to read at the age of twelve.
However, I’d pored over the
Monster Manual countless times. I even knew the creator’s name: Gary Gygax. It was
spoken with reverence in my home, and his improbable last name added to
the mystery of the whole thing. Who is this Gary Gygax person? How did
he imagine all these monsters? Is he EVEN REAL??
The creatures that lurked within the pages of the Monster Manual (and the
books that followed, like the way cool Fiend Folio) were the epitome of fantastic awesomeness: dozens of dragons, hordes
of devils, horrible undead creatures, bizarre animal composites, sexy
(but evil!) demon temptresses, weird creatures from worlds of geometric
shapes, and even fiercely tough angels. There were chaotic evil
creatures, lawful good beings, and scads of neutral but fierce critters.
Characters traveled to different planes of existence and, with the roll
of a dice, fought battles and sought treasure.
It wasn’t just a world of its own, it was an entire universe of
well-conceived fantasy role-playing.
To be fair, it was both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who designed the
Dungeons and Dragons
in 1974, although Gary wins in the cool-name department. The game was
published by TSR (Tactical Studies Rules, Inc.) in 1974. The game style
was new in that each player became a specific character which then
interacted with other characters on adventures designed by the Dungeon
Master, or referee/storyteller type person. I always thought the DM got
the short end of the stick because he didn’t get to participate in the
events of the game, but I suppose there’s a certain element of fun for
the DM as well.
We had a Mattel
Intellivision which was touted as having
VASTLY better graphics than the Atari. For example, on Intellivision
games, the characters had, like, nine pixels instead of Atari’s measly
four, and the tennis swing had a nice WhooshPop to it. WAY realistic.
And it didn’t have an old-school joystick; the Intellivision had that
shiny gold disc controller, which inevitably got grubby, peely, and worn
down. Anyway, my favorite Intellivision game was without a doubt
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In Tolkien fashion, you traveled around a map and collected stuff and
ended up confronting a fire-breathing dragon. Even then, I appreciated
the slow pace of the action: not too scary, fairly predictable, and
deeply satisfying. Totally more fun than the stupid tennis game.
The accoutrements of D&D (and, later, AD&D) were the best part, at least
in my peripheral player status. There were the multi-sided die, kept in
a drawstring velvet pouch, of course.
There were the hand drawn maps and notes of the ever-laboring Dungeon
Fortress of Fangs Playset
Photo Credit: Gregg Koenig
I have an incredibly soft spot in my heart for D&D and AD&D, and all those
to whom they introduced me. They taught me to appreciate great fantasy writers and artists, and I
still happily curl up with an old, beloved fantasy book or set of short
stories from time to time. Fantasy and its close cousin, Sci-Fi, are the
great loves of my literary and film lives. (PSI: Avoid the
“Dungeons and Dragons” at all costs.)
I’ve caught glimpses of Gary Gygax’s step-great-great grandchildren in my
sons’ Pokemon and Digemon over the years, but they’re nowhere near as
cool as the real deal. Manga trading card games and modern video games
just scratch the surface of fantasy. In D&D and AD&D, the players used
the books and game rules to create complex scenarios that existed
entirely in their own shared imaginations. TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons
universe was a complicated, truly imaginative, interactive lightning
storm of awesomeness.
As modern and fast-paced as we thought the eighties were when we were
living them, we see now that it really was a gentler, more innocent
world. Was the country really all bent out of shape over kids playing a
game? A game that required huge amounts of creativity, memorization,
mental calculations, and human interaction? As awesome as Dungeons and
Dragons was, it did have its share of controversy. The tragedies that
were pinned on D & D were heartbreaking, but, in retrospect, it seems
clear to me that it’s just not fair to blame the immensely popular game
for the actions of some very troubled kids.
Check out this 1985 clip from 60 Minutes with Ed Bradley
investigating some of the societal concerns Americans had about D & D:
Side note: I’m now a mom of two teenage boys. I have to say that I’d be
PSYCHED if they wanted to invite their best friends over to sit around a
card table and “journey into a land of fantasy through complicated
mazes, where you use your wits to kill your enemies before they kill
you.” I mean, honestly, going after Owlbears and Gas Spores IN YOUR MIND
vs. Grand Theft Auto?