In case it hasn’t been readily apparent with the posts on this blog, I’m a nerd. One could say I’ve been working on my Ph.D. in geek culture for many years now. The initial introduction to geek culture started with my mother, who introduced me to science fiction and fantasy when I was kid. But it was the grand-daddy of tabletop roleplaying games that solidified my love for fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons is the progenitor for what we know today as tabletop roleplaying games. Every game on the market owes at least some debt to the brainchild of Gary Gygax.
Dungeons & Dragons began as the warfare game Chainmail back in 1971. Originally just focused on medieval warfare, the game grew into a fantasy epic. Gygax’s main influence wasn’t Lord of the Rings, though there are certainly Tolkienesque elements present in the various iterations of the game. Instead, Gygax drew on his love for the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, the Dying Earth series by Jack Vance, and the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Alongside co-creator Dave Arneson, they created the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
I’ve played in almost every version of the game that has been released, with one exception. The first and second edition of the game, known as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, are archaic rulesets compared to the more streamlined systems used in play today. Having said that, I have a nostalgic love for those early versions of the system. Terms like THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0), Saves versus specific types of attacks, and the sheer brutality of the ruleset (it was not overly fond of making things easy for the players) pull on my heartstrings a bit given where the hobby is now.
My introduction to Dungeons & Dragons was through a friend named Tyree, who served as the DM (Dungeon Master) for a group of friends. He was older than all of us by a few years (17 while most of us were only 12 or 13). His style of running games was harsh on the players but full of dynamic adventures created often at the table while we were gaming. He also incorporating a great deal of Eastern influences into his game settings, owing in part to his upbringing overseas as a military brat. It was sitting around a coffee table with my friends and Tyree that my love of the game was sparked but it wouldn’t be until years later that I grew connected to the game.
By the time the early 2000’s rolled around, Gygax had long-since left TSR Hobbies (the company he’d started in the mid-1970s to publish Dungeons & Dragons) and the company had gone bankrupt over their mishandling of the product line. It was a clear case of too many cooks in the kitchen and no clear direction for the company. If you look up the back catalogue of books released by TSR in the late 80s and early 90s, you’ll see a slew of often contradictory books that didn’t have any rhyme or reason for being released. Sadly, this lack of direction would plague the system again when Wizards of the Coast took over the game license.
It was during my early adulthood that I began delving into running my own games, thanks in large part to a friend from work named Robert. We worked together at Pizza Hut. When he discovered that a few of us at work were avid tabletop gamers, he invited us over to his home for gaming. He was an old-school DM, still using the original game modules that were released in the late 1970s by Gygax and company. From Robert, I learned how to organize a campaign (a series of adventures), set up potential roadblocks for my players, and make the game enjoyable but challenging. It took a few years for those lessons to sink in. I was what would now be called an “adversarial DM”, meaning I took it as my place running the game to set myself against the players. As experience has taught me, this isn’t the best way to run a game session.
When Wizards of the Coast took over the license for Dungeons and Dragons, I have to admit I wasn’t too keen on the idea. Best known for Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game that is a juggernaut in that industry, I was worried that the end-product wouldn’t be what I enjoyed from the earlier editions. That fear wouldn’t be realized until 4th Edition. The 3rd Edition (and the 3.5 Edition that followed it) were a revolution at the time, streamlining the system and focusing on how to make the most adaptable gaming experience. With 3rd Edition and 3.5, one could make ten of the same character type and still have vastly different playing experiences.
But as I mentioned above, the problem that plagued TSR came back to bite Wizards of the Coast: bloat. By the time 4th Edition came out, there were 72 official releases from Wizards of the Coast for 3rd Edition and 3.5. To put this in perspective: the first 3rd Edition books were released in 2000; 4th Edition was released in 2008. That averaged out to 9 books per year that were released, with most of them ranging in price from $30 to $50 dollars. Granted, it’s not as expensive a hobby as Warhammer 40k but it was a pricey habit if you wanted to get the latest book (and this wasn’t taking into account the adventure modules that were released during that time). One major benefit of this time frame, though, was the Open Gaming License, which allowed third-party developers to create content using the system created by Wizards for Dungeons and Dragons.
I’m skipping over 4th Edition. While I had fast become apathetic to the 3.5 Edition of the game, 4th Edition did not feel like or play like Dungeons and Dragons for me. My brother and I had been waiting in anticipation for the newest Edition. When we were finally able to check it out at a local bookstore, we stood, gob smacked, as we read the Players’ Handbook. This wasn’t the game we had grown to love over the years. This was something else entirely that didn’t feel right. For those that love 4th Edition and were introduced to the game through it, I mean no offense by this sentiment. For me, it just wasn’t the game I wanted to play. It felt like a radical departure of what had made the game great to me.
The 5th Edition, released in 2014, is what rekindled my love of running games and playing again (thanks in no small part to watching Critical Role). Watching Matt Mercer and his friends playing the 5th Edition ruleset made me fall in love with this storytelling method again. And it also helped that over the years my style of running games had changed dramatically. The main reason Dungeons and Dragons has such an effect on me is that I’m a storyteller at heart. And the game, when it’s done well, is a collaborative storytelling experience, where everyone at the table can decide how the story plays out. With the advent of live-streaming platforms such as Twitch as well as the video platform Youtube, there is an entire online ecosystem of live-streamed game sessions, videos on world-building, structuring games, reviews of upcoming releases, and tips for nascent Dungeon Masters on how to handle situations wherever the game is played.
And the extent of Dungeons and Dragons legacy can be felt in Hollywood and the stories we’re seeing. Look no further than such pop-culture juggernauts like Stranger Things and Rick and Morty. The creators of both shows grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and it has had a clear influence on their storytelling methods. Actors, musicians, and other artists show their love for the game system that started in a basement in Lake Geneva, WI. As we near the start of a new decade, the game is making strides to become more inclusive, shifting away from the medieval European fantasy tropes that have been used for decades and branching out to include cultures and mythologies that were never considered before. There’s still a long way to go in this matter and I encourage more diverse voices to make their presence known. This is a game for anyone who wants to play it and there should be no restrictions on how it “should” be played.
Ultimately, it is up to the group at the table (or online) and what they want to make out of the game. That is the real power of Dungeons and Dragons (and all of the games that have grown out from under the umbrella it created): it’s the one form of gaming that truly can bring together people from disparate backgrounds who love adventure and spending time with good people.