Dungeons & Dragons

What began as a simple love for the fantasy of Lord of the Rings turned into Mecca of Geekdom when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented Dungeons & Dragons back in 1973. From their tiny stone came a ripple effect that would not only rock the gaming world, but also the nation at large.

The appeal of Dungeons & Dragons was in its immersive escapism. Players gathered together not around a board, but around a story. In traditional D&D, each player was given a character, complete with physical, mental, and social attributes, various skills and/or spells and abilities (although many players design their own characters). The D&D world created by Gygax and Arneson was a vast one, full of trolls needing killing, treasure needing finding, and damsels needing rescuing. And all anyone needed in order to do it was pencil, paper, a few dice, and a sound imagination.

While Dungeons & Dragons eschews the traditional board game format in favor of pencil and paper, the rest of the game is as complex as the imagination is willing to make it. While some players will work with a map, most simply guide themselves using the best tool they have: Their creativity.

The critical player in the game was known as the Dungeon Master, a rather nefarious title for someone who was simply designated as the story teller. The Dungeon Master was the avatar, if you will, who oversaw the action, spun the web of intrigue, played the non-player characters (NPCs), and basically did everything that the other players couldn’t. Everyone else simply assumed the persona of some mythical adventurer. Throughout their travels (and if strictly following the rules, their creation), these characters were governed by the roll of various multi-sided dice (a four, six, eight, twelve, twenty, and two ten-sided came with the game). After selecting a race (human, dwarf, elf, gnome, etc.), the roll of the dice would determine your various attributes such as strength, agility, intelligence, and so forth. Most vital was the roll that decided Hit Points, or the measurable amount of life each character had. With these numbers in hand, a player could then best choose from one of typically three kinds of characters: fighters, magic-users, and thieves. These broke down into even more classes, such as barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard. High strength and health suited fighting classes while agility and marksmanship favored the more nimble thief. Intelligence was the hallmark of the magic user. While the quest was the game’s goal, character creation was easily half of the fun.

Dungeons & Dragons provided story packs that contained maps and information to help budding DM’s guide players on great adventurers but many chose to go it on their own. While D&D had rules, no one was constrained to follow them if they didn’t want to. And as the DM led players along, each scenario encountered could produce an infinite number of outcomes.

It was at this stage that the element of “role-playing” was invented. A player could literally do whatever he or she wanted, knowing only that the success of that decision hinged largely on the combination of his or her skills. The outcomes of various situations were governed by the rolls of dice against each other, as well. For example, when an ice dragon attacks, the player playing the Druid might try to erect an earth shield by rolling his elemental skill against the dragon’s strength while the Barbarian unsheathes his ancestral bone glaive and leaps into the fray, never noticing that the thief is silently making off with the moon crystal needed to lift the curse off of the princess. As players made choices and battled their way through the quest, they gained experience points that were used to enhance their characters skills and attributes. The limitless number of possibilities thrilled fans everywhere and soon other games based on westerns, superheroes, and other various fandoms began employing the same tactic. Even popular franchises such as Star Wars soon developed role playing games to satiate fans who wanted to spend a little time in a galaxy far, far away.

Meanwhile, D&D published their own library to keep players interested and involved. The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook came out as the game became a hit. Other literature provided helps for DM’s such as the Monster Manuals, Unearthed Arcana, and the Rogues Gallery. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons came out for those ready to move on to a more complicated yet fulfilling D&D experience. Board games, video games, die-cast games and PVC figures, comics, fiction books – tons of media came out to embrace the breadth of potential that fantasy role-playing offered. Even a Saturday morning cartoon came out about several kids who get sucked into a fantasy world by way of a trans-dimensional carnival ride.

Within ten years, D&D had gathered such an avid following that the only thing that matched it for popularity was controversy. A novel and later CBS made-for-TV movie (starring undiscovered Tom Hanks) called Mazes and Monsters detailed the true life story of James Dallas Egbert III, an awkward teen whose mysterious disappearance and eventual suicide was linked to D&D influence for a time. Because of its witchcraft and wizardry aspect, combined with the occasional demon popping up here and there, alarmed parents and Christian groups banded together and denounced the game as evil. One boy died after a school teacher “cursed” him during an extracurricular game of D&D and the child’s mother, one Pat Pulling, tried and failed to sue the teacher. Her loss at home and in the court only fueled her to organize BADD – Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons – an organization devoted for combating what she perceived to be a negative influence on kids. D&D removed the more objectionable religious themes for a time, but have since released books for mature audiences only such as the “Book of Vile Darkness” and the “Book of Exalted Deeds.”

Role playing games of various kinds remain as popular as ever, and though not the financial behemoth that it used to be, D&D is still the standard bearer and cultural icon of the genre. D&D products still account for about half of RPG sales, totaling over one billion since its inception in 1974 and reaching out to twenty million gamers worldwide. As the enormity of D&D proves, it is indeed a small, but often magical, world.

Did you spend countless hours in your youth gathered with a group of friends playing Dungeons & Dragons? If so, we would love to hear what enticed you to play and any other colorful memories you care to conjure up in our comments section below.

2 Responses to “Dungeons & Dragons”

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  1. Gina says:

    Speaking of controversy, I remember in junior high when I attended a strict Baptist school, they brought in a speaker to warn us all about the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons!

  2. Ronin-G says:

    OMG! If it werent for D&D and other RPGs, I would’ve had a social life as a kid, :D

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