What D&D meant
Dungeons & Dragons, the original fantasy role-playing game, came out in 1974. I played it off and on for thirty-five years through four major revisions. Unless you’re that old and played the game in its early days, you may not fully apprehend its impact. Someone had better explain that while some of us are still alive.
In what we may call B.D. (Before D&D), there were two species of games. The casual species included party games like Monopoly, Risk, Life, Clue, Parcheesi and such. They were not meant to be realistic; they were just for fun, could be learned in minutes and finished in an half an evening. The serious species included strategy boardgames, mostly by Avalon Hill, Simulations Publications, Game Designers’ Workshop, and so on: mostly focused on accurate historical simulations and hypothetical wars. If you wanted to know how the Warsaw Pact might have done against NATO, or felt that Auchinleck and Montgomery were boobs, or imagined how the Canadian Civil War might go, they could help you explore. Their research was generally of high quality. The rulebooks were voluminous, but for those who put in the time and wanted to spend several weekends refighting Gettysburg at regimental level, they had you covered.
My own first experiences with B.D. games were the former as a child, then the latter in about 1975. Historical and hypothetical simulation games may have saved me from going completely mad in a small lumber town. They would, in 1981, send me to college with at least the fundamentals of an education in military history. But they weren’t the only external force that contributed to my teen sanity.
In 1974, the original D&D first came out. The publisher was a firm from Wisconsin called Tactical Studies Rules, better known as TSR. Think on that for a minute, what it says: “We publish rules. That’s it. The rest is on you. Invent the milieu yourself. Tell the story you wish, and act it out with players who do as they do.” It was a fantasy role-playing game (RPG). The most important rule, and the one that defined D&D, was a simple one: the rules were for guidance only. They were not definitive. The game referee/world creator, aka the Dungeon Master (DM), had carte blanche to change some or all of the rules at will. If players tried something not covered in the rules, the DM had jurisdiction and final say as to how that was resolved.
Suddenly, the imagination was the limit. Digest this, those of you who never knew a world without role-playing games. “Hello, Ms. DM. I would like to play as a member of this race, which has this specific character class that mixes the magic-user with the druid. Can I do this?” DM: “Write it up, with all the spells and so forth, and I’ll take a look.” Rules? Those were for the grognards who spent whole weekends refighting the Battle of the Bulge. The rules were what the DM said they were. She could invent new monsters, worlds, races, types of characters. The game was breeding future fantasy authors by the dozens.
We had never had this before. That’s why D&D was so revolutionary. It came out and said: “Play the game the way you like. If you like your DM, play in her game. If not, well, keep looking.” It unleashed thousands of youthful imaginations. Of course, society called us freaks, weirdos, Satanists (D&D had demons and devils; never mind that most players considered them enemies, not allies). Like most teen fashions, it was considered the Sure Downfall of Society. Our 1950s-raised parents had little idea what to make of it. To them, games were like Monopoly. However, if it kept their weird intellectual kids from smoking dope and getting pregnant, it had merits. Most sighed and didn’t worry about the havoc that evangelicals suggested D&D might wreak upon our youthful brains. Was it for nerds? Clearly. Anti-social nerds? Please. Let’s drive a stake through the heart of that ridiculous charge while we’re at this. D&D was social at its core, a group activity. It could not be played solitaire. It was not mainstream social, but it was social without question. It just wasn’t the sort of social that the yuppies, jocks and so forth expected of us. It brought us together with our own kind. It showed that we weren’t fundamentally anti-social; we just failed to adore the popular kids. We were social among people with whom we considered it worthwhile to socialize.
Of course, D&D inspired many other RPG concepts. Games took us to space, to dystopian post-apocalyptic eras, to the age of sail, and wherever else we might want to imagine. We grew up. We got jobs. We had kids, most of us. Many of us left RPGs behind, though some stayed with them. Those born after 1970 never knew a world without D&D, just as they would not know college without the personal computer, just as those born after 1900 knew no world without the automobile and aircraft.
Some of us knew the world before and after D&D, and experienced the revolutionary open-ended creativity that its arrival spawned. Our lives would never be the same. To grasp this is to grasp the effect of D&D on a twelve-year-old brain. Imagine being an artist with only graphite pencils and notebook paper, and suddenly being handed oil paints and canvas. Imagine making homebrew movies with old Super 8 cameras and a film splicer, then getting a modern camcorder and video editing computer. That’s the magnitude. That’s what it was like.
Of late, D&D has schismed into two versions. In essence, the owners tried to hand players a game that didn’t feel like their good old D&D. Players mainly rejected it, hewing to a competing version. Consider: it is surviving even the complete mismanagement of its owner, in some form, nearly forty years gone.
I can only imagine what the teens of the fifties and sixties did without the change in options my generation experienced thanks to Dungeons & Dragons. Those of the eighties take it for granted, something that was always there, like the telephone for me. We were privileged to watch the veil of possibility lift and drop away, and told to use our imaginations. And one day, the last of us will be gone.
Someone had to tell how it was. Otherwise, social history will lie, told by people who never felt the experience–and will get away with it, warping perception and memory. As I approach the boundary of half a century of life, that life has taught me that most of us live to see history lie about our times. Are you in your twenties? When you are my age, you will watch them lie about your times, too. By then I will be gone, so if anyone is to tell the truth, it will fall to you.
I seek no homages for us. Hey, if anyone should do homage, it’s us to Gary Gygax, who was the prime inventor of the game insofar as I’m aware. He, and those he played the game with, lifted that veil. All I ask is that the kids don’t take RPGs wholly for granted, as if they were always with us. They weren’t. Weird intellectuals were thus trapped in their own minds, forced to seek some other outlet.
None had the impact of D&D.