Tag Archives: dungeons & dragons

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.

When dominant powers assume that they make the rules

My friend Adrienne Dellwo (if you are in search of fibromyalgia info, she’s the authority) today posted a worthwhile article on how Wizards of the Coast has managed to lose the Dungeons & Dragons market. For those of you who don’t want to read it or have never cared about fantasy role-playing games, a few years ago WotC decided on a complete remake of the tabletop game (which is still popular). Whether the new edition was a good one or a bad one was up for debate; most players a) didn’t think it felt like D&D, and b) weren’t very interested in repurchasing all the basic books again. It’s safe to assume the move was revenue-driven in a saturated market (declining sales of expensive source books), and one empathizes with the need to keep customers buying stuff, but planned obsolescence always creates a crossroads. When deciding whether to buy the new thing, and annoyed about it, people may decide on someone else’s new thing.

It isn’t the first time that’s happened in some way. We can learn from the trend, which spans most aspects of human life. The pace has sped up as communication and transportation have accelerated.

The Roman Catholic Church defined religion in Europe for centuries, with an authoritative hand in economic, political, military and social life. A variety of reformers decided that heresy wasn’t nearly as sinful as venal, oppressive, centralized ecclesiastical leadership, and today a good chunk of Europe isn’t Catholic–and a good chunk of what remains nominally Catholic really doesn’t care.

In the Civil War, the South starved because “cotton was king!” Thus, wealthy planters kept growing the stuff rather than food, even though getting it to its European markets was problematic. A primarily agrarian population, with a healthy chunk of the workforce that didn’t have to be away at war, found a way to starve. The South also insisted on going to war to preserve slavery, when a quick look around the world would have told them it was unsustainable. The Confederate States are no longer a country.

Chrysler, GM and Ford forgot how to make cars that people wanted to buy. Never mind: buy Murrican! In Detroit, social pressure (patriotism, union allegiance) worked. Everywhere else, people bought cheaper, more reliable Japanese cars. They still don’t get it. The American companies remain at the top of the Consumer Reports recall lists, people who value reliability buy Toyotas and Hondas, and the whole industry had to be bailed out. Detroit? Not much left of it.

IBM popularized the personal computer and set all the standards. Just eight years later, it was flailing about helplessly as it tried to dictate that the market pay double for a new architecture and operating system that were mostly incompatible with all the previous IBM stuff. Everyone told IBM to pound sand and bought Compaqs, Epsons, Acers, HPs, and ASTs running the same OS in evolutionary form. Do you own an IBM computer?

AOL looked poised to redefine the Internet. AOL startup CDs were a primary form of junk mail. For a great many people, AOL was the Internet, despite the steady grumbles of the tech-savvy libertarian-leaning old school who had thought typing Unix commands wasn’t too bad and viewed with fear and loathing the influx of screaming, clueless newbies with their text-speak and tendency to call IRC channels ‘chat rooms.’ Then AOL users began to learn about the Internet, and came to realize that AOL was now more in their way than paving the way. How long has it been since you got an AOL CD ride-along?

CNN was all the rage after the first Gulf War. Now it’s just one of three incompetent news entertainment stations. Those who want their existing perceptions reinforced now watch the version of the competition whose slant they prefer. People who plan to think read it online. CNN may still be in business, but they aren’t really in the news business, and their reputation is lower than ever.

Flush with the market dominance of Windows, Microsoft insisted on shoving a lousy web browser at its customers. It became the Web Browser Most Often Used to Download a Real Web Browser. Microsoft can still make the rules for Internet Explorer; it’s just that no one will care. Microsoft also kept repackaging a boondogglier boondoggle and calling it the Next Great Windows. Apple’s stock sells today, as I type, for $483/share. Five years ago it sold for about $160. You can get a share of Microsoft for $32/share. Five years ago, you’d have paid about $26 for it. New Microsoft product announcements don’t change much, especially as many are flops that drive the stock price backward.

SEIU, one of the dominant labor unions, truly believes that it got Barack Obama elected. It neglects to consider that organized labor, so long accustomed to having its way and having its sloganeering taken at face value, no longer has the power to get anyone elected. It has lost the battle for public influence. It has allowed its enemies to convince people that they are better off without the right to bargain collectively. That’s like convincing landowners that polluted water is actually better than clean water. Today, maybe 10% of American workers are in a union, and many of the other 90% would object strenuously to the concept.

Google perfected the search engine, then broke its “Don’t Be Evil” motto all over the place. People are increasingly open to search engine solutions that don’t feed the Google data hydra. Google Plus was rolled out to a tremendous yawn. Everything Google does raises the question: “in what way is this meant to spy on me?” No one will lament its downfall, when it comes.

USC college football had a motto: “Win Forever.” At one point, that looked likely. A private school, it treated NCAA inquiries with disdain. The resulting sanctions sent the Win Forever coach packing his bags for the NFL, led to the hire of a mercenary coach who has floundered, caused a demoralized team of stellar athletes to lose a bowl game to a team with a losing record, and lost the program its star power. Last week, USC struggled to defeat Utah State, a team with few athletes that USC would have recruited even when it wasn’t under scholarship reductions.

Adrienne commented to me: “To add to your list of companies that toppled themselves, I think the Big Three TV networks are next. When a show gets knocked off of my DVR and I can’t find it either on the network’s website or On Demand, and they don’t show it again for several months, it’s just plain stupid.” She’s got a point. The major networks have become increasingly less relevant, in large part because they’ve been difficult about content. Faux is the worst. Increasingly, the most compelling TV content is not on the major networks at all.

The American mindset continues to insist that its system is the world’s greatest, that its military might is unchallengeable, its currency is the world standard, and that every country’s most important relationship is that with the United States. This, as it: lags the developed world in most quality-of-living categories, tucks tail from Afghanistan, and tries to decide whether its worst enemy is a a) major world religion with a few extremists, b) people who want to sneak across its borders to pick fruit and mow yards, or c) two old Cold War adversaries who watch its missteps with bemused anticipation. It requires an enemy, lest its people look inward and see that its own government and corporations are a greater threat to them than all of the above in union. And in the meantime, increasingly, it fails to adjust to a changing world and falls behind, losing relevance and prestige.