Good news, all you proud nerds out there! This month, Dungeons and Dragons reaches its 40th epic year of being a thing. I recall my first time playing the mythic role playing game with fondness; it was a sunny day at summer camp and all the sporty dudes were out doing what those folks do, and there I was, inside a cabin, learning to weave spells and imagine entire realms. Sure, I do remember some maliceful giggles at my expense, but damned if I don’t regret a single day of epic fantasy.
Salon’s Ethan Gilsdorf declared rather convincingly the didactic nature of Dungeons and Dragons (nerds win the day again). D&D, released to the world in 1974 by Gary Gygax (Mordenkainen), was a runaway success, as it deviated beautifully from war games of its time, and offered the incredible possibility of a complete imaginative experience. According to Gilsdorf, the rules and stories present in D&D taught a surprising number of lessons, each invaluable to real life.
For anyone who’s never played D&D, it’s actually rather simple. You choose a race and a class (say, dwarf and fighter), use dice rolls to determine character statistics, then interact with the world your dungeon master (the leader of the story) has created for you. Depending on the prowess of your imagination and that of your DM, you get to enjoy limitless possibilities and experiences that become more and more tangible. There are a lot of rules, but really the almost cinematic, imaginative experience is what counts.
The gameplay of D&D has no doubt inspired the insanely huge cornucopia of board and video games we all play today, but the lessons of its first incarnations are clearer than in the current mess of said cornucopia. Gilsdorf goes into detail with what he gleaned from the game, so let me hone in on the important things.
First, D&D taught many, many people how to extend the world of their own imaginations. Sitting around the game table, you could be anywhere from a goblin-filled dungeon to a floating castle ruled by a lich. D&D was a safe haven where the mind could wander to immeasurable depths, and even better, with company. Second, the game showed the importance of diversity and being a good sport (like, in sports, but fewer people got punched in the face, probably). The first version of the game offered a variety of race choices (not just humans and elves), and things in an adventure would often not go your way. The party had to be there to support you, no matter what kinda crazy creature you were.
Also, Dungeons and Dragons only really functioned properly if there was a good story. The dungeon master was the key storyteller, but, like in so-called legitimate stage productions, the rest of the player characters had to contribute to the reality unfolding in the collective, gaming mind. Anyone who was selfish in their command of the story would soon find him or herself left outside the dungeon. It was, and still is, a collaborative story every time, the mechanics running smoothly only with everyone on the same page, respecting the game. And in turn, the game would grant any player a personal epic of their own design. Many of my childhood memories are filled with griffins, dragons, caverns, entire continents, that were never there.
But yeah, many people who played were subject to ridicule. I believe the purity of the gaming experience has been skewed for this very reason. Games like Grand Theft Auto, and fantasy media like Game of Thrones (before you comment, know that I love the hell out of it) often target the visceral mind, not the imaginative mind, a part of the brain no longer stimulated as much as in D&Ds heyday. Playing D&D is still a social taboo, other media having eclipsed the now unrecognizable game that inspired many years ago. People should have pride, though, in past or continued Dungeons and Dragons experience, as they are probably much smarter and more creative than many folks, including themselves, think they are.