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Cardboard Children - On Dungeons & Dragons

There Is No Winning

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Hello youse.

Where would we be without Dungeons & Dragons? A few days ago I ran a live session of 5th Edition D&D at Glasgow Film Festival, and it was a really fun experience. I’ll be talking about that session in some detail next week when I review 5th Edition itself, but let’s spend this week just reminiscing about Dungeons & Dragons, and thinking about everything that Dungeons & Dragons means to people like us.

And by “people like us” I mean people who like Dungeons. And Dragons.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS

Here’s what I don’t want to do – I don’t want to hit Wikipedia and check up on all the details about the history of D&D. I don’t want to talk about the origins of the game, the creators of the game, or the many different editions of the game we’ve seen over the years. I don’t even want to spend time explaining what Dungeons & Dragons actually is.

No. Let’s all just try to grab hold of how Dungeons & Dragons makes us feel. Because it is a feeling, right? Dungeons & Dragons is a big, beating heart at the centre of our brilliant, beautiful hobby, and you barely even need to look at it to know it’s there.

SPIELBERG

You know that feeling you get from early Spielberg films? The sun is shining, and there’s this big clean American house. And there is a mom and a dad and some kids in that house. And maybe there’s a poltergeist there too. Or maybe the dad is making a mountain out of some mashed potatoes. Or maybe there’s an alien creature hiding in a closet. And there’s that sense of otherness in that house, but it still feels homely and warm and safe. There’s a danger, but it still feels like everything is going to be alright.

That’s how I feel about Dungeons & Dragons. Whenever you deal with anything that involves a level of creation and imagination there is always a jagged edge you need to be wary of – there are always some sharp corners behind the fluff. But D&D is a game you play with friends – with buddies – and no matter what dark implications there might be in the group creation of an entire world, fizzing with magic and ferocity and undeath there is always that warm Spielberg hug of “everything is going to be okay.”

Of course, Dungeons & Dragons (or a game very much like it), features in Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – and I think it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like a pen-and-paper RPG. The game, as played in that short scene, is instantly fascinating. This little exchange made it clear that this game was something else – something prickly and a little bit scary.

“So how do you win this game anyway, huh?”

“There’s no winning. It’s like life. You don’t win at life.”

There’s no winning. The essence of a great role-playing game is right there in that little chunk of dialogue.

There’s no winning.

DUNGEONS & DEVILS

I think it’s entirely understandable that some crazy people thought that something very weird was going on when their kids started to play D&D.

I’m sure most people of my generation remember reading scare stories in the newspapers of the early 80s – with D&D being linked to occultism and Satanism. I have a very early memory (I must have been about six) of reading about college kids playing D&D in full robes in the tunnels under a college campus and thinking I need to get involved in this cool thing as soon as is humanly possible. All these nonsense stories about kids playing creepy devil-games in cellars were a real generational divide thing. It was a simple case of “What the fuck are those kids doing in there?” And that’s what always happens when groups of people come together to do creative things. Maybe those weirded-out, reactionary parents back in the early 80s would have been able to process the whole thing a little better if those RPG pioneers had explained “We’re collaborating on a world-building project, layering it with multiple strands of improvised narrative, and we’ll find out how it all ends in a year or two if our avatars survive that long.”

Or maybe not.

A WORLD OF DRAGONS

Through the years, as I’ve drifted in and out of tabletop gaming, Dungeons & Dragons has maintained a constant presence – and I’m sure many of you feel the same way. D&D was never even truly my RPG of choice – that was Call of Cthulhu and, most recently, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But I would always feel duty-bound to check out the most recent Starter Kit, or flick through the newest Player’s Handbook. As the game developed and evolved through edition after edition, I’d enjoy picking up old sourcebooks just to read them. The worlds of Ravenloft and Planescape and Greyhawk and Dark Sun – some of that content is genuinely, honestly, classic stuff – important stuff, on a level with some great fantasy novels.

And then we notice how D&D spirals into other areas of gaming – into great stand-alone board games, miniature games and the countless brilliant computer games that readers of this site will be familiar with.

Dungeons & Dragons is like hot soup. It feels like home. It’s pure nostalgia, and yet it’s here right now. It’s loaded with history, as if it’s been in existence for a thousand years. It is pure myth and legend and we all – all of us reading this – had a hand in writing it.

I’d love for you to share your thoughts, and your memories, in the comments below. I’d love to read them.

And hey, wouldn’t it be great to all start playing D&D again? Next week, I’ll tell you about 5th Edition, and why it’s the perfect time for you to travel back to that cosy Spielberg house to ask: “So how do you win this game anyway, huh?”

We know what the answer is.

But let’s enjoy the story.

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Robert Florence

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