A recent entry over at Joe Abercrombie’s blog about his encounter with a neighbor boy who hadn’t even heard of D&D got me reflecting on many of the things Abercrombie himself covers in his post. He and I are about the same age, and belong to a pre-internet, pre-500 cable channels, pre-iPhone generation that entertained ourselves around the wood stoves of our drafty log cabins with shadow puppets and recitations of railway time tables. But something happened to transform our sepia-toned youth into an exciting time of monster-slaying, dungeon-crawling, infinite gold-carrying, NPC-bullying, and rules-lawyring adventure — and that something was Dungeons & Dragons.
Of course, let’s get something straight, there was Dungeons & Dragons, and there was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and my activities were limited solely to the later. And, hey, I was a snob about it. I mean, in D&D elves and dwarves were considered a class? All the cool kids where into AD&D — though for the purposes of this entry, and since the distinction no longer has any meaning, anyway, I’ll just lump them both together as D&D.
I say ‘cool kids,’ but that wasn’t the case. Cool kids played flag football in their spare time, rebuilt carburetors, and rode their Schwinns to rendezvous with married women in their thirties whose husbands were out of town. Actually, I have no idea what the cool kids did, preferring as I did the company of dorks, misfits, and other geekly types such as myself, and I suppose if I ever imagined what they were up to it would veer widely between the poles of pathetically banal and enviably adult. Me, I drew dungeons on graph paper.
What other activity could get kids excited about school supplies? I went from viewing the stationary aisle at the grocery store with utter dread — for it was forever the herald of the coming school year — to acquisitive joy. Graph paper, mechanical pencils, note cards, spiral note books, drawing pads, three-ring binders with dividers — a rich array of office supplies to feed the D&D beast. Since I was usually the Dungeon Master (the guy that sets up and runs the game, for those of you who, like Abercrombie’s neighbor, have no idea what I’m going on about) I needed (or ‘needed’) a whole bunch of material to record monsters and rewards, draw maps, and write-out scripted descriptive passages to be read later to the players:
“You enter a natural cavern about sixty feet by thirty feet, and twenty high. An underground river runs through it from East to West, and green slime clings to the stalactites overhead. Near the river is the body of a goblin, torn to shreds as if by a large beast. Flickering light can be seen coming from an opening on the south side of the cavern.
With kids doing this sort of thing willingly and for fun, it’s no wonder so many of today’s new crop of fantasy writers (and an even greater number of wannabes, such as myself) got their imaginations primed through just such an activity. You could even say running one of these games as a kid is the perfect way to develop the skills needed to write fantasy fiction.
But it’s much more than that or, I should say, this isn’t about D&D as a boot camp for writers, but as a fun activity for kids that flexes their creative muscles, gets them hanging out with their friends, provides the thrill of problem-solving and decision-making, and has them reading and memorizing things that often require a high-degree of comprehension. It’s the perfect past time for smart kids, and it’s been replaced by the x-box.
Oh, I have no statistics. And I’m not going to dig for proof. But pen-and-paper RPGs aren’t as popular with kids today as they were in my day, having been replaced largely by computer games for those children sufficiently geek-oriented enough to have a real need to explore dungeons. But video games only satisfy part of the thrill of p-n-p play, and almost none of the creative experience of such a hobby. The way I see it is it comes down to the difference between two forms of media, the old ‘analog’ world of printed books, complete sentences, and sustained thought, and the new digital one of instant gratification, diminished attention spans, and leetspeak. In our brave new world, AD&D has been replaced with ADD.
If I sound like and old curmudgeon it’s because I am — and if I use the word ‘curmudgeon’ in the first place, it’s because I learned it pouring over the Dungeon Master’s Guide in the wee hours of a Friday night while my peers were off starting fires in trashcans and impregnating cheerleaders. So much of my vocabulary, love of history, and interest in fantasy goes straight back to this game, and for that I will be forever grateful to D&D. It got me to read — and, believe me, I read and reread those books until I could recite the material components for a magic mouth spell or the hit dice for a beholder from memory — but, perhaps even more importantly, it got me to think creatively. Actual thinking, as opposed to the twitch of muscle reflex, in a totally free form environment is not something video games are going to offer any time soon. But, more than any of this, I feel lucky for playing D&D, and having some like-minded friends to share it with, and being able to discover the sublime satisfaction of exploring worlds other than my own.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.