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Thank You, D&D

Friday, July 31st, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

dungeon-masterA 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.


players-handbookWhat 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.

legends-loreWith 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.

monster-manualIf 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.


  1. […] boy in which the boy denied any and all awareness of Dungeons & Dragons. Reading that sparked this week’s Black Gate post that has me reiterating many of Abercrombie’s points, only in a slightly less amusing and far […]

    Pingback by In Which I Thank Gelatinous Cubes, Displacer Beasts, and Blink Dogs — - July 31, 2009 3:05 pm

  2. Let me try to speak for the younger generation. I’m 24, so I’m admittedly not part of the cadre of youngsters you were thinking of when you wrote this blog, because my days of not impregnating cheerleaders are behind me. I can say, however, that D&D is alive and well for my generation of not-quite-kids, as I just got back from exploring the Isle of Dread at my friend’s house. I can remember, as can we all, my first D&D character. (A halfling named Halfall. I was 12.) I can remember what it was like trying to get kids to play with me when I was growing up. (“It’s like playing a board game, except there are all these books of rules, and one of us gets to say if you win or not!”) I can rememeber taking days and days to design a world, only to have my friends try to burn it all down and slaughter the survivors. Good times.

    It’s true that we all play video games. But it’s also true that we still spend nine hours or more at a time creating fantasy worlds of wizards, rogues, and monsters around a table. I don’t think video games and creativity are completely opposed, however. Modern games offer unprecedented levels of design options for the player, from building our own worlds to adapting games to tell our own stories. Explore a forum for World of Warcraft, for example, and you’re bound to find people who spend lots of time outside the game writing stories about their characters and their exploits. Games such as Neverwinter Nights see massive efforts by players to create worlds and modifications. It’s a minority of us who do so, sure, but let’s face it: we geeks have always been a minority, or else we wouldn’t have been the ones getting our heads dunked in toilets in junior high.

    I can’t speak for the statistics, but maybe it’s some consolation that we young’ins are keeping D&D alive with the same passion and dedication that fans have been showing ever since the first d20’s started hitting the table.

    Game on!

    Comment by Daniel Nyikos - August 1, 2009 2:05 am

  3. Thanks for posting Daniel. You raise some very good points about the fan fic and role playing that go on among the communities of popular video games — that is something I did not consider at all.

    It could very well be that a certain percentage of people, of any generation, are just wired to appreciate certain things, and will realize those things no matter the medium. I’m glad to hear your friends are p-n-p players as well, and don’t just stick with video games.

    Me, I love video games, always have. That’s something I didn’t really touch on in the post. I just think about how I was as a kid, and wonder if I would have still played D&D if the sort of games that are available now-a-days had existed in my youth. I really could see my young self vegged out in front of the xbox 24-7, my unopened Monster Manual serving as a platter for corn chips. Not a pleasant thought.

    Glad to hear some of you young’ins have struck a sensible balance with your hobbies.

    Comment by Bill Ward - August 1, 2009 2:35 am

  4. […] Bill Ward: “Thank You D&D” […]

    Pingback by Links and Things « Enter the Octopus - August 4, 2009 10:42 am

  5. I also sometimes wonder if I had access to the likes of PalyStation whether I would ever have picked up on Fighting Fantasy books, D&D and eventually RuneQuest. I am glad I did.

    But I also experienced a younger friend who when I men I mentioned Role Playing he was all about it, and rattled off a list of computer games. He was quite intrigued when I showed him what Pen and Paper gaming was.

    Comment by Tiberius - August 7, 2009 7:27 am

  6. Bill, should’ve guessed you were an old time gamer. It’s funny whenever I hear those of the old guard talk about gaming, how similar their experiences seemed to mine. Even Knights of the Dinner Table rang so true to form to me that it inspired me to write a bunch of scripts and Jolly was gracious enough to publish (I believe all of them) in early issues of KotDT comic. It’s like we were all playing in the same gaming group, share the same memories and nostalgia of an era sadly fallen by the wayside. I, too, must echo your thanks to DnD.

    Comment by Christopher_Heath - August 10, 2009 5:36 pm

  7. Didn’t know you wrote some KotDT scripts, very cool.

    I agree, we all do seem to have those experiences in common — somehow I don’t see today’s kids reminiscing about video games in the same way 20 yrs from now.

    All of us who still have our Fiend Folios and d8’s should get together some time and have an old school gaming session. I call dibs on the Paladin!

    Comment by Bill Ward - August 11, 2009 1:09 am

  8. Every now and then, my friends and I get together to play old NES and SNES games, and reminisce. But really, no matter how many times I see Mario squash a Goomba, my fondest memories of gaming are from sitting around the table arguing about rules and throwing dice at each other and, occasionally, the table.

    Comment by Daniel Nyikos - August 14, 2009 2:20 am

  9. […] And, while you’re at it, check out my own take, Thank You, D&D. […]

    Pingback by All I Need to Know About Life I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons — Bill Ward - January 21, 2010 1:26 pm

  10. […] you’re someone who hasn’t been into D&D since this or even this, then make no mistake, you’ll have some adjusting to do. But what you should find here is a […]

    Pingback by Byte Sized  »  Pathfinder: the “Cleric!” to D&D’s mortal wounds. - December 15, 2010 4:14 pm

  11. […] The third and final installment of my Black Gate interview with Howard went up today, in which we talk about Howard’s other new novel, Plague of Shadows, and his history of gaming in general and how it relates to his writing. Howard alluded to a future Black Gate round table in which a bunch of us talk about how childhood gaming influenced us as (or to become?) writers, and for a bit of my take on that you can read a piece I wrote for BG a while ago, Thank You, D&D. […]

    Pingback by Complete Black Gate Interview with Howard Andrew Jones — Bill Ward - March 2, 2011 4:43 pm

  12. […] Now, all these years later, there are still plenty of books and authors on this list I’ve never read — maybe it’s time to discover another new old favorite. One more reason to say “Thank you, D&D.” […]

    Pingback by Gary Gygax’s Appendix N — Bill Ward - March 14, 2011 3:14 pm

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