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Words Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

I belong to the first generation of tabletop roleplayers. In fact, I’m probably among the youngest of that generation, since Dungeons & Dragons first started to reach popular culture when I was about seven, and my friends and I were playing it regularly by the time we were eight. We didn’t really know what we were doing—the rules for the game at the time, spread over various manuals and sets, could often be confounding to adults—but rolling the funny dice and fighting monsters was what our imaginations craved, and for us it became the equivalent of a previous generation’s “Cowboys n’ Indians.”

None of our parents understood what we were doing, and when the anti-D&D campaign hit the magazine circuit with its fundamental misunderstanding of roleplaying, we got some grief. Most older people thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a big waste of time, even if they didn’t think it was outright dangerous or unhealthy.

I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons any more. When I do play RPGs, which is rare these days, I only use Fudge, which is simply the greatest roleplaying system I’ve ever encountered . . . simple, flexible, and brings out great storytelling skills. And any game adapts to it. But I don’t regret one moment of my youth with D&D. Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons helped prepare me to become a fantasy and science-fiction reader, and eventually a writer as well.

I could go into great detail about how RPGs expand the imagination, but I’ve got more concrete and basic evidence: the words I learned for the first time from Dungeons & Dragons. My vocabulary expanded at an enormous rate for an eight-year-old because of this game, and not until I started learning Latin did I experience such a jump again in my personal lexicon. Some of these words are non-genre terms, others specific to the fantastic but useful for a writer. Going off the top of my head, here are words (and two suffixes) that I’m certain I first encountered in the roleplaying instructions and modules of Gygax, Arnenson, et al.:

  • requisite
  • prerequisite
  • charisma
  • constitution
  • initiative
  • polyhedral
  • alignment
  • chaotic
  • cleric
  • portcullis
  • acolyte
  • deity
  • footpad
  • longevity
  • cutpurse
  • necromancer
  • undead
  • retainer
  • encumbrance
  • wight (helpful when reading Old English texts)
  • berserker
  • troglodyte
  • bugbear
  • platinum
  • electrum
  • pseudo-
  • neo-
  • wyvern

I could keep rolling them out all night, and if I looked at my old manuals I’m sure even more would pop out at me, but that’s a good solid list.

And, thanks to the first edition of Deities & Demigods, I first encountered the weird, unpronounceable word “Cthulhu.” However, it would be many years before I came across the word in a context where I could make the most of it.

One of these words would later have an important impact on my life: Acolyte. In original D&D terms, this is the title of a 1st level Cleric. The dictionary definition is an assistant to a priest in a ceremony, or any sort of apprentice. Something about the term impressed itself on my young mind: I thought it a very beautiful word, with aural power and a sense of mystery. I started to encounter the word later in my fantasy reading, particularly Clark Ashton Smith’s work. (“Acolyte” is just his kind of medicine.) Eventually, I wrote a story where “acolyte” seemed the right word to use for a class of apprentices, and the word got into the title as well: “An Acolyte of Black Spires.” And this is the story that won The Writers of the Future Contest.

The moral of the story: I’m glad I wasted my time playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid.

7 Comments »

  1. Me too!

    Comment by Bill Ward - July 13, 2010 10:17 am

  2. […] it’s not in the dictionary? Ryan Harvey wrote on the Black Gate blog this morning about D&D’s effect on his vocabulary, something that was probably experienced by just about any kid who was exposed to High Gygaxian […]

    Pingback by Whaddaya mean, it’s not in the dictionary? « the scroll of gnom-bientus - July 13, 2010 12:09 pm

  3. You forgot “level”, which isn’t a new word, but Dungeons and Dragons has totally redefined the way that we use that word.

    And of course it added level’s bastard cousin “leveling”.

    I’m of the same generation, and I have a rather harrowing story about being held against my will be religious zealot martial artists who tried to deprogram me of my Satanic hobby.

    Comment by gmurie - July 13, 2010 12:40 pm

  4. THAC0 is an acronym that only D&D geeks will understand, and while some of us are happy to not have to remember what To Hit Armor Class Zero really is, for the rest it was as important as a first pimple.

    Cavaliers and Paladins, though closely related to Arthurian knights, have a special meaning because of D&D.

    Man, was I happy to see the Tarrasque used in Starcraft: Brood Wars. It made me all giggly inside. We’d always wanted to throw one into a high-level campaign, but somehow it always felt like THE END.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - July 13, 2010 1:37 pm

  5. i’m jealous..i’m 21 and i started playing RPGs when i was 19…my cousins and i would have had a blast with this..we were always writing up our own stories and weapons with action figures and the like..sigh

    Comment by Glenn - July 13, 2010 2:35 pm

  6. I could have written this entire post, almost line by line, as it mirrors my own life nearly to a T (aside from still playing RPG’s, which I abandoned in my early teens in the mid 80’s).

    Another great word I/we learned back in the day via the “Monster’s Manual” (which I would study like the Koran in a madrassa): “Chromatic,” as in dragon, as in it blew my mind.

    Great article. I really took me back, and allowed me to once again thank Gygax for shaping an imagination that has never stopped creating, dreaming, and peeking around that next dungeon corner…

    Comment by HeirApparent - July 13, 2010 7:01 pm

  7. As an 11 year old I also learned the terms “dweomer,” “e.g.”, “viz.” and “i.e.” from the original AD&D DMG.

    Comment by acetachyon - July 14, 2010 9:06 pm


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