Dungeons and Dragons

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Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons, more commonly and affectionately known by its players as D&D, is the first and most famous of the fantasy role playing games (RPGs). Dungeons and Dragons is based on traditional fantasy literature such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the game, players cast themselves as imaginary characters and go on imaginary adventures in a fantasy world of their own design. Gaining popularity in the 1980s, D&D perhaps symbolized the existential angst of a youth worried about inheriting a world that was not their own.

In D&D, the Dungeon Master (DM) creates an imaginary world full of monsters, dangers, and magic. Character-players then journey through the DM's world fighting battles, stealing treasures, or outwitting monsters. The game is played verbally with conflicts settled by a role of dice.

The players create characters for themselves based on a variety of traits; strength, intelligence, and endurance are three key qualities. The level of each trait that a character acquires is determined by the roll of a dice before the game starts. Players can choose a variety of roles for their characters such as thief, assassin, fighter, and cleric, among others. Players can also choose the race for each character; choices include humans, elves, and dwarfs. The game can be played with varying degrees of complexity, depending on the experience of the players and the Dungeon Master.

D&D was originally created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. They simplified the game, moving from the action of regiments to the actions of individual fighters to create D&D. The first two print runs of the game sold out. TSR, Inc. produced the Dungeons and Dragons series starting in 1974. When D&D became very popular, especially among the college crowd, a whole industry arose. TSR published supplementary guides, including books of monsters and demigods based on world myths and legends. Dragon Magazine and other magazines devoted to gaming campaigns hit the newsstands. TSR also published book lines like Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance that had their origins in the games. Other fantasy authors incorporated D&D motifs into novels as well.

In addition to being popular, D&D was also very controversial. Campaigns can take hours, days, and sometimes even weeks to finish. Tales arose of promising college students flunking out of school because they spent all their time playing D&D. Other accusations against the game were even harsher. Many people accused it of instilling violence in the minds of the players; others said it produced suicidal tendencies, especially when a player over-identified with a character that had been killed during a game. Organizations and religious groups accused the game of being Satanic since it sometimes dealt with demons and conjuring devils. The campaign against Dungeons and Dragons eventually spawned a group known as BADD, (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons). The group was founded by a woman who claimed that her child killed himself because of the game. The game took another publicity hit when the television movie Mazes and Monsters came out. The movie was based on an account of how D&D players took their role playing too seriously and started acting out the campaigns in the tunnels and sewers of their college.

Proponents of the games fought back, arguing that a game alone could not be the main cause of any psychological problems certain players were exhibiting. Advocates emphasized the notion that the game helped stimulate imagination and problem solving skills. Others claimed it helped vent violent feelings through imaginary play instead of acting such feelings out.

The debates about D&D generated negative publicity for the games and many concerned parents did not want their children playing. TSR continued its own positive publicity, and they began to tone down some of their manuals and game-based fiction, especially the parts that dealt with demons and conjuring. Eventually, new technologies helped D&D and other role playing games recover some popularity. One player made an interactive on-line computer version of the game called a M.U.D., a Multi-User Dungeon. MUDs became the place where computer aficionados went to play.

The greatest blow against TSR and Dungeons and Dragons came in the 1990s, not from concerned parents but from bad business. TSR had its book contracts through Random House, which distributed the books through chain book stores. When the chain book stores stopped carrying the books, they tore off the covers and dumped them. Instead of a check from Random House, TSR received a huge bill they were not prepared to pay. In 1997, Wizards of the Coast, the producers of Magic: The Gathering Cards, another type of game playing, bought them out. Wizards of the Coast revived many TSR projects, including Dragon Magazine and D&D, in an attempt to keep the game alive. In the year following the buyout, the gaming industry started to swing back to RPGs and away from card games. Indeed, the future of RPGs continues to look promising.

—P. Andrew Miller

Further Reading:

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook. 2nd Edition.Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, TSR, Inc. 1989.

Gygax, Gary. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, TSR, Inc. 1978.

Martin, Daniel, and Gary Alan Fine. "Satanic Cults, Satanic Play: Is'Dungeons and Dragons' a Breeding Ground for the Devil?" In The Satanism Scare, edited by James T. Richardson, Joel Best, and David G. Bromley. New York, Aldine De Gruyter, 1991.