Has it really been 5, almost 6 years since D&D got its current edition? Here’s the article I wrote on the venerable game when 5th Edition hit… This game molded me like no other mentor. It taught me how to be a storyteller off the cuff. I was 47 when I wrote this… I’ll 53 this July.
There was a time in what is my memory, a mystical point wherein glass ceilings limiting imaginations failed to exist. This time period was decades ago, five to be precise, and to the youth of today, that was surely a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This post STAR TREK epoch supersedes the legendary 1977 release of STAR WARS and its resulting legacy, an era of creative Johnny Appleseeds planting the kernels of inspiration that we enjoy and relish in, to this day. This was the years surrounding 1974, perhaps the most influential era ever to exist in geek culture, a golden age of geek culture that has finally come full circle forty years later, an era that has influenced how you view and experience genre entertainment. Having just reached the graceful old age of 47, I am blessed with being the elder statesman of This Is Infamous, and it from this title that I am able to tell you stories of the days before cell phones, VCRs and video gaming consoles. Yes, there was a time without CALL OF DUTY, FINAL FANTASY or THE LAST OF US. And quite honestly, none of this would have existed without a seemingly innocuous little game that came to be in 1974. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, the first role-playing game and, in turn, a cornerstone of modern geek culture.
Everything old is new again, folks. Last month saw the release of the next generation of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS books. Now simply called D&D, this “fifth” (to some it is “sixth”) edition of the game has come about 40 years after the debut of the original game, further instilling 2014 as the year where everything old is new again. Forty years ago the fledgling TSR, or TACTICAL STUDIES RULES produced the game that would change the world and touch most aspects of entertainment you enjoy to this day. The game is now published by WIZARDS OF THE COAST, the HASBRO gaming company’s most profitable division and with good reason. WIZARDS OF THE COAST also produces the world’s first and most popular collectible card game, MAGIC: THE GATHERING.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was created by the late, legendary gentlemen Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as an expansion for their fantasy miniatures war game CHAINMAIL, first published in 1971. 1974 saw them release a 3 book box set, essentially a collection of digest-sized pamphlets. Heavily inspired by fantasy works of the likes of JRR Tolkien, the popularity of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, or D&D as it was commonly called, soared faster than anyone could have imagined. A new box set was released in 1976 and then again in 1981, alongside hard-covered “advanced” rule books. A marketing juggernaut was created. In the forty years since its initial inception, D&D has gone through two publishing houses, no less than six rules editions and countless expansions and adventure settings, or “modules” as we used to call them back in the day. They set the standard on how to make people buy the same thing over and over again, sometimes this was simply achieved by changing the cover art on a book, other times the game-changing edition changes. Regardless of the method, D&D laid the foundation for how genre gaming is marketed to this day and nearly every tabletop role-playing game utilizes the same marketing credo.
How did DUNGEONS & DRAGONS get so popular, inspiring the creation of a plethora of other RPG systems? Mostly because of its unique aspects: the game had no winners or losers, the rules were “free form” and players were encouraged to bend them to fit their game. What mattered was the story, the backbone of the game. Your only boundary was your imagination and imaginations, as we know, are unlimited. D&D filled a gap missing from our lives, the opportunity to role-play and be someone else, even if just for a short time. This naturally increased the appeal of the game as you could be anything you wanted to be in a D&D game. You want to be a green-skinned alien princess making out with Captain Kirk? Sure! Do it! This desire to be something other than yourself has transformed into unfathomable aspects of geek counter culture and its community, with much of it leaking into the general populace. The RPG boom of the 1980’s was unprecedented. Games set in different settings from the fantasy in D&D itself, to science-fiction via the likes of Steve Jackson’s GURPS, to the superheroes of CHAMPIONS; all with subtly different rules yet all of them sharing the same basic fundamentals: They all had beautifully illustrated, thick rule books and utilized pencils, paper and sometimes miniatures to help visualize combat situations.
Social acceptance of D&D and its kith and kin hasn’t always been positive, despite its brisk sales. A common myth of D&D is that it was for bookworms and nerds and back in the day if you had D&D books you could easily be a target for hazing by a sport affiliated jock in school. It’s ironic then, that today one of the most popular activities out there are fantasy sports leagues, essentially placing you in the role-playing position of uber-coach. leading your made-up team to victory. I like this comedic irony, as it has brought together two formerly disassociated social groups. Yes, I’m saying that fantasy football leagues and their ilk are D&D for jocks. D&D’s influence has manifested itself in bizarre manners, not that pretending to be a sports coach isn’t peculiar in its own right. But some people take things to an extreme.
Sometime in the 1990s, Live Action Role Playing groups started popping up around the country, perhaps the most infamous of the lot would be the DAKKON group on the east coast, who gained attention from a documentary on the group a few years ago. The video can be found on Netflix and is an interesting watch. LARPING is a direct descendant of the role-playing first introduced in D&D, an example of players taking their characters too seriously. The family tree of geekiness doesn’t stop there, as LARPING eventually helped beget the now honored tradition of cosplaying and turned what was formerly a Halloween tradition into a cultural anomaly. I’m certain that STAR TREK’s Trekkies had the most influence on this activity, as well, but LARPING certainly made an impact on the social acceptance of such activities.
Ultimately, D&D was perhaps the most influential force on the evolution of modern video games and how we play them. D&D, as it was presented, wasn’t for everyone, that was a fact. Not everyone has a vivid imagination. But a video game that allows you to see what is going on, well that is a different story. D&D was filling a gap that we didn’t even know existed when it hit in 1974: the desire to go on a virtual adventure, kill a bunch of monsters and take their treasure. The first attempts to visualize the D&D experience on a console came with the first video gaming consoles and computers. The classic ATARI system ADVENTURE game is a perfect example of this, and though the graphics were horrible, the game sold like mad, eventually evolving with the consoles and becoming your SKYRIM and FINAL FANTASY games. Jump forward a couple years past the ATARI as the first CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN releases hit and we see the first-person shooter also evolving from the same dragon’s egg. This makes the ever-popular CALL OF DUTY a direct descendent of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. You can’t escape D&D’s influences in modern culture, geek or otherwise.
I got my first TSR D&D set during the 1981 holiday season. Somewhere exists a picture of a young Token Tom in his Amazing Spider-Man blue PJs opening this venerable box, which I still own to this day. Admittedly, I wasn’t old enough when the game first came out in 1974 to play it, being seven I was more concerned with my Mego action figures and bionic Bigfoot. However, fall 1981 had found my good friend John Reed, whom I played RISK with regularly, getting his first D&D set. It was classic miss-inked “Pink” box with module B2, THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS and we played this game non-stop. John was the Dungeon Master, or DM, and our group consisted of local kids and friends. I begged my mother and father for this game. When I got my set that winter, DMing duties were turned over to me and I’ve rarely played other than as a DM since. The rest is, shall we say, faux-history. The kids I played with over the years: Joe Hahn, Joe Giordano, Doug DeVaul, Tim Nortz, Anthony Roe, Shane Perry, the late Richie Clark; all contributed parts of themselves to a great and long-lasting story, a pinnacle and massive D&D campaign spreading out over two decades. At Richie’s funeral a couple years ago, Shane, now a lead singer in a successful east coast touring rock band, and I had the chance to talk for the first time in decades. We reminisced about our youth and especially our D&D games. He told me “Tom, you always told the best stories.”
And that is the final bit, the last piece of the puzzle, the keystone at the top of the arch for the forty-year success story of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. D&D allowed us to tell good stories and, even more so, to participate in a good story. Your game was only as good as your story, bottom line, and this trait continues into today, whether it’s a movie or a game or a book. If you have a good story, it will speak for itself and propagate. This can be said of any fantasy novel out today, from LORD OF THE RINGS to GAME OF THRONES. It is the secret to a successful video game franchise, as well. THE LAST OF US taking the prize for understanding that methodology and turning it into golden coffers for Naughty Dog and SONY. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is heavy on story, with this year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY leading the charge, showing you can have a story behind the explosions. Television is in a platinum age with shows like HANNIBAL and THE WALKING DEAD giving you more story sometimes than you want, but it’s a story all the same. The bottom line is, if it’s interesting enough and good, people will watch it or read it or will play it.
Prior to getting that initial holiday gift of the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, I spent much of the early summer of 1981 with my Uncle Donny and his wife, Aunt Pat. While at their huge farmhouse I stayed in a loft in their attic. In the room were a couple items, almost magical things now that I think about them in hindsight, enigmatic pieces of a puzzle that gave me my nerd superpowers, tantamount to Hellenic gifts from the gods. There was a dreadnought acoustic guitar, a copy of Terry Brook’s SWORD OF SHANNARA and the 1976 “Blue” box release of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. I didn’t understand the game, and actually let it sit there, not sure what it was all about. I taught myself how to play the guitar and jammed the heck out it until the strings broke. I read the book from front to back, and the SWORD OF SHANNARA became my first exposure to high fantasy and the inspiration to my own future D&D campaigns. Finally, Aunt Pat bought me Ozzy Osbourne’s BLIZZARD OF OZZ album. She let me take SWORD OF SHANNARA and Ozzy home with me, but made me leave the guitar and the D&D set, as she played the latter with her sons. This column is dedicated to my Aunt Pat Dimon, she is as instrumental in my geekness as my father, and for that I am grateful. I also wrote this to honor my best friend growing up, he was my brother from another mother with the same surname and his memory, taken from us to soon by a freak fall on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago. Miss you, Richie.