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On the appeal of fantasy role-playing games

When it's a relief to live life in another skin

One of the author's D&D dungeon maps

In a previous post, "Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life," I talked about how I came to play the game. Here's a little more about my background as a fantasy gamer in the 1970s and 1980s. Hopefully this will resonate with some readers—if so, please post a comment.

One of the author's D&D dungeon maps

We craved adventure and escape.

When people ask if I played sports in high school back, I tell them I was on the varsity Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) team, starting quarterback, four years in a row. (I was also president of the A/V club. And I memorized Monty Python sketches. And learned BASIC computer programming.) For me, RPGs (role-playing games) like D&D were empowering and exciting, and a clever antidote to the anonymity, monotony, and clique warfare of high school. In lieu of keg parties or soccer practice to vent our angst, we had D&D night. Who needs sports stardom when you can shoot fireballs from your fingertips?

I played every week, sometimes twice a week, from eighth grade to senior year, Friday night from 5:00 p.m. until midnight. JP, my other neighborhood friend Mike, and I first played by ourselves, then found a peer group of other gamers: Bill K., Bill S., Bill C., Dean, Eric M., Eric H. and John. Some of us had endured plenty: my Mom had suffered a brain aneurysm and came home damaged goods; Eric H.’s mom had died, John’s dad had suffered a brain injury similar to my mom’s, and JP was born with a disease that caused brittle bones, cataracts, and stunted growth.

I think on some level we knew we didn’t fit in. Perhaps we were weird. Girls were scarce commodities for us, and our group may have proved that tired cliché that outcasts, dweebs, and computer nerds couldn’t handle reality, let alone get a date for the prom. But nothing stopped us from playing, and the popular kids didn’t really care one way or the other. We were left alone to our own devices: maps, dice, rule books, and soda. It didn’t take long before words like halberd and basilisk became part of my daily vocabulary. Like actors in a play, we role-played characters—human, Elvish, dwarven, halfling—who quickly became extensions of our better or more daring selves. We craved adventure and escape.

One of us would be the Dungeon Master (DM) for a few weeks or months. Games lasted that long. The DM was the theater director, the ref, the world-builder, the God. His preprepared maps and dungeons, stocked with monsters, riddles, and rewards, determined our path through dank tunnels and forbidding forests. Our real selves sat around a living room or basement table, scarfing down provisions like bowls of cheese doodles and generic-brand pizza. We outfitted our characters with broad-swords, battle-axes, grappling hooks, and gold pieces. “In game,” these characters memorized spells and collected treasure and magic items such as +2 long swords and Cloaks of Invisibility and Rods of Resurrection. Then, the adventure would begin. The DM would set the scene: often, we’d be a ragtag band of adventurers who’d met at the tavern and heard rumors of dungeons to explore and treasure to be had. Or some beast or sorcerer terrorizing the land needed to be slayed. Before too long, we’d enter some underground world to solve riddles, search for secret doors, and find hidden passages.

We parleyed with foes—goblins, trolls, harlots—and attacked only when necessary. Or, wantonly, just to taste the imagined pleasure of a rough blade running through evil flesh. We racked up experience points. We test-drove a fiery life of pseudo-heroism, physical combat, and meaningful death. Whatever place the DM described, as far as we were concerned, it existed. Suspended jointly in our minds, it was all real. We were bards, jesters, and storytellers. We told each other riddles in the dark.

And each dungeon level would lead to the next one even deeper beneath the surface, full of more dangerous monsters, and even harder to leave.

At Least There Was a Rulebook

The joy in the game was not simply the anything-can-happen fantasy setting and the killing and heroic deeds, but also the rules. Hundreds of rules existed for every situation. Geeks and nerds love rules. D&D (and its sequel, AD&D, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) let us traffic in specialized knowledge found only in hardbound books with names like Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide. As we played, we consulted charts, indices, tables, descriptions of attributes, lists of spells, causes and effects—like a school unto itself, filled with answers to questions about the rarity of magic items, crossing terrain, and how to survive poison.

And we loved to fight over the minutiae. (Sample argument: Player: “What do you mean a gelatinous cube gets a plus on surprise?” DM: “It’s invisible.” Player: “But it’s a ten foot cube of Jello! Let me see that . . . .” Player grabs Monster Manual from DM. Twenty minute argument ensues.)

We could tell a mace from a morning star, a cudgel from a club, and we knew how to draw them. We knew a creature called a “wight” inflicted one to four hit points of damage when it attacked. Could we recharge wands? No. If I died, I could be resurrected, because, according to page 50 of the Players Hand- book, a ninth-level cleric could raise a person who had been dead for no longer than nine days. “Note that the body of the person must be whole, or otherwise missing parts will still be missing when the person is brought back to life.” All good stuff to know. The trolls and fireballs may be fanciful, but they have to behave according to a logical system.

Like in life, fantasy rules were affected by chance—the roll of the dice. And, as if they were jewels, we collected bags of them: plastic, polyhedral game dice, four-, six-, eight-, ten-, twelve-, and twenty-sided baubles that, like I Ching sticks or coins, foretold our fortunes when cast. A spinning die, such as the icosahedral “d20,” could land on “20” (“A hit! You slice the lizard man’s head off and green blood spurts everywhere!”) as often as “1” (“Miss! Your sword swings wide and you stab yourself. Loser!”).

The lesson? Real life thus far had taught me that in the adult world, fate was chaotic and uncertain. Guidelines for success were arbitrary. But in the world of D&D, at least there was a rule book. We knew what we needed to roll to succeed or survive. The finer points of its rules and the possibility of predicting outcomes offered comfort. Make-believe as they were, the skirmishes and puzzle-solving endemic to D&D had immediate and palpable consequences. By role-playing, we were in control, and our characters—be they thieves, magic-users, paladins, or druids—wandered through places of danger, their destinies, ostensibly, within our grasp.

The author's old, worn-out D&D dice

It was also a relief to live life in another skin, and act out behind the safety of pumped-up attributes. D&D characters had statistics in six key areas: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. These ranged from three to eighteen. Ethan the real boy’s stats would have been all under 10; his fighter character Elloron’s were all sixteens, seventeens, and eighteens.

And who wouldn't want to be that?

[adpated from Ethan Gilsdorf's award-winning travel memoir and pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now available in paperback. For more info, see:]