Ethan Gilsdorf

Geek Pride

Dungeons & Dragons, 40 Years Old, Makes You A Better Person

The revolutionary role-playing game had a massive effect across pop culture.

Posted Feb 01, 2014

The author's D&D gear from the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons — or, as insiders call it, D&D — first appeared on the market. It was — and still is — a revolutionary game that went on to cause shock waves in the worlds of pop culture, gaming and play, and influenced how we spend our leisure time and socialize in profound ways. It's a topic I've been writing and thinking about all week as the game's official 40th anniversary was celebrated in January.

D&D was a far cry from Parcheesi, chess, Clue, and Monopoly. Never before had a game asked players to assume roles of individual characters and jointly imagine the world where those adventures would take place. 

Today, if you want to play an idealized version of yourself who wields incredible power, acquires cool stuff, kills stuff, and gets to go to fantastical places, you can take your pick of video games and universes (fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalypic, wild west, steampunk, etc). But when D&D was invented in 1974, it was the only experience that offered these pleasures.

Yet, we like to think about how electronic games are so sophisticated and immersive today. To my mind, D&D beats digital gaming hands down. As amazing as their imagery and action can be, video games are ultimately limited to what the programmers can program. In D&D, the virtual game board and the place where is all takes place is the players' collective imaginations.

D&D has always appealed to contradictory minds. On the one hand, the "left-brained" folk — those logical, number-crunching, outcomes and probability-obsessed — love D&D's charts and dice. But the "right-brained" creative types love the game's open-ended dreaminess and escapism. The game really hit the sweet spot between these two styles of nerdery.

The D&D Basic Set rule book, circa 1977.

Because the game relies on improvisational dialogue and rapid-dire plotting, it's always appealed to would-be actors and is a perfect training ground for writers. D&D fosters interest in history, geography, meteorology, anatomy, sociology, political science, psychology, anthropology, art and architecture and more. It makes you social. It forces you to make your own entertainment out of a bag of dice, handful of pens and pencils, and some sheets of paper. It connects us to our ballad-singing, story-telling pasts.

And D&D was a boon to creative types. Actors Mike Meyers, Vin Diesel, Ewan McGreggor, and Wil Wheaton have played; same with filmmakers Jon Favreau, Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon. Writers who cut their literary teeth on the game include Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, and Sharyn McCrumb; same with musicians Ben Kweller and Ed Robertson (of Barenaked Ladies). Among many, many others.

The Monster Manual.

D&D teaches you the skills that your fighter or barbarian or elvish archer needs to survive in an imaginary world. Along the way, it teaches you, the player, how to survive, a little, in your real world.

In short, Dungeons & Dragons is great preparation for life. Happy 40th birthday, D&D!