Roll a d20 and Write

I must confess I am a nerd. When I learned Gary Gygax had died March 4, I knew the name. Gygax, along with Dave Arneson, created Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that provided me and a handful of other geeky friends hours of entertainment on Fridays, Saturdays and almost daily during the summer.

When I read about Gygax’s death, I wasn’t so much mournful as I was nostalgic, I suppose. Three or four of us sitting around a rickety green card table in a back room of our house. We forgot the world, except when Mom brought us hot dogs. We roamed our imaginations, fighting orcs, trolls, and goblins, accumulating vast wealth in gold pieces and jewels, all our adventures based on a combination of improvisational storytelling, acting and random numbers generated by combinations of dice rolls, the dice not just your average dotted cubes, but also polyhedrons like the twenty-sided dice (d20).

Role-playing games emerged in the 1970s, and Gygax’s D&D was the first commercially available game. Players took the roles of either characters or a game master, who led the characters through a simulated adventure in a variety of settings — D&D borrows from worlds such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Players interact with each other and the world created by the game master (the Dungeon Master in D&D), through combat (early games had heavy influence from wargames), trade, narrative, quests, and any activities humans or any imagined creatures might experience.

In the early days, as a subculture of gamers emerged, the games were demonized in the mass media and by clergy as psychologically and spiritually damaging (sometimes the games were literally demonized: My parents made me stop playing D&D because the game supposedly put me in league with the devil, although I could still play Traveller, a science fiction role-playing game, or a traditional wargame like Squad Leader.) These were the same criticisms that now accompany video games (many of which are directly influenced by paper and pencil role-playing games) — too violent, socially isolating, spiritually or morally corrupting — the same cliched arguments taken against movies, music, novels, art, plays, television, and almost any other form of entertainment or intellectual exercise.

I kept playing some form of role-playing game until the end of my sophomore year in college. The group of friends I gamed with broke up for all the usual reasons groups of college friends break up — they get married, they get jobs, they move away, they flunk out. Also about the time my gaming group broke up I started becoming serious about writing.

Role-playing games introduced me to fantasy and science fiction, beyond what I knew from comic books — Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Michael Moorcock. I read the genres voraciously, often to mine them for game ideas.

Once I stopped gaming, I almost simultaneously stopped reading fantasy and science fiction. Some books and writers I stopped reading because the stories weren’t interesting to me. But, much of interest decreased because I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and science fiction and fantasy weren’t serious genres, at least in some English profs’ and English majors’ eyes. Gamers were even less serious. I hid my inner nerd, my past as a gamer. I sold all my games and miniatures. I sold my comic book collection. I read only literary classics — or what the English department made classics — mostly realistic fiction and poetry. I made pretensions of being a deep thinker, a serious scholar, submitting to conferences papers on Milton and to academic journals papers on Hemingway.

Only after graduate school did I read science fiction again after reading Camille Paglia, the feminist scholar who wrote about her love of Star Trek. Still, even then, I only read “serious” science fiction such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

Science fiction and fantasy are still stigmatized in some circles of the literary world, and yet it’s a fantasy author, J.K. Rowling, who has created enough of a phenomenon in Harry Potter to get people reading books, at least her books. This article in Wired suggests science fiction may prove a better ground for serious fiction than most fiction now out. Humor writing often also gets stigmatized, as if humor is somehow not serious enough.

When you go to bookstores and look at the shelves of young adult fiction, a lot of that fiction is fantasy. It was fantasy fiction, especially the lure of action and eroticism prevalent in the swords and sorcery of Howard and Moorcock, that led me to read more, and reading fantasy led me to my first attempts at writing. I knew I wanted to write in junior high, because of D&D and fantasy fiction. And the influence of fantasy appears in my own published fiction.

Fantasy and role-playing also generated a stronger interest in history. Because of D&D, for instance, I understood medieval feudalism.

So, here I am, coming out as a nerd, a former gamer. I probably won’t play the games anymore, the interest has waned (though I still play video games, especially wargames), but the games were an important element in my development as a writer. They stimulated my imagination, and my desire to create my own worlds with words.

Person Gary Gygax
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One thought on “Roll a d20 and Write

  1. Ooh, I was just wondering when you were going to get around to your Gygax memorial!

    It is interesting how the fantasy genre does seem to lead kids to reading – and how much it is criticized by adults for “rotting their minds, exposing them to frightening things, etc.” It’s happened with Potter, and remember the flap over the horror-themed Goosebumps books in the 1990s.

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