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Die-Cast Ignorance

Having Fun Never Hurt Anyone

Isaac Calon

The city streets are all but deserted at 9:30 A.M. on the weekend, and it makes for relaxed driving. If it was entirely up to me it would be earlier still, but the people I'm meeting this morning--friends from junior high and high school--like to sleep in a little. I can respect that, so I'll be the one to wake them when I knock on their door. Much of Edmonton is still asleep, watching cartoons in their pyjamas, or recovering from last night's alcohol binge, but I'm moments away from a visit with five friends. What would be worth missing an opportunity to sleep in?

Thirty years ago the creative and entrepreneurial minds of Gary Gygax and David Arneson combined to create an entirely new way of having fun. The innovation of the Dungeons & Dragons(TM) (D&D) pen-and-paper role-playing game beat a path for dozens of inspired products and hundreds of other games that are as varied as the people who make and play them. The game is ageless--it's played by children and adults--and an entire subculture has sprung up around it and the community of people who play. Unfortunately, D&D carries with it some fairly hefty image problems that have made the game a hot topic in the conservative Christian church and elsewhere, image problems that are completely unnecessary and have been propagated through ignorance. I'm here to dispel the myths and misconceptions associated with this dice game.

The Motivation

Unless you play or have played, your knowledge of D&D is probably quite limited. To be honest, I thought D&D sounded a little strange at fist, if intriguing. I mean, come on, people sit around a table, each pretending to be a character while one player is a kind of imaginary referee who tells you what happens? How could that work? Well, it does work. It works so well that D&D is enjoying the height of its popularity with an estimated 20 million players worldwide. It works because it's fuelled by imagination and fun. I got into the game rather quickly, and seven years later I'm more enthralled by the whole experience than ever before.

However, I soon learned that being enthusiastic about D&D isn't quite the same as being enthusiastic about, say, cars, computers, snowboarding, or even getting drunk. I have encountered articles citing that D&D is evil, and that playing it is the first step towards drugs, violence, and eternal damnation. I have endured a lot of teasing, good-natured and not, about my hobby. Eventually, I started hiding the fact that I played, and while I never contributed directly to the stigma and prejudice attached to people who play D&D, my eventual silence did nothing to dispel it. Enough is enough.

The Game

I should clarify what happens when you play. In a session, the players and Dungeon Master (DM), a.k.a. the referee, gather around a table with their papers, dice, and pencils. The DM sets the scene, often by reminding the players where they were the last time they finished playing. Then the players react to that scene, generally attempting to stay true to the character they created when they began.

The DM then tells the players what their actions have caused and the game progresses. Sometimes pictures are drawn or objects representing the players or monsters are moved around to illustrate the action of the story. The dice are rolled when a character tries to do something that requires some kind of skill, and the roll determines the character's success. Like any RPG (role-playing game), such as Morrowind, Final Fantasy, or Neverwinter Nights video games, to be successful you have to learn the rules of the game and learn to work with the other characters or players to combine talents. As a DM, you control the world the players are in, including all the people that inhabit it, with the exception of your players. Because of this the referee must have a firm grasp of the rules of the D&D world.

Since you can play out anything that your character can hypothetically do, D&D is a varied game offering many different thinking activities and requiring a range of skills that few other hobbies can match: math with every roll; reading of the rule books and character record sheets; problem solving as the DM places obstacles; imagination to "see" the action of the story; strategy in every encounter and in character creation; and social interaction with the other players and characters within the story. It also requires a good deal of desire to play, since players are often trying to find several hours together when they can meet--you can't really play D&D alone, and the experience is best when shared with four or five of your friends. There is nothing clandestine about these meetings.

While this may or may not sound appealing to you, my experience with the game has me believing that it's certainly not worthy of ridicule or fear. Where then does D&D's reputation come from? I went to other players for answers.

The Image

It's clear to me that D&D suffers from two major image problems--that of a violent, drug-promoting, and wholly evil activity, and that of the male adolescent shut-in's favourite pastime. Often it is Christians who have difficulty accepting D&D as only a game, so I was surprised when I met a Christian who not only played the game, but supported it for its Christian potential. Mark J. Young is a bible scholar and Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild. He has been playing D&D and many other pen-and-paper role-playing games for over 20 years. He argues that the believed "evil" aspect of the game is the smaller issue and that stereotypes are the main problem. "Many people have the association in their minds that the D&D players they knew were all high school kids (because they were in high school when they knew them). Most of them were boys, because boys dominate the hobby, and adolescent boys who are not in the popular crowd generally have much trouble socially with girls." Mark goes on to say that the games available at the time were rules-heavy and appealed most to more intellectual and less socially-oriented people--"geeks" by most standards.

Simple enough, but how has this image survived? Certainly, the "geeks" of today's world are some of the wealthiest, most talented, and articulate people there are. Peter Jackson has become a geek god with his realized vision of the Lord of the Rings movies. Steven Spielberg and Bill Gates are examples of successful geeks, and Vin Diesel, action hero, has recently admitted to being an avid D&D player. People from all walks of life and backgrounds play, like Johnn Four. Four is a writer and website developer who was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons when he was nine. He currently fills an envy-inducing position at Edmonton's BioWare Corp., one of the leading computer and console video game developers in the world. Johnn also DMs regularly, saying that in addition to the skills that all players require, DMs also need "basically the same skills that are required to run a good business meeting: organization, clear communication, listening, and facilitating."

"D&D is a very social and interactive game," says Four. "The game is complex and requires a lot of thought, much like chess, and its free-form nature makes imagination and social participation important." It should be no surprise that a large part of every game is simply catching up and goofing off with the other players--D&D is one of the more personal social activities you can experience, offering much more quality personal interaction than watching a movie or going to a noisy bar. You learn a lot about the other players. Four says that "if the people who come over to my house aren't friends at the start of a D&D campaign because we haven't met yet, they definitely are by the time we finish." Finding a good group to play with can also be tricky, and many DMs will initiate a pseudo-interview, where they can have coffee with a player and learn who that player is and what their interests are related to gaming and the world.

Unfettered imagination, social participation, and meeting new people are pretty attractive concepts that are not often associated with D&D. It's possible that the image problems have survived simply because D&D players, like me, have let them survive by being quiet. Johnn Four doesn't believe that D&D has an image problem because "in recent years the general public has learned a lot more about what the game is due to the popularity of fantasy movies, such as Lord of the Rings, and explanation and mention from celebrity D&D players."

Indeed, why should D&D players hide that they like the game? The guys I normally play with are forward-thinking, responsible people. Most of them are students like me, entering the career workforce and improving our communities in our own way (for instance, I volunteer with Big Brothers and Big Sisters). Yet we find ourselves under regular attack by family members and friends, to say nothing of our efforts to hide the hobby altogether. If we were all golfers or hunters or stamp collectors we'd seldom have our interests questioned. Perhaps in answering these questions we are validating the doubts about the "appropriateness" of D&D, which is unnecessary in itself; why should anyone need to prove that their hobby is "appropriate"? Chaplain Young explains that, "as far as I am concerned, no charge has been brought against D&D that has not been answered, and the charges themselves are patently foolish in the main."

D&D has many qualities that are especially beneficial to youth. The game can be a release from the hassle of teenage life, much like a good book except you read this one with your friends and participate in deciding the plot. It teaches social skills, conflict management, and encourages cooperative play. It teaches consequence, as the DM changes the course of the story as the players' characters take actions. And D&D players read every session; there's always a rule that needs to be looked up, or a description read, or fact-checking done by all parties. Playing D&D often leads to a greater interest in reading fiction, particularly from the fantasy, science fiction, and adventure genres.

Edmonton student Dave Schaefer has been playing D&D for about nine years, and he too expounds on D&D's virtues in regards to its role in a young person's life. "D&D can be a stable activity. It means [youth] are not out doing drugs or vandalizing things, though I admit most kids don't go to those extremes." Dave's suggestion opens up an avenue that few people have explored--using D&D as a tool to educate. Chaplain Young embraced the concept around 1980 when he and his wife originally heard about D&D being used as a group therapy technique for teenagers. They saw the game's potential "to create adventures like some of those in our favourite Christian fiction." Young ran games at his house, using D&D to introduce people to the gospel. Shortly thereafter, he mentioned D&D during a radio broadcast at the small Christian station where he worked for five years, and he discovered that many Christians believed that the game was evil. Fortunately, Young examined the evidence that was brought against D&D and found it insubstantial. He went as far as to write an article on the subject entitled "Confessions of a Dungeons and Dragons Addict." This article is still considered as one of the main proponents of D&D despite its age, and can be read at http://www.mjyoung.net/dungeon/confess.html.

I wish that I had known about the article only a few months ago, when I had the opportunity to introduce D&D to a younger friend of mine. However, I felt it was best if he discussed it with his mother before we actually played. She decided that it was a bad idea, and I later discovered that it was because she had gone online and found an article detailing a youth's quick descent from a god-fearing, respectful Christian to a drug-abusing demon-worshipper. The article cited that D&D had precipitated the youth's change, and with the official backing of the Internet, who could blame her for deciding accordingly? Well, I could, of course--the story was ridiculous.

"...A concerned parent who begins to research the question of whether he or she should be concerned about a child playing D&D will find many resources warning them of the horrible consequences of playing such a game." Chaplain Young says. Most of the negative opinions come from people who have never played the game. Young also explained to me that, among other objections, there are three main problems that conservative Christians generally have with D&D: violence and the promotion thereof; polytheism; and the presence of magic in most D&D games.

The Violence

I don't mean to glorify the concept, but violence is all around us. In playgrounds, on the news, in movies, on television, and at home. No, this doesn't make it okay--I don't approve of violence being shown to children or done to anyone. Humans are violent by nature, especially children who haven't yet learned how to control themselves. D&D can be used to teach kids about violence, or at the very least can give them a release other than lashing out at teachers, parents, siblings, or other students. As Chaplain Young points out in "Confessions of a Dungeons and Dragons Addict," many daily activities, particularly sports, are violent. People arguing that D&D promotes violence do not understand that the players are not themselves being violent; they are sitting at a table with friends.

"As a sane and well-balanced thinking person I am perfectly capable of drawing the line between fantasy and reality," says Schaefer. He goes on to say that often D&D players already read novels or write stories of their own and "people who enjoy doing that have no troubles keeping what is real separate from what is not."

The Gods (Polytheism)

The average D&D setting, much like pantheons of many older human civilizations like the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, outlines many different gods or god-like creatures that fill similar roles, much to the chagrin of conservative Christians. This is done as a game mechanic to represent clear lines of good and evil, and to allow players more creative choices as the god worshipped has an effect on the character's moral outlook and personality. Understandably, seeing a friend of yours or your own children talking about the worship of a D&D god as a character could be a little alarming, but this takes us back to the issue of keeping fact separate from fiction. While worship of multiple gods is at odds with Christian religion, that doesn't stop grade schools from teaching children about the ancient Greeks or Romans, as it shouldn't. In fact, if the players and DM were interested, they could create a campaign that was set in one of these real-life ancient settings to teach the players about what went on. The basic D&D game already includes many features inspired by human mythology, particularly the monsters like the Minotaur, griffon, and hydra. Scott Kurtz of www.pvponline.com has written an article (he calls it a rant) entitled "Five Reasons Your Kids Should Play Dungeons and Dragons." The fifth reason is that you can play it with your kids, and as Mark Young can attest, you can reach and educate a lot of people about a variety of topics, like religion, through the game. Kurtz's article can be read at http://www.pvponline.com/rants_dd.php3.

The Magic

One of the most contentious issues surrounding D&D, magic is also the most misunderstood. The assumption with the use of magic in the game is that the players themselves learn incantations and perform the action of "casting" a spell. That isn't what happens. A player simply says "I cast this spell." There are many magic spells in the D&D rulebooks, and they do have an entry in their description that explains whether the character says something, moves in some way, or needs some object to make the spell function. In no case does the spell describe the movements or the incantation, and rarely does it explain that the object "must be eaten," or thrown into the air," or what have you. Also, the description of the spell is of the spell's effects only. For instance, "burning hands" causes a sheet of flames to spring from the caster's hands. It causes X amount of damage. It can be guarded against like so, etc. As Chaplain Young puts it "players no more cast spells in Dungeons and Dragons than shoot each other with revolvers in Boot Hill(TM)." (Boot Hill is another pen-and-paper role-playing game, but the argument can be made with too many other games to count).

The Rest

Much like some hard rock musicians, D&D has been charged with making its players suicidal, even as there has been no proven relationship between playing D&D and committing suicide. D&D has been charged with promoting evil because it's easier to play an "evil" character--one who would go to any length for personal gain or gratification--than a good character. In every game I have ever played this is the opposite of the truth. During character creation in D&D you are required to choose an "alignment," which is a qualitative measure of your character's morals and attitudes. A character performing an evil act will quickly feel the consequences, perhaps through in-game law enforcement (the evil character is sought out by the local militia to answer for his crime), or through shunning (the character's moral party members may force him out of the group or turn him into the authorities). "Good" characters performing evil actions face all the same consequences, with the added loss of many of their special abilities that require them to be lawful and fundamentally good. A well-played D&D world reflects real-world consequences for immoral decisions.

The Alternative(s)

If you are still unconvinced, then please realize that Dungeons & Dragons is a versatile game system. The average session usually includes some role-playing with townsfolk or between characters, some wandering, some random encounters with dangerous creatures, and some recuperation. However, if you were so inclined, your DM could design a whole game world where magic didn't exist, where there was one Christian god, and where the players were encouraged to avoid violence or even penalized if they did violence. And while D&D is an identifiable father figure of RPGs, it is one of hundreds of other excellent games out there today. "The independent publishing movement in the hobby game industry is flourishing," says Chaplain Young. "Treating D&D like it was the entirety of the hobby is detrimental to everything, including D&D."

The Verdict...

...Is entirely up to you. Sun Tzu wrote in "The Art of War" that "if you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." While lines of battle may not have been drawn, pen-and-paper role-playing games like D&D offer so many benefits that anyone who is interested owes it to themselves to make an educated decision by knowing both sides of the issue. Schaefer sums it up for me: "D&D is a good pastime because it's fun to do while still being clean and healthy. It gets friends together. It lets people use their imaginations to create a world and tell a story. It lets people be heroes."

With college, work, and other responsibilities all vying for my spare time, I look forward to squeezing in a few hours for D&D more than ever. Its creative nature, the role-playing, and the epic battles appeal to me on every level.

Happy 30th, Dungeons & Dragons. Here's to smoother roads.

Extra special thanks to Johnn Four, Jenna O'Flaherty, Dave Schaefer, and M.J.Young for their cooperation in writing this article.