How “Dungeons and Dragons” Changed My Life — from Salon.com — and BEYOND

How “Dungeons & Dragons” changed my life – Gaming – Salon.com.

Okay, I confess.  Unlike the author of this really cute and self-discovering nostalgia-all-grown-up article over at Salon, I am not a middle-aged man recalling a youth spent with a floor-full of teenage boys beating the snot out of each others’ characters with two-handed swords and magically enchanted bolas.

Koplow Games Assorted Polyhedral Dice

I am a middle-aged woman who started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in the ancient times before it was split into D&D — and AD&D by its creators (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who started TSR Games.)  When we first rolled up our original characters — we really rolled them up — with 3 six-sided dice.  And the whole game was played in your head and on paper.  None of this wussy miniatures and grid-map stuff.  That stuff is for people who can’t hold it all between their ears.  No, we played with just dice, pencils, and wild imaginations.  And this was before there were 7 major companies making polyhedral dice, too.  The original dice were cast in cheap baby blue plastic from molds they overused for so long that there was barely an indentation where the numbers were supposed to be.  You were supposed to use a crayon and rub across the numbers so they filled in with colored wax — which didn’t really work if yours came  from an old pressing. So we put stickers with the numbers written on them over the face of the dice.  By 1980 you could find a few polyhedral dice if you could find a comic book shop, or a sports memorabilia place.  Once in a blue moon, a toy store would have an assortment of maybe 30 dice to pick from.

When I closed my toy store last year, we had a shelf with well over 1000 dice on it — which sadly didn’t survive the move.  But there you are.  Things change.

The Nentire Vale, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed.

When we played in the 1980s, everybody was just figuring out that a computer could compute — and so most of the guys I knew tried their hand at writing a program to randomly generate character ability numbers.  They worked as okay as anything homegrown by newbie/amateur/casual programmers worked in 1981 — which is to say, we thought it was amazing; but in fact, it was too lame to actually use.

By contrast, this site: Character Generator by Pathguy will not only roll up your character (in D&D 3.5 edition, or D&D 4th edition) — it will let you choose all your character’s skills, feats, powers, weapons, familiars, destinies, — down to the color of your character’s eyes and hair, and what all s/he’s putting in his backpack.  Theoretically, Wizards of the Coast (the new owners of the D&D franchise) have a character generator on their $Pay-to-join website (it really is all about the money, isn’t it?) — but this Pathguy-person is using all the published materials, a javascript engine, — and he seems to be a really good guy.  So yay-him!

I’ve spent the last 2 weeks reading all the new 4th edition materials I could get my hands on.  Unused gift certificates to the local game store, Amazon.com, used book stores in the flesh brick and online, Walmart — I’ve hit every source I can find.

Gary Gygax

In the old days — the first days — the dawn of time — there were 3 books.  A Dungeon Master’s Guide, A Player’s Handbook, and a Monster Manual.  Actually, in the pre-dawn age — there was a little cardboard box with 2 stapled booklets and a set of those funky blue plastic dice with no numbers on them.

Today however — now that we’re in the throws of D&D 4th Edition — I’ve already got a stack of books nearly 1 1/2 feet high. The average cover price per book is in the neighborhood of 29.95.  So — If I was paying full retail for this stack of books, I’d have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of 600.00 for the stack sitting by my chair.  (! ! !)  As it is, I paid about 115.00.  Which is still pretty steep for a game I’ve been playing for over 35 years.

Add into that the stuff a lot of people buy — little miniature figurines that represent both the player characters, the characters in the story of the game, and the monsters/villians; 3-D set pieces (like furniture for a miniature tavern….) and props; vinyl play mats (both illustrated and not) maps, and map tiles; markers, page protectors, printer paper, graphing paper, index cards; and — Official Dungeons and Dragons Pre-made Adventure Modules ($cha-ching$!) In short — Wizards of the Coast [WotC] (who started this life as the originators and publishers of the dungeon and dragons-like card game, Magic the Gathering) is making a bloody fortune selling a game that theoretically only exists (if you do it right) between your ears!

And most of the books are under 170 pages — which means the 3 (current) volumes of the Monster Manual should probably have been published as 1 book — for about 40% of the cost of the 3 together.  Likewise with the 3 volumes of the Player’s Handbook.  And the 4 (or is it 5?) power books.  And the 2 Adventurer’s Vault books.  And the 2 Draconomicon books.  And the 2-books-each published on each of the realms players often play in (that would be, The Forgotten Realms; Nentir Vale, Dark Sun; Eberron; the Shadowfell; the Feywild; Neverwinter; and the half-dozen or so other realms or regions they haven’t gotten to yet.

As for all the miniatures, models, and maps; costumes; renaissance faires; semi-prescious stone dice; jewelry; bardic instruments; and hand-crafted knick-knacks, scrolls, potion bottles and treasure chests — a lot of that stuff is hand-made — or available from artisans and crafts people who cater to the gaming crowd (and are part of the gaming crowd.)

While I was in business as a toy store online — I carried dice, but none of the other D&D paraphenalia.  Since D&D first showed up, hundreds of other RPGs (Role Playing Games) have come and gone and come back again.  Some lived in a world of werewolves and vampires (sound familiar, Twilight shippers?); some live deep in the world of H. P. Lovecraft; add in the odd pirate adventure, zombie apocalypse, dystopian society, — and regional/historical settings like ancient Greece, Egypt, China or Rome — and the list scrolls down forever.  You can play in the world of space cowboys, Dr. Who, Indiana Jones, or Tarzan.  You can role-play your favorite comic books /graphic novels.  You can rewrite history or Shakespeare.

Brass 20-sided (d20)

And you can do it all with polyhedral dice and some graph paper.  Which is why I carried dice in the toy store — we got orders from ships at sea, wanting 8 identical sets of polyhedrals for the sailors who wanted to RPG together.  We got orders from hospital wards, college dorms and frat houses, high school English classes, history classes, and math classes; schools for the learning disabled (dyslexia anyone?); prisons (yes– that’s what I said) and soap opera sets and offices who wanted to play through lunch.  We sent dice everywhere.  Conservative dice.  Excentric dice.  Solid silver dice.  Amethyst dice.  All so people like me, and like the guy at Salon.com can let our imaginations fly.

The First Edition DM Guide

I know there are 13-year-old boys who are sitting around hacking at Beholders and Bugbears with their +2 short swords and Daggers of Stealthy Whacking.

But the game is in the story-telling.  And — at least so far — the story telling at WotC is a little thin on skill.  We need adventure modules written by Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.  We need somebody who understands plotting and narrative structure to create these things so that they are more about role-playing and STORY, than they are about some pre-ordained 30-levels-in 1 1/2 to 2 years marketing scheme built by the Greed Wizards at the Coast.  (see How a Story is Shaped on this blog for the skinny on narrative structure….)  As it stands, the 4th Edition has all the earmarks of a pyramid scheme.

But here’s the crux of it:

1st Edition Players Handbook

It’s all about the story, boys and girls.  Just like with the movies.  Just like television.  Regardless of how much money you throw at a movie, if it’s all special effects, CGI, 3-D, expensive actors, and marketing campaigns — it will still be crap if the story isn’t there.  And regardless of little bits of deficiency in budget, the inexperience of the director, or the Target costumes — if the story is solid, then the movie will be solid.

And so will the Dungeons and Dragons game.

Okay, it’s all about the story and the math (YES!) — so you get your Reading class, your Math class, and your Language Skills class all in one convenient between-the-ears package!

So read the books.  Roll-up your player-characters.  Try a few of their pre-generated encounter ideas  (in the new 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide) — and then create your own realm and your own story, with its own cast of players, and your own plot twists and crises.

It’s all about the story, and about each individual limitless imagination.

You can be whatever kind of hero you want to be.

Here are some of the books to look for
(buy them used — cheap — it’s still fun!)

  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Players Handbook
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Players Handbook 2
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Players Handbook 3
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual 2
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual 3
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Adventurer’s Vault
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Adventurer’s Vault 2
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Draconomicon – Chromatic Dragons
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Draconomicon – Metalic Dragons
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Demonomicon
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Open Grave (Monster Manual for Undead Creatures)
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Primal Powers
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Arcane Powers
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Divine Powers
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Martial Powers
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Martial Powers 2
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Psionic Powers
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Players Strategy Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Rules Compendium
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Monster Vault
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Monster Vault, Threats to Nentir Vale
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Option: Heroes of the Feywild
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Forgotten Realms Players Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition  Eberron Players Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Eberron Campaign Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Dark Sun Campaign Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Dark Sun Players Guide
  • Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Neverwinter Campaign Setting
  • and it goes on a bit from there….
  • I also recommend Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition for Dummies

If you just want to get started, go for the 3 core rule books: DMGuide, Players Handbook, Monster Manual.  That’s enough to keep you reading for a while….  I still haven’t found a cheap Monster Manual 3 — but I don’t think anybody is going to miss it any time soon.

I think the guy from Salon.com has it right about why people love this game.  Not only do you get to temporarily live in a completely different time and place — you get to be somebody you aren’t.  Or somebody you aren’t, yet.

In the 4th Edition of D&D, they’ve removed a lot of the choices on alignment.  For the uninitiated, alignment refers to whether the character you are playing is good or evil; chaotic or lawful; or more none-of-the-above (used to be called neutral, but now is called unaligned.)  Unaligned sounds a little uncommitted — whereas neutral sounds like Switzerland.  Back in the day 😀 there were 9 alignments:  Here’s the grid from the 80’s and 90’s:

Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition -- Alignment Chart

Here’s the grid from the 70s:

More like the original D and D Alignment Grid

Here’s what happened to the grid after the Internet:

Here’s a link to more of these user-generated visual guides to alignment from Geekosystem: 10 Best Alignment Charts.

I spent my youth gleefully playing Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Good characters.  Chaotic Neutral was easy to define — the old hippie culture is easy to pick out in a crowd — not evil or mean OR worried about right and wrong; not concerned about silly little laws written by silly laced-up people, and more focused on self than on others — and willing to stir things up just for the fun of it..  No rules for me / no rules for anybody else.  And Chaotic Good wasn’t far behind — almost all the same — but with a healthy dose of looking out for the home team, the family, and the community.

Well — neither of those 2 alignments exist any more.

Wizzers of the Coast yanked everything but Good, Lawful Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.  Which reeks of dumbing-down.  It’s true — Neutral Good and Neutral Evil were hard to pin down.  Thinking of evil without thinking of it as either lawful or chaotic is difficult.  All those photo-grids above and in the link are better at picking those alignments out of a crowd than I ever was — but it is possible. Lawful Evil is a little easier because of IRS agents, and neutral evil is easier thought of as mercenaries.

And since the Dungeon Master of any game is omnipotent in the game world — any D and D games I DM are going to use the original grid.  Whizzers or no whizzers — we’re going to allow all 9 alignments, because playing your chosen alignment is part of the role-playing in an RPG.  Character development is important.  Choice is important.  Options are important.  And —

If it ain’t broke — don’t fix it.

Which is pretty good advice for the Wizards of the Coast people in general.  They really have made a tight, playable game in the 4th Edition.  Sometimes a little too tight and binding.

I realize that the 12-year-olds see the world in something closer to black and white than most of the adult players — so the 5-alignment grid is probably easier for them to play.  And that’s fine.  Nuance does not belong in adolescence.  But it’s not the D and D Gary Gygax rolled up.  And nuance is perfectly acceptable to grown-up geeks and dragonslayers.

Behold, the Immortal Beholder

Dungeons and Dragons is about making choices.  From the moment you choose whether to roll dice or use a computer program to generate a character, to choosing which spell to cast or what weapon to use to defend yourself — it’s about choices.

You are wandering through a dark and spooky forest and it starts to rain.  You and your friends are just talking to one another about whatever, and suddenly 3 bear-looking things with fangs and wings appear in the road in front of you — about 15 feet from where you stop.  One of them licks his lips and takes a step toward you and starts saying something you don’t understand.  What do you do?

Well?  Do you ask your friends if any of them understands what he’s saying?  Do you turn around and run?  Do you draw the dagger out of your boot?  Do you tell him you don’t understand what he’s saying?  Do you stand really still and listen carefully and try to understand him?  Do you pull your winged-bear dictionary out of your backpack?

Options, choices — puzzles.

grrrrrrrrr

And depending on what you and your adventuring buddies say — what happens next is yet to be determined.

The story framework is there.  The structure of the plot is there.  The characters (the players’ characters and the characters that exist in the story world) are there.  It’s the details that everyone (players and Dungeon Master) chooses — and they choose according to their race, class, alignment, abilities, and past experiences.

A lot like life.

If I sound like I’m hammering on Wizards of the Coast — you’re probably right.  I am hammering a little.  I’m glad they rescued (bought for pennies) Dungeons and Dragons from the pit it fell into in the ’90s.  It, like disco, was passe, bordering on ancient history.  WotC became keepers of the flame — and they kept it from going out.  With 4th Edition, they’ve even managed to rekindle it to the point of open warfare between those who support 4th Edition, those who want to keep playing 3.5 or 3.0 (also published by WotC) and those who long for the simpler good-old-days of AD&D, or the earlier OD&D (the original set).  That’s right.  Almost nobody misses the 2nd Edition/child of Gygax’s divorce.

The truth is, D&D seems to be more popular than ever.  Many of the years’ RPGs have gone the way of the Dodo — extinct because of stupidity.  Or just thin story.  D&D owes its life to J. R. R. Tolkein and the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings books — the source material for Gygax and Arneson.  Narrative pedigree doesn’t get much better than that.

Mmmm. Owlbear for dinner....

And D&D will survive the business model of Wizards of the Coast.  There are some real game lovers there, and they take a lot of flak from players who get attached to various aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons game.  (Like me and alignment.)  But they are the keepers of the flame.  I don’t begrudge them making enough money to keep everything alive.  I do begrudge them the over-the-top profiteering.  This game, along with their Magic the Gathering and a few of their other excellent products — if kept fresh and playable — will keep them in the tall grass of the Nentir Vale for a very long time.

If they try to milk the cash cow until it drops dead — not so much.  Arbitrarily topping off characters at level 30, arbitrarily limiting alignment, and arbitrarily limiting the shelf-life of the latest edition just so you can bring out a NEW set of 45 books at 39.95 each is taking capitalism more seriously than you are taking your fans/customers/players.  This is a tight economy.  Customer support means a lot more than answering the phone or replacing defective merchandise — it means supporting your customer base so that it grows and becomes loyal.

Like me and the author from Salon.  If you play fair — we’ll all be with you for a very long time.

************************************

Okay -- I had to add this one that Nate linked to from http://protoncharging.com/gb/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/gb_alignment_chart1.png .... It's just too funny.

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