What is Dungeons and Dragons?

    There are some people who will visit this little website of mine and actually not know what Dungeons and Dragons really is.  I think most of my own family are still somewhat in the dark about just what sort of hobby I've devoted so much time and thought to since 1976 (or thereabouts).

    Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is what's called a role-playing game (RPG).  They have increased in variety and popularity to a significant degree since the mid-80's and these days there are actually a huge variety of them even if it is still very much a niche hobby.  The general principles and play of RPG's have been adapted to computer games in a number of ways and computer gaming owes a massive debt of inspiration to D&D.  Those D&D-descended computer games now boast far more players than table-top RPG's could dream of.  At the end of the 1990's the company that ran the 800-lb gorilla of RPG's (that is, of course, D&D) collapsed for reasons having little to do with D&D itself.  Participation in D&D had been declining at least somewhat for most of that decade as I understand, but the company died for reasons more closely related to mismanagement.  The remnants of the company were purchased by a newer game company which had been founded by a lot of people who used to play D&D.  Much of the reason for the purchase was simply to rescue the game and hobby they loved.  Their release of a new edition in 2000 brought a lot of players back to the game who had given it up for years.  In 2008 yet another new edition of D&D was released (though not to universal adulation) but RPG's and D&D in particular continue to survive if not expand.  Now, in 2012, yet another version of D&D is in development, currently reaching the open playtest phase and due for release some time in 2013.

    The styles of RPG's range widely: medieval fantasy such as D&D, gothic and supernatural horror, modern spy games, superheroes, westerns, science fiction in its many flavors such as post-apocalypse, dystopian near-future, or swashbuckling space opera like Star Wars, some that are actually played for comedy like Paranoia or Toon, and some that are REALLY weird.  Even within these genres the games come in a lot of flavors. Some use very specific rules for representing their themes, others are implementations of generic rulesets intended for potential application across many very different genres and settings.  They are from companies as large as Hasbro, one of the largest toy makers in the world (and parent of Wizards of the Coast which produces D&D), to garage companies that can generally only afford to publish on the internet, right down to those players who do what they all did at the start - just continue to make up whatever they need on their own and don't really need to buy anything.

    D&D is the first RPG of them all so maybe the best way to begin to describe it is to describe its origins.  [Note that the following is not intended to be a terribly accurate, nor exhaustive account of the games history.  It's superficial and probably wrong in various details because it had to be compiled from a number of sources (accounts of D&D's inception and development through the years have always varied), but it should give you the gist of its history.]  If you want to skip the history lesson you can jump past the section below.


    Way back in the Stone Age of the early '70's there were people who played wargames.  These were the kind of games that made use of miniature metal figurines of soldiers, tanks, etc. and replayed famous battles or simply created new battles using troops from bygone eras.  They would gather on weekends and see if they could do better than Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, or crush the American rebellion at Bunker Hill, reverse the outcome at Agincourt, or get Guderian's Panzers into Moscow in WWII.  This was a niche hobby, but one with a long history going back to at least H.G. Wells.  These games had rules, of course, and would use traditional dice for randomizing results to recreate battles from various eras of history.  In Wisconsin there were two of a particular group of players, Gary Gyax and Jeff Perren, who made up a set of rules they named "Chainmail" for use in games of medieval warfare.  These rules will reenter the story shortly.

    In another group some distance away was a man named David A. Wesely.  Wesely on one occasion came up with an idea for a particular game scenario where instead of having two opposing armies immediately butting heads the game would begin with the two opposing commanders inside a small Prussian town named Braunstein with their armies "offstage". The other players he allowed to assume the role of townspeople, such as the mayor, revolutionary students, and the like.  At the time Wesely thought the game that followed was an unmitigated disaster.  Nothing that happened that night went the way he thought it would and the opposing armies never even made it onto the field of play.  Players were sneaking out of the room to plot and plan, or whispering together in corners.  To his surprise, however, they wanted MORE.  At first, in the next couple of Braunstein games, he tried to assert more control over what the players were allowed to do, but they fought against this wanting more of the free-form chaos of the first game.

    The fourth Braunstein was set to take place in a generic banana republic.  One of the players, Dave Arneson, was given the role of a "peaceful revolutionary" with a briefcase full of leaflets who would win extra points for handing them out to other characters (though if he gave them to the wrong characters his own would logically be in trouble).  Dave, however, came to the game very prepared.  He had made "fake ID's", props that he could show other players if his character were caught that would foster the illusion that he was really an American CIA agent.  His character won the scenario after being given the nations treasury for "safekeeping" and put aboard a helicopter to fly out of the revolution to safety.  As a last act his character dumped the briefcase of leaflets out over the rioting mob and soldiers below in a snow of triumph.

    Dave then took the idea behind the Braunsteins and ran with it.  Remember those Chainmail medieval rules mentioned before?  Dave invented a medieval fantasy realm called Blackmoor and conducted Braunstein-style games using the Chainmail rules to resolve man-to-man combat.  More rules were added, brought in from elsewhere or made up from whole cloth, and gradually an entirely new game/hobby was created from the old one.  This was a wargame but it was built of more-or-less connected scenarios that involved the players controlling individuals rather than larger, combined units of companies or battalions.  These diversions became very popular and were being run by not just Arneson, but Gygax and others.  These characters were more fun to play than a military unit of dozens of nameless unknowns or even whole armies.

    Arneson continued to expand his rules collecting them in a large loose-leaf binder.  Gary Gygax collated Arneson's rules with his own and those of others.  He then typed them up into a readable form for publication.  The name "Dungeons and Dragons" was selected by friends/family from a list of possibilities he'd come up with.  He shopped the new game around to the companies who printed and distributed wargames, but nobody wanted to buy it.  Gygax eventually partnered with Brian Blume and Don Kaye to form a new company called Tactical Studies Rules (later just shortened to TSR) to publish the game.  It hit the market in 1973-74 outselling even popular wargames much to the surprise of everyone, especially those game companies who had turned down the chance to publish it.

    Going from the late 70's into the '80's TSR was nonetheless struggling and to keep the company afloat Gygax sold the company to Brian Blume who got his brother Kevin onto the company board. Gygax at some point went to the West coast to pursue D&D related entertainment endeavors such as attempting to get a D&D movie made, creating the D&D cartoon, and such, leaving the daily management of the company to the Blumes.  While he was away the company lost a great deal of money.  The Blumes had brought in a group of 3 outsiders to also sit on the board who knew nothing about the games the company produced nor the hobby it was creating and involved in.  When he learned that the company was $1.5 million in the hole Gygax returned to Lake Geneva, the company headquarters.  He got Kevin Blume removed from the board.  While he had been on the West coast Gygax had met Flint Dille.  The Dille family trust had inherited the Buck Rogers licensing.  He initially attempted to get Lorraine Williams, Dille's sister, to invest in the company.  She declined but she was hired to manage the company and she got rid of the 3 outside board people.  Unfortunately the Blumes decided to sell out and when they did they sold out to Williams giving her controlling interest in the company.  Gygax fought the situation but eventually sold out his own shares and left in 1985.  Thus came the reign of the individual that many gamers have come to refer to as, "She Who Must Not Be Named."

    Though initially moving TSR into a more profitable state (or at least maintaining its position) she became known for disdaining the very customers TSR was producing games for.  That might have been let go by gamers, most of whom certainly had no idea who she was nor cared.  However, she saw Gygax as a threat to her company and tried to keep him from accomplishing anything in the gaming hobby.  When Gygax produced a new RPG called Dangerous Journeys she sued.  The suit was eventually settled out of court with TSR purchasing the whole of Dangerous Journeys only for the privilege of putting it on a shelf for eternity.  Meanwhile TSR began to branch out into other areas - and made some notoriously bizzare and questionable moves for a company that was supposed to be making games (Buying a needlepoint distributorship?  Setting up West coast operations in King Vidor's mansion?).  TSR began to slide - due in at least some small part because Williams had become known, notorious and highly disliked by her company's own customers - and in the 90's it wound up selling less than competing companies like Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast.

    TSR had no practical communication with its own customers and part of its losses were because customers had come to find the company's products increasingly inferior or simply unneeded and unwanted.  Attempts to publish more in less time only accelerated the decline.  Other moves the company made only gave them an increasing reputation as a company that hated and distrusted its customers.  It did this by aggressively serving cease and desist letters to people who were putting information about their D&D games on their internet websites (at that time a new and developing medium).  To company lawyers who knew nothing of roleplaying games these websites were a threat to their intellectual property.  To gamers this was a big part of what the hobby was about - sharing ideas and developments with other gamers.  Telling them to "knock it off" for legal reasons was like telling them to stop playing the game and grow up; to stop buying the company's products or go buy a competitors products instead.  I think largely due to a HIGHLY caring bunch of employees who actually dealt and communicated directly with customers on a regular basis the company withstood these failures and may have one day redeemed itself.  However, in 1996 Williams/TSR made two very fateful decisions.

    First, in attempting to compete with Wizards of the Coast's insanely popular and profitable collectible card games of Magic: the Gathering and Pokemon TSR created a collectible dice game.  It apparently sold well initially but then they placed orders for the manufacture of a million additional dice to support and expand the new game.  They went unsold when the concept failed to catch on more substantially or sustain itself.  TSR had also been publishing two novels a year based on D&D themes but that year they decided to publish TWELVE.  These also failed to sell adequately and Random House, the distributor, returned the unsold books and dice for millions in fees.  Without money to pay its other bills the company that handled printing and logistics refused to do any more work and TSR ceased to be able to operate. It shut down all operations in a state of virtual bankruptcy for several months until it was purchased by Wizards of the Coast (WotC), a Renton, Washington game company founded (in a nicely ironic twist) by D&D players.  WotC was sold to Hasbro a few years later (apparently because its founders had enough of struggling with personal financial strains while their company continued to be fantastically successful).

    Shortly after acquiring D&D, WotC put a new edition of the game into the works and it was released in August of 2000. Referred to as the 3rd Edition (a misnomer really, because in reality there have been many more than three versions of the game, but that's a long discussion in itself) it provided a complete rebuild of the game from the ground up to wide acclaim.  Soon thereafter the core of the rules were also made "open source" allowing other publishers to legally use the rules as the basis for their own games and to support D&D with their own related publications.  3rd edition focused on enabling greater player choice in character creation and improvement, also in basing the game on more standardized systems and "modern" RPG/game design principles.  It seems to have been popular enough to enable D&D to once again ascend to the top of the RPG heap.

    However, it seems the HOBBY had changed substantially in the 25 years since it had been created.  The rules for D&D had changed too seeing several different versions but had nonetheless failed to keep up in many ways.  And then, too, each new version of D&D seems to only create more customers who prefer an older version or a different approach to the game.  The most recent and current version of the game is the Fourth Edition (released in 2008) which takes an approach to play that owes a great deal of inspiration to massive-multiplayer online roleplaying games on the computer.  This is somewhat ironic since such games were themselves overwhelmingly influenced by D&D and the RPG's that it inspired.  Information on the number of people who actually play RPG's is hard to come by as the only people who have apparently done significant research have been Wizards of the Coast who rightfully treat the information as valuable market data and release as little of such information as possible.  I personally see the state of the hobby as being in a still tenuous and fluctuating state.

    The so-called 5th Edition of D&D is presently in development, planning for it having begun in 2010 (?) after a disappointing Christmas sales season.  For a business involved in the RPG hobby the profit margins are not exactly spectacular.  Whatever the current popularity of RPG's and the permeation of D&D in particular into popular culture there just isn't a ton of money to be made.  It is my perception that even the 800-lb gorillas of the bunch (WotC and D&D) are struggling with how best to actually make decent profits while keeping the game in a form that players enjoy.  Each new edition has left some of the old players behind even if it picked up more new players than were lost.  Lately there are enough players disillusioned with more recent version of the game to have formed a separate movement within even this niche hobby.  Referred to as "Old School Gaming" these players opt for older versions of the rules (or games that are newly written but specifically seek to imitate the older rules, known as retro-clones) and that means that while the hobby itself flourishes the companies that sell to the hobby see their profits cut into even further because they're not selling the new products to the Old School players and catering to more than one set of rules for the game proved HIGHLY detrimental to profits for TSR before it died.  This movement seems to be slowly gaining ground and perhaps will only overwhelm the hobby.  At some point I think it is still quite possible that there may not BE a company producing D&D rules - there would only be a lot of small companies producing compatible products for various out-of-print editions or retro-clones.  I had thought that the future of the game was secure forever when WotC made the d20 version of the rules open source, but even they abandoned that version in favor of something else so the entire hobby as well as D&D itself still has "interesting times" ahead of it.

   The stated design goals for the so-called 5th Edition are quite ambitious: To utilize the parts of all the previous editions that worked best and to allow players to use only those pieces that they like - even while other players use different parts borrowed from different versions.  It remains to be seen how well they accomplish their ends as the game is only now reaching public play-test phase and very little substantive information about its actual mechanics has been available.  It will be perhaps another year or better before it's released.  There is a great deal of skepticism stemming from significant dissatisfaction with 3rd and 4th Editions, and praises for the Pathfinder game which uses the Open Source rules created for 3E and is now a direct competitor.  It may even be outselling D&D at the moment.  There is also skepticism that this time they'll get more right than they get wrong, and that's based on the significant dissatisfaction with the 3rd Edition and its "too-much-too-soon" revision the 3.5 Edition  There is little optimism that they can get more people playing this version than fleeing to other older versions, competitors, or other games and hobbies entirely.


    The D&D game, as we now know it, involves each player creating a character to portray by selecting his race (such as human, dwarf, elf...), his class (an archetype of fantasy tradition such as wizard, warrior or priest), and using rolls of the dice or alternative means to generate numerical ratings for an assortment of the character's physical and mental attributes such as strength, intelligence, and others.  Those numbers are used to determine or modify probabilities of success for actions the player wishes his character to attempt.  Other statistics and details of the characters abilities are also determined either randomly with dice, by the player's choice of options, or perhaps dictated by the rules or referee.

    Many of the actions in the game, especially combat, have specific procedures and probabilities outlined by the rules, but rules can only cover so much possibility and a lot has always needed to be adjudicated on the fly by someone acting as a referee.  This referee has long been known as a Dungeon Master in D&D (almost always abbreviated to DM) simply because it sounded good; an impressive and powerful title.  It really doesn't have the dark, sinister significance that people who know nothing about the game have sometimes tried to ascribe to it.  Almost every RPG now has a specific title for the referee of the game that is adapted from the tone and style it uses or the genre it covers.  Game Master (GM) is the most common generic adaptation, but titles like Storyteller, Judge, Marshall, Referee, Keeper or Administrator simply go further to imply a specific tone for the game, or job description.

    The DM determines much of the nature of the world the characters are in, adjudicates their actions, and thinks up new challenges for them with quests, puzzles, traps, monsters, rivals, plots and stories.  A great deal of refereeing is needed because rules can only cover the most common actions (like combat) and make general suggestions regarding how to govern other situations.  Because the players can have their characters attempt to perform almost any action imaginable, a heroic, magic-laced, fantasy setting just can't have rules that cover everything.  For that you need someone to act as DM, coordinating and improvising.

    The game proceeds in sessions where the characters undertake adventures and quests either conceived and designed by the DM or following purchased ones set in pre-made worlds that the DM can modify and use if he doesn't want to have to completely make up his own.  There are many published adventures, supplementary rules, and world settings available and there are always other players out there willing to give you suggestions, relate adventures they've come up with for their own campaigns, or describe how their own games are run.  The Internet is a powerful, and now common tool and resource for DM's, both for official and unofficial information for the game.  The game can involve a single adventure, a limited series of connected adventures, or most commonly an open-ended "campaign" where the adventures simply continue almost indefinitely.  Often there may not even be much of a specific end to the game in mind.  Until the players or DM get tired of the characters or decide they've reached a point they think would make a good end, play simply continues where the last session left off.  When one game does end, players can start a new game with new characters.  If there is no intended point at which a campaign will end the players often decide on individual goals for their characters based on the continued changes and possibilities invented by the DM.  Until their deaths in 2008 and 2009 respectively, even the campaigns first begun by the two men most responsible for D&D as we know it today, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, were still played on occasion making them campaigns that continued for over three decades.

    This is part of what makes role-playing games so unusual and why people unfamiliar with the concept find it confusing to think of them as a "game" in the same sense as, say, chess or Monopoly.  There often isn't anything that represents traditional concepts of "winning" and "losing" in this game.  If a character defeats a monster or other adversary he may have "won" the battle... but the adventure continues.  A character may die on an adventure (and that could be considered "losing") but the player can generate a new character to use in the game and it would continue without really pausing.  The characters may succeed or fail in a short term adventure, but this may only lead to another adventure as a result where their fortunes could be reversed.  As long as all the participants are having fun inventing and playing out the exploits of their characters then everyone could be said to be winning this game.

    Of course when you actually get into it the game is rather more complicated than I'm explaining it here, but this is the gist of the game.  It's often described as collective story creation or improvisational acting, but that's a little pretentious for what is at heart simple make-believe - with a bunch of rules for added structure.

    This game has long been traditionally playable with little more than paper and pencil - except for the rules and the unique dice of course.  The traditional cubic die with 6 sides is generally supplemented by dice with 4, 8, 10, 12, and 20 equal sides.  A random numerical range of 1 to 100 can be obtained by using a pair of 10-sided dice and reading them as separate digits.  Many people also use metal, resin, and now more commonly plastic miniature figurines to play. That is the way I have played the game from day one. The Third Edition of D&D was written to better suit and even emphasize use of miniatures and the Fourth Edition is deeply miniatures-oriented.  This gives something of a more physical dimension to the game - closer to H.G. Wells "Little Wars" - rather than playing it entirely in the imagination though that is still possible.  It also helps to eliminate misunderstandings that can arise from a DM's description of places, events, and the character's relative positions. Of course it also sells products related to the game, something that some misguided players seem to find objectionable on its very principle.

    The game of Dungeons and Dragons has had something of a reputation problem for a long time, fluctuating in severity now and then.  It is occasionally denounced as Evil for a variety of reasons that I won't go into at too great a length here, but it needs to be covered since it's something that still continues today, albeit less commonly.  Suffice it to say that this accusation is just patently ridiculous.  It is promulgated by people who are sadly ignorant, myopic and misguided, and perhaps even genuinely stupid.  D&D is a game of fantasy.  Staples and tropes of fantasy have long been things like swordplay, sorcery, the fantastic, supernatural and otherworldly, heroes and villains, adventure and horror, good and evil.  That evil comes in a variety of forms of course - dragons, ogres, goblins, witches and sorcerors, forbidden magical spells, murderous cults worshipping strange, evil creatures from other dimensions, demonic and diabolic creatures from those dimensions, and more.  For some people the mere fact that such things are mentioned in the game much less utilized at length for purposes of giving heroes something to fight and defeat is unforgivable and a danger to the soul.  The most vocal of these sorts of opponents of the game have been proven to be beyond ignorant, but in fact liars.  Many have been shown to be inventors of blatant falsehoods about the game's nature and the supposedly detrimental effects upon its participants. Their aims are self-aggrandizement or celebrity, or mere convenient justification of their religious views and mania rather than endeavors towards putting an end to the game in the genuine belief that it is harmful in some way.

    This idea is one which at times has been given FAR too much credibility in the media.  When the game has been mentioned in the media reporters have frequently focused only on those aspects of the hobby that can be sensationalized, spreading further misperception and inaccuracy.  For example, you've likely heard urban legends of kids who have played the game and because of it been led to suicide and murder; tales of disappearances in college campus steam tunnels.  They all seem to have been originally based on three otherwise unconnected stories - the disappearance and eventual suicide of James Dallas Egbert, the suicide of the son of Pat Pulling (the woman who founded the group B.A.D.D. - Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons), and the murder of Leith von Stein.  All three incidents are clear tragedies but the presence of D&D in the mix of events has been grossly distorted.

    The case of James Dallas Egbert is described in detail HERE but I'll sum it up.  Egbert was a college student and incidentally a player of D&D, but by all verifiable accounts that had absolutely nothing to do with the events surrounding his disappearance.  He had drug problems, was pressured by his mother for scholastic perfection and was conflicted about his sexual orientation.  He did indeed go into the steam tunnels under the campus of his school with the intention to commit suicide but failed in his attempt and subsequently ran away.  He resurfaced later and was reunited with his family by a private investigator, only to ultimately succeed in taking his own life some time afterward.  The only notable D&D connection was that he had left a clue or puzzle of sorts regarding his whereabouts - an arrangement of pins on a bulletin board in the shape of the campus steam tunnel array.  Figuring out puzzle clues can often play a part in D&D games and he stated that it had been his intention that it would enable his body to be found.

    The suicide of Irving Pulling, who was nicknamed as "Bink", is not entirely dissimilar.   He was a boy with a LOT of problems, he happened to play D&D, and he committed suicide. In an attempt to find an explanation, his mother Pat Pulling instead settled on a scapegoat.  She fixated upon D&D as evidence of vast, satanic cult-conspiracies and concluded that her son killed himself because an actual curse had been placed upon him.  She obviously did not understand the game nor care to try, despite the fact that she went on to publicize herself as an "expert" on roleplaying games, apparently testified at trials, and spoke at seminars for police officers on the occult dangers of roleplaying games.  The materials she presented through her organization B.A.D.D. and at seminars shows a shocking level of ignorance about roleplaying games in particular, games in general, falsifies information, edits copyrighted material to suit her needs, and paints a picture of occult influence that can only be described as patently laughable.

    Further fuel was added to the fire by the murder of Leith von Stein.  The murder was described in the book "Cruel Doubt" by Joe McGinnis and later made into a non-credible, sensationalistic Movie-of-the-Week.  VonStein's stepson conspired with two of his friends (all of whom were players of D&D) to assassinate his parents for an inheritance.  There is absolutely no evidence whatever that D&D caused or even contributed to the situation yet it was treated as such in the movie with the boy being depicted by police as a [gasp!] dungeon master with some kind of Svengali-like control or influence on his friends - as if this relationship were the entire purpose of the game.

    This sort of thing is thankfully now generally as discredited as saying "rock music lyrics drove me to it."  The efforts of the Game Manufacturer's Association (GAMA) and Michael Stackpole in the '70's and '80's did a fair amount to educate law enforcement institutions as well as the public of the silliness of such notions, counteracting the misinformation and damage being done.  In fact, research has repeatedly indicated that the game not only appeals to a demographic of already intelligent players but that it encourages an increased interest in diverse subjects like history and mathematics as well as prompting improved creativity, interpersonal skills, and problem solving.  There are educators, mental health professionals, and clergy who have used the game with children for teaching and promoting those very skills.

    So just what does the DM do?  He decides what foes and obstacles the characters will face and controls much of how difficult it will be for them to succeed.  This may seem like it allows him complete control over success or failure in the game.  That's true to a fair extent, but the DM certainly doesn't have any greater control over the players than that.  The players are intended to be active participants in the game.  If their characters never succeed the players will become dissatisfied and bored (it's not much fun if the heroes of the story aren't successful at least SOME of the time) and the DM will soon find himself out of a job.  At best he'd find his players upset with him rather than mystically falling under his influence, willing to obey his commands like some B-movie hypnotist villain and his victims, out to perpetrate occult murders and further their conspiratorial aims.  The first and foremost objective of this game, like any game (in the generalist definition of that word), is for all the participants to have fun.  The fact that it works to that end in such a unique way is part of its appeal, but it is also easy to misunderstand it for that reason as well.

    Comments and questions always welcome: duanevp@earthlink.net

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