Why Dungeons & Dragons Still Matters

Dungeons and Dragons – arguably the single most revolutionary turn to the Action/Fantasy RPG genre – turned 40 last week. Here's why it's still relevant today.

In a must-read post over at Boing Boing, Ethan Gilsdorf – author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks – looks back on the last forty years of pen-and-paper role-playing tradition. It begins:

Dungeons & Dragons, that ground-breaking role-playing game, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Specifically, the game's big "4-0" comes this month. It was in January of 1974 when the game's co-creator, Gary Gygax, officially announced in a newsletter that "the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association has now released its set of fantasy campaign rules (Dungeons and Dragons)." In that announcement, Gygax invited folks to drop by his Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, home some Sunday afternoon to experience Dungeons & Dragons themselves.

But lo, those four decades ago, when D&D first debuted, no one knew what to make of it. D&D was intended to be a new twist on traditional war games. New, because "role-playing" games as a category did not exist. Newcomers found D&D to be weird and complex and confusing and trippy. You want me to "play" a dwarf fighter named Frowndorf? You want me to tell you how my hobbit thief is going to kill the gang of orcs? These dice have how many sides? WTF?

But to those who were intrigued, the "Huh?"s of doubt quickly turned to "Hey, this is fun." No one guessed Dungeons & Dragons would be revolutionary.

Never before had a game asked players to assume roles of individual characters and jointly imagine the world where those adventures would take place. With D&D, you don't beat your fellow players, you cooperate. Sure, there were war games with miniature figurines and maps. But here was a game that said that there's no "win"—there's just the ongoing story, and the next adventure.

I first played D&D back in the 1970s and 1980s. Like millions of mostly male and young American proto-geeks, I too got sucked into the game's vicarious derring-do and heroics, playing wizards and warriors —idealized versions of myself — who wielded incredible power, acquired cool stuff, killed nasty monsters, cast spells, and inhabited fantastical places.

Today, deep in the digital age, I'm happy to report that the game still exists. In fact, the new edition of D&D's rules is slated for release this August. And only now, as a 47-year-old who still plays the game, can I appreciate why Dungeons & Dragons still matters in 2014.

Read the rest over at Boing Boing.