Dungeons and Dragons

You’ve heard about this game, or seen in portrayed in various media – such as the TV show CommunityStranger Things, or in the various negative news reports over the years. Like it or not, this game has become a part of our national psyche, although in this post I will explore the game on a more personal level.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons at a very young age, thanks to my parents. My father was in the Army, and apparently when he and my mom were stationed in Oklahoma, they had a small group of friends who discovered and played the game. In particular, my dad talked about how they would gather before a blizzard, and once snowed in, they would wait out the storm with some old-fashioned Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (or the 2nd edition of the game). That was the version that I started playing too, in a family game night setting. The 2nd edition, also known as AD&D, was the first version to explode in popularity, sweeping the nation in the 70s and 80s (((fact check))) and inspiring all the subsequent events in this games fascinating history.

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The AD&D Player’s Handbook. Image: Wikipedia

My very first character, as was befitting a 6th grader (my best guess as to how old I was), was an elven ranger. I don’t remember his name, or much beyond some disjointed memories of my mom basically carrying the party, being terrified as our party escorted a caravan through the woods, and being absolutely enthralled at the fact that, despite looking at a little pewter figurine and a piece of graph paper with some scrawled notes on it, the game had generated a broad, endless landscape, populated with warriors, dungeons, hideous monsters, and unimaginable wonder. I knew from the start that the opportunity offered by Dungeons and Dragons in terms of harnessing the imagination would far surpass any video game, movie, or TV show that I knew. The game still has that power for me, the prospect of not only creating compelling worlds but creating them in a way that is fully cooperative is engrossing. The world is created from imagination, but then the people who play characters within it have the power to interact and shape the world as well. The collaborative aspect is the engine that drives the game – Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in group story-telling.

After being introduced to Dungeons and Dragons by way of AD&D, the third edition of the game was released, by Wizards of the Coast. This company, who also manages the popular deck building game Magic: The Gathering, had taken the source material of D&D and streamlined, organized, and redeveloped a system for play. We tried it out on a trip down to my grandparents house once – my dad and brother, fighting our way through a couple rooms of skeletons and dire rats. This is the first character I remember, another elven ranger named Celador. As I read more and played more, I realized how the ranger in third edition is actually one of the more underpowered classes in the game. But I liked Celador, and I used one of the little pewter figures for him and enjoyed our play-through, imagining him battling through the dungeon and holding back enemies like the elves in some of my favorites stories of that time, the Sword of Shannara series.

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Image: The Fodder Cannon. Screen by Wizards of the Coast

Above is a cardboard screen, used by the Dungeon Master (or DM) in-game. The Dungeon Master’s job is to be one step ahead of the rest of the players at the table at all times. Each of the other players control a single character – the DM builds the world in front of them as they walk, describing scenery, playing as the people they meet, and refereeing combat or negotiations.

I really got started a few years later, when I was on a competitive youth soccer team, of all things. There was a small group who was interested in the game, and my dad was an assistant coach, so the routine became that, on Saturdays, we would return from a soccer game for a session of Dungeons and Dragons. This was first extended campaign I had played in, and until recently the only lengthy campaign as well. Our characters I remember fairly vividly – I was a human cleric, and my friends played characters like Samo the half-orc barbarian or Okem Emton, the human paladin. The group of PCs grew from first level to 5th, over the course of the adventures, which sometimes stretched long into Saturday evenings.

After that campaign faded out, I was determined to find a way to keep playing. I believe my brother and I tried to play on occasion, but with two players it didn’t work out. Sometime at this point too I introduced the game to my friends from school, and many an evening were spent with it, although without a clear vision and a group of kids still in middle school, I was never really satisfied with our campaigns of joking around, distractions and side conversations, and poorly thought through adventures. I shouldn’t have expected anything else, but I knew that D&D was something much larger, and I spent a lot of time alone thinking about how I could put together a perfect campaign. Nonetheless, throughout high school my experience with the game stagnated, and through college it had dropped off just about entirely. There were a couple stabs at putting together a gaming group, but in most circumstances I was the only one familiar with the game, and my passion for it was only able to interest people enough (and for me to successfully manage my other obligations) to play for one or two sessions before fizzling.

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Of Dice and Men

A year or two out of school, I heard about and ordered the book Of Dice and Men, written by the New York Times reporter David Ewalt. I had inadvertently ordered the audiobook version, so it became a text I worked through while on road trips or driving longer distances. The book is absolutely captivating. David Ewalt is someone similarly enthralled with childhood memories of Dungeons and Dragons, and eagerly set himself to the task of writing an article about the game for the Times. Being a project of passion, his writing swiftly blossomed far past any article, and the full-length book is a wonderful blend of simulated narrative from his adventures within the game, and a sweeping history of Dungeons and Dragons. It starts with the games predecessors, and covers its founded Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, as well as tracing the games spectacular success and twisting, labyrinthine challenges. This game must be one of the most resisted and scorned – once holding the mantle now levied upon video games and violent media as “corrupting our youth,” labeling all those who play it in the game of nerds and geeks, and indeed making sensational connections between the game and dark forces of demons and Satan. Dungeons and Dragons has a fascinating place in our nation’s cultural consciousness, and David Ewalt does a wonderful job in articulating it.

After reading the book, I spent some timing looking online for a group to join and start playing Dungeons and Dragons again. After a period of searching, I found a great group that was really to start a fresh campaign, and I felt the rush of everything that D&D has to offer all over a gain. I have a group of comrades, I now look forwards to Mondays (the evenings we play), and we get to collectively imagine an alternate world, where we make mighty contributions and engage in daring adventures.

 

 

Stranger Things

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Stranger Things, a recent mini-series to hit Netflix, is a stirring exploration of small-town politics and community, coming of age, friendships and love, and, of course, the supernatural. It starts off with a group of boys playing the game Dungeons and Dragons in their den in the basement, the contents of which becomes spectacularly paralleled in the real world. I’m already excited about the various theories emerging from one of the very last scenes (I’m avoiding spoilers throughout this post) where the boys discuss Dungeons and Dragons once again.

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Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown

The show quickly had me reminiscing and thinking about other, similarly-minded shows and movies, such as Twin Peaks or The Shining, which have the same spooky but deeply compelling allure. Events start slow and the viewers’ skepticism starts high, but gradually the show hooks you in. I remember vividly how I reached the ending of episode 6 and then 7, thinking about how at the beginning of the series I had only watched one episode in an evening, and finding myself unable to pull myself away until the series reached its incredible conclusion. The tropes this series uses also seem drawn from films from the 80s, mixed in with sometimes direct references to those movies. These tropes are rarely deployed in a straightforward way, either, and an example of this is an inversion of the flying-bike scene from E.T. Here is a list of  some of the tropes identified in Stranger Things, but beware, this list will suck away hours of your free time. In addition, here is a Rolling Stone laundry list of 80’s cultural references in the series (w/autoplay video)

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Picture: AVClub

In my exploration of the various articles and fan theories already proliferating, a curiosity I quickly noted was how much sympathy and affection exists online for the character Barb. Barb is the close friend of Nancy, and as Nancy finds herself drawn into an intense high school romance, Barb can see it all happening too clearly. She tries to get Nancy come to her senses, but can only stand by in the end. The scene most symbolic of this is when Barb sits alone on the diving board, as the rest of the party has moved inside, staring down into the steaming, brightly lit water.

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Picture: Buzzfeed

I certainly enjoyed seeing the events in this particular storyline include the perspective of Barb, instead of leaving her behind as Nancy does, but I don’t think that this is anything particularly groundbreaking for the show to do this – in fact I think its a fairly common trope for media – as “the one left out” is an easy way to quickly form sympathy points for a character. A fuller exploration into why Barb becomes such a fan favorite necessitates some significant spoilers, which I am avoiding, so I’ll just say that even considering the full events of the series, in my opinion there are many characters far more compelling, interesting, and just as worthy of sympathy as Barb. A quick list of these characters would be Benny Hammond (the owner of the diner that Eleven visits), Eleven herself, Lucas and Dustin, and then Sheriff Hopper. The last four in this list are who I would consider my favorite characters, and a distinction just came up for me. Barb and Benny both are flat, one-dimensional characters, although Barb certainly has a bit more screen time. She is fairly developed and present in the series, despite being one-sided in this way as the ‘voice of reason’ friend to Nancy, and perhaps that very simplicity in character development is why more people find it easy to identify with her. Benny, on the other hand, exists just to serve as character development for Eleven, and then as plot development as the ‘child services’ arrive. On that note too, Eleven, Dustin, Lucas, and Hopper are all complex characters, and so it isn’t really fair to compare them to a character like Barb.

Like many, I’m already very excited about the prospects of additional seasons of Stranger Things, as well as the impending release of the soundtrack for the series.