Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the pleasures of Dungeons and Dragons, a game I've never played

{Photos by rocketlass.}

When rocketlass and I were in New York last fall, Ed Park was kind enough to invite us over. We'd only been there a few minutes when I looked up from a conversation with Ed's elder son and saw Ed and rocketlass at the bookshelf, engrossed in Ed's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide. When I walked over, they were looking at--I'm not making this up--a table showing the amount of damage a character would take in a battle with tentacled creatures . . . and how that damage would increase with each additional tentacle. The mind boggled, pleasantly.

I would gladly have played D&D as a kid, but I wasn't living in that sort of town. Rocketlass still plays occasionally--I think she's a chaotic half-shark-alligator half-gully dwarf or something--and I knew that Ed had been fascinated by D&D and roleplaying games since childhood (as evidenced by this wonderful story for the Significant Objects series on a little-known game called The Mountains of Moralia.)

But even that knowledge didn't prepare me for the pleasure offered by Ed's piece about the Dungeon Master's Guide in the recent anthology Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Books. It's funny, loving, and self-questioning--all the things that a non-sappy essay on one's most cherished book should be--and on top of that, it's formally inventive. I'll share a few highlights, which, stripped from context, will seem a bit more fragmentary than they really are.

Here's one that gets at the charm of the obsessive specificity of the game's rulebook:
35. "Some of the words I've never encountered since. Psionics, which was this trippy other level of playing in which a character had all sorts of powerful mental abilities. It was distinct from magic--any character could choose to be a magic-user, but psionics was something you either had or didn't, and it was very unlikely you had it. I think there was a 1 in 100 chance you had psionic capability."

36. "I liked how so much space was devoted to a trait that so few characters would have. To a situation that might never come up. Just in case. Worlds within worlds."
And this:
42. "The Colors of Gemstones. Chances of Knowing the Answer to a Question."

43. "Intoxication Recovery Table."

44. "Cubic Volume of Rock Per 8 Hours Labor Per Miner."
That list represents the very organized quality that would have appealed to me as a pre-teen boy--the sense it gives that the world really is explicable if you are willing to apply yourself and, more important, be systematic. Lacking potential D&D partners, I met that need with Bill James's baseball writing, a gateway drug to nerddom of a different sort.

Then there's this, familiar from hours spent gawping in Waldenbooks:
70. "Look at this cover! It's totally insane. I'm amazed my parents allowed me to read this stuff at all. That they bought me this! Check it out. You've got this near-nude fire giant or demon or chaotic evil demigod, muscles bulging, looking rigid as a statue, with weird yellow flames dancing around his body and two horrible-looking horns coming out his forehead and a set of fangs and a nose like a fleur-de-lis and little inexpressive sunbursts where his eyes should be."
Which leads, inevitably, as it did in life, to this:
71. "Mom, it's not Satanic!"
If these excerpts have whetted your appetite, you should read the whole essay; on its own, it's worth the cost of the book, and that's before you get to Ray Bradbury's touching introduction about his Halloween-loving aunt and Edgar Allan Poe, or Karen Joy Fowler's piece on her youthful defense of The Once and Future King, one of my own favorites.

And if after reading Ed on the Dungeon Master's Guide, you find your taste for D&D isn't sated, I'd recommend Paul LaFarge's amazing 2006 interview with D&D inventor Gary Gygax for the Believer and this Grognardia post, to which D&D fans have appended their favorite examples of Gygaxian prose. Trust me: once you get sucked into that labyrinth, you'll wish you'd memorized the chart about the tentacles.

1 comment:

  1. I recently made the mistake of torrenting PDFs of some 20-odd-year-old D&D magazines and spent many hours of happy nostalgia looking through ancient squabbles about whether dark elves could go out in the sun and just how many dragon-men you got for each sown dragon tooth.

    Though it could have done with a bit of trimming, Mark Barrowcliffe's 'The Elfish Gene' well captures the world of being a teenage RPG obsessive, and the terrible social toll it can take...