I was initiated into the mysteries of gaming via a grade school classmate’s copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. A mysterious artifact, this red box contained a set of waxy, dull-edged dice and a couple of thin rulebooks. Designed to be played on its own or as an introduction to the complexities of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Basic Set-or “Red Box” as it came to be known by gamers-became the key to an entire universe of adventure and magic. Little did I know at the time this would be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with gaming and fantasy in general.
With the news that D&D publishers Wizards of the Coast intends to release a new edition of the introductory rule set-in a red box no less-I thought it might be fun to ask a few writers about their own early experiences with the world’s best known fantasy role-playing game.
Jay Lake, the author of ten novels including his most recent, Green, told me that D&D became a big part of his life as boarding school student.
“At boarding school, if you’re good and fast with homework, and deeply socially and athletically inept otherwise, there’s not a lot to do. I’d been to seven schools in nine years on three continents when I hit Choate Rosemary Hall,” said Lake. “I possessed the kind of poor social skills that are almost hip today, but were a recipe for meat-grinder misery in the 1970s when too-smart, too-isolated kids didn’t have ready access to the kind of virtual retreats we have today in gaming, programming and online life. Geek culture at the teen level didn’t exist yet, except as a special class of victimhood. Combine that with a raging case of clinical depression, and I was a disaster waiting to happen.”
Dungeons & Dragons provided a constructive way to pass the time for Lake and his friends.
“The alternate worlds and wild imagination of D&D gave me and my fellow misfits an outlet, and we had dozens upon dozens of hours per week to spend on it. Where else were we going to go? We lived in our high school. Think about that for a minute. Six or eight ferociously bright kids-Choate is one of the most academically competitive schools in the nation-with nothing to do but make things up to amuse one another, and D&D providing the framework.”
Although those years have since passed, Lake still credited the game with providing a foundation he has built upon as a successful writer.
“Those three years playing D&D at boarding school did more to ground me in storytelling, plot construction, and sheer, raw imaginative throughput than any other single activity of my life. Today I’m a successful fantasy and science fiction novelist with ten novels and over two hundred short stories in print or on the way. I might have gotten to this point by a different path, but it would not have been the same journey,”
Author Paul Jessup, who still plays today, also felt that the game helped him in his later work as a writer.
“Being that I was the Dungeon Master almost 90% of the time I played, it really helped me sharpen my improvisational skills, which of course helped my writing skills quite a bit.”
Ironically, considering the 1980s-era hysteria that surrounded the game and its supposed links to the occult, Author Matthue Roth started playing D&D with friends in his youth group.
“I got into D&D about the same time I was becoming religious, when I was 13,” said Roth. “I was in this Orthodox Jewish youth group with a bunch of my friends. We started playing on Saturday afternoons at the rabbi’s house. We couldn’t write anything down, of course, but we had our sheets, we could roll dice, and the DM, my friend Mike Seltzer, had all these charts and maps that he would try to keep hidden from us. Then the rabbi’s six kids would run in, and all the tiny kids, the kids of anyone who was there visiting the rabbi, would come in and want to play. In a few months, there was this whole flock of tiny yeshiva boys who were schooled in D&D.”
Roth, an educator as well as writer, said that he still considers the game a great tool for building empathy and awareness.
“On a base level-and I’m saying this as a professional educator & curriculum designer-it’s great for getting kids to realize there’s a world beyond their own, and to put yourself in another world or make yourself think like somebody you’d never be. One of the nerdiest, most non-physical people I knew would always be a fighter or a ninja. But there’s something more than that: it reminds you of old-fashioned sitting-around-the-fire-and-storytelling, word-of-mouth stories.”
Roth is enthusiastic about the new red box:
“It sounds totally cheesy, but it makes me want to play D&D again. Partly, it’s a reminder that D&D still exists, and there are still novel things that can be done with the concept. Partly, it’s just an invitation to dive back in. And that’s really all we need.”