The recent death of Gary Gygax, one of the fathers of Dungeons & Dragons, left me pondering how much influence the game had on my development.
In second or third grade, I had avoided class as much as possible by feigning sickness (a 0-level hypochondriac spell). The school nurse had humored me while learning of my fascination with monsters. She told me her son owned this amazing book filled with details all about monsters and promised she'd bring it in the next day. She did, and when I held that first edition of the Monster Manual it was as if I'd found some lost, holy tome.
Since then I've lived and died in hundreds and hundreds of games. I've been awarded a lifetime membership in a gaming association, written and sold many magazine articles on the subject, and made close friends, all as if by the whim of a die roll.
As a kid, I never wanted to be a writer. But gaming propelled me to that end, and taught me how to tell stories, whether as a mercenary resting at a tavern or a fake god behind a screen.
I brought together a few other authors—friends of mine once deeply involved with gaming and now telling stories in their own, unique voices. Imagine them around the table: Holly Black, wielder of the coveted Andre Norton Award; Will Ludwigsen, a half-curmudgeon; Cecil Castellucci, the only person to become a bard by first edition rules; and Jim Hines, deservedly proud of his 18/00 career.
Unsuspecting families introduced this cadre to role-playing.
"My parents owned a bookstore in Southwest Florida from when I was about six until I was eleven or so," said Ludwigsen. "My mother, always a fantasy fan, saw Dungeons & Dragons in one of the distributor catalogs and ordered it for the bookstore to stock among the shell, bird, and fish identification guides demanded by elderly customers. It didn't exactly fly off the shelves, but my mother had an ulterior motive: she'd heard that 'smart' kids played it and gave me a copy . . . whether because I was already a smart kid or to make me one, I don't know."
Black was given the original red boxed set by her mother. "I couldn't understand what I was supposed to do, so she read the book and helped me roll up my first character. It was an elf. Back then, if you picked elf as your race, you didn't get a choice of class. It was perfect for me, as all my friends were giving up on playing dolls and D&D was the only socially acceptable (well, sorta, but this was during the game's heyday) outlet for my desire to tell stories with other people." In the early 1970s, Dungeons & Dragons had yet to advance from game to phenomenon, yet to acquire a social stigma.
Arguably what fascinated fantasy lovers was D&D's systematic and standardized treatment of fantasy tropes. One could finally settle the age-old argument of who would win: the zombie or the unicorn. Rather than stifle creativity, rules actually gave inspiration and laid the groundwork for adventure. Black remembered flipping through the Dungeon Master's Guide: "I was just amazed by the poison charts and the charts for insanity or to create the individual effects of artifacts. I was mesmerized. It seemed so full of stories, just waiting to be told."
Another appeal of D&D was the social aspect. Before the Internet, what else brought together the smart but socially challenged, the Trekkers, the Aspergers, the awkward fellows on the fringe of the schoolyard? The Audiovisual Club? (Extinct by the end of the twentieth century, though surviving in pop culture as a quaint indicator of geekdom.) The Chess Club?
Not many young adults think that sitting around a table littered with papers, odd geometrical dice, and bowls of processed snacks (save vs. poison or have fingers permanently stained bright orange) and talking about swinging a sword, rescuing damsels in distress, or slaying rot grubs is a thrilling way to spend an afternoon. Outside of gaming, I did little else socially in grade and high school. Prom was a far more frightening challenge than Tomb of Horrors.
"Though I didn't wear black or lurk in the back of the lunchroom with a like-minded gaming cabal, the other kids knew I was different and shunned me, mostly through avoidance but sometimes through active teasing," said Ludwigsen. "The utter contempt I showed for those people by either ignoring them or responding with a quick insulting riposte kept them at bay, usually. My family always had a peculiar sense of class consciousness: we were like the Ushers [a family of Scots baronets], fallen aristocrats doomed to live a practical existence. This insulated me from the barbs of these kids because, in the end, they just didn't matter: they were a bunch of hicks."
"I was always in the popular crowd. Or that crowd that was the one that was just below the popular crowd," said Castellucci, doodling on a character sheet. "When I was a sophomore in high school, my friend Jennifer [Aniston] and I hung out with a bunch of very cool boys from the Professional Children's School who were into D&D and also Twilight: 2000 [a post-nuclear role-playing game]. They were so cool that we played with them. Until that year in high school with those boys, mostly I kept my D&D playing on the down-low."
D&D may be responsible for more social interaction among the shy and awkward than anything else predating the webcam. The more people, the more characters, the better the game. Thus, the more exposure to different sorts of people, both real and imaginary, the richer the experience.
Black never had a formal group. "I kept recruiting people from all different social groups and teaching them the game. I taught a bunch of long-haired metalheads and some younger girls that were in an academically talented class with me, but none of the groups lasted that long."
After college and a few fiction sales, I dared to write articles for the gaming industry. And it paid better than any short story. It became a bit ridiculous at times. One afternoon, I wagered Black—we worked for the same medical publishing company in New York City—that if she came up with the most ridiculous idea for a gaming article, I could sell it. She picked magical battering rams. A few months later: Dragon Magazine #232, "And the Walls Came Down." I hope I bought her lunch with my payment.
And the others?
Peering through back issues on the bookshelf, Ludwigsen said, "The closest I came was getting a small computer program published in Ahoy! magazine when I was twelve. I loved Steve Jackson's magazine The Space Gamer, but it just never occurred to me to write for them."
Hines found early sales writing tie-in stories. "Two zombie pieces appeared in anthologies by Eden Studios, for All Flesh Must Be Eaten [a survival horror role-playing game]. I also did two superhero stories for Guardians of Order, in their Silver Age Sentinels world." Gaming offered Hines a chance to hone his fiction.
Then there's Black. I first met her at a gaming convention. I'll never forget her earrings, fashioned out of real dice. "I used to edit a magazine on gaming, called d8, and wrote a few articles for the magazine while I was working on it," she told us while sipping an Absolut potion. "That was a great experience because I met you, Steve, and also Tony DiTerlizzi, whom I do Spiderwick with."
I've written several stories with characters trapped by their geekdom—whether it was role-playing games, Universal horror films, or vintage clothing.
Had the others incorporated gamers?
The thought made Black laugh. "Maybe Cornelius Stone from Tithe and Ironside." Cornelius, or Corney for short, is a thorough geek, awkward and angry in social situations that aren't easily assessed like games.
"In Boy Proof and The Queen of Cool there are sensitive smart kids who like the fantastical," said Castellucci. "In my new novel Rose Sees Red, the older brother Todd runs a D&D game every Friday night in the garage. It takes place in 1982 and they are very reminiscent of my brother and his friends."
Hines sees his pastime in one character: "Darnak the dwarf . . . if anyone from my college group ever reads the Goblin books, they're going to know exactly where he came from. We had one DM who had us mapping walls of varying thicknesses on superdense graph paper, the kind engineers could use to design space shuttles. I had to tone things down a bit in my book, just to make it believable."
Ludwigsen's characters "tend to be people of imagination who fit oddly into the world. They try hard not to compromise with the zombies of grim reality shambling from jobs they don't love to houses they don't love to families they don't love. I write stories again and again about people perversely and obstinately living in their own realities because, truth be told, the gaming worlds I made as a kid were my escape from my father's violent alcoholic abuse, my parents' terrible divorce, and my own crippling lack of self-esteem. I was a badass in games before I figured out that life, in its weird deconstructionist way, is also a game."
I still game. Oh, not every week, but thereabouts. It does distract me from writing fiction—my mind can only encompass so much storytelling at once. And even if months might lapse between adventures, I could never utterly retreat from the game. At fandom, and even writing-related, conferences, I gravitate towards gaming (though people don't seem enthusiastic when I role-play the village idiot during Mafia at Readercon).
Hines, though, doesn't game at conventions. "I'm usually on panels or meeting up with other authors and editors, and I don't get as much downtime as I might like. I do have a gaming group in my mundane life, though. We meet every other week . . . well, we did, up until our cleric had a baby. We should be starting up again in a month or two. I'm told the baby already has the makings of a good barbarian."
I'm saddened that most of the cadre has left gaming behind. It seems like . . . growing up.
Castellucci managed to incorporate gaming into an author visit. "I did a library visit in Kalamazoo where the visit was 'Play D&D with Cecil Castellucci.' Green Ronin sponsored my event by donating some d20 books as giveaways. I did that the first night and then did a speech and normal teen visit the next day. It was awesome."
Ludwigsen organizes a semiannual event, Willcon, "a three-day event of games, movies, and storytelling in my home with thirty of my closest friends. During the rest of the year, we usually have one or two campaigns going on. I'm annoyed that they're usually fantasy-oriented because I like science fiction, but the other Willconians seem to like D&D. What I do, then, is usually make the big revelation at the end of my campaign be some big, Philip K. Dick moment of reality-bending when they find out that they're a lost colony or they're in a simulation."
In the last weeks of the final Clarion ever held in Michigan, Ludwigsen oversaw a role-playing game in a dim back room. We all played Boy Scouts faced with eldritch horrors and mad science. Years from now, I'm more likely to remember that night than the endless days of critiquing.
And lest you think I'm sprinkling this discussion with gaming terms to be oh so clever, I have to admit that every now and then, in person, I rate guys not on a 1-10 scale but with a Charisma of 3-18. It's only natural to adopt a pastime's vernacular, especially one adopted at an impressionable age. And the lingua rpga offers a great range of terminology that can be so aptly applied to a writer's life: the full-time writer as a prestige class; encountering obnoxious fans at a con and having to make a sanity check; trying to make that royalty check seem more impressive by changing it from dollars to electrum pieces.
Black admitted to arguing over alignments. On a recent tropical vacation accompanied by such luminaries as Karen Joy Fowler, Ellen Kushner, and Kelly Link, the question of who had what alignment triggered a major discussion. I suspect she considers me chaotic evil.
"Gaming speech generally doesn't make it into my day-to-day conversation, though it pops up on my blog from time to time," said Hines. "And if I stumble over the laundry basket at home, I might joke with my wife about failing my Dex check. She doesn't game, but she knows the lingo and is very tolerant of my own habits."
Ludwigsen confessed to using gaming as a social weapon. "A buddy of mine is so embarrassed by his love of gaming that he'll hand us books at work in envelopes to hide his interest. He doesn't tell girlfriends until they've dated awhile that all those weekends he claimed to be at the bar were actually spent playing. All of us take great pleasure in bringing up Dungeons & Dragons as much as possible with him in public to watch him squirm. To his credit, he's less embarrassed these days, so maybe he's getting the point: know what you are and be such."
Keeping gaming a secret from dates? I've done that.
Lastly, the question I have long pondered: while gaming made me a writer, did the reliance on so much that is cliché in gaming hinder me?
Castellucci was more confident. "Definitely gave me an edge. I think any time that you practice different characters you are stretching your repertoire as a writer. I would say the same thing for taking an acting or improv class. It gets you thinking on your toes."
But at some point in my 20s I realized that the heroes of high fantasy novels were so far removed from my sheltered, closeted life that they lost all appeal. I'd been working on a novel with fearsome goblins, a world-weary spy, and the requisite adolescent wizard—and I saw the manuscript as hollow. It took me years to make the transition from the stock characters found in gaming to ones that I could identify with, ones I hoped others could as well. Not all knights want to rescue princesses; some might care for their brothers.
"I believe gaming can help build some of the skills you need as a writer, like worldbuilding, or designing creative plot twists, or creating interesting characters," said Hines. "A good gaming session is basically collaborative storytelling, so it makes sense that some of the skills carry over. At the same time, you can't write a book or story like a game. A publishable story is going to need a lot more structure and coherence than your average gaming session."
"Here's the big question," said Ludwigsen as he tied shut his dice bag. "Role-playing taught me to keep people (players or readers) guessing about what will happen next, to offer surprises and hidden pleasures around every corner to lure them on. A dungeon and a story have much in common: you need a reason to be there, a sense of wonder drawing you on, and a big finish that gives you something significant to take away (either intellectually or physically). Running games interactively with others has finely honed my sense of just how to mess with people. Before every good gaming scenario or story is the thought, 'Man, wouldn't that fuck with their heads?' My adventures and stories are psychological experiments, tests of human morality and imagination that challenge people to think differently. Role-playing makes taking the perspectives of others much easier during writing; for twenty years, I've learned how to become characters. That doesn't always translate directly to the page, but knowing how to be another person has definitely been valuable. Being a game master has taught me to take genuine pleasure in entertaining other people. It's fun to make people laugh or groan or wince or celebrate. I got addicted to it at the table, and now I'm so desperate that I write stories to get it, too.
"One possible difficulty that gaming has engendered in me involves the fact that running a game can often be a reactive process. I plan a role-playing adventure far less than a story because I count on other people to bring the action for me. You can't do that in stories, and I sometimes have a hard time after concocting my weird experiment deciding what should happen next. I'm so accustomed to players doing things that I'm not sure always how to make my characters do them instead."
Maybe Black summed it up best: "To be honest, I don't think playing D&D gave me an edge over other writers. I do think collaborating on spontaneous stories as a player and creating intriguing scenarios as a Dungeon Master were experiences that probably helped me as a writer, but the thing that really stays with me is that I don't let characters say too much when they're fighting because I worry they're going to give up their initiative."
I still often think of life as a game of sorts, though regrettably it lacks the simplicity and guidance found in rulebooks. But if there's one thing I do know about gaming, it's done best with good friends. If only I could happen upon that speak with dead scroll. I'd offer thanks to that nurse, to childhood friends now lost, and most importantly to you, Mr. Gygax, wherever you are.