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Why I Still Love 'Dungeons & Dragons' in the Age of Video Games

The Christians were right: 'Dungeons and Dragons' is super fucked up.
August 7, 2015, 2:00pm
One of the author's weekly games. All photos courtesy the author.

"If you would read a man's Disposition, see him Game; you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven Years Conversation, and little Wagers will try him as soon as great Stakes, for then he is off his Guard."

-Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World, Richard Lindgard

"Dungeons & Dragons is some of the most crazy, deep, deep, deep nerd shit ever invented."


-Ice T

Playing Dungeons & Dragons after going through the polished and shoulder-padded world of the more normcore gateway drugs—Warcraft, Skyrim, Diablo, Baldur's Gate, whatever blockbuster thing with hit points and constitution scores that's keeping you from going outside—is like cracking open Revelation after a year of Sunday School. Unlike today's digitized RPGs, D&D was not designed to be accessible or even (to the chagrin of child psychologists) meaningful because, basically, it wasn't designed. Like all real art, the target audience for the first D&D rulebooks were the people who made them.

When D&D was thought up by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax in 1974, the idea was there'd be a loose set of rules for how to pretend to kill people in the fake middle ages, and anything not in the official rules you could just make up. In theory, anything could happen. That kind of sandbox-style freedom made D&D its own unique thing to everyone who played it, niche-adapted enough to survive without being subsumed into any of the other visions of pop fantasy it would inspire over the coming decades. It's Game of Thrones but it's also Adventure Time—and everything in between. Aside from attempts to scrub away the unconscious racism and sexism of its 70s campus-nerd roots, the current game has survived with most of its genuine eccentricities intact—not in spite of how out of step they are with what people expect from a wizardgame in 2015, but because of it.

The Christians were right. D&D is still—even in a world with Grand Theft Auto, spice, ISIS, global warming, and Donald Trump—completely fucked up. It is a game with talking floating eyes that want to disintegrate you, stats for the devil and the Buddha, a three-headed god that carries a panther-skin bag and throws a magic brick for 5-50 points of damage, magic teeth, the chance to play as a teleporting dog or a badger if you die, planets that aren't round, and psionic priest vampire manta rays.

But beyond all that, the reasons that D&D is still worth playing are the people you play it with. As opposed to online RPGs where players interact through screens or headphones, when you sit down for a game of Dungeons & Dragons you do it with your people. In the same room. With snacks. Without the rest of the bar watching. There's a story about three witches and a pack mule, which you all not only watched but invented, and then the witch threw a Dorito at you and drank your scotch.

You learn things about your friends during these times, too. Who are these people when the stakes are low and wagers are little and no one is cool? Poker night gives you permission to get into your friends' wallet; D&D night gives you permission to get into their heads. Sometimes it's no surprise: Patton Oswalt played a drunken dwarf, Marilyn Manson says he was a dark elf, VICE international atrocity expert Molly Crabapple played a thief—but would you have pegged our porn correspondent, Stoya, for a druid with a dog named George? It's important to know when there are hippies in your house.

The game is meant to reflect the people playing. D&D came out of the mimeographed, amateur-press wargame scene and reached the height of its popularity in the mid-80s, when zines had staples in them, Metallica didn't suck, and computers had not yet quite eaten the world—and it still carries a heavy debt to the handmade and the DIY. Every rule in the game has been crossed out and rewritten thousands of times by thousands of pencils in thousands of ways by thousands of Brads, Steves, and Marcys for tens of thousands of tables who wanted to do it this way instead of that way, and none of them needed to learn code to do it.

D&D gives you not only a reason to make real actual stuff, but a reason other people should care. At conventions you can see LED-lit mazes that make the Jackson Hobbit SFX team look like hacks, but the heart of the game is palace towers made from coffee cans and pig men painted with nail polish and crossing "winter wolf" off the wandering monster chart and writing in "warsnail." The nearest equivalent is the culture around the post-50s decadent-psychotic era of homemaking magazines when Woman's Day would show you how to make, like, shirred herring salad in the shape of an igloo on the rim of a lake of blue Jell-O. And for good reason: these distant scenes are both, at heart, about the ephemeral art of throwing parties. The eight-layer raisin-pineapple compote carousel and the foamcore Skull Fortress of the Hate Toad will both be gutted in 40 minutes, but right now it's fun and right now it's weird and that's a party. And when it's dead you spend a week planning the next one.

"Weird" was always key to D&D's continuing survival. On paper, the game should look and feel no different than any of the mechanized orc-killing toys you can get for your PC, Playstation, or XBox, or like the special effects blockbusters we're getting more and more now that Hollywood's figured out how to make armor and tentacles look right on a screen—but it doesn't. Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax and other architects of the early RPG scene had read Tolkien and Howard's Conan books, but their fandom was crazy deep and genuinely literary, embracing the wisecracking and oddly adult sensibility of Fritz Leiber's medieval noir, the anti-mythic experimentalism of Clark Ashton Smith, and the amoral freakshow wordplay of Jack Vance—pulp fantasy's Nabokov, who inspired spell names like "Oitluke's Freezing Sphere" and "Leomund's Lamentable Belabourment."

D&D's weirdness is always the weirdness of people, put on the spot and making things up all by themselves. It's the kind of 3:00 AM weirdness that video game designers have to dial back in order to have a plot or snare a big enough audience to justify their budget. It's the kind of weirdness that can be exactly as interesting as the people playing it, and the later it gets the weirder the storyline becomes. It's a manifestation of the players' collective imagination, and it's a formula that—despite mind-blowing advances in graphics and gameplay innovation—can't be replicated on a screen.

Zak Smith is an artist and occasional adult film performer whose paintings have appeared in many major collections public and private, including the MoMA and the Whitney. He lives and works in Los Angeles, where he runs a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for a group of friends consisting mostly of porn actresses and strippers. He is also the author of two multi-award-winning tabletop RPG supplements: Vornheim and A Red & Pleasant Land and was hired as a consultant on the latest edition of D&D.