I was fifteen years old when I first rejected Dungeons & Dragons. Ryan, Chris, and I were playing Starfox 64 in Ryan’s basement. You’ve Come a Long Way Baby was blasting from the CD player, failing to drown out the muffled shouts of Ryan’s parents fighting in the kitchen above our heads. I had a crush on Ryan’s older brother Sam. He arrived with a pepperoni and ham pizza in hand. In the other: a tupperware container of books, notepads, pencils, and dozens of miniature monster figurines. Sam offered to ply the three of us with pizza in exchange for one afternoon of D&D role play. That was my first foray into the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
Sam tried to explain the basic rules through mouthfuls of pepperoni while Ryan, Chris, and I picked figurines. Sam drew a grid on a huge piece of paper. All of a sudden our miniature figures were surrounded by a dozen others: goblins, orcs, and giant spiders. None of it made sense.
The game was a confusing, perverted version of chess with a lot of math and strange monsters instead of rooks and bishops. I stumbled through my first couple of turns asking question after question in a futile attempt to get my bearings. We were supposed to kill the attacking creatures but I didn’t understand how or why. I was only allowed to control one of the figurines, so I just mimicked whatever Ryan and Chris were doing with theirs. Goblins shrieked, swords slashed, and arrows flew while Sam revelled in the chaos of the battle. I was clearly missing something. Then my figurine died. That was it.
I sat there for an hour eating pizza and listening to Fatboy Slim while the chaos raged on without me. When the fighting was done, Ryan’s dad drove Chris and I home. So ended my crush on Sam and any fleeting interest I might have had in Dungeons & Dragons.
Minnesota gamer Dave Arneson and insurance salesman Gary Gygax published the first Dungeons & Dragons booklets in 1974. Their love of military war games spawned a new creation where they replaced meticulously reenacted scenarios and dozens of miniature metal soldiers with imagined worlds, giant open-ended sandboxes magical obstacles, treasures, monsters, and gods. They called it Fantasy Game and shared it with a few friends. Little did they know that this creation would come to completely redefine how games would be designed, played, and enjoyed.
Fast forward to 2015. Dungeons & Dragons is 40 years old, basking in middle age upon a wave of popularity. I’m somewhat less popular and can’t help but feel like I missed out on something magical. D&D is now owned by Hasbro (the same company behind Jenga, Monopoly, and Scrabble). It’s looking back at its younger self from atop bestsellers lists. Live games fill convention halls while D&D podcasts and Twitch channels pull hundreds of thousands of viewers. It’s influenced a generation of authors, from Junot Díaz and George R. R. Martin to TV writers Dan Harmon and Matt Groening. Warner Bros and Roy Lee (‘The Lego Movie’) even have a big-budget D&D movie in the works. 1
But things weren’t always so rosy for D&D. Like many of us, the game struggled through its formative teenage years. While we grappled with high school, divorced parents, and the paralyzing fear of coming out of the closet, D&D faced a chaotic onslaught of misinformation, controlling parents, and religious scrutiny. How did the game manage to overcome its demons and become the game adults and kids adore? What did D&D lose (or gain) slogging through that long, arduous forest of confusion? How did I end up writing about something I hated as a kid? And what ever happened to Sam? As with other, more famous adventures, this one begins with an unlikely pair of heroes in a quiet corner of the world.
Dungeons & Dragons was unlike any other game I’d played. It was not what I expected. D&D ignored game boards and rigid rules directing people to an expected and recurring conclusion. Instead, each player would create a unique character: a realistic approximation of themselves, a fantastically strange elf/giant hybrid, or anything in between. Dice rolls determined abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Various character classes allowed for a wide range of playing styles: sneaky assassin rogues, strong and noble fighters, mysterious sorcerers, or virtuous clerics. Those characters would then explore imaginary worlds evoked by a ‘dungeon master’ like Sam—half storyteller, half referee.
In spite of people like me, D&D became very popular. Gygax and Arneson had created a unique game that offered literal (albeit imagined) worlds of possibility. But D&D’s boundless potential also made the game difficult for parents, religious leaders, and naive, judgemental teenagers to understand. After my first tragic encounter with D&D, I retreated to the safety of video games—a platform I understood. But for many other people, this misunderstanding of D&D quickly transformed into fear and hostility. And faster than you could draw your imaginary great sword, Dungeons & Dragons found itself under attack from parents and religious groups afraid of the game’s power over impressionable young minds. They blamed D&D for delinquency, runaways, and even a number of tragic suicides. The media whipped up a storm of panic with the fodder, and Dungeons & Dragons began a fight for its life—a fight that would last an entire decade.
One of the more well-publicized incidents focused on the disappearance of a very smart young student at Michigan State University. He suffered from bouts of depression and addiction, and during an episode of self-harm, had gone into hiding in the utility tunnels under the university. His parents hired a private investigator who blamed the student’s disappearance (and his suicide the following year) on Dungeons & Dragons. The media attention that surrounded this case inspired multiple works of thoroughly mediocre fiction vilifying the game. These included the 1982 Tom Hanks made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters and the underwhelming novel it was based upon.
I remember sitting next to my teenage crush, Sam, and looking through his D&D manuals, guides, and handbooks after my useless character had died all those years ago. They contained long, detailed lists of demons, dragons, and undead creatures for players to vanquish. Today’s handbooks and manuals still do. But the descriptions of monsters and spell casting instructions (provided for anyone wanting to play a wizard, cleric, or sorcerer character) were so thorough and intricate that many oblivious parents began to fear that the monsters and spells were actually real.2
This fear spawned many knee-jerk, panicked reactions. One dad claimed he saw his son summoning actual demons into his room. Other parents feared that their impressionable young children would be unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality and that, somehow, the in-game death of their child’s beloved character would compel the poor kid to kill him- or herself in the real world. It all sounds batshit crazy now, but at the time D&D proved a very convenient scapegoat for everything from teen angst and addiction to mental illness and suicide. On some parenting pamphlet, I’m sure groups even blamed D&D for teenage homosexuality. Parents, if nothing else, are incredibly skilled at jumping to conclusions.
I didn’t experience this controversy first hand. But Katrina Middelburg did. She played D&D during the satanic panic in the ’80s and is quick to admit that D&D can be hard to understand if you’re not introduced to the game through actual gameplay.
If someone already had a negative or suspicious idea about the game and was handed a 200-page tome of cryptic language, tables and lists of weapons, armour and spells… well, that’s likely not going to do much to change their mind.
This new game, with its expansive and complex character- and world-building frameworks sparked thousands of imaginations. But at the same time, the intricate details and open-ended structure combined to form a barrier that kept parents from in the dark about its creative potential.
Like anyone playing D&D at the time, Katrina had heard all the crazy rumours and whispers. But stories like hers also show that the narrative of Satanism and suicide wasn’t representative of how all religious people viewed the game:
I knew there were rumours around that D&D was Satanic or dangerous in some way. However, I was lucky in that, despite the fact that my family was very religious (my parents are both Lutheran pastors), my parents didn’t buy into that idea at all. Nor was I alone in that experience. In fact, at least one of the groups I played in was made up primarily of kids I met at church youth group!
I remember it happening, but my parents made up their mind pretty quickly (through direct observation) that while D&D might be (in their opinion) a colossal waste of time, it wasn’t hurting any of us. I do recall feeling frustrated at what appeared to me to be wild conjecture and gross ignorance about what the game really was all about.
Julian is a high school student who recently set up a D&D club at his school in South Carolina. He was introduced to the game by his adoptive father, a deacon in their local Baptist church.
He was a dungeon master way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His being a devout Christian has not tarnished his outlook on the game. In fact, he was the one who encouraged me to join my first D&D club at the local library.
Gary Gygax, one of the game’s creators, was Christian himself. But in a surprising plot twist, he remained hesitant to discuss his beliefs for fear of further damaging the reputation of Christianity during the controversy. For years, he silently protected the tenets of the same groups who were attacking him and his creation.
The game had fans and supporters, but for many it proved too hard, too dangerous, or too futile to oppose the mainstream media’s narrative. Only a few brave allies stepped up to challenge the devilish portrayal of D&D. Tracy Hickman3, a Mormon fantasy author, repeatedly defended the game. Author Michael Stackpole4 was also a vocal dissenter. And in the same year that Mazes and Monsters came out, a little Steven Spielberg movie called E.T. opened with a scene of characters playing D&D.
Gygax and Arneson ultimately caved to the media pressure and removed a few references to demons, devils, and other controversial monsters. Unsurprisingly, multiple studies in the following decades found no causal link between D&D and suicide5 and every story about satanic rituals has since been discredited6. As you’d expect, the controversy only made D&D more popular with rebellious teens. There were hordes of avid D&D players around the world. Sales quadrupled in the year after the controversy broke and by the late ‘80’s D&D was sold in over 20 countries generating over $30 million in sales7. By 2004, consumers had spent more than US$1 billion on Dungeons & Dragons products and the game had been played by more than 20 million people8. At around the same time, I decided to give D&D another shot.
I was 21 and had just received my B.A. I was living in a crappy house just off campus which I shared with a loose handful of other struggling artists: a photographer and two guys in a dance-rock band. We played Halo for hours on end to a soundtrack of The Go! Team, Junior Boys, and The Streets. We had epic parties. These guys were cool. Too cool for Dungeons & Dragons. But some other friends from my creative writing classes had an ongoing game which they invited me to join. By this time, the Satanic Panic had mostly passed and newer versions of the D&D rules and guides were out. I thumbed through as many as I could in the weeks leading up to my first game. I took the guys out for beers a few days beforehand and had them tell me all about their characters and the lush forest world they inhabited. I was excited. There was a vast backstory and a plot with political intrigue and dynamic characters strewn across multiple towns and villages.
Understanding the rules and mechanics is no help when the other players at the table are solely focused on picking fights and looting the bodies of everything they kill. And they did kill everything9. The detailed and expansive world they described to me was nothing more than a pretty backdrop. Instead of gently pulling on the loose plot threads, learning who to trust, and unravelling the mystery, they raced through the wilderness arguing and fighting over flanking mechanics, THAC010 (don’t ask), and the weight of treasure each of them could carry. The only times they worked together was when a fight would inevitably break out. And as soon as it was over they would turn and fight each other for the scraps of armor and loot strewn around the dead bodies.
I made up an excuse and retreated back to my roommates and our drunk Halo marathons with a stubborn sense of superiority. In my mind, they were playing it wrong. They had invested hours of planning, energy, and creativity building a vast, living world but spent all their time in it fighting with each other over coins, rules, and weapon stats. In Ryan’s basement a decade earlier I had felt left out. I felt like I didn’t understand, like I was missing out on something that might have been really cool. This time I felt that they were the ones missing out on something. It took me another decade to figure out what that was.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that those crazy parents and religious leaders back in the ‘80s had led themselves astray. D&D is not an evil game. It is a social, imaginative game that actually takes no moral position at all. That was part of the problem. You win other games by amassing the most money, capturing your opponent’s king, or collecting the most points; the objective is clear from the outset. While those things may be part of a D&D adventure, they aren’t the end goal. In D&D, winning can be anything from ousting an evil zombie king, to returning a stolen artifact, or surviving a decade-long siege incited by a fanatic religious order hell-bent on controlling people’s minds and stealing their money.
But I was just as mistaken. The best thing about D&D—the thing that sets it apart from every other game—is that you can make it your own. In fact, you have to make it your own. The game reflects the people at the table. If you project your fear, worries, and insecurities onto something like D&D—if that’s what you bring to the table—you will probably end up misinterpreting an innocuous pastime as a secretive and powerful demonic force stealing away your children’s innocence. If, on the other hand, you bring nothing at all to the table, you will leave disappointed every time. I was used to video games that boxed me in and told me where to go and what to do. I expected the game to do all the work. D&D didn’t let me down. More than anything, I let myself down.
A new generation of heroes
My first D&D adventures, like many others, were restricted to dark basements and bedrooms, hidden from the scrying eyes of evil parents. But students like Julian, and the rest of this new generation of gamers are encountering D&D in stores, libraries, and school-sanctioned clubs at colleges, universities, and high schools around the world.
Julian, for one, admits that some people had reservations when he first tried to set up a Dungeons & Dragons club at his high school. But his principal was very accommodating as soon as Julian described how the game could benefit young learners.
D&D is great for encouraging teamwork and communication. I have one eighth-grader in my group who is very introverted. At first, he had trouble asserting himself and communicating with others in the group. But, after two months of playing, he has become a very creative, outgoing member of our team.
A lot has changed since the ‘80s, but memories of the Satanic Panic still linger and not all school administrators will so quickly approve a D&D club. A number of other students I spoke to had their club applications denied. The good news is opposing forces are combining to chip away at what little is left of that fear and misunderstanding. Now more than ever, popular culture and epic fantasy are becoming increasingly synonymous11. The storylines from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones could have come straight out of these adventure club epics. Mainstream TV shows now have D&D-themed episodes. And a new (fifth) edition of D&D has been released with streamlined rules and a dedicated starter set to ease new players into the game (plus a huge marketing push featuring CGI adventure trailers, book tie-ins, and the aforementioned big budget movie). And the impressionable young minds that needed protection from monsters and demons have grown into adults that now collect and archive the anti-D&D literature that spread during their childhoods. They’re also the ones teaching the game to this new generation of heroes.
All of the best elements of each edition of D&D have come together in fifth edition to make a singularly approachable game that at the same time, provides players and Dungeon Masters alike with enough options to allow them to play the kind of D&D game they want to play; to tell the stories they want to tell; and ultimately have fun, make friends, and create cherished memories.
Katrina still plays D&D today. She also helped set up a D&D club at the school where she teaches in the Netherlands. I asked Katrina if the hangover from the Satanic Panic could pose an obstacle to setting up these D&D clubs. She told me that after outlining the history and benefits with the principal, they agreed to implement it knowing the kids would get much more than a game out of the experience.
And in her case, the social aspect of the game that D&D provided, proved to be just as important to the students as to the parents and administrators.
In an era when some are concerned that kids are spending too much time behind their computer or smartphone screens, this is an activity where kids play face to face, in small groups. The social nature of the game leads to connections outside of the club. I’ve seen so many friendships develop between students in the club at our school!
I can’t help be jealous. The options that I had back in high school were Yearbook Club or Math Club—neither of which involved endless imagination. But in talking with these students and teachers, I also learned that there’s more to all these D&D clubs than just fun and games. Role-playing games offer young minds so much more than just dragons to slay and demons to vanquish.
Christopher set up a D&D club at the school where he teaches in Milton, Georgia.
The biggest thing that D&D teaches, in my opinion, is cooperative storytelling. It taps into our underlying need to hear, engage with, and tell stories. And because it’s a role playing game, it emphasizes telling a story together.
When I asked Katrina the same question, she listed a ton of skills that role-playing games are teaching her students. At the top of the list was teamwork.
Collaboration is one of the most important life skills students can learn before they move out into the modern working world. They play as a team, all trying to achieve the same goals, and because all the group members have different strengths and weaknesses, they have to work together in order to succeed.
D&D really teaches people how to work with others who may or may not share their backgrounds, ideals, or motives.
After all these conversations, it seemed crazy to me that any school wouldn’t have a D&D club. Over the course of a long adventure, the students are required to flex all kinds of mental muscles. Yes, they’ll need swords and shields but also problem solving, improvisation, negotiation, and critical thinking. (Does that rule apply in this situation or not?) Christopher told me that a lot of the time he won’t even bother coming up with a solution to the puzzles he puts in the adventures for his students. Instead, he just allows them to brainstorm, working through their different creative processes out loud as a team.
Their plans don’t always work, but the students improvise, learning from their mistakes. “Learning to fail is an integral part of leadership,” Christopher explains. Role-playing made-up encounters lets the players experience failure in a safe environment.
Later in life, they will have the skills required to deal with and learn from real-world disappointments. And while he admits having an aversion to the management speak of “team-building,” Christopher has seen first-hand the many ways that role-playing games encourage and build the empathy required of true leaders.
Of course Katrina and Christopher are by no means the first to see the skill building potential of role-playing games. A cursory Google search yielded dozens of articles such as Leadership lessons from from D&D and Everything I need to know about management I learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons. But I can’t help feeling like the students in these clubs will have a jump on their classmates.
D&D is teaching them the soft skills that high schools and colleges struggle to fit into their curricula—skills that will help these young people survive the real world adventures of interviews, projects, deadlines, and career changes. By bringing role-playing games into the classroom, teachers like Christopher and Katrina are helping to prepare the next generation of leaders to face the daunting challenge of working together in a time when we spend most of our lives in front of screens.
It’s just so much fun. And giving students a place to have fun — to kick back and geek out with other like-minded friends — cannot be overrated. Many of the RPG students at our school say the club feels “like home” to them. That’s a feeling I wish I could create for every single student at every single school.
And me? I now sit where Sam once sat: in the hallowed seat of the Dungeon Master. It took me two decades and two failed attempts to understand the magic of Dungeons & Dragons. I understand now that Sam got out of the game exactly what he wanted to get out of it. So did my creative writing classmates, as childish and frustrating as they were. It turns out that we all just wanted different things. What I wanted was a story.
This year, I started running two campaigns for two different groups of friends. For us, D&D is group storytelling that uses rules, monsters, and spells as writing prompts. It’s a game, but one where each turn is as much improv as strategy, where each game session becomes part of a larger ongoing story arc, and where anything is possible with a favourable roll of the dice. As much as D&D is a game you play, it is also an adventure—a legendary tale born of collective imagination, told as it unfolds around you. Over time, the characters level up, growing stronger, richer, and wiser, gradually preparing for larger plot arcs, bigger stakes, and more challenging quests, all of which emerge as needed based on the choices that my friends make.
Now that I know all the rules, I know that I can bend them—break them if needed. We often make up our own new rules to suit the situation.
(All the bird creatures look the same to you? Roll a d20 racism check to see if you can determine which one you just hexed.)
There’s no right or wrong, just choices and dice rolls. Published adventures provide backstory and waypoints, but even with those, you have to make things up as you go while your diligent dungeon master tries to keep up, describing the (often hilarious) outcomes of the decisions you make. I have friends who still play older versions of the game, with the same complex rules I first encountered as a teenager. I have other friends that use miniatures and spend hours finessing and calculating the moves and angles of their epic battles. I understand now that the point of D&D is to make the game your own.
For me, that means trying my best to just stay out of the way so the characters tell the story they want to tell. It’s hard to anticipate their reactions. They almost never do what I expect them to, and I sometimes end up improvising myself into a corner. But I’m learning as I go and I’m slowly getting better. Some of our favourite jokes and side quests have emerged from trying to reconcile discrepancies in the plot. And if nothing else, it’s incredibly fun to watch the characters stumble from an ambushed caravan near a burned down village to the mysterious town council, to the starry tower with its wise, dark-haired wizard sporting a lisp—a guy they might not trust—but whom all crush on. In my head he looks a lot like Sam. I’ve come a long way, baby.
- Mythbusting the anti-role playing literature that spread during the Satanic Panic; a hilarious look at some of the myths that have come out of the role playing game era
- DND Wizards; Learn the basics of D&D
- D&D Meetups; A listing of all D&D meetups in the world
- Starting and running a role playing games club; a great reference by Katrina Middelburg-Creswell for how to run your club
- How we won the war on Dungeons & Dragons; a summary of how players fought and won the war on D&D