The death of Gary Gygax, co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, has occasioned an outpouring of writing on the place of D&D in our culture. Salon’s Andrew Leonard was fast out of the gate identifying the “genetic influence” of D&D on the world of the Internet.
Next came Seth Schiesel in the Times, with observations on how the game brought isolated devotees together socially. In a fine piece in the Journal, Brian Carney pointed out that the original, pre-computerized D&D was simply “structured, collaborative storytelling” — exactly what attracted me to the game in my youth. I cared very little for the encyclopedic rules and charts (which often made little sense in the earliest editions of the game) and frequently ignored them in my own gamemastering, which I viewed as closer to the role of a stage director. My job was to make sure my players had a great time and went home with great stories, which I would recap in a mimeographed magazine.
Then, on Sunday, Wired’s Adam Rogers, on the Times op-ed page, presented an exhaustive and only slightly-overstated recap of the “D&D built the Web” argument.
So Gygax’s passing away occasioned a sort of distributed coming-out party for journalistic geeks. That seems fitting. For me it also served as a reminder of a question that always hovered in the back of my mind during the years I spent roaming others’ D&D worlds and crafting my own.
In D&D and its role-playing descendants, you play a character whose traits are quantified and typically assigned random starting values. This made perfect sense to me as applied to either physical or supernatural abilities — since you weren’t going to pull out a Sword +2 and charge the guy across the table from you, and fireballs were simply not going to fly across your basement room, you needed some sort of proxy system for evaluating individual abilities in these realms and resolving conflicts.
But other traits, like intelligence and charisma, present themselves naturally in the course of game play. The charismatic player was the one who could rally the gang to his side, and no roll of the dice was going to make the group schlub into a natural leader. So what did the randomly assigned values for these characteristics mean? How could a player who was himself a dim bulb play a character with 18 intelligence points? What was a smart player supposed to do with a character with a low brainpower score?
What ought to happen in D&D when the real-world qualities of a player were at odds with the game’s numerical dictates? Which ought to rule — free will or predestination? From that fateful day in 1975 or so that I first played the polyhedral dice, I never could resolve this Miltonic quandary. I don’t know whether today’s World of Warcraft clans face the same questions. But certainly part of the lasting fun that Gygax bequeathed us was the opportunity to grapple with them.
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