Freaks, Geeks, and the Role-Playing Subculture

Trevor Rogers

Writer’s comment: English 104C (journalism) was a rare chance to abandon academic pretensions and disregard the formal rules of paper composition—in other words, to focus on writing the kind of article that a regular person would want to read. It was a liberating experience. Not only did John Boe’s assignments offer much-needed breaks from a seemingly endless succession of formulaic English essays, but the course also allowed me to delve into unconventional subjects that I might not otherwise have had a chance to explore. The article was inspired by proximity more than by any real interest in the subject—every Wednesday a group of D&D enthusiasts meets in the apartment below mine to indulge sword-and-sorcery fantasies—but I quickly developed an enthusiasm for the piece as I became familiar with the quirky Dungeons and Dragons subculture. John Boe’s guidance was essential throughout the writing process; in fact, my goal was to capture the light-hearted humor that is the cornerstone of his published work.
—Trevor Rogers

Instructor’s comment: Trevor Rogers’ feature article “Freaks, Geeks, and the Role-Playing Subculture” was not only a fabulous piece of writing, but it served as a wonderful teaching aid. The class was in the computer classroom, so one day we read some of the students’ drafts that had been handed in that day. When I read Trevor’s draft aloud, it became clear to the students what a publishable feature article would look like.
         Trevor’s piece doesn’t settle for being just a research piece or just an account of a D&D game. Instead he gives us both interesting personal experience and fact-based research. And it all blends together in large part because Trevor writes so well. Notice, for example, that although he writes graceful long sentences, he often uses short sentences to end his paragraphs with a snap: “And, of course, one slightly confused and reluctant barbarian dwarf.” “If the DM wants you dead, you’re history.” “It’s Story Time, interactive-style.” “To a gamer, dice are serious business.” To Trevor, writing is a serious business, but he makes the reading of his writing as much fun a playing a game.
—John Boe, English Department

It was three hours into my first role-playing adventure and I still hadn’t seen a single dragon. Or a dungeon, for that matter. Actually, I hadn’t seen a hell of a lot of anything beyond kneecaps and boulders, but those are the things you spend your time looking at when you’re a 4-foot-tall barbarian dwarf.
         I never wanted to be a barbarian dwarf. When I planned this whirlwind tour of the Dungeons & Dragons gaming universe, I figure I’d get to be a wizard or a fighter or something equally menacing. But being a newcomer to the world of D&D, I agreed to let the other members of the game create my character for me. Live and learn.
         Not that the character choice was completely out of my hands. There are eleven “classes” of characters to choose from in Dungeons & Dragons: barbarian, sorcerer, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, rogue, ranger, and wizard. I chose barbarian because it sounded the most manly. I was picturing myself as a virile, strapping warrior a la Schwarzenegger-era Conan. In my imagination I was strolling across a desolate wasteland wearing nothing but a leather loincloth, my tawny muscles rippling, a beautiful damsel slung over one shoulder.
         And then other players took over. Once you’ve chosen your class, the “races” that you can select from are as follows: dwarf, elf, half-elf, human, halfling, gnome and half-orc. The gaming experts who had agreed to let me sit in on their weekly D&D convention claimed that the race should coincide with the player’s actual physical characteristics. I was the (second) shortest person there, and there you have it. A barbarian dwarf, ha ha, joke’s on me.
         Not a particularly auspicious start, but then I hadn’t expected the warmest of receptions. I was a bit of an intruder at this weekly candle-lit gathering of D&D enthusiasts. Only one of the players was a friend of mine, and since I had confided that I was planning to write a feature on the much-maligned game of Dungeons and Dragons, the assumption was that I hadn’t come to play; I’d come to mock.
         Which wasn’t entirely true. But let’s be honest. Back in high school, very few of the popular kids were spending their Friday nights calculating the number of hit points it would take to slay a Gargantuan DemiSloth.
         Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of Dungeons and Dragons I think of kids with plastic pocket protectors and eyeglasses held together by Scotch tape. I think about hanging out at my friend John’s house during senior year, throwing popcorn at a group of his little brother’s friends who were gathered studiously around a heap of mystical amulets and D&D paraphernalia (most likely trying to summon a demon capable of punishing those who had come to scoff).
         But the Dungeons & Dragons group I was now getting a chance to observe, while not exactly putting the stereotypes to rest, at least pointed to the diversity of D&D players. There were, in fact, no pocket protectors in sight, and only one guy was wearing glasses. A quick survey of the room revealed two computer science majors, a pizza delivery driver, an English major, and the heavily tattooed singer for a local rock band. Their gaming characters were equally diverse. The cramped apartment living room was currently harboring nothing less than a Dungeon Master, an elf, a rogue, a half-elf, and a paladin.
         And, of course, one slightly confused and reluctant barbarian dwarf.

         To the beginning gamer, D&D can at first seem a little overwhelming, but the ingredients that make up a game are fairly simple. Here, in (extremely) abbreviated form, are the basic items you’ll need for a D&D experience:
         1: A Dungeon Master. This is the big cheese, the head honcho. The Dungeon Master knows more than you could ever hope to understand about the game, and is responsible for crafting the entire D&D experience. The DM is kind of a mix between rogue storyteller and mad scientist. In the world of D&D, the DM is God.
         2: Characters. Everyone who isn’t the DM is a lowly character in the DM’s world, with no responsibilities beyond navigating each treacherous adventure with all imaginary limbs intact.
         3: Reference Materials. There are tons of reference materials available to shape and enhance the game. Some are vital—like character sheets and monster manuals—some are not so vital, like optional “adventure guides,” that give creatively challenged DMs a preset storyline to follow.
         4: Dice. To play Dungeons & Dragons, you’ll need dice. Lots and lots of dice. And your typical, unobtrusive, six-sided white dice from an old Parcheezy board just won’t do. According to the Dungeons & Dragons players manual, you’ll need “One or two 4-sided dice, four or more 6-sided dice, an 8-sided die, two 10-sided dice, a 12-sided die and a 20-sided die.” And that’s just for starters. Serious players carry a velvet bag full of dice of all different varieties with them everywhere they go. Furthermore, the dice have to be different colors. Red is popular, as is clear, blue or even marbled with lightning bolts down the side. To a gamer, dice are serious business.
         5: A Miniature Figure. You’ll most likely want to have some visible representation of your character handy. These can range from simple marks on paper to the pewter figurines sold in gaming stores.
         And that’s it. No checkered board is necessary; there are no elaborately carved wooden characters to manipulate or fake money to keep track of. One of the great appeals of the game is its portability.
         One other thing you’ll definitely benefit from, though, is a stellar imagination. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t like a video game—it’s not a visual medium. It’s just a bunch of guys sitting around engaging in a sort of mutual hallucination.
         And this is where the Dungeon Master comes in. The quality of the storyline that the DM creates can make or break the game. A great DM makes the adventure believable, sets and adheres to strict rules, and is an expert storyteller.
         But the reliance on a DM also points to one of the biggest problems with D&D. Many people chafe at the idea of the DM because, after all, the DM is really just making this whole thing up. If he/she decides that a pack of harpies lands on your band of miscreants and carries off the four-foot barbarian dwarf, there’s really nothing you can do about. If the DM wants you dead, you’re history.

         We were somewhere on the barren plains of Sith, just outside of NeverWhere, when my Barbarian Dwarf once again got into trouble. I’d violated one of the premier rules of thumb for the beginning D&D player—I’d wandered away from my companions to do a little solo exploring—and now I was going to pay for my audacity.
         “You’ve been beset upon by three vicious, snarling Roches,” the DM said, giving me his well-rehearsed Penetrating Glare for the umpteenth time. This guy’s non-stop-intensity act was starting to freak me out. “What’s your strategy?”
         I didn’t know what a Roche was, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to admit it. I’d learned that if you asked for a description of the creature you were up against, one of the players would produce an illustration of some drooling, hideous monstrosity, and I didn’t need that kind of stress.
         “I told you not to go into that cave by yourself,” the Fifth-Level Sorcerer to my left admonished. I resisted the impulse to ask if dwarves are allowed to attack their fellow players.
         “But the talking scroll said ‘the shield resides in darkness’” I hissed back. The Sorcerer just giggled.
         At this point in the game I was wondering if our Dungeon Master was a remorseless sadist or if he just didn’t like me very much. Frankly, I was leaning toward the latter point of view. This adventure was officially titled “Quest for the Shield,” but it might as well have been called “Ice the New Guy,” because I’d spent most of the evening trying desperately to preserve my character’s puny hide.
         Players were beginning to look impatient as I sat and contemplated my options. Well, screw them. It’s easy to act nonchalant when it’s the guy next to you who’s being attacked by snarling Roches. After a few minutes I finally reached a decision that I could live with.
         “I’ll run away,” I told the DM.
         The Sorcerer thought this was the height of comedy. At first I assumed he was laughing at my cowardice, but no.
         “Try to escape from a Roche?” he chortled. “Do you have any idea how fast those things can run?”

         Wizards of the Coast, Inc. is the current force behind everything D&D. These are the guys who own the D&D trademark as well as the lucrative Forgotten Realms family of role-playing products. But Wizards of the Coast didn’t (in the immortal words of Billy Joel) start the fire.
         D&D, AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons), and just about every role-playing game that followed are actually the brainchildren of a couple of regular Joes from Wisconsin. Back in the early 70’s, Medieval Warfare Society member Gary Gygax published a strategy game called “Chainmail” and marketed it through Gygax’s fledgling company, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). A couple years later, a fellow member of the society, Dave Arneson, helped turn Chainmail into the first modern version of Dungeons & Dragons.
         It was all downhill from there for TSR. The history of the company is a long and bitter one, and just about everyone involved has a different take on the company’s demise. Most of the resentment these days is expressed by Gygax, who continues to take jabs at his former partners from the website he set up to promote his new role-playing game, Legendary Adventure.
         Bickering aside, these are the facts: Arneson left TSR immediately after the launch of D&D, then filed a lawsuit in 1979 that resulted in a monetary settlement. Gygax and new partner Brian Blume also had a falling out, and in 1985 Gygax agreed to sell his stock in the failing TSR Corporation. Wizards of the Coast, a corporation based in Washington, purchased TSR in 1997, and the massive toy company Hasbro in turn bought the Wizards out two years later.
         It seems to be the consensus that Wizards of the Coast, under Hasbro’s leadership, has done wonders for the modern role-playing world. They’ve already sponsored a number of tournaments, set up websites and chatrooms for gaming fanatics, and expanded the product line to include Star Wars games and Dungeon’s and Dragon’s-themed trading cards. Even the notoriously resentful Gygax, who rarely expresses anything but bitterness when addressing the D&D universe, has signed on as a supporter of Hasbro’s new and improved corporate sponsorship.
         Currently, the outlook for role-playing games is good. Personal computers have given the phenomenon a techno-boost, and the Internet has helped unite the gaming world. Though many diehard enthusiasts resist the technological aspects of online gaming, preferring to play the old fashioned way, most acknowledge the potential that the Internet holds for player networking. A simple Yahoo Internet search yields hundreds of sites dedicated to home gaming, offering everything from Dungeon Mastering tips to customized monster manuals. As twenty-year-old D&D player Duncan Fisher notes, “It’s a good time to be a gamer.”

         Every once in a while you participate in an event that truly resonates with you. You know what I’m talking about. You find that one activity, that one special thing, be it skiing or hockey or whatever, and you know that you’re going to enjoy it for the rest of your days.
         For me, Dungeons & Dragons is not that thing.
         Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed my D&D experience and acquired real respect for both the game and the people who play it, but in the end I just couldn’t conquer the awkward feeling that I was involved in something ridiculous. Because when you take away the hit points and statistics, even a die-hard gamer has to admit that the game boils down to an advanced session of make-believe. It’s Story Time, interactive-style.
         Yet for the people who love D&D, the make-believe component is the best part. It’s what distinguishes their game from dinner-party staples Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, as well as from the latest interactive versions of role-playing from Nintendo and Sony Playstation. Fisher, who has played almost every week since sophomore year of high school, likes to say, “The imagination is better than any video game.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. In a way I suppose it’s kind of sad that I find it difficult to get in touch with my inner adolescent and lose myself in an evening of slash-em-up Swords and Sorcery, but that’s the way it goes.
         So at the conclusion of only a single night of gaming I officially retired Groucho, my trusty barbarian dwarf, and left the role-playing world to the young at heart—those sorcerers, elves and half-orcs who do justice to the D&D tradition. Not that anyone lost sleep over my decision to abandon the game. I have to admit that, despite the affection I harbored for my pint-sized warrior, there probably won’t be any weeping over the loss of Groucho at the next meeting of the Davis Fantasy Club.
         And in the end it’s probably for the best, because (as my sorcerer friend graciously reminded me), anyone naive enough to try to outrun a snarling Roche wouldn’t have survived another evening in NeverWhere.