"I had been polymorphed into a dragon by a magic-user when I ran up against this palladin -- really an anti-palladin with an evil sword -- who put an anti-magic spell on me. So there I was, my dragon was gone and I was standing naked on the castle wall. I had to jump off, or the palladin would kill me. I ended up in the dungeon for two game-weeks, killing rats with my sword and eating them," recalls David Scalzi, an otherwise sane Washingtonian who is hooked on a blend of Tolkien, war games, science fiction and Prince Valiant known as Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D.
Scalzi, 28, eventually found his way out of the dungeon but he is still not out of danger. He has been playing the same game of D&D for six years, with a hard core of eight other people who meet weekly in Scalzi's apartment.
"I have friends who talk about nothing else," admits Scalzi, "but actually it's a good shorthand vocabulary. If I say someone has 18 charisma plus bonuses, a D&D player knows immediately that I'm talking about someone like Sean Connery. And if I say someone has 3 dexterity, you know he drops things all the time."
The game that now has its own vocabulary, two magazines and whole shops devoted to it grew out of the war games of the '50s and '60s.In 1973, two war-games named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson added another element to the basic role-playing format: fantasy. The game first caught on at college campuses, but it eventually snared some post-college adults and filtered down to the preteens.
"I was in London making a film about Merlin and I needed sombody to make some miniatures for it," says Mark Chorvinsky, now owner of the Rockville shop Dream Wizards, which claims much of the credit for bringing D&D to the Washington area. "I went to a miniatures exhibition and in the midst of all the miniature cars, trains and soldiers I saw these fantasy figures. Someone told me they belonged to a game called Dungeons & Dragons, a game in which there's no competition and no goal. Now that I know the game, I think there is competition, but it's not the essence of the game. If you're a non-competitive person, you can look for lost knowledge or search for ancient texts. The hack-and-slash type playing is the least you can do with the game."
The main vehicle for the transmission of D&D knowledge is not so much the speciality stores, books and miniatures but the individual Dungeon Master, the DM, the person who plans the campaign and encounters, who plants poisonous spiders and fire-breathing monsters around every perilous passage of the mazelike dungeons he conjures up.
Ted Kammen, a 17-year-old Wilson High School senior, is DM to a group of 16 nine- to eleven-year-olds in an afterschool program at Janney Elementary School in Northwest. Most of them seem to find the hack-and-slash school of D&D good fun. As Ted helps them roll up characters with the dice, most of them end up as fighters.
"The character is you in a world I've created, a world in which you gain experiences and achieve levels. . . This is a game you don't win. The satisfaction comes with becoming more powerful and solving individual problems within the adventure," says Ted.
The characters have attributes such as strength, intelligence and charisma, and just how much of each is determined by rollling the dice.
"What do you want to be?" Ted asks 10-year-old Kent Cushenberry. "A fighter? A magic-user? You look like a solid fighter type, so take the highest score you've rolled and make it strength. Then you can borrow some of your wisdom points and add them to strength. If you're a fighter, you don't spend much time being wise."
Everybody else wants to be a fighter, too, but for variety Ted drafts some thieves and magic-users. Then everyone rolls again to determine how many gold pieces he gets to buy his armor, sword and other equipment.
"What kind of armor do you want?" Ted asked Kent, consulting a price list in one of his dungeon-master handbooks. Some DMs use miniatures and modules as props, but Ted adheres to the pure fantasy role-playing (FRP) school of D&D: he uses only books, dice, pencil and paper.
"You've got a lot of money. I'd say get splinted mail. One of the things the game has done is to get people to really to into depth in analyzing medieval armor," he adds to a visitor. "Thieves can't sneak up on people in metal armor," he tells another kid. "You'll have to buy leather armor."
"Which isn't very protective," warns one of the fighters.
Each player writes down his own character's attributes in a notebook and keeps track of his gold pieces and hit points -- numbers that determine whether you kill the monster or the monster kills you. The kids also have to choose the character's alignment -- whether to be good, evil or neutral.
"I think neutral's the best 'cause you can switch, you can do everything," says Aaron Eisendarth, 10.
"Most people end up being neutral," agrees Ted. "But assassins have to be evil. . . Now I'm going to start you off in a town. You meet this guy and he says, 'How would you like to go to a dungeon and fight monsters and get gold? It will cost you 10 gold pieces.' What would you do?"
After the kids have bargained the price down to seven gold pieces, tramped through a savannah and entered the dungeon, Alexander Dwinell, also age 10, who is leading the pack, is attacked by a giant spider.
"The book has more than 350 monsters," explains Ted. "You get to learn their strengths and weaknesses."
The spider is strong enough to clutch Alexander by the throat and make Ted ask if there's a cleric in the house.
"Now you're worried 'cause you're all fighters and you don't have a cleric," he chides.
But when seven fighters have attacked the spider by rolling dice, they rack up enough points to kill it. Before they can savor their triumph, Ted has them in another room of the dungeon with seven mysterious sacks in it.
"Do you mind if we burn the webs first with my touch?" asks Alexander.
By the time the kids have to go home, one has fallen into a pit. Another is in danger of turning into yellow mold, and a thief is picking a lock to a secret door. They have gained 200 experience points for killing the giant spider and divided up a bag of gold. Beyond the next bend there may be more gold, and there are certain to be more monsters. And what if a monster should win the next round?
"Characters die," says Ted. "They can be resurrected, but that's rare, because it takes a high-level cleric to do it. Or they can just take negative hit points and be unconscious until they rest for a while. If a character does die, a player can roll up a new character. After you've been playing for a while you usually work more than one character at a time anyway."
"Damian cries when his character dies. He goes into a real tailspin," says Judith Hickey, mother of D&D players Damian, 7, and Jeffrey, 10. "Jeffrey is the DM for Damian and his friends. They play a lot and they talk about it all the time. But I don't think they're addicted. They can turn it off and do homework."
Nicholas Long, a psychologist and director of the Rose School for children with emotional problems, thinks this kind of fantasy is fine.
"It allows for all kinds of mental activity to take place in a safe environment," says Long. "Sometimes the demands of life are so intense that we turn to fantasy. As long as it's not taken to extreme, this kind of fantasy can provide a rich inner life. A child who plays Dungeons & Dragons can have the same level of adventure -- in his mind -- as a 19-century child might have in real life as an apprentice on a ship crossing the Atlantic."