Last Wednesday night, under flickering fluorescent lights, a group of eight men gathered as they do each week in a second-story Alexandria toy shop called The Little Soldier to do battle in a mythical realm created by Randy Campbell, a 27-year-old government attorney in the Veterans Administration.

For the past six weeks, Campbell has been the Dungeon Master, or D.M., in this ongoing saga of Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that became front-page news last month when two Virginia parents filed a suit against the principal of their late son's high school, alleging that the boy committed suicide after a player in a game at school placed upon their son a curse "which intended to inflict emotional distress."

The only emotional distress expressed in The Little Soldier on Wednesday came from another government attorney, who is 32 years old and asked that his name not be used in this article. "When some people hear that you play D&D, they think you're crazy," he said, "and I'd rather not give anyone ammunition."

Although D&D has been in existence for a decade, it was not until 1979 that the game caught the attention of the nation in a spectacular way: a Michigan State University student disappeared for almost a month in a 10-mile network of steam tunnels under the campus where he and some friends would act out rounds of the game in an atypical fashion (it is normally played indoors with paper and pencils). This rather bizarre example of fantasy role-playing seemed all the more weird a year later when the student, James Egbert, committed suicide.

But, in general, D&D seems quite a bit more ordinary than these two suicide tales might suggest. Since 1979, 6.5 million D&D game sets have been sold, and the company that markets them, TSR Inc. in Lake Geneva, Wis., estimates that between 3 million and 4 million Americans are actively involved in playing the game, with 21 percent of the players over the age of 21.

"The game is misunderstood for perhaps two reasons," said Dennis Largess, who owns The Little Soldier. "Most parents don't understand why these kids have their head in a book and aren't outside playing baseball. They're doing it because the daily world is too humdrum and, in the game, they can act out the roles of characters they'd like to be. And then there are some born-again Christian groups which have pointed out that, in D&D, magic works and players can call upon demons to aid them."

Dungeons and Dragons is really an outgrowth of adventure war games like Gettysburg and Bismarck that became popular in the '50s. These games were played on large boards and used plastic pieces to duplicate battle situations with one major difference: the players could change the outcome of the campaigns. In 1973, two war-gamers named Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created D&D by borrowing characters from medieval history and adding an aspect of fantasy, in which the players acted out in dialogue the roles of the characters they assumed or created.

"This is acting on a very small scale," said Norris Hazelton, a 34-year-old Air Force captain who plays at The Little Soldier. "The Dungeon Master is sort of the director of the play, and you take on the role, say, of an elf. As you get more advanced, you can really create a very defined character, to the point that if someone isn't here, we can play his character because we know how he would act. The first time people play these games, the initial character they send out is themselves. Then they learn that they can create characters that are much better suited to the game. Some criticism has been made that you can act out an evil character, but it doesn't happen that often, and 99 percent of the time good triumphs over evil. There's one company in Bath, Maine, called The Companions, which markets a game in which you must play a good character. It is their intention that good always overcome evil."

In a D&D game, the Dungeon Master rules a world that must be explored by the players. The ultimate goal is to accumulate treasure and power. As players become more advanced, the D.M. will create a world; in more basic play, the D.M. will simply assume control of a world depicted in one of the "modules" published by TSR. Here's a typical introduction to a module:

"Your party has journeyed to a remote section of the Caliphate of Talan. You are seeking the Salver of All Knowledge for the Caliph to help in the impending battle for the silver-rich Rab Mountains with the bordering land of Kush. The Salver is said to hold the answer to any question asked it. To succeed means vast wealth and lands; failure means death or exile."

In Randy Campbell's game Wednesday night, the band of adventurers came to a cave and approached it. The players sat around a 4-by-8-foot table. Each player had a custom-painted figure that was moved around a sheet of grid paper, on which the D.M. sketched the outline of the cave entrance. Joe Walukonis announced to Campbell that he was going to enter the cave, and Campbell told him that he had encountered three Minotaurs.

"Essentially what we've done so far in the game is besiege the dragon's lair," said Hazelton. "This dragon wiped out an entire castle; there's got to be a big treasure in there because dragons are only in it for the money. We have a pseudo-dragon up there in communication with a magic user."

"The gnome doesn't know that," said John Norton, a 23-year-old electronic technician.

"Be careful," said Hazelton. "Historically, this gnome has lied to us before. We've tried treasure and sex and nothing seems to get to these people."

As the game progresses, the players move through a range of attention and emotion: At times the level of concentration is on a par with a high-stakes poker game; more often the conversations run tangential to the action at hand. There seems to be more down time in a D&D game than in, say, a game of chess. Virtually every action requires a complex series of calculations, and the only real tension in the game comes when a player elects to place his character in a potentially dangerous situation, as when entering a cave inhabited by a dragon.

The game is essentially devoid of competition; the players roam through the imaginary playing field as soldiers of fortune who are collectively attempting to outwit various demons and dragons. And yet, while this is generally done by most of the players en masse, each player must square off individually against the D.M. to determine the outcome of his action. All this makes for incredibly cerebral activity. As each player is engaged with the D.M., determining his chances of being spied in the shadows, the other players may be wandering around the toy shop, examining boxes containing other adventure games like D&D. "The big thing in adventure games these days," said Hazelton, "are the three N's: Nukes, Nazis and Nudes."

But D&D is far and away the best seller, and there are at least two dozen ongoing games being played in the Washington area. Another one was in progress Wednesday afternoon in 15-year-old Harold Pomeranz's Arlington living room, where he was D.M.ing, as they say, a TSR module called Queen of the Demonweb Pits, through which three of Harold's classmates at Yorktown High Scool were wandering. Harold was sitting behind a foot-tall screen, marketed by TSR, which hid from the players a map of the playing field. The players sat around on a couch and chairs.

Unlike The Little Soldier group, Harold's used no graph paper to block out the action; rather, each player made notes on a sheet of paper as Harold verbally described the geography of the particular place occupied by the players. This group was also more steadfastly attentive to the game; the action progressed more quickly; there were fewer digressions; and the players were more homogeneous. Whereas The Little Soldier group was a collection of individuals drawn from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Harold and friends all seem cut from the same brainy high school cloth. No quarterbacks here: When Harold isn't playing D&D, he's fooling around with his IBM Personal Computer, a role that his colleagues seem equally suited for.

Before starting the game, each player makes a series of dice rolls to partly define his character's personality. The D.M. can also distribute various magic items to the players. The Scimitar of Sharpness, for example, is a magical blade which may sever opponents' limbs; a Mace of Disruption may disembody the undead; a Periapt of Health prevents its owner from contracting diseases. Each player begins with a certain number of "hit points," partly determined by the initial dice rolls, which indicate how many hits he can sustain before being killed; similarly, each enemy requires a certain number of hits in order to be slain.

The D.M. describes a small piece of the playing field, which may be as simple as, "You come to a door." The player can open the door by saying, "I'll open the door," whereupon he might be attacked. He could also burn the door down. "There's no real right or wrong," Harold said. "If you die I suppose that is considered wrong."

The idea of the game, said Ben Chatfield, "is to assume the persona of the data you've created. I created my character as an assassin because it was what I felt like doing at the time." The minor characters are acted out by the D.M. "If you walk into a bar, he's the bartender," said Bryant Mason, who has been playing the game for six years. "It's never the same game twice. You could play Monopoly a hundred times and it's always the same."

In Wednesday's game, one of the players entered a room in which he encountered a 12-foot-tall Iron Golem standing on a metal pedestal. The Iron Golem is one of the many characters described in a set of five books published by TSR, collectively defining the rubrics of play. The outcome of various encounters is determined by dice rolls done with six different dice, variously 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 20-sided. The player rolls for his character; the D.M. for the opponent. The results are matrixed using a set of tables printed on the reverse side of the D.M.'s screen.

The Iron Golem was killed. Harold told the players that the Golem was wearing a ring which fell to the floor. "I'll put on that ring," said Harlan Feinstein. "Anything happen?" Harold said no. Harlan said he would jump up on the pedestal. Harold announced that Harlan's character had disappeared, and that the ring was now lying on the pedestal. Everybody else in turn jumped on the pedestal, put on the ring, and disappeared. Harold explained that Harlan had discovered a secret passage from level two to level four of the playing field, and that the players had come out near a camp of Dro elves, who happen to be fairly mean. "Boy, we popped up in a great place," Bryant said sarcastically. The players approached a castle. "Go away," Harold said. "We won't," said Ben. "But you should," Harold said. "Four guards come down and take you to this big dining room."

So it went, and goes ever onward. Most of Harold's friends have been playing for six years, and they haven't tired of it yet. "These games can go on for a long time," said Hazelton. "If we weren't doing this, we'd be out playing cards or bowling. At least this makes you use your mind."