To play Dungeons and Dragons is to be enchanted by it, at least if you ask the game’s many celebrity fans. During a “Late Show” episode in August, Stephen Colbert pulled Anderson Cooper down a D&D wormhole to discuss their childhood characters — a female witch (Colbert) and an elf thief (Cooper). Vin Diesel has cast no aspersions on the fact he enjoyed casting spells and rolling dice. Drew Barrymore plays the game, as does “Game of Thrones” showrunner D.B. Weiss, as do an estimated 20 million people around the world. Its brand of unplugged high fantasy has provided a creative outlet and tabletop escapism to after-school students and prison inmates alike.
Dungeons and Dragons’ ubiquity now includes the National Museum of Play, in Rochester, N.Y. The museum inducted the game into the Toy Hall of Fame on Thursday, where it joined bicycles, chess, G.I. Joe, Lego bricks, Monopoly and 56 other toys. Though Care Bears and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots failed to make the cut, Fisher-Price’s Little People sets and the swing rounded out other 2016 inductees.
“More than any other game, Dungeons and Dragons paved the way for older children and adults to experience imaginative play,” National Museum of Play curator Nic Ricketts said in a statement. “It was groundbreaking. And it opened the door for other kinds of table games that borrow many of its unique mechanics.”
To players like Weiss, early D&D games honed what turned out to be marketable skills. “It was my first experience with world-building,” the television producer told the Hollywood Reporter in July. “You’d see hundreds of ‘what if’ scenarios play out in real time as players attempted to achieve their various goals — and those goals often involved having sex with imaginary women.” (One would be hard-pressed to find anyone waxing so enthusiastically about a playground swing.)
For a blockbuster game, it had humble roots. A Lake Geneva, Wis., man named Gary Gygax created Dungeons and Dragons while he held a series of jobs in the 1970s, first as a Fireman’s Fund insurance underwriter and then as a cobbler, repairing shoes for 50 cents each. Gygax drew from his love of historical war games and added innovations like a narrative, magical abilities and 20-sided dice.
Released in January 1974, D&D was a smash hit. From the 2008 Wired profile of Gygax: “D&D’s impact was as instantaneous as a chain lightning spell. It spread from college to college, hobby shop to hobby shop, schoolyard to schoolyard. Ten months after D&D’s launch, TSR [Gygax’s gaming company, Tactical Studies Rules] sold out its press run and printed twice as many copies of the game.”
Although the game quickly accumulated fans — by the early 1980s, between 3 million and 4 million people had played it — it was not always easy to be a D&D player.
In 1979, investigators implicated the game in the suicide of a brilliant young Michigan State University student, James Dallas Egbert III. Subsequent profiles of Egbert suggest the student was under unhealthy amounts of stress, wrestling with his academic prodigy and homosexuality in an intolerant environment.
But that did not stop the game from garnering a lethal reputation. It would also be blamed in the death of 16-year-old Irving Lee Pulling, who shot himself in the chest after playing D&D at his high school. That was enough to fold D&D into the “Satanic Panic,” a public outcry against satanic ritual abuse that did not exist.
“I have enough information on my own that I can confidently say I don’t want it in the schools,” said Arlington, Va., school board member Margaret Bocek said to The Washington Post in 1983. “It’s a very fanciful retreat from the routine of school, homework and home-life.” Anti-D&D groups like Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, founded by Pulling’s mother, and Sending America Light and Truth decried the game’s sinister influence on children.
Perhaps no other publication distilled anti-D&D mania better than a cartoon, penned by the late conspiracy theorist and evangelist Jack Chick, called “Dark Dungeon.” Chick’s tract mutated the game into increasingly improbable events. One player, after discovering that witches use Dungeons and Dragons as a recruiting tool, hexed her father into buying more D&D products; Chick depicted another player hanging herself after her character was killed off in the game.
“Dark Dungeon” attracted a cult following, but not for the reasons Chick would have liked. Novelty T-shirts mocked the tract, and it inspired a satirical film of the same name, in the vein of “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.” As for perceived mental health effects, the Centers for Disease Control and American Association of Suicidology could not find a link, the BBC reported in 2014, between suicide and role-playing games.
Too harmless and too popular for satanic accusations to stick, D&D persisted. Like Microsoft to Windows, the game’s publisher Wizards of the Coast regularly rolled out new updates to D&D. (Also like Windows, editions of Dungeons and Dragons have had stumbles and hits; the most recent 5th Edition was well-received.) Sales of role-playing games — of which D&D is the most popular — grew 40 percent between 2014 and 2015, to $35 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to an industry estimate by hobby trade magazine ICv2.
D&D’s many tentacles now include pop-culture references, TV shows and podcasts, like comedian Brian Posehn’s “Nerd Poker” series. “Community” creator Dan Harmon stars in an animated show, “Harmonquest,” in which he plays Dungeons and Dragons with celebrity guests. D&D was both cultural touchstone and pivotal plot device in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
But if D&D has a lasting legacy, its acolytes point to D&D themes mirrored in video games and the Internet’s many virtual worlds. “Dungeons & Dragons’ mechanics lent themselves to computer applications,” the National Museum of Play’s Ricketts said, “and it had a direct impact on hugely successful electronic games like ‘World of Warcraft.’”
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