Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book 30: The least amazing thing is that I knew before I went to look at a picture of Gary Gygax that he would be an old white guy with a beard.

I never really got into Dungeons & Dragons all that much, and yet I think it's had a pretty big influence on my life.

The first time I remember playing D&D was probably in about 7th or 8th grade, so around 1982, only a few years after it had been invented.  My friend Jim had gotten the game, and invited us all over to play it.  We created some characters and explored a dungeon and that was about it. It was okay.

Over the next year or two, I probably played D&D a few more times; often enough that I owned some of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books and adventure packs, and understood how to play. I can recall sketching out dungeons on graph paper during study halls, marking places where there would be pits, and making tricky layouts like double-helixes that players would have to get through.

In reality, though -- a weird segue, for a D&D-based post-- I played the game far less than I thought about playing the game. I had a paper route when I was a kid, and used to sometimes spend the 30-45 minutes per day that I was on the route imagining new adventures for the game. It wasn't just D&D, either. We had a spy-based game, and a space game, too, that we played sporadically, so I would think about characters and missions in those games, too.

As time went on, I kept on adding to the adventures I was planning, in each of the games. I'd walk my paper route as the snow melted alongside the road, longing for the nicer days when I could ride my bike and get it done way faster, and think up more and more ideas. At one point, I had invented an entire continent with several cities and a war that was being fought, with one side having dragons and the other side having the ability to conjure really big giants -- giants the size of skyscrapers.  I had several characters that would be leaders in the game and be important.

The thing was, we never actually played those adventures. I had some maps and ideas and plot points, and I'd sketch out what the characters or places look like on the backs of notebooks and folders, and think about them while I delivered papers or mowed the lawn, but actually playing the entire thing?  I never got around to it. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, the chief among them being my friend Jim committing suicide when his parents were getting a divorce.  That episode seems like it divides my childhood from my teen years; before that happened, me and the few friends I hung out with would get together and play games or organize bike races around the neighborhood and plan on going to the Great America amusement park as the reward for getting a "Student of the Quarter" award (perfect attendance and all As for a quarter.)  After that, we started high school and focused on driver's licenses and dating and trying to drink beer.

D&D wasn't the first thing that ever made me imagine stories, of course. I'd read comic books since I was 6 or 7 (my uncles, not much older than me, collected them and shared them with us kids), and we used to play superheroes, climbing around on jungle gyms as we pretended we were flying or shooting lasers from our eyes.  When Star Wars came out and action figures got small and cheap enough for kids to own a lot of them we would play that, too. (I think the advent of action figures is an unheralded moment in how kids play, because prior to that what we had were 7 1/2" or larger dolls, Evel Knievel and GI Joe and poseable superheroes or Star Trek figures, but they were expensive and you never had too many of them.)

What D&D did more, I think now, looking back, is encourage me not just to re-create scenes and build on them slightly, as we did when we'd use my dresser as the Death Star, but to invent something all brand new (or mostly brand new.)

That's one of the theses of the book Of Dice & Men: that D&D is more than a game, it's a creative effort that draws people into it because the adventures are ones they make up themselves, for the most part.

The early 80s was a sort of birth of adventure-creating for kids around my age. Not only did we have D&D (which only vaguely was associated with satanism around our city, so while it was sort of frowned on we didn't have parents trying to forbid us from playing it) but Choose Your Own Adventure books came out around that time, too, and home videogame consoles were coming out, featuring games like Adventure! that didn't follow the usual boardgame rules of rolling dice and trying to collect things.  We played a lot of Risk and, later, Axis and Allies, wargames that let us plan strategies and try out different things.  It seems to me that toys and games around that time took on a D&D-esque role of setting up a framework for people and letting them fill in the blanks on how to enjoy that thing.

The lasting effect of the game was, I think, that I like to tell stories. I once kept a list of all the stories and books I wanted to write, plots that are fleshed out enough in my head to constitute a book, if I took the time (if I had the time!) to sit down and write them out.  Sometimes, when I'm sitting in traffic or taking a break from 4 hours of reading HUD regulatory letters (how I spent Tuesday afternoon this week), I think about what it might be like to be a writer, with your sole job being to get up in the morning and tell stories. I remember reading Piers Anthony's author's notes about how he writes, his shed in the back field with no heat where sometimes he has to wear fingerless gloves to go spend 8 hours typing, and think that's the life for me.

The reference to Piers Anthony shows that it wasn't just role-playing games that inspired me to start creating stories. Piers' author's notes gave an insight into his life that made writing seem like a thing people could do. Instead of books just being there, with some person's name on them, reading Anthony's notes about his life drove home the point that real people, people who might have once had paper routes and played football with friends, told stories that I'd go buy in book form at the mall.  Reading those, and thinking about the adventures I could have set up on the D&D game, helped me start writing down the actual stories that I thought up.

That's, as I said, one of the main points of Of Dice & Men, a book I saw at the library on the 'Staff Picks' table. (Seeing books laid out all attractively and allowing me to find books that I might not otherwise is one of the big attractions of libraries and bookstores for me. I like to just walk around libraries and bookstores even when I don't have money on me to buy something.)  The author talks mostly about his own love of D&D and what it meant for him, while frequently mentioning that one of the big lures of the game is the freedom it gives game players to make up their own rules and adventures within a loose framework.

The book's engaging enough; he's a good writer. But it feels like a magazine article or blog post expanded out to book length, at times: it's pretty light on history and detail of the game. It deals with the multiple lawsuits between the various people who created the game and who ran the company that published it, in about 1 paragraph. The same for the controversial era when D&D was being blamed for kids disappearing or killing themselves. (I don't think D&D had anything to do with my friend; I think he was just a depressed 8th grader with access to guns. It's amazing how people will blame anything -- D&D, heavy metal, videogames, "The Matrix" -- for their kids' problems, rather than undiagnosed/untreated mental health issues and the alarming and sad proliferation of guns in this country. Would my friend still be alive if his parents didn't own a shotgun that he had easy access to? Who knows? But you have a better chance of being found and rescued from a suicide by pills, hanging, or car-in-garage than by shotgun to the mouth.  Guns and cigarettes are the only two products that I know of which, when used as intended, are fatal. Both should be illegal.)

There are only cursory interviews with some people in the gaming world, and glancing references to D&D in pop culture, with barely any examination of the differences in the 40 years' worth of D&D  games, or how they might be treated differently in foreign countries.  Mostly it's just one guy talking about what he knows about D&D and his efforts to learn a bit more about it.  The history of how the game got created gets the most time -- about a chapter or two -- and is somewhat interesting, describing how the game grew out of a couple of guys deciding to take existing wargaming ideas and port them to fantasy adventures.

Here's a good example of an interesting fact that the author lets go entirely undeveloped. Near the end of the book, when he's quickly running through a couple of examples of D&D in pop culture today (The Big Bang Theory, mostly) he mentions that Vin Diesel wants to make a biopic of Gary Gygax, the guy credited with inventing D&D.  The book itself mentions some interesting things about Gygax, like his time in Hollywood spending big and trying to turn D&D into what must have been imagined as a precursor to the Marvel empire now, and how the corporation, TSR, Inc., was mostly set up to enrich the owners of it at the expense of corporate management and employees -- both of which go undeveloped or unexamined, as well as what connection Vin Diesel could possibly have to D&D.  I had to go read an article on The AV Club to find out Diesel claims that Frank Miller (creator of The Dark Knight Returns comics, among others) told Diesel that Gary Gygax wanted Diesel to tell his story.  (Even on The AV Club, this story goes largely unreported.)  The book is an example of the Slate-ification of reporting: an emphasis on personal experiences, mostly or completely unfleshed out by research or investigation or analysis.

As I said, it's not poorly written but it does feel like a lot of fluff and filler.  As a book to get me thinking about a game that played a minor but still significant role in my life, it was okay. As a history or examination of D&D it was a bit of a letdown.

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