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Geek Culture
Dungeons & Dragons Owns the Future

Ray Huling | 27 May 2008 12:10
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Because it evolved from tabletop wargames. When wargamers assault each other with massive armies of miniatures, they use dice to represent the element of chance in warfare. In the late '60s, a number of wargame designers - Mike Korn in Iowa, Dave Wesley and Dave Arneson in Minnesota, Gary Gygax in Wisconsin - pushed wargaming toward roleplaying. Wargames downscaled. Miniatures came to represent individual characters, rather than a collection of troops. When Arneson and Gygax published Dungeons & Dragons, it inherited wargaming dice. Fortunately, dice can also model inconsistency and differences in skill level in individual behavior. The randomness of D&D expresses a modern understanding of how people function.


Dice do not, however, do a good job of modeling fiction, and that was another crucial change in the shift from wargames to roleplaying. Where wargames typically recreated historical battles, Dungeons & Dragons took its inspiration from heroic fantasy. The focus shifted from Napoleon to Tolkien. Where history plays out in accord with statistical models, fiction does not. D&D has a sword-and-sorcery heart, but the guts of insurance underwriting.

Gambling with the fires of your own creativity is the first great craziness of Dungeons & Dragons. The second comes from sharing your fire.

Fun is Other People
Consider this scenario: The players need to find the headquarters of the local thieves' guild, where Black Leaf is imprisoned. The party of characters heads to a sketchy-looking tavern down by the docks to canvas the local criminals. Inside, the group breaks up to make individual enquiries - except for one guy. You know the kind of player I'm talking about. He spots a huge barbarian glowering in the corner and announces, "I'm going to pee on his leg."

Group dynamics produce unforeseen complications, which often maximize fun. A tough bar fight probably beats rescuing poor Black Leaf. Players can mitigate the chaos inherent in a game's dice by agreeing to ignore rolls, but they can also intensify chaos by pissing off (or on!) huge barbarians. The group decides whether encouraging mischief-makers adds to the game.

The open, consensual nature of roleplaying games can be habit forming. The strangest and most wonderful aspect of RPGs is that their gameplay influences the business of making them. The RPG industry consists of consumers who are also producers. Everybody who makes games for a living also plays them, and players differ only in their level of productivity. Many players produce characters known only to their gaming group; others publish entire games. The whole community is creative, and this mass of creativity causes conflicts similar to those found in individual groups.

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