How Dungeons & Dragons Beat Fundamentalism

How Dungeons & Dragons Beat Fundamentalism

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Every week I take part in something that would have seriously troubled many of the people with whom I grew up. I set up a cardboard shield with a big picture of people fighting a dragon on the front. I unload a stack of hardcover books, gather a couple sets of polyhedral dice, and take on the role of Dungeon Master. My friends and I have been working through the Dungeons & Dragons module Tomb of Annihilation. It's one of the highlights of my week. I'm a Christian, and I play Dungeons & Dragons.

Such a juxtaposition would have been highly controversial thirty years ago, and in some circles I suppose it still is. In the 1980s, the fundamentalist wing of Christianity waged an all-out war on D&D. Even today, I don't typically let on about my hobby with everyone I know. This is less because of shame and more because I just don't think it's worth the trouble to have to explain it. But the truth is that my caution is largely unwarranted. In the last five years or so, Dungeons & Dragons has experienced its most widespread acceptance in history. Between an accessible new edition, numerous streaming shows like Critical Role, and a wider pop culture profile in shows like Stranger Things, D&D is officially mainstream. That acceptance extends to those from a Christian background who might have balked at association with the world's biggest roleplaying game. So what changed? How did D&D beat fundamentalism?

(Full disclosure: my own experience is largely with the Christian response to Dungeons & Dragons, since the moral panic in  the 1980s was largely driven by that faction. I am less familiar with how other faith traditions responded to D&D, or indeed how they respond now. I would be extremely interested in hearing more about this, however.)

Before we go any further, it is worth pointing out the most obvious reason: the fears held about D&D were bogus to begin with. While people like Jack Chick, Pat Robertson, and Patricia Pullman stoked the fears of D&D as a source of satanism and demon-worship in the 1980s, even some secular sources, like Phil Donahue, got in on the action. For these people, Dungeons & Dragons was not just a spiritual risk, it was a mental health issue. What would we do about all of these kids, suckered into satanic cults that wanted them to eventually commit suicide or kill other people? The version of D&D conjured by these fears is so unrelated to what the actual game is like that it's almost impossible to refute such charges. For those who are still worried, I assure you that the game is basically make-believe with a whole lot of rules.

But there have been some strong cultural changes in the last thirty years that have basically killed this war. For one thing D&D itself changed. The cultural conception of fantasy has shifted in the last few decades. As originally conceived by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons reflected a fantasy world that to us today looks rather amoral. It was less about heroes fighting evil than it was about all kinds of people just getting sweet loot. This subgenre of fantasy, usually called "sword and sorcery," gradually gave way to more heroic stories. For a great example of this latter kind, you can look to Star Wars. While George Lucas set that story in space, it's fantasy to the very core. There are knights, princesses, and kindly old wizards. It's good versus evil, full stop. This is the kind of fantasy favored by the most visible example of the genre before D&D: the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Gygax himself was less interested in this type of fantasy than in things like Conan the Barbarian and the works of Michael Moorcock. This more amoral fantasy world was more prone to moral panic, because it simply didn't draw as sharp a distinction between good and evil.

This sword-and-sorcery mindset would largely be abandoned by Dungeons & Dragons. As early as 2nd Edition, the game became more explicitly about heroic characters fighting great villains, and less about loot. This was partially a conscientious decision, but I think it was also a result of the game becoming more story-based. Certainly after Wizards of the Coast took over the brand in the late 1990s, and after the Lord of the Rings books were turned into blockbuster movies, heroic fantasy was simply more mainstream. You can still play a morally gray loot-based game, but since just about every published adventure in the most recent edition is about characters defeating an evil villain, the transformation seems to be complete.

There's also a pervasive weirdness to early editions of D&D. This is partially a result of the less polished ruleset, the handdrawn illustrations in that first verion of the Monster Manual, and a loose lore that cheerfully stole from all kinds of folklore and fantasy tropes. This weirdness as steadily been smoothed out as the game has gotten older, undoubtedly a result of the transition to heroic fantasy, and the general homogenization of any product line that gets old enough. Those who desire the old-school weirdness now have old-school games to play, titles like Dungeon Crawl Classics. No game as old as D&D goes through so many corporate hands and remains that woolly. The version we have today is far more palletable to sensitive parents and those unused to the stranger aspects of the older editions.

Of course, D&D has had a deep influence on culture that never really stopped. That influence is especially pronounced in game design, both in the explosion of RPGs that followed it, and in basically all fantasy gaming. There are lots of kids who played games like Knights of the Old Republic, and never realized they were using the d20 system, designed for D&D's 3rd Edition. I knew plenty of kids who would never be allowed to play D&D, but somehow got into the Warcraft series. Of course JRPGs like the Final Fantasy games primed the acceptance as well, as did all of the tabletop roleplaying games that followed D&D. I had friends in high school who played Middle-earth Roleplaying, something that none of our evangelical Christian parents batted an eye at.

But there are two big cultural milestones that made it perfectly acceptable for not only Christians, but pretty much everyone to get into D&D: the Lord of the Rings movies, and the Harry Potter franchise. Gygax's distaste for Tolkien aside, he stole shamelessly from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's work remained highly influential and well-loved for decades, but the movies made epic fantasy a highly lucrative prospect. Now we live in a world where you're weird if you aren't into wizards and dark lords, and the LotR movies are the Big Bang to that universe. Along with The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings has for decades been the go-to fantasy series for young Christian readers. The crowd-pleasing Peter Jackson films gave those bookworms sudden common ground with a huge chunk of popular culture, and I think that common ground has gone both ways. Just as the wider acceptance of fantasy led to a wider acceptance of D&D in broader culture, so it did the same in Christian culture.

Still, I think it is actually the Harry Potter series that has proven to be the biggest game-changer. This is for two main reasons. First of all, the book series inspired its own little moral panic, and it completely steamrolled the opposition. Not only were the Harry Potter books not nearly as evil as the fundamentalists made out, but they have numerous Judeo-Christian themes that are so overt it's hard to imagine that people were upset in the first place. The books and movies proved that moral panics are almost always paper tigers. I have a hunch that the Harry Potter series is among the most-read series in American church youth groups.

Secondly, the Harry Potter books primed young people for a certain kind of fantasy that was favored by D&D. This was a world filled with magic, with lots of little clues and plot hooks that would eventually wrap into the characters in meaningful ways, and paid off years down the road. Harry Potter is about mystery more than anything else, and its simple setup-and-payoff structure is Dungeon-Mastering 101. To this day, I am convinced that the most reliable indication that someone would love tabletop roleplaying is if they love the Harry Potter books.

Of course, we are now dealing with a couple of other factors that have made Dungeons & Dragons a cultural monolith again. The first is the 5th Edition of the game, which is highly accessible and intuitive, particularly in contrast to 3rd and 4th Editions. It was the right game at the right time. The world of streaming games has also dispelled the mystery surrounding the experience of playing D&D. It's hard to tell explain the roleplaying experience, but these days an explanation is only a Youtube video away. It is now obvious that the game does not consist of evil incantations to summon demons. Rather it's about inside jokes, rules arguments, and those wonderful moments where everyone, DM included, is surprised and delighted by the experience of shared storytelling. This renewed relevence of D&D has not been met by a fresh moral panic. Either because of greater acceptance or ignorance of the new trend, fundamentalism has not mounted a fresh attack in the face of the new golden age of Dungeons & Dragons. The wizards won.

The victory of D&D over fundamentalism is not yet complete, but the war is definitely over. This is a good thing, because for faith-based communities who worry about worldly influence, D&D is actually a terrific hobby. It pulls kids and teens away from their phones for a few hours a week, and encourages them to swim in the deep waters of imagination and creativity. It is an opportunity to demonstrate serventhood and collaboration. The game is only good when we are willing to bear with each other and be honest about our expectations, when we are concerned about the enjoyment of others as well as our own. Those are values that everyone could stand to learn, and I'm glad that the stigma of playing D&D is dying from religious circles.
How Dungeons & Dragons Beat Fundamentalism There Will Be Games

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Nate OwnesFollow Nate Owens

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After a childhood spent pestering his parents and sister to play Monopoly, Scrabble, and Mille Bornes, Nate discovered The Settlers of Catan in college. From there it was only a matter of time before he fell down the rabbit hole of board gaming. Nate has been blogging since college, and writing about board games since 2007. His reviews have appeared on his blog, sanildefanso.wordpress.com, and on Miniature Market. Nate enjoys games with a lot of interaction, as well as games with an unconventional approach to theme.

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Posted: 08 Oct 2018 07:37 by Gary Sax #282834
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Good article!

I'm glad you pointed out the weirdness of gygax first edition. It was all bs to begin with, obviously, but people definitely forget how off-putting 1st edition was. I think that must have enhanced the effect. A lot of it was not... so Tolkienesque...
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 08:01 by Jackwraith #282838
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Good article (Kneejerk editing moment: "palatable.")

It's interesting that you mention the Judeo-Christian themes in Harry Potter as kind of a contrast to Lord of the Rings, considering that the latter is essentially nothing but a Christian fable. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and the story is rife with references to that perspective; from the resistance of temptation (the One Ring) to mercy toward the fallen (Gollum) to the death and resurrection of Gandalf. That same outlook permeates essentially all of Tolkien's writings, right down to the creation myths in the Silmarillion and the Return of the King appendices, which talk about the pride of Melkor which led to him being cast out, among other things. Tolkien admitted that the story was essentially a "Catholic work" in some of his letters to his son and C.S. Lewis.

That's why I, like you, always kind of arched an eyebrow at those who were convinced that D&D and fantasy, in general, were somehow "non-Christian". There are lot of pretty amazing fantasy stories in the Bible...
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 08:31 by Jexik #282841
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Even the first Matrix with all of its black and sunglasses and murder was very Christian. Which is why the other two movies felts so hamfisted...
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 08:52 by Shellhead #282843
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Around the peak of the fundamentalist scare-mongering about D&D, my Catholic father decided that he should investigate my hobby further. Instead of doing an inquisition, he asked me how to play the game. I gave him a general overview, then helped him roll up a fighter character. That took over an hour, but it was enough for him to get a feel for what the game was about. He told me that he didn't have time to play just then, but I understood that he was just making sure that I wasn't getting into some dark occult trouble. I was either 14 or 15 at the time.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 09:10 by Hadik #282844
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Shellhead wrote:
Around the peak of the fundamentalist scare-mongering about D&D, my Catholic father decided that he should investigate my hobby further. Instead of doing an inquisition, he asked me how to play the game. I gave him a general overview, then helped him roll up a fighter character. That took over an hour, but it was enough for him to get a feel for what the game was about. He told me that he didn't have time to play just then, but I understood that he was just making sure that I wasn't getting into some dark occult trouble. I was either 14 or 15 at the time.

Props to your dad for taking such a cool approach.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 09:24 by san il defanso #282845
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Jackwraith wrote:
Good article (Kneejerk editing moment: "palatable.")

It's interesting that you mention the Judeo-Christian themes in Harry Potter as kind of a contrast to Lord of the Rings, considering that the latter is essentially nothing but a Christian fable. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and the story is rife with references to that perspective; from the resistance of temptation (the One Ring) to mercy toward the fallen (Gollum) to the death and resurrection of Gandalf. That same outlook permeates essentially all of Tolkien's writings, right down to the creation myths in the Silmarillion and the Return of the King appendices, which talk about the pride of Melkor which led to him being cast out, among other things. Tolkien admitted that the story was essentially a "Catholic work" in some of his letters to his son and C.S. Lewis.

That's why I, like you, always kind of arched an eyebrow at those who were convinced that D&D and fantasy, in general, were somehow "non-Christian". There are lot of pretty amazing fantasy stories in the Bible...

I would say that Tolkien is not nearly as widely read among Christian youth. He's read by fantasy fans of course, but EVERYONE read Harry Potter. As a reading experience it has been far more ubiquitous.

I think the moral panic surrounding Harry Potter makes it a bigger gateway. That's really the most recent widespread Christian panic over a pop culture phenomenon. And it was so thoroughly false it's hard to imagine it.

Also, palatable is on my list of words I never spell right.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 09:39 by Jackwraith #282846
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san il defanso wrote:
I would say that Tolkien is not nearly as widely read among Christian youth. He's read by fantasy fans of course, but EVERYONE read Harry Potter. As a reading experience it has been far more ubiquitous.

I think the moral panic surrounding Harry Potter makes it a bigger gateway. That's really the most recent widespread Christian panic over a pop culture phenomenon. And it was so thoroughly false it's hard to imagine it.

Huh. That's interesting. I mean, I suppose it makes sense from a publishing standpoint, given that Rowling's books are both much more recent and more accessible to younger readers (I read LotR when I was eight, but I'm strange like that.) But I'd thought with the success of the films as you mentioned that Tolkien would have a larger place in that sphere.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 13:22 by Joebot #282850
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san il defanso wrote:

I think the moral panic surrounding Harry Potter makes it a bigger gateway. That's really the most recent widespread Christian panic over a pop culture phenomenon. And it was so thoroughly false it's hard to imagine it.

The release of "The Golden Compass" movie raised a bit of a stink among Catholics, as I recall. Their reaction was really hilarious. The author, Philip Pullman, is a very outspoken atheist, who clearly has some strong, negative views toward all organized religions. In the book, there's this giant, monotheist church simply called "The Magistrate." This is all clearly set in a made-up fantasy world, and Pullman never use the words "Catholic" or "Christian." He depicted a powerful, tyrannical religious organization with very sinister motives, and the Catholic church said, "Heyyyyyy, is that supposed to be us?!?" I always thought that was funny how the Catholic church recognized themselves in the Magistrate.

Anyway, GREAT book, shitty movie.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 16:41 by Colorcrayons #282859
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That was a great article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

Ummm... during high school, and subsequently during seminary alongside my DM (both became ordained methodist through Howard Payne), we played second ed throughout the nineties. Twice a week, 8 hours each session for nearly a decade.

But we were heavily interested in the fantasy genre long before the calling was heard.

We got the compulsory ChickTracts left on the door, seen as we all departed the session for the night. We saw this as a sign of "doing it right" in the face of conservative oppression in south texas. I suppose we were loud enough to be heard from the street, and concerned fundies took it upon themselves to educate us in the error of our ways.

Yet while we were political moderates, we may as well have been communists in that area, for free thinking outside of the herd mentality isn't gladly suffered by the populace of that area. The ecumenical order may seem to promote questioning faith for a stronger bond with God, but in practice the hypocrisy was thick.

Despite this, we were able to show the members of our congregations that D&D was really just a game, whose infamy was inflated by ignorance based on rumors and not experience. Battling that was a slow process, yet the congregants grew to overlook their previous bias by our actions and education. There were some congregants that left because of our involvement with the "Devil's Game", but you can't educate those who wish to remain violently ignorant.

In a way, this microcosm reflects how the conservative religious people work in politics as well. Because challenging a preconceived notion effectively is a frightening thing, and the fear of change is so very very real.

This was a contributing factor to my eventual apostasy.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 17:08 by WadeMonnig #282860
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Just a quick poll exploring Tolkien and dnd. What was your first character named? Saruman the white was mine. I remember my cousins was Pip (from great expectations).
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 18:03 by Erik Twice #282863
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It's so bizarre to read about this from a Spanish perspective, not because the political and religious angle is so different but because this anti-RPG hysteria was actually imported by the media of the day much later.

I don't know when it all started, but the center of the controvery was the "Katana killer", a supposedly RPG-obsessed teenager who had killed his parents. The game? Actually Final Fantasy VII and the proof included some incredible facts such as "the character was so obsessed he looked like Squall".

The focus around here was not on religion, but on the games being pernicious or mentally harmful. I remember an article I came across, from El Pais, I think, which explained that roleplaying games "melted the brain", Don Quixote-style. There was this sense that they were harmful books, with unsuitable content. Kind of a "games will make you violent" or "games will make you unempathic" kind of vibe. I remember being told that "yeah, there are games and games" and to watch out.

I think this shows the underlying issue. The fear here is not the content of the games themselves but fear of the unknown of "what my kids are doing".

After all, this kind of games or, well, games as a whole were fairly new. Parents did not play any games but Monopoly or Mus, they were not into this "nerdy stuff" and they were not exposed to it in any other way. People just didn't know, just like people didn't know about these "Japanese cartoons". Parents were worried about their kids doing something they didn't understand, though they didn't bother understanding it.

While the content is wildly divorced from the media panic, I do think it has something to do with it. It is very much non-mainstream: Magic, violence, horror themes (In Spain, the hysteria matches the time when Vampire: The Masquerade and Chulthu were the biggest games) as well as the goth subculture, musical groups and so on.

In a sense, I think the biggest change is exposure. This is less of a "weird teen thing" than it was a couple decades ago.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 18:06 by san il defanso #282864
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Joebot wrote:
san il defanso wrote:

I think the moral panic surrounding Harry Potter makes it a bigger gateway. That's really the most recent widespread Christian panic over a pop culture phenomenon. And it was so thoroughly false it's hard to imagine it.

The release of "The Golden Compass" movie raised a bit of a stink among Catholics, as I recall. Their reaction was really hilarious. The author, Philip Pullman, is a very outspoken atheist, who clearly has some strong, negative views toward all organized religions. In the book, there's this giant, monotheist church simply called "The Magistrate." This is all clearly set in a made-up fantasy world, and Pullman never use the words "Catholic" or "Christian." He depicted a powerful, tyrannical religious organization with very sinister motives, and the Catholic church said, "Heyyyyyy, is that supposed to be us?!?" I always thought that was funny how the Catholic church recognized themselves in the Magistrate.

Anyway, GREAT book, shitty movie.

I should read His Dark Materials.

This is a good point, and it drives home my own limited viewpoint. My own background is evangelical (in the doctrinal, not political sense, although that's definitely a component). Today more conservative Catholics get balled up in fundamentalism because of some political stances, but on the ground they are still quite separate. I know that mistrust of Catholicism was a big part of the culture in which I grew up, though not from my parents.

Anyway, I'm not sure what other religious backgrounds we have here, besides Christian and generally unaffiliated/atheist, as well as some Jewish members. I'd really be curious to know how other faiths interacted with this topic that was so controversial in American Christianity.

(Also I hope I don't over-generalize anyone's religious beliefs or lack thereof. That's certainly not my intent.)
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 19:05 by Shellhead #282868
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Erik Twice wrote:
In a sense, I think the biggest change is exposure. This is less of a "weird teen thing" than it was a couple decades ago.

The internet has been around for decades, starting with Arpanet. But the internet went mainstream nearly 20 years ago, and geeks ruled the early internet. In the U.S., science fiction movies were already a big deal, and by the '90s, sci-fi was also a big deal on network television. Then the comic book movies started getting good, and the Lord of the Rings ruled the box office. Geek went mainstream, or maybe the mainstream went somewhat geeky, to the same effect.

At the same time, there was a seemingly endless series of sports scandals. Sometimes it was just individual athletes screwing up, but other times, entire sports were tainted by scandals, especially many Olympic events. Sports fans are still a big deal, but they are increasingly seen as a different variety of nerd instead of the defacto mainstream.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 19:47 by Hadik #282870
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WadeMonnig wrote:
Just a quick poll exploring Tolkien and dnd. What was your first character named? Saruman the white was mine. I remember my cousins was Pip (from great expectations).

Damn I can’t remember his name but he was basically Legolas.

I was a born again by the time I played D&D with a mix of other Christians and unchurched friends. Our DM was actually Jehovah’s Witness. From elementary school we all felt bad that he didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays.

Beneath my born-again faith I remained Catholic. I never rejected it or felt like I stopped being Catholic. I had come to it in a setting that was accepting that you could keep your denomination.

In this little meshwork D&D never had a controversial side. Except maybe it was nerdier than anything my older siblings would have ever played.

Our buddy, the metal head in our group, played an evil paladin and enjoyed being edgy and killing people. To make him pay we would often tied his character up and shoved him into rooms ahead of us. It was all fun. He was playing it right.
Posted: 08 Oct 2018 20:32 by Shellhead #282872
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WadeMonnig wrote:
Just a quick poll exploring Tolkien and dnd. What was your first character named? Saruman the white was mine. I remember my cousins was Pip (from great expectations).

I'm not sure which one was my very first D&D character, but they were both taken directly from books. Trent the Magician (a bad guy in the first Xanth book) and Cugel the Clever (a silver-tongued rogue from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories). I had already read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings a couple of years earlier, but they weren't fresh influences when I first started playing D&D.
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 02:39 by MattDP #282882
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In the UK the whole thing got bound up with Micheal Ryan, a mass shooter who opened fire on a playground full of kids. That lead to the country-wide ban on handguns but it was also reported that he was involved in a play-by-mail RPG that had, some weeks before, run a mass killing scenario. It wasn't even considered relevant enough to bring up at his trial, but it didn't stop the tabloids have a field day, no doubt propelled by the Satanic panic across the pond.

While my parents were sensible about it, figuring a quick chat on distinguishing fantasy from reality was enough to settle the issue, most of my wider family became horrified by my hobby. They refused to offer Christmas or birthday gifts of gaming material which was mostly what I wanted at the time.

Anyway, what I find interesting about this is that it's a pattern that's repeated down the ages. It's natural that parents worry about their children and are suspicious of anything they don't understand. Suspicious to the point of outright hostility if they see significant evidence that it might be harmful. Almost every week a bunch of worried texts go round about some new social media app that's allegedly being used for abuse or sending dick pics. So that's what it is nowadays, replacing D&D and video games before it. I wonder what will be next?
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 04:19 by Erik Twice #282883
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MattDP wrote:
Anyway, what I find interesting about this is that it's a pattern that's repeated down the ages. It's natural that parents worry about their children and are suspicious of anything they don't understand. Suspicious to the point of outright hostility if they see significant evidence that it might be harmful. Almost every week a bunch of worried texts go round about some new social media app that's allegedly being used for abuse or sending dick pics. So that's what it is nowadays, replacing D&D and video games before it. I wonder what will be next?
That's an interesting though Matt, would love to hear more about it since you and many other members are parents.

Around here the latest panic were self-harm challenges that could result in death. It is extremely unlikely that a significant amount of kids actually does that kind of stuff, but media hammered it over and over for quite a long time. Right now the current panic is "death by selfie" because X number of people have allegedely died while taking a selfie.

I wonder what you guys experience is since you are, well, geeks and you are far more aware of this stuff. I always wonder if I'm going to be one of the scared parents or I'll be able to "see through".
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 10:20 by Joebot #282896
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WadeMonnig wrote:
Just a quick poll exploring Tolkien and dnd. What was your first character named? Saruman the white was mine. I remember my cousins was Pip (from great expectations).

I didn't actually play D&D as a kid, but I still remember the names of my characters from the original Might & Magic RPG on my dad's old Apple II:

Fighter: Caramon
Thief: Tasslehoff
Paladin: Sir Sturm
Archer: Tanis Half-Elven
Cleric: Goldmoon
Wizard: Raistlin

I'm sure all the Dragonlance fans in the audience will recognize those names. I read Tolkien probably in high school ... but I was a MUCH bigger fan of the Weis/Hickman Dragonlance books.
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 11:30 by Jackwraith #282901
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Started briefly with Basic and then jumped right to AD&D, long before the 2nd Edition PH, the image of which headlines this post (mine was the one with the more amoral adventurers trying to pry the jewel eyes from the gigantic demon idol.) My first character was named Myriad and he was a half-elven cleric/illusionist. Something about the freewheeling nature of the then poorly-designed illusionist class just appealed to me. And I figured I'd be a cleric, too, in case the phantoms weren't working and my fellow party members needed some, y'know... actual help. Cure Light Wounds, FTW. This was before the Dark Phoenix saga, when Mastermind proved what proper illusionists could really do and before Keith Giffen took over the Legion of Superheroes, so that he could do the same with Sensor Girl aka Princess Projectra. (Nerd cred firmly established.) I think I got the most use out of Color Spray (which is the lesser spell in Assault of the Giants that you can upgrade to Prismatic Spray.)

I never went in for the famous names on characters, mostly because I wasn't THOSE characters. I was my guy, trying to become as famous as them. Or that's how I remember interpreting it in my mind. My all-time favorite character was a thief/illusionist (still with the illusions!) who was really more of an assassin, named Whisper.
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 12:17 by the_jake_1973 #282902
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My mom got me the red box set and my godfather and his brother taught me to play. I played off and on in the late eighties and into the early nineties. My favorite character was a 2.5 era Swashbuckler name Argent Firedrake. Suitably dashing I thought.

I never fell in with the Tolkien writing, I was drawn to Moorcock and his multiverse. Elric's as the anti-hero held great appeal to my high school self. As I grew older, I was able to appreciate that eternal quest for Tanelorn that is woven through the books.

In reference to Joebot above, all Kender must die. ;)
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 13:23 by boothwah #282905
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The artwork prominently featuring giant red demons/devils on the early Ad&D manuals was problematic - the theme shift from Gygaxian amoral treasure romps into heroic fantasy was well under way when the red box hit.


I was one of those kids that had to explain to my fundy mom that I wasn't trying to summon Satan. I just wanted revenge on Bargle for killing Aleena. Upshot - so eager to move me on from the red and blue box she bought me ALL of the FASERIP Marvel stuff - And we played that for recess the next year.
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 15:08 by Shellhead #282917
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I have generally been more of a dungeon master than a player of D&D. Tolkien was an obvious influence, but I couldn't be bothered to re-read it until just months before The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters.

My fantasy influences while I was running AD&D 1st edition:

Michael Moorcock: He inspired Gygax to include Law and Chaos in the alignment structure, and his Elric stories were awesome for the angst and the god-slaying.

Jack Vance: His stories of the Dying Earth inspired Gygax's treatment of spellcasters. Spells were memorized and expended when cast, not skills that drained energy when used. Vance also wrote lovely prose, depicted amazing magic, and had the best rogues until Locke Lamora.

Fritz Leiber: Speaking of rogues, Leiber invented the concept of the Thieves Guild. His somewhat amoral protagonists, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, were great role models for rogues, though Fafhrd was also a barbarian and Mouser dabbled in magic.

Roger Zelazny: His Amber series was an interesting mixture of fantasy and science-fiction, and featured cross-dimensional travel.

Jack Chalker: Well World was a science-fiction series, but it made me think more about how I was playing the monsters in D&D.
Posted: 09 Oct 2018 20:30 by Sagrilarus #282927
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I'll just mention that, at the time DnD came out Americans believed in Bigfoot, UFOs and the existence of an underground, organized Satanic church. All were debunked in the 80s as complete hogwash. So DnD cut its teeth at a curious time in history.

I'd be curious to hear your (San) opinion on how DnD changed fundamentalist religion, particularly the commerce-oriented TV kind that drove into a ditch with Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. I think this isn't just about steamrolling with that crowd. I think DnD lost its power to scare, and it became less financially viable to attack it.

Great topic, great writing by the way.
Posted: 11 Oct 2018 16:03 by dysjunct #282990
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Great article San. I also grew up in evangelicalism and everything you wrote rang true.

I think, however, that the reason that D&D "beat" fundamentalism is a lot simpler: subcultures that rely on moral panics to stoke fear in their members need constant fresh targets, otherwise the members will realize that the panic-of-the-week isn't actually going to destroy the world. Which will be followed quickly by the members realizing that the leaders (or con-men/women, take your pick) are full of shit, and leave -- and more importantly, stop donating.

The list of things that the religious right has freaked out about is really long, and in every case, it's obvious that society survived just fine: jazz, slow dancing, hippies, D&D, superpredator crack babies, pr0n, gays converting your kids....

Now the current vogue is to flip out over trans people using the bathroom. No idea what the next one will be.
Posted: 12 Oct 2018 22:54 by san il defanso #283034
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It makes me feel cynical to make it about money, partially because I'm still neck deep in the American church. Shoot, I work in cross-cultural ministries, which is a fancy name for "missionary." But the most visible kind of fear, the kind espoused by James Dobson or Pat Robertson, is driven at least in part by a need to keep the donations rolling in. I really do think the increased online presence of D&D has removed the power here. When you see three large hardback books with monsters on the cover, it doesn't just look weird and threatening, it looks impenetrable. Now that you can find numerous games in action on the internet, even for versions besides 5e, the game has been thoroughly demystified.

It's worth pointing out that on the ground at least, a lot of the fear surrounding D&D was absolutely genuine. It might have been stoked by very cynical agents, but cynicism itself only works when it can be perpetuated by the people on the ground. There's that pervasive fear among the more conservative end of Christianity that all of popular culture is an elaborate, even organized, conspiracy to lead astray our children. This is not something that can be explained away, because it just reinforces that narrative. I'm thankful that my own parents were not generally scaremongers. They never actually pushed me to avoid things like D&D or Magic, I just never showed much interest. (I lived overseas so there was also some separation from larger evangelical culture when I grew up.)
Posted: 12 Oct 2018 23:03 by Gary Sax #283035
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san il defanso wrote:
It's worth pointing out that on the ground at least, a lot of the fear surrounding D&D was absolutely genuine. It might have been stoked by very cynical agents, but cynicism itself only works when it can be perpetuated by the people on the ground. There's that pervasive fear among the more conservative end of Christianity that all of popular culture is an elaborate, even organized, conspiracy to lead astray our children. This is not something that can be explained away, because it just reinforces that narrative. I'm thankful that my own parents were not generally scaremongers. They never actually pushed me to avoid things like D&D or Magic, I just never showed much interest. (I lived overseas so there was also some separation from larger evangelical culture when I grew up.)

Slightly outside what you're talking about, but I like this post because it humanizes normal folks. It is also one of the things that makes it nearly impossible to make any positive change in this world. To give an example, denial of climate change (e.g. vs. weekend report that we have 10 years at most to prevent 1.5c and are most likely headed for Mad Max) is actually, genuinely, felt by the average person who vociferously denies it; my guess is that it's just the people at the top who are the bad faith actors who know how fucked up it is to deny global warming and therefore doom the world. It reminds me of that sinister thing corporations do day to day by continuously presenting you with a countless number of lower level rubes on the phone who can honestly say that they have no ability to change anything and didn't make whatever system/decision is screwing you.
Posted: 13 Oct 2018 08:25 by stoic #283040
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I played D&D early on and started with the blue box, then red box, then AD&D. I also played Gamma World, Boot Hill, and Top Secret. We tried to play Traveller but would never get past the character creation.

The most memorable D&D modules for me were Ravenloft, The Keep on the Borderlands, but, more importantly, the ones that we crafted ourselves.

Our parents didn't care or understand what we were doing. We'd play this all night on the weekends and spend weekdays in school mapping out new dungeons, character, module, and campaign ideas. My school notebooks were filled with sketches inspired by the Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Fiend Folio. I could have spent that time studying. ;-)

The only fundamentalist encounter was when I went to what was called an all night "lock-in" sponsored by a local church and held at ShowBiz Pizza. We went, of course, to meet girls. Someone ratted on us and told the pastor that we played D&D so the night ended up being an all night deprogramming session to convince us that we were summoning the Devil in the manner of Jack Chick.


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Posted: 13 Oct 2018 13:18 by Brewmiester #283044
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I started with the Dungeons and Dragons Basic set in high school I'm thinking probably the '78 - '79 time frame. Unfortunately we weren't very good gamers because we couldn't figure the damn thing out! Fast forward to 1980 when I started college at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, TN. I ran into some people playing AD&D and never looked back. We played mostly AD&D eventually starting the Dragonlance campaign but we graduated before the last of the modules came out. We dabbled in some other systems: Call of Cthulhu, Gamma World, Top Secret, Gangbusters, Champions, Justice Inc., Villains and Vigilantes, Traveller, Morrow Project and a lot of others I can't remember anymore! A local hobby shop sold mostly TSR stuff but I spent a lot of money ordering from Wargames West. We did a few GenCons, some highlights were getting Gary Gygax to autograph my players handbook, playing Gangbusters with Mark Acres, and playing a live action Justice Inc. game with some the Hero Games folks. I did run and play some stuff back home during that time as well and got my brother and some others playing back in Westmoreland. Never really ran into any religious or parental pressure.

After I graduated I came up here to Bloomington, IN. to start working. I ran into some folks at 25th Century Five and Dime, a local game/comic book shop and hooked up with some gamers around IU. Played mostly Call Of Cthulhu and Role master but also some Warhammer Roleplaying and Harn Master. Eventually married life and kids cut most of my role playing gaming time but I did run a little 3.5 for some co workers a few years ago.

Early this year I got to retire and one of the guys I play miniatures with wanted to start a 1st edition AD&D game to show some of his 5th edition players how it used to get done. We've been playing Monday nights and have made it through Against the Cult of the Reptile God and are part way through Temple of Elemental Evil. It's been a real blast playing again after all these years.