Why Dungeons & Dragons Matters

40 years of using your imagination. {.subtitle}

Ethan Gilsdorf has a fantastic essay up on Boing Boing: At 40 Years Old, Dungeons & Dragons Still Matters. As the original Dungeons & Dragons turns 40 this year, I’m guessing we’ll see many great tributes to the grandaddy of all role playing games, and Mr. Gilsdorf’s essay really resonated with me.

Along the way, D&Ders like me learned about stuff. We discussed hit dice and saving throws, ballistas and halberds. We studied, without encouragement from our parents or teachers, arcane subjects such as architecture, history, languages, and statistics. I learned how to draw and map. I learned battle tactics, how to bargain, how to empathize and negotiate with those not like me—be it undead kings or jocks. And a lot of introverted, socially-inept kids found friends and fellowship. I got socialized, and I learned how to be a leader. Bored and dissatisfied with my real life, I created a more exciting one, again and again, where I got to save the day and have agency.

The tools of D&D gave me permission to imagine a better me, and a better story for myself. They gave me the courage to imagine a different future. And taught me how to change myself. Not happy with lowly Level 1 Ethan, I worked hard to level up to my better, stronger, faster level 17 version today.

This is the key to role playing and I learned similar things playing D&D in the ’80s. I introduced my two youngest children to role-playing with rpgKids a couple years ago and this year we’re transitioning to Pathfinder. I’m hopeful they will learn the same things using their imagination to role play, and it helps to unplug them from their screens as well as challenge them mentally while encouraging them physically with the athletics they are involved with. Balance is good.

D&D is still my springboard into dreaming. Me and four other guys, all in our forties, embark upon these imaginary adventures on Sunday nights. How can I give this up? I leave my computer behind and dip into an amorphous, enigmatic current of magical thinking that humans rarely swim in: something epic and unknown.

I had the chance recently to re-connect with a friend from high school whom I haven’t talked to (or anyone from that period of my life) in over 20 years. He still plays D&D regularly with other friends from high school, including the one who introduced me to D&D. I find that I’m jealous of that; both the camaraderie of friends staying connected like that and the discipline of having a weekly gaming group with the chance, as Mr. Gilsdorf says, “[to] leave my computer behind and dip into an amorphous, enigmatic current of magical thinking that humans rarely swim in…” My oldest son regularly plays Pathfinder (and Magic: The Gathering) with his group of high school buddies and I like to think I had something to do with that. I’ll continue to play with the two younger ones and I hope they learn the same things Mr. Gilsdorf and I learned from Dungeons & Dragons.

Photo by Davi Silva under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

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