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After 40 Years, Dungeons & Dragons Still Brings Players To The Table

Oct 27, 2015
Originally published on November 4, 2015 3:16 pm

If you play today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games — World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy, for example — you have a 1970s tabletop game to thank, says author Michael Witwer.

Witwer has just written a biography of Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons.

"Even first-person shooters like Call of Duty have some of the roots at least in tabletop role-playing games," he tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.

From both a gaming — and nongaming — standpoint, D&D had far-reaching effects. Comedian Stephen Colbert, journalist Anderson Cooper and writer Junot Díaz all cite Dungeons & Dragons as an influence.

"It really became this workshop of imagination for people who played the game," Witwer says. "I think Junot Díaz himself called the game itself an apprenticeship in storytelling. A lot of writers, a lot of artists, a lot of actors, have talked about how this game was so influential teaching them to imagine."

Gygax died in 2008. Witwer talks with Shapiro about his new book, Empire of Imagination, and how the game remains popular today.


Interview Highlights

On what the game is

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that's played first of all on the tabletop — at least originally it was. It's a game where you all get together. The game is refereed by someone called the Dungeon Master who kind of describes what the rest of the gamers see and hear. So the rest of the participants who work together cooperatively make these various characters like fighters and wizards and thieves and whatnot, and you kind of react to what the Dungeon Master lays out before you.

On the 1982 film Mazes and Monsters, and the way the media talk about Dungeons & Dragons

Mazes and Monsters was a thinly veiled retelling of the James Dallas Egbert III story. What happened basically was, in 1979 a young Michigan State student disappeared mysteriously. He had a lot of issues that he was struggling with. And he also happened to play Dungeons & Dragons.

So the kid disappears, and a private detective shows up named William Dear who theorizes — once he sees this kid has been playing this game — that perhaps the human mind can't quite deal with the idea of pretending you're a character and all this stuff, and it really kind of fuzzies the border between the real and the imaginary.

So this particular theory gets picked up by the media and it becomes an absolute media circus. The funny thing is that Egbert himself was discovered a couple of weeks later, and his disappearance had nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons.

On the draw of the tabletop game in an era of virtual gaming

The game itself — the tabletop version, the original — is still alive and well. Now it's in its fifth edition and it's selling like crazy. ...

Many of the derivative games — and maybe it's all of the derivative games we've talked about — whether it be computer role-playing games or whatnot, they actually lack most of the most important fundamental elements of a role-playing game. ... That is, sitting around with your friends and participating in this kind of group storytelling exercise: actually being in a room physically sitting at a table with nothing but pencils and paper and dice. There's something very special about that, and it's kind of a social experience that's pretty hard to frankly re-create over any type of electronic media.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For nerds across America, there is one name that inspires awe, reverence and memories of long hours rolling dice in a friend's basement after school. That name is Gary Gygax

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FUTURAMA")

AL GORE: (As self) I'm Al Gore, and these are my vice presidential action rangers. To my left, you'll recognize Gary Gygax, inventor of "Dungeons & Dragons."

GARY GYGAX: (As self) Greetings. It's a pleasure to meet you.

SHAPIRO: That's the clip from the animated TV show, "Futurama." And here's comedian Stephen Colbert on his show "The Colbert Report" when Gygax died in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Before we go, nation, I have some sad news. Yesterday, Gary Gygax, creator of "Dungeons & Dragons," passed away at age 69. Gary, you'll be missed. How much will you be missed?

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE TOSS)

COLBERT: Twenty.

SHAPIRO: Of course, that was the sound of Stephen Colbert rolling a 20-sided die made popular by the "Dungeons & Dragons" game. The author Michael Witwer has just written a biography of Gygax, and the book is called "Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax And The Birth Of Dungeons & Dragons." Hi, thanks for being here.

MICHAEL WITWER: Thank you, Ari. I am thrilled to be here.

SHAPIRO: Just a quick background sketch for anyone who's not familiar describe what the game "Dungeons & Dragons" is.

WITWER: Sure. "Dungeons & Dragons" is played, first of all, on the tabletop - at least originally it was. The game is refereed by someone called the dungeon master who kind of describes what the rest of the gamers kind of see and hear. So the rest of the participants who work together cooperatively make these various characters, like fighters and wizards and thieves and whatnot. And you kind of react to what the dungeon master lays out before you. Everything is dictated by various mechanics like using a d20 to..

SHAPIRO: A d20, a 20-sided die, in the lingo.

WITWER: Correct - you know, to see whether your attack hits, that type of thing.

SHAPIRO: It's called a role-playing game because people play roles, whether wizard or elves or thieves. You called your book "Empire Of Imagination" and that word empire suggests a really far-reaching impact for "D&D," as the game is known. Where do you see that influence today?

WITWER: Certainly massively multiplayer online role-playing games, such as "World Of Warcraft," is a no-brainer. That's a direct derivative of tabletop role-playing. Computer role-playing games, like "Final Fantasy," even first-person shooters like "Call Of Duty" have some of their roots at least in tabletop role-playing games. So from the game standpoint, it's hard to even estimate how far-reaching "Dungeons & Dragons" really has been.

SHAPIRO: But there are also many famous people who cite "Dungeons & Dragons" as an influence. We mentioned Stephen Colbert, the novelist Junot Diaz, Anderson Cooper, the news man - these are not scientists or fantasy writers.

WITWER: Largely it really became this workshop of imagination for these people that played the game. I think Junot Diaz himself called the game an apprenticeship in storytelling. A lot of writers, a lot of artists, a lot of actors, have talked about how this game was so influential, teaching them to imagine, if you will. So that's really what I think Gary's empire of imagination is.

SHAPIRO: One of my favorite unexpected celebrity links with "Dungeons & Dragons" is that the actor Tom Hanks had a breakthrough role in 1982 in a television film called "Mazes And Monsters" in which he plays a college student who becomes sort of deranged playing into this narrative at the time "Dungeons & Dragons" was connected to - the occult. We have a clip from this television movie. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAZES AND MONSTERS")

TOM HANKS: (As Robbie Wheeling) I'm going to join the Great Hall.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You can't. It's a trap.

HANKS: (As Robbie Wheeling) I have spells. I'm going to fly.

CHRIS MAKEPEACE: (As Jay Jay Brockway) You don't have enough points. I am the maze controller.

HANKS: (As Robbie Wheeling) Maze controller...

MAKEPEACE: (As Jay Jay Brockway) Yes and I have absolute authority in this game.

HANKS: (As Robbie Wheeling) Game.

MAKEPEACE: (As Jay Jay Brockway) Game.

HANKS: (As Robbie Wheeling) Jay Jay, what am I doing here?

(LAUGHTER)

WITWER: So what happened, basically, in 1979, a young Michigan State student disappeared mysteriously. He happened to play "Dungeons & Dragons." And a private detective shows up who theorizes once he sees that this kid has been playing this game that perhaps the human mind can't quite deal with the idea of pretending you're a character in all this stuff. And it really kind of fuzzies the borders between the real and the imaginary. So this particular theory gets picked up by the media and it becomes an absolute media circus. And that type of thing led to these accusations of being in league with Satan and being a recruitment tool for devil worship. And the truth is the game has still not shaken this level of scrutiny.

SHAPIRO: But the "Dungeons & Dragons" hysteria was better for sales and publicity than anything they could've ginned up themselves.

WITWER: I mean, you could argue that, but I think the same thing that fueled its success also somehow has kept it in the shadows and kind of out of the full mainstream because of this perceived danger associated with the game.

SHAPIRO: When people have these detailed, sophisticated, virtual worlds that they can immerse themselves in on computers, what keeps them coming back to a tabletop game with a 20-sided die?

WITWER: Many of the derivative games and maybe it's all of the derivative games that we've talked about - whether it be computer role-playing games or whatnot - they actually lack most of the most important fundamental elements of a role-playing game - a tabletop role-playing game - that is sitting around with your friends and participating in this kind of group storytelling exercise. There's something very special about that and it's kind of a social experience that is pretty hard to, frankly, re-create over any type of electronic media.

SHAPIRO: Michael Witer is the author of "Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax And The Birth Of Dungeons & Dragons." Thanks for talking with us.

WITWER: Many thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.