What’s the deal with Dungeons and Dragons?

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Dear Cecil: In the past few years I have heard different things about various games played in some colleges in the east. Dungeons & Dragons is one of them. What I would like know is the different types and rules of these games, and where I can learn more about them. R.C.M., Skokie, Illinois


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The principal game played in colleges in the east — and everywhere else, for that matter — is called “Snoozing Your Way Through Four Years of Monotonous Drivel So You Can Collect a Piece of Paper That Entitles You to Make Twice as Much Money as the General Run of Mankind While Doing Half the Work.” I played it, and see where I am today — a famous author and certified Beautiful Person. Most profitable damn nap I ever took.

I suppose, however, that you are referring to what are called “role playing games.” Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D, as it is more familiarly called), is far and away the best-selling of all such games, with maybe 60-65 percent of the market and six million devotees — I use the word advisedly —worldwide. I have some reservations about bestowing further publicity on this demented pastime, but a devotion to the noble principles of journalism demands that the facts be exposed, come what may.

D&D was invented in 1974 by one Gary Gygax, whose father was a violinist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (This strikes me as significant, somehow.) Gary moved at an early age to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he founded TSR Hobbies, the maker of D&D.

Although Gygax left the company in the mid-1980s, TSR today continues to crank out D&D rule books, D&D miniature playing pieces, and all sorts of other D&D paraphernalia in quantities that make one wonder about the nation’s mental health. By means of a cunning stratagem (I asked somebody at the office), I managed to get my hands on a couple of those sacred rule books, and let me tell you, R. buddy, this game is weird.

The basic idea in your run-of-the-mill Go Fish-type game is to get all your opponent’s cards or all his checkers or some other readily grasped commodity. Not so with D&D. Here is a quote from Mr. Gygax on the subject: “The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character — he becomes a kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire.” If what you’ve been playing up till now is Parcheesi you ain’t ready for this.

To play D&D you need at least two acolytes, who play under the guidance of a vaguely Mansonesque personage called the Dungeon Master (DM). By means of various murky protocols involving the use of charts and dice, each player establishes the persona of the “character” he or she will manipulate in the game, who typically ends up (if male) being an antisocial cutthroat of some sort, or (if female) possessed of large, grapefruit-like breasts. I deduce the latter from studying the illustrations in the book. Admittedly I was looking at a very old edition. Perhaps the newer ones are more PC. It’s always the way. Apart from predictable characteristics like strength and intelligence, players also have to determine such baffling minutiae as their likelihood of contracting communicable diseases or becoming infested by parasites. Why these things are important I have no clue. I’m just telling you what the rule book says.

The preliminaries having been dealt with, the players are led through an imaginary dungeon devised by the DM in search of treasure or some such. On the way, they will encounter various obstacles and evil creatures, which they will have to defeat or evade.

The concept seems simple enough. It’s the application that throws me. There are two main problems: (1) there are one billion rules, and (2) the game requires nonstop mathematical finagling that would constipate Einstein. The rule book is laden with such mystifying pronouncements as the following: “An ancient spell-using red dragon of huge size with 88 hits points has a BXPV of 1300, XP/HP total of 1408, SAXPB of 2800 (armor class plus special defense plus high intelligence plus saving throw bonus due to h.p./die), and an EAXPA of 2550 (major breath weapon plus spell use plus attack damage of 3-30/bite) — totalling 7758 h.p.” Here we have a game that combines the charm of a Pentagon briefing with the excitement of double-entry bookkeeping. I don’t get it.

If you want to know more about Dungeons & Dragons, you can find D&D paraphernalia at many hobby and game stores. For the location of the outlet nearest you call 1-800-384-4TSR. Contrary to what you might think, all calls to this number are NOT immediately reported to the police.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.