Few things have shaped me and informed my perspective on life as my time invested in role-playing games.
The “Dungeons & Dragons” series in particular has been a centerpiece, though that’s not the only game I limit myself to in the realm of RPGs.
For those who might not know, “D&D,” as well as most “pen-and-paper” game systems, involves one person who presents a scenario (sometimes with models of cities and a grid to play on) and players who create their own characters and roll dice to get through the scenario presented. These games can take a medieval/fantasy setting, but they can also exist in space, alternate history, or (literally) anywhere you can imagine.
I was introduced to the idea of what “D&D” was when I was very little, however, being a child of the ’80s, various factors correlated to make the subject of the pen-and-paper game system seem like something evil. I grew up under a myth that the game was assuredly going to corrupt me and lead me to crime, insanity and (seriously) even murder people. The bizarre Public Service Announcements that existed showing that “D&D” was literally going to lead somebody to kill an innocent child really was the high (low?) point of the kind of scares that parent groups tried to conjure. A quick search on YouTube for these dark and bizarre PSAs can give you a window into a mindset that did not really rear its head again until “Harry Potter” and (hopefully) we will never see its ilk again.
Moving forward almost 20 years, we now see “D&D” as something whose game books, novels, dice and other products are sold in stores in almost every major city. The increase in acceptance of fantasy genre elements, largely brought about by the massive success of the “Lord of the Rings” films, has also lead to greater acceptance of things such as “D&D” in world of “everyday America.”
So what has kept the appeal of this game going for so long and despite having had the kind of reputation it has endured? In my own opinion, it is because it is one of the few activities that can be customized for all ages. I know parents who teach their children “D&D” by having their “imaginary friends” become figures they can move around. I know of adults who use “D&D” to help them work out issues in their writing by, in a sense, live-playing scenes from their works with their friends playing as different characters. In some more serious cases, I know of friends who tackle their own emotional demons by role playing their way through re-imaged difficulties where their bad day is a dragon they can slay. Sure, this kind of thing will not solve his/her problems, but it is a way to help overcome certain kinds of anxieties and it can help those who are powerless feel like they can take part in problem-solving a way out of a dilemma.
I know of almost no other activity where people can get together and be enthralled in a story. The task of running a “D&D” game can be challenging, but so can applying for graduate school, trying to re-build a car, or fixing the sink without the help of a plumber. With practice anybody can do almost anything and no other leisure activity so encourages not only reading but team-building. “D&D” can be run many, many ways, however the best way is when the game runner presents a challenge, say: a town has been invaded by a dragon. The players assume the characters they create with limitations, however since (normally) no two people at a table play the same character, everybody sees they have gifts that, together, can help others. With luck and some conversation, the problem (i.e.: that dastardly dragon) will be solved and the town will be saved.
“D&D” (and role-playing games in general) is something I believe can help children with everything from learning how to read to even math. Those characters you create have stats based on mathematical systems and, with some help, kids can learn about numbers while using an elf to hunt in the forests where you, the parent, are helping them as opposed to simple worksheets. “D&D” can be re-imagined to help teens re-create famous battles in their literature or history classes. The idea of what “D&D” is is the best part – it is literally up to your imagination.
While there is a stigma about “D&D” and all role-playing games as being “something people play in their basements,” check out the Learn To Play sets, look into the different editions of the games, try it out and get people together around your table. At the worst you might eat and drink and misunderstand the rules completely with your friends and family or you’ll help everybody have a great time and work together to be heroes. Either way, a great time should be had and that is always the main point of games and togetherness.
Michael Hale is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas at Tyler and a general aficionado of comic books, films, video games and all things geek-related.