It is 2 a.m. My inquisition squad has sneaked into the heretics’ headquarters. Five armed heretics at the end of the hall are looking for us. We’ll hit them first. I have an ax, a laser gun and a grenade. I lob the grenade …
Actually, it’s midmorning, and I’m driving the family on an Interstate highway far from home. We’re playing an RPG, a role-playing game, a sort of board game in your head. As David Ewalt explains, it’s a “procedure for collaborative storytelling.”
Ewalt got me into this. He has written a book, “Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It” (Scribner, 288 pp., $26), about the original role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. As a teenager, Ewalt was a D&D nerd, rolling dice and living in a fantasy world. Then he became a respectable writer at Forbes magazine and for a decade, swore off the 10-sided dice. For his book, he undertook to reimmerse himself.
He was vaguely ashamed. If he talked about wizards and spells with his Forbes editors, they would think he was a deviant still living in his parents’ basement. Still, he plunged in, telling his girlfriend “just think of it like I’m going to a weekly poker game.”
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I had to try this. I had never played an RPG, but I knew something of game fixations. Years before I had been a player of such war games as Avalon Hill’s PanzerBlitz. Those battles were waged with armies of cardboard squares, which you pushed around on a map board of hexagons. Guys (and it was all guys who did this) were obsessive about those games, too.
One such tabletop generalissimo was David Wesely, a physics student in St. Paul, Minn. In the early 1970s, he devised a new sort of war game in which each player controlled a character, plus one as referee. He set it in a German town. History student David Arneson changed the town into a castle with dungeons. War gamer Gary Gygax wrote 56 pages of rules.
The result, writes Ewalt, was a game that “doesn’t just tell a story, but puts you in it.”
In 1973, with $1,000 from a gamer, Gygax and Arneson started a company in Lake Geneva, Wis., under the oddball name of Tactical Studies Rules. Their game was a hit.
Part of Ewalt’s book is a business story. The money rolled in, and none of TSR’s founders knew what to do with it. They bought a science-fiction magazine. They financed the salvage of a sunken boat. For more than a decade, D&D funded their whims, then it didn’t. D&D has now been revived by Wizards of the Coast, based in Renton, and is pitched to women as well as men.
Part of the story is the “satanic panic,” in which D&D was accused of witchcraft. In 1984 it was blamed for the suicides of two teens in Bergen, N.J. CBS’ “60 Minutes” did a segment on D&D. Tipper Gore condemned it. But by the mid-1990s, writes Ewalt, “no one was blaming D&D for corrupting children — they were worried about violent video games like Doom.”
The core of Ewalt’s story is his experience of role-playing games. He explains it about as well as anyone could, short of experiencing it yourself.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.