Saturday 4 January 2014

What I owe to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons is 40 this year - sometime from the end of January to the start of May, depending on who you ask.

First thought ... wow I'm old! I started playing D&D in 1977. The first UK Games Workshop opened opposite my school, so I had no chance. This was opening day - I'm not in the queue, but I was in the shop next week. And yes, we lived in black & white back then.

My mother read me Lord of the Rings when I was seven and my imagination burned with it for years with no outlet. Then this game hit my school, only it wasn't like any other game, it let a small boy pick up a sword and battle dragons and wander strange lands, discover new enchantments... walk off the board, out of the box, and go anywhere. It really was magic. I seriously could not sleep for a week, just like the night before Christmas, my mind on fire with ideas.

I hear that to commemorate the 40th anniversary a statue of the game's co-creator, Gary Gygax (1938-2008), is to be erected in his home town.

Gary Gygax (& Dave Arneson) really kick-started my imagination and I owe him a debt of gratitude for that and for all those 'wasted' days spent playing D&D with my friends through school and university.

My fingers are crossed that his statue has ruby eyes (500gp each) and death-traps galore!

As a writer I'm always a bit hesitant to cite my D&D background in the same breath as talking about my books. I haven't ever wanted to read a book that sounds like a D&D campaign - a good read and a good gaming session are very different things. I've never felt tempted to lift elements of 'plot' or setting from past D&D experience to put in my writing. The debt to Dungeons and Dragons is less direct, but strong even so. It's a legacy of imagination without limits, of excitement, atmosphere, timing.

I was always the Games Master when I played, designing the adventure. What you learn though in D&D is that predictions are of limited use, the players will go their own way, surprise the hell out of you, spend days on something trivial and solve some of the huge problems in moments.

Perhaps that's why I don't plan my stories. I just loose the characters and follow them. Sure, I'll toss obstacles in their path, but they will always surprise me, lead me off along unexpected paths. Jorg Ancrath did it through the Broken Empire trilogy, and Jalan Kendeth is doing it right now in the Red Queen's War trilogy.

So yes - I owe Dungeons and Dragons in all kinds of ways and if you think about all the people they've ever put up a statue to ... well Gary Gygax definitely deserves his chance at being crapped on by pigeons!

Happy birthday D&D!


  1. I owe the same debt as you, and like you I'm nervous about admitting it to readers as they seem to perceive any D&D influence as being bad. True, the official D&D novels didn't do much to help, but I hope my own fantasy, once I publish it, will avoid the traps.

  2. Those metallic creations are the coolest D&D dice I've ever seen!

  3. Ah the nostalgia! I'm almost tempted to go and root through the boxes in the garage, the ones unopened in the last two house moves, at the bottom of which lies an original "Steading of the Hill Giant Chief" and possible a character sheet for the magic-user from my first DMing experience. My friend named him Gorthaur after a Maia who later did the deed-poll thing, got caught up in a world of bling and became Sauron!

  4. I still have my Player's Handbook and Monstrous Manual sitting on the shelf, just waiting for the day that my youngest decides to take an interest. :)

    Seriously, though, it was AD&D that made me a fantasy fan. Long before Tolkien, Moorcock, Brooks, Kay, or Leiber, I was reading the Dragonlance novels . . . and I was hooked forever more.

  5. We never had D&D when I were a kid - well we did, like, but I had no one to play it wi'...

    I got into Games Workshop stuff in the early nineties though - who probably owe a lot of their legacy to D&D also. It wasn't the playing of these games, 'cause when you hang around on your own a lot, the early Amiga (computer) RPGs were where I got lost after school and at weekends. It was the act of creation that enthralled me: designing dungeons, cities, characters - even painting them. That was
    how I got off. Before girls, beer and Led Zeppelin.

    I just wondered if you think fantasy has changed since those halcyon days; or people's current idea of what fantasy should be has changed? It feels somehow too 'cleaned-up' to me - in general - less 'fantastic'. I was creeping about on the net the other day and found a book called 'Ratspike', which I have purchased full of the work of GW artist John Blanche. Looking at his stuff; you just don't get that 'fantasy-punk' thing going on much these days, do you? Everything seems very conformist, to me at least. Perhaps this is down to the fact that everyman and his dog is calling himself a writer (me included - 'woof') Have I become, perhaps desensitised to fantasy like Tarantino fans are to violence, or certain words beginning with the letter 'N'.

    1gp for your thoughts.

    P.S. nice dice!

    1. There does seem to be a move toward low-magic fantasy, less of the acid-trippy end of the Moorcock scale (which I enjoyed). I expect things will swing the other way in time & that if you look hard enough it's all out there right now, somewhere.

    2. I'm an Elric fan, but I find Moorcock work is not always the easiest or reads - same with some of Howard's Conan tales. I googled 'fantasy-punk' and came up with Michael Swanwick; so have purchased his 'The Dragons of Babel', having not heard of him. (I've been living in a dimensional oubliette for the past few years, having only just found a way out.)

      Anyway, thanks for your time and comments.

  6. Good old D&D. I had several copies of that Player's Handbook at one point. I think I still remember the smell of the pages. There was something magical about them old days.

    I used to buy many of my D&D accessories from the Virgin Megastore (now Head?) opposite Waterstones in the Galleries, which I'm sure you know. Also, there was an independent gaming store in Kingswood about 15 years back. It only lasted a month before it was robbed and had to close.

    I had a few comments about my game design/D&D background - "zingers" like "I could hear the dice rolling in the background", etc, in reference to my novel. Par for the course, I guess. Give 'em the ammunition...

  7. "spend days on something trivial and solve some of the huge problems in moments."

    How true this is. I've had a campaign where the party spent 3 hours and nearly wiped due to a 5 foot gap over water (3/4 drowned or nearly drowned due) and then rolled right past the clever traps and riddles I had planned to take an hour on.

    I'd never thought of applying it to my writing, but I'll probably start now.