Did Dungeons & Dragons Lead an ‘Anti-Corporate Revolution’?


I really enjoyed Ethan Gilsdorf’s homage to D&D over at Boing Boing. The game, now 40 years old, clearly changed his life for the better, and his affection for it is absolutely genuine. However, I was a little surprised when I got to this passage:

Like a 3rd level Spell of Suggestion, D&D generated subtle repercussions through the culture. The role-playing game opened new pathways for creativity, new ways for kids and young adults to entertain themselves. The game led a DIY, subversive, anti-corporate revolution, a slow-building insurrectionist attack against the status quo of leisure time and entertainment.

While D&D certainly did promote the DIY aesthetic and overturn the gaming status quo, it certainly did not lead any anti-corporate revolution. TSR was a corporation, and it became quite a powerful one. Its core products—rulebooks, modules, miniatures, various supplements—were damn expensive from the beginning, so much so that the game was out of reach for lots of kids who wanted to try it. There’s a reason treasure is so important in D&D, in some cases equaling experience points: art imitates life.

True, once players understood the essential ingredients of D&D, they could home brew their own modules and adventures, but it wasn’t a political act (there was no role-playing “movement”), and most everyone was using “corporate” props, from TSR or one of its legion of imitators. We thought D&D was cool. We were emulating, not disassociating.

By 1983, it was clear even to my 11-year-old self that TSR had “gone mainstream”: out came the action figures, the animated series, the profligate licensing, kid’s storybooks, pencil sharpeners, beach towels—all of the trappings of a runaway corporate culture looking to replicate itself for as long as possible. In short, the business expanded beyond role-playing: D&D became a brand. You can say what you will about the move. It worked. D&D is still around, still being discovered by successive generations, just like Macintosh and Vans and G.I. Joe.

Here’s Gilsdorf again:

The lesson of Dungeons & Dragons has always been this: make your own entertainment. By sitting around a table, face to face, and arming yourself with pencils, graph paper, and polyhedral dice, you can tap into what shamans, poets and bards have done all the way back to the Stone Age. Namely, the making of a meaningful story where the tellers have an emotional stake in the telling, and the creating of a shared experience out of thin air.

To go on this new adventure, you don’t absorb a movie or TV show passively, on the couch, or merely “read” a book. Nor are your options for “interacting” with a fantasy experience limited to collecting merchandise or playing with action figures. Best of all, the essential quality of this unique, narrative gaming experience can’t be co-opted as commercial entertainment. Role-playing games like D&D are a way to experience unstructured free time while imposing upon it a structure, a story.

I love that first paragraph. He totally captures what made D&D and role-playing so starkly novel and exciting: you’re an individual playing a character you created within a narrative you’re helping to write. I’m not sure what he means by the following, though: “this… narrative gaming experience can’t be co-opted as commercial entertainment.” No gaming experience can be co-opted—unless we’re talking about the Hunger Games. If I play Mouse Trap with my family, Hasbro doesn’t own our experience. If I play poker with my friends, Hoyle doesn’t somehow contaminate the proceedings. My point is that traditional games are just as meaningful to the people who play and enjoy them. Not everyone has the time required, or the players required, for a Greyhawk campaign.

I think it’s important not to overstate the importance of D&D and role-playing, especially with fewer and fewer young people picking up books, the bedrock of literature, philosophy, history, and a few other notable human endeavors. Nothing works the imagination like serious reading, with the exception of writing. The “passivity” of reading is a myth advanced by technophiles who make or stand to make fortunes on “interactive” digital technologies. “D&D beats digital hands down,” Gilsdorf writes in his essay. Damn straight. Reading beats both.

The truth is that D&D and fantasy role-playing games gave kids disenchanted with the tedious real world (i.e. the adult world) instructions on how to build new ones, unlimited by time or place or possibility. Once we were able to decipher those instructions, we became explorers of the mind. That’s the most we can or should expect from any game.

(Image via Hack & Slash)

9 Responses to “Did <em>Dungeons & Dragons</em> Lead an ‘Anti-Corporate Revolution’?”

  1. 1 J February 18, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    “Reading beats both.”? I don’t think there is any comparison. Reading is like listening to music and a role playing game is like making it. Both are transformative. RPGs are nothing without the group. A pure social activity. Books are not better or worse. Is jogging better than cooking? Sculpture superior (good band name) to sewing?

    Like Mr. Gilsdorf was saying, through out history, the stories of the common man, what makes us who we are, were usually not written down. And most people could not even read them if they were. RPGs echo the narrative of the common man. Myths and legends told around campfires and tables. Mostly fiction, but with a seed of truth. My NPCs are often based on people I know.

    Also, I think, with practice, RPGs can be less time consuming than something like Monopoly or Call of Duty. I’ve been improvising 1-2 hour games for years. You’re not reading a script. It’s a bit similar to improv (playacting optional) and even jazz, but still very much it’s own thing. Those books Wizards of the Coast sells are the “How to play the guitar in 30 days” for RPGs. A foot in the door to something much bigger. Most folks who play RPGs do not even realize that what they are doing is art. Role playing game books are like brushes and picks. Tools. Art is not about tools or technique. Or commerce, really. Sorry. Hopefully I’m not being preachy.

  2. 2 2W2N February 19, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Intelligent disagreements always welcome. No apology necessary. I didn’t see any objections to my main argument, anyway…

    “Reading is like listening to music and a role playing game is like making it. Both are transformative. RPGs are nothing without the group. A pure social activity. Books are not better or worse.”

    The analogy is false. This is just the myth I’m talking about. You don’t need to know how music works to listen to and really appreciate a song; but you do need to know how words work to read and appreciate a book. When you read, your mind is interfacing and interacting with the author’s mind in very sophisticated ways. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

    Role-playing requires the foundational skills we develop through intensive reading (I’m talking specifically about fiction): understanding grammar, syntax, narrative structure, suspension of disbelief, and so on. Even the relationship with authorial authority is mirrored in RPing by the player’s relationship with the DM.

    Both pursuits (reading and role-playing) can be transformative, absolutely, but there’s a reason books, and not RPGs, are the basis of every school curriculum at every level. If there’s a D&D campaign that’s as emotionally, intellectually, and artistically resonant as, say, Dante’s Divine Comedy, I haven’t met it yet.

    “Like Mr. Gilsdorf was saying, throughout history, the stories of the common man, what makes us who we are, were usually not written down. And most people could not even read them if they were. RPGs echo the narrative of the common man. Myths and legends told around campfires and tables. Mostly fiction, but with a seed of truth. My NPCs are often based on people I know.”

    Agreed. But myths and stories have been written down since Homer, and they are not less genuine or less powerful because of it.

    “Role playing game books are like brushes and picks. Tools. Art is not about tools or technique. Or commerce, really.”

    If you want to paint, you need a brush. If you want to tabletop role-play, you need a rules system. True, we’re at the point now where anyone can get rules (and character sheets, and treasure lists, etc.) for free, and that’s awesome. In the late ‘70s, we had to pay for all that stuff, and it was expensive.

    • 3 J February 19, 2014 at 8:37 am

      I think I was apologizing because I’m a terrible writer. I’m a musician for a reason, I’m crap at most everything else! And impulsive, but whatever, I can fake it. I should have said local myths, unique to communities and regions. I grew up in a small New England town so this really resonates with me. Like just what is lurking in that woods at night? And what happened in that old farmhouse. Hey, until the middle of the 20th century, much of america’s folk & blues music was not transcribed or recorded (thank you Mr. Lomax). It was handed down between generations. They’re have been many great illterate storytellers.

      When I was very young, my parents would tell me stories and sometimes, when I didn’t like what was happening I’d suggest something else and they would often change it. A shared narrative. The original role playing game? I’m sure many families have done this.

      Rules systems are training wheels. I used to steal my brother’s DM guide just to use as a prop (I’ve barely read it, I learned the game by watching other DM’s, trying to one up them and steal their players). I’ve been BSing my way through RPG sessions for 20 years and no one has ever noticed or cared. Watching body language versus looking up rules, if you follow me. In person. A different and similarly valid experience to the written word. Conversation. D&D is just a conversation with dice. The DM being the loudest BS artist in the room. A conman. Disregard everything I just said, D&D makes you a better liar.

      • 4 2W2N February 19, 2014 at 6:16 pm

        The very idea of New England to me is mythic, being from California. Emerson, Lovecraft, Salem, Bedford Falls, Pilgrims, Autumn: all of it a dream I can’t put a face to (or vice versa). I’ve often thought of picking up and moving there on impulse, but cold weather terrifies me. (This morning I was very upset with my mother-in-law for turning the heat down to 70. Does she want the baby to freeze?)

        Sounds to me like you’re applying your musical instincts to role-playing. And a little bit of poker? Which is to say that I am intrigued.

  3. 5 Jose Viruete February 19, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Immo, the point here is that gaming is not reading. RPGs are close to sports than they are to literature. Soccer is not music, poker is not writing and RPGs are not literature. And I love all of them! 😀

    • 6 2W2N February 21, 2014 at 9:31 pm

      Sort of like sports combined with literature, isn’t it? They are different activities, yes, but I would argue that learning to be a good reader is more important than learning to be a good role-player.

  4. 7 J February 21, 2014 at 1:12 am

    Snow keeps you indoors to stay warm and be creative. Or go crazy. One of those. Another thought, obviously most people do not play role playing games. Most people have not read The Divine Comedy. Most have not heard Harold Budd’s “An Arc of Doves” (I recommend Julia Rovinsky’s version, it’s on Youtube). And it doesn’t seem to matter to them. That’s what makes you sad, but it is good to let them know what they might be missing anyways. Preferably in the nicest way possible.

    There are a few role playing games that helped change the way I approached gaming. In combination with exposure to the arts, music and reading. Chiefly, Jonathan Tweet’s “Over the Edge” which I discovered after seeing films like Stalker and Blue Velvet. Reading Phil Dick and William S. Burroughs. An early 90’s surreal satire that references The Moon Pool and Big Black. It has things like psychic countermeasures made from telepathic dolphin brains stored in cubes, soul extraction and a general disregard for standard role playing conventions. It’s like a peanut butter-slicked Iggy dancing to Mother Popcorn with an alien-drug damaged Scanner on the set of the Golden Girls. Blue-haired heads exploding everywhere. Good times.

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