The popular role-playing game, published 40 years ago this week, demands nearly Talmudic attention
Some teenage boys blow through high school playing ball. Others fuss with their guitars, smoke pot, chase girls. Me, I spent most weekends from the dawn of ninth grade to the dusk of senior year pretending I was a humorless but morally upright paladin named Orax, whose hobbies included long and tedious lectures about religion dotted with bouts of joyful smiting.
I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, the massively popular fantasy game whose first edition was released 40 years ago this week. If you’re one of the game’s hordes of players—mostly male, largely nerdy, making Fear of Girls the perfect title for a recent comedic spoof of the archetype—you’re probably already sinking into a bog of warm nostalgia, conjuring images of sleepless nights spent rolling multifaced, colorful dice and worrying about Orcs. If, however, you’ve never had the pleasure of embarking on a months-long campaign of D&D, as the game is affectionately known, a brief explanation is in order.
The first thing you need to know about D&D is that it takes place entirely in your head. It’s not a computer game. There’s no board, no visuals, only a manual, a few chewed-up pencils, and stacks of papers on which to record your statistical progress. Everything you do, from attacks on monsters to attempts at magic spells, is determined by the aforementioned dice. It’s hopelessly procedural, deeply detailed, wonderfully abstract, and decidedly conducive to argumentation. It is, in other words, a wholly Jewish experience.
Rather than bore you with reams of technicalities, consider the mirthless Orax. Along with his pals—a dwarf, an elf, a priest, and a thief, if memory serves—he was halfway through a particularly punishing dungeon when a new monster appeared. Orax thrust his mighty sword, rolling the dice with a very satisfying result. But Avi, a plump poindexter who served as our Dungeon Master, informed the good warrior that his attack had been deflected. The monster, he said, was impervious to the sword’s blow. We all listened in silence, realizing that Avi, to use a highly technical term, was trying to pull a fast one.
Ordinarily, you might expect a roomful of 14-year-olds, doped up on Coca Cola and Domino’s Pizza, to apply one of only two emotional reactions at the disposal of the common pubescent boy and either sulk at the injustice or try to correct it with their fists. D&D, however, afforded us other recourse. What, one of my fellow players firmly demanded, was the classification of the monster in question? The D&D monster manual—a gorgeous hardcover adorned with beautiful illustrations of fearsome creatures—was consulted. Like yeshiva boys poring over a line of Rashi, we read with our fingers on the page, until we came across the relevant information, the lines of numbers detailing the efficacy of the monster’s shield. I pointed out that as said monster belonged to the same armor class as similar creatures Orax had met and smitten before, there was no reason to assume that the beast now before us was in any way special. A short argument ensued, consisting almost entirely of citations from the manual. Finally Avi admitted that he had only tried to spice up the game and that our protestations were justified. The verdict was reversed, the monster slain, Orax ever victorious.
It hardly occurred to us at the time—adolescents aren’t known for their facility with insight—but we were engaging in more than a mere pastime for the socially awkward and the romantically inept. In the best tradition of rabbinic Judaism, we were studying in a small group, with an authoritative but by no means infallible scholar as our guide. We were being told a story—all good Dungeon Masters craft compelling ones, often based on existing campaigns but sometimes largely innovative—and the only way for us to follow that story, to be a part of it, was by following the rules. Or not following them: In the proud Jewish tradition of questioning and defiance, D&D allowed for, even encouraged, players to query one another, to cast doubt, to demand satisfaction. It provided a codex but acknowledged that the game only got interesting when players sought to interpret, adapt, or reject the rules, not follow them blindly. It offered clearly prescribed campaigns but allowed both human ingenuity and blind luck, represented by all those funky dice, to meddle with and reshape destiny. You don’t have to be a rabbi to realize that these are precisely the things religion does; in Avi’s room, strewn with pizza crusts and thoughts of monsters, we got the finest theological education.
Neither Gary Gygax, an insurance salesman and war-game enthusiast, nor Dave Arneson, a University of Minnesota student, were Jewish, and neither could have imagined, when they published their first rulebook all these decades ago, that their work would inspire such wide following or such deep contemplation. But the best games, like the best religions, work just in this way, crafting what game designers call the space of possibility, that murky and exciting realm at the intersection of predestination and free will. And like the best religions, the best games parlay a few rules, a few stories, and a few strong characters into something personal enough and profound enough to contain the world entire.
This is what I spent all those high-school weekends understanding. And as I, like the game I still love, approach 40, I feel grateful for the experience.
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