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Pen and paper roleplaying games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, have been gaining a lot of traction lately. Somehow, the act of gathering around a table, rolling dice, and sharing collective stories has been brought back from the nearly forgotten fringes to the forefront of recreational activities. This article in The New Yorker tries to figure out how and why this happened, and if these games are any good for both the kids and the adults partaking in them. And, of course, since this is the current year and The New Yorker is a respectable publication, some jabs at the contemporary US politics are inescapable, but look past that and you'll find a pretty insightful article.
The clinical psychologist Jon Freeman was feeling burnt out. He spent his days at a corporate office in Manhattan, managing dozens of research assistants as they tested pharmaceuticals on people with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Looking for an escape hatch, he noticed that his daughter often had nothing to do after school. She would pick up her Nintendo Wii controller and drift “into this world of digital isolation,” Freeman recalled. From time to time, he enticed her back into social existence with board games. “Then I had this idea: Couldn’t we do this on a larger scale? Could we expand this to our neighborhood?”
Freeman quit his job, and, shortly thereafter, in 2011, the first customers—initially, his daughter’s friends—arrived at his pop-up board-game club and café, Brooklyn Strategist, a place where children and their parents could sit down and play games, both classic and obscure, over veggie platters and homemade ginger ale. Looking back at his work in the research lab, he paired cognitive-ability tests with the board games that he had on hand, and divided these amusements by brain function—kids worked their way around their frontal lobes a die roll at a time.
One day, a child who had grown tired of a sports-statistics game asked if Freeman had heard of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and if they could play it. The game has no board and no cards. Occasionally, players make use of maps. At its best, it’s a story told between the players, who control characters (elves, dwarves, gnomes, humans), and the Dungeon Master, who describes the world and uses dice to determine outcomes in the second person (“You come across a band of orcs, travelling down the road. What do you do?”). Freeman refused for a week or two—the game was too open-ended, and didn’t have a straightforward cognitive benefit—but the customer persisted, so he went up into his parents’ attic, dug out all his old D. & D. manuals, and wrote an adventure. “I tried to give them a little flavor of everything,” he told me, “A little dungeon crawl, a little fighting monsters. They ate it up.” Word got out. A few months later, a parent stopped him on the street with tears in her eyes. “What are you guys doing?” she asked him. Her son was dyslexic and had been role-playing at Brooklyn Strategist for a couple of weeks. Before D. & D., he couldn’t focus on writing for more than a few seconds. Now he was staying up all night to draft stories about his character. “Whatever it is, bottle it and sell it to me,” the mother said.
Freeman got a permanent space in 2012 and added French-press coffee. A few months later, Gygax, a once defunct magazine named for the Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, chose Brooklyn Strategist to host its relaunch party. A reporter for Wired, covering the event, asked the magazine’s founders why they wanted to waste their energy on such a publication (not to mention such a store) when “it’s video games, not Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs, that are getting all the attention?” This attention, it seems, has shifted. Two popular role-playing shows, “The Adventure Zone” and “Critical Role,” sent Freeman’s older patrons to their knees, begging for more D. & D. time in the store. Soon, Freeman had to hire half a dozen paid Dungeon Masters for the kids and has now begun training volunteer Dungeon Masters to guide adventures for the adults who drop in on Thursdays to fight goblins, trick castle guards, and drink wine.
This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in. On the other side of politics, Christian moralists’ cries of the occult and anxiety about witchcraft followed D. & D. players everywhere. Worse still, parents feared how this enveloping set of lies about druids in dark cloaks and paladins on horseback could tip already vulnerable minds off the cliff of reality. At the end of the 1982 TV movie “Mazes and Monsters,” a troubled gamer, played by a pre-fame Tom Hanks, loses touch and starts to believe that he really does live beside an evil wood in need of heroes. “He saw the monsters. We did not,” his ex-girlfriend says in a voice-over. “We saw nothing but the death of hope, and the loss of our friend.”
Decades passed, D. & D. movies and cartoons came and went, and the game remade itself over and over. But interest fell like an orc beneath a bastard sword. The game’s designers, surrounded by copycats and perplexed about how to bring D. & D. online, made flat-footed attempts at developing new rule books to mimic the video games that D. & D. had inspired. Gygax died, in 2008, occasioning a wealth of tributes but little enthusiasm. Then, a fifth edition of D. & D. rules came out, in 2014, and, somehow, the culture was receptive again to bags of holding and silver-haired drow. People started buying up these volumes in droves. “More people are interested in D&D than we thought,” the game’s lead developer, Mike Mearls, said, as print runs repeatedly sold out. “Who are these people? What do they want?”
In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.
Thirty or forty years ago, people reached through the dice-rolling mathematics of Dungeons & Dragons for a thrilling order that video games, and the world at large, couldn’t yet provide. Today, the chaos of physical dice is reassuringly clunky and slow compared to the speed with which you nervously tally the likes under a Facebook post. Rejecting your feed for an evening isn’t like rejecting the God-fearing community that reared you, but something heretical lingers in this lo-fi entertainment.
To be sure, the latest generation of dungeon delvers has also brought in new technologies to help conduct what might otherwise be a freeform narrative. Dungeon Masters often keep computers nearby to look up forgotten rules or project maps of fantasy villages onto walls and move characters across them like chess pieces. Many players sit at separate screens, with microphones at their chins, and cast their spells by video conference.
And yet the emphasis, even these days, is not on such forms but on moving beyond them. A decade ago, when developers attempted to bring Dungeons & Dragons into the twenty-first century by stuffing it with rules so that it might better resemble a video game, the glue of the game, the narrative aspect that drew so many in, melted away. Players hacked monsters to death, picked up treasure, collected experience points, and coolly moved through preset challenges. The plotters of the game’s fifth edition seemed to remember that D. & D.’s strength lay in creating indulgent spaces (get lost in your gnomish identity, quest or don’t, spend time flirting in the tavern) and opposing whatever modes of human industry prevailed among the broader public. D. & D. now has vastly simpler rules than those found in an iTunes terms-and-conditions agreement. The structures the designers made are also simpler and more subjective. If a player thinks of something clever, you don’t have to thumb through a handbook for a strictly defined bonus. The Dungeon Master can ponder the idea for a moment—could a dwarf with low charisma, with a few well-chosen compliments, really convince a city of elves to love him?—and then decide to reward the player with an extra chance to succeed.
Game engineers have begun to describe D. & D. as though it were crafted as a pastime for Bronze Age poets. “Ever since we were primitive sitting around campfires, we’ve been telling stories to each other, and listening to each other tell stories to each other,” a D. & D. designer explained. “There’s really nothing out there that can perfectly emulate it digitally.” And we know that Gygax would approve. Earlier this year, a graphic novel titled “Rise of the Dungeon Master,” based on interviews for a Wired article by David Kushner, depicted the D. & D. creator robed and on a throne, playing one final session just before his death. “D&D is not an online game,” he told Kushner. “There is no role-playing in an online game that can match what happens in person.”