Dungeons and Dragons: Rites of Passage

As a young boy, we played many board games in the Johnson household. I enjoyed moving the pieces around the board and winning money in Monopoly or pushing someone back in Sorry. I yearned for something more challenging in a game. Backgammon and Chess became obsessions for a short period. But it’s not like anyone is gonna come over for a game of chess. It reeked of super nerd. But as Jr. High approached, my love of board games took on a different look when I discovered Risk.  I could get friends over for that. When I got to high school things changed drastically. First we moved from Northern Illinois to Southern Illinois. It was quite the culture shock. Then again, so was a new board game I discovered in the lonely space of my room that first year. That game was Dungeons and Dragons. Over the next ten years, the game was just an excuse to get out of the house, meet new people, and be exposed to so many things I never new existed.

In eighth grade I had read The Hobbit. I thought it was magical. The next logical step was to get into Dungeons and Dragons (D&D as we called it). Unfortunately, I did not know any other nerds in the new town. So, slowly, I read the monster manual, player’s handbook, and Dungeon Master’s Handbook. Walking the halls of the high school, I kept my secret to myself for a long time – months in fact. It was on a bus to a track meet when I overheard two other people talking about D&D. The next weekend, I was involved in my first campaign. Of course, cigars, beer, and Rush were involved, lots of Rush. It became the soundtrack to D&D. Albums like Caress of Steel, Fly by Night, 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, and the recently released Permanent Waves. 

D&D started out in the late 1960s by David Arneson and a then unemployed Gary Gygax. However it wasn’t until 1974 that the game first made its appearance in a box. The story of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) the company Gygax used to start and publish the game is the story of a company that got too big for what Gygax had envisioned. The first 1000 games of D&D sold in less than a month. The $1000 used to produce the rules and 1000 games had been earned back and then some. By 1977, Gygax produced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the rush for the game was on (no pun intended).

For me, it was a rite of passage. Not the main one, but one of many. There is still something magical about imagining yourself with a torch in one hand, a sword in another, trying to find the monster’s lair and some sort of treasure. There was also learning how to work with other people. As a player, you could not accomplish the mission by yourself. You had to work together to get it done. It was the dungeon master against you. I was not a good dungeon master. I did not want to give up the treasure.  I enjoyed the player role much better. There was a bond there if you defeated the campaign. I can still almost smell the torch burning and the touch of the bricks as they sweat in the dampness of the dark.

Not everyone was sold on the game. Parents feared their children were in to Devil Worship. A student died in a real live action version of the game. Another family blamed their son’s suicide on D&D.

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Here is an article about the panic: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/24081

My own parents did not let me play it in the house in high school. My friends and I usually wound up in someone’s basement with the stereo cranked and the dice rolling. Looking back, I don’t know if I loved the game or the social aspect of it. Maybe it was both. It was a rite of passage for me. When I turned 16, I didn’t play D&D or AD&D as much as I had to get a job, but once or twice a month, I loved playing it. In nearby Decatur, there was a place you could order dice and campaigns to play. It usually took only 3-4 days to complete a transaction.

When college came in the fall of 1982, I packed up my manuals, dice, campaigns, my Rush albums and off to college I went. I was hopeful to find someone to play the game. I did not think it would be right across the hall in the dorm. It was. Every Saturday night my Freshman year was spent playing the game with my character, a Palladin, named Rothmoor (after David Lee Roth). It was also in those sessions that I was introduced to Genesis, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and King Crimson.

As that year came and went, I found some friends but I also found out more about music than I had ever known before. When I left college in 1986, I was pretty much done with the game. I still kept the manuals and dice nearby. Every once in a while I pop open a campaign and give it a read. The 1980s were not kind to the game. TSR and the main writer, Gary Gygax, were constantly at odds. The original three men (one had died) who had started the company were not in charge anymore. Gygax left the company in 1986 and started a new company and wrote other board games, but none as popular as D&D or AD&D. Me, I don’t think I have played the game in almost 25 years. I have however, rolled the dice and I still listen to the music. Every time I hear late 70s Progressive Rock, I still think of D&D.

Here is a peak into the past…It was quite thorough on the history of the game and how to play. There are 7 parts to the video.

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