1980s Nostalgia: Dungeons & Dragons
To preface this article, it would be fitting to say that I, the author, have been an avid player of tabletop RPGs (chiefly Dungeons & Dragons) since the seventh grade. This article will share both facts and opinions – I hope you, the reader, will forgive me for my bias. This game is close to my heart.
While originally conceived in 1974 and wildly popular before the 1980's, Dungeons & Dragons (also known by the abbreviated “D&D”) certainly hit its heyday during the 1980's. Available in two rules-sets, both “basic” and “advanced” (AD&D), the game focused on storytelling and action. For those only passing familiar with tabletop RPGs, they aren’t normally “competitive” in nature; the goal is to entertain through a mutual kind of story telling, where one participant (the Dungeon Master, or DM) creates the fantasy world around the players, whose characters (player characters, or PCs) interact with that fantasy world and ultimately play a large role in its progression.
"This booklet, and the box it came in, is near and dear to many a nerd’s heart."
During the late 70s and most of the 80s, the game came under fire by fearful fundamentalist groups and other organizations for some of its elements. Not only were there demons and devils in the game’s handbooks, but early editions were none too shy about their illustrations, often depicting bare breasts, etc. This had “decency” advocates in an uproar – after all, this was a game for kids, wasn’t it?
"Ooh la la! Too bad you’re evil though!"
D&D was also often cited in court cases, blamed for inspiring murderous and Satanic mindsets among its devotees. The story of James Dallas Egbert is one widely publicized example of D&D being blamed for someone’s mental unraveling; other cases abound wherein the defendant has been known as an avid RPG player. The game was widely condemned for its treatment of demons, occultism, and violence; however, the accusers often blew things out of proportion. A good example of this propaganda is the Jack Chick tract “Dark Dungeons,” in which a girl falls into evil witchcraft via D&D and is saved by her pastor from eternal damnation. To draw upon personal experience, I have played D&D in one form or another for more than 20 years now, and I have never once witnessed any of my players (I usually am the Dungeon Master) behaving this way. One detail the critics fail to note is that for the most part, demons and their servants are depicted as the VILLAINS in D&D, not the heroes. TSR capitulated somewhat, however, by renaming their in-game demons and devils “Tanar’ri” and “Baatezu,” respectively, and distancing the game’s cosmology from real-life Western religion just enough to leave things ambiguous.
"Excerpt from the Chick tract."
Outside of the controversy, D&D remained wildly popular, spawning a cartoon series, coloring books, action figures, and various other tie-ins. There was even a DC Comics series titled “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” though it wasn’t very good.
In 1989, the “basic” edition took a backseat, and AD&D released its 2nd edition revised rules… the ones I grew up on. Now, if you’re wondering what was so “advanced” about it, AD&D was, to be frank, a bit more complex. Charts and lists abounded, and it wasn’t uncommon to pause gameplay to look up a rule or reference one of the ubiquitous charts and graphs.
"Charts, charts, charts…"
Despite this, the game remained popular, and early editions are still used and played by a diehard set of purists. Attempts have been made by third parties to reproduce the same “feel” of the old editions with new (but old-school) rules sets, with mixed results. Two of my personal favorites are OSRIC and ACKS, but many exist, some free, some you have to pay for.
The game, regardless of its edition or rules set, is a mix of acting, dice-rolling (to resolve actions in combat and sometimes elsewhere), and if your DM is good at what they’re doing, problem-solving. I’ve seen games based around courtly intrigue, hack-and-slash monster battles, and even murder-mystery-themed campaigns. Players are offered a wide range of options for building and advancing their characters; you can play an elf, a wizard, a servant of a deity, a mighty warrior, and plenty of archetypes in between.
In the 1980s, D&D was considered largely the purview of “nerds” and “geeks,” and while that stigma has softened nowadays, it is still (sometimes facetiously) trumpeted far and wide. That’s just fine with most of us; we have a great time playing it. However, I recommend it to any group of people who have a “game night” and want to try something a little more exciting than Boggle or Monopoly. Not that there’s anything wrong with those games! If the idea of complex rules and millions of charts puts you off, I recommend the most recent edition, 5th. It is fairly simple to pick up, and there is a “starter set” available.
I’d like to thank NRW for indulging me, and letting me write a bit about my passion – I mean, my hobby… yeah, my hobby… on their website.