Category Archives: Culture

Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters.

This cautionary video clip, brought to you in 1993 by The 700 Club, has been making the rounds:

(More info here.)

Mocking Pat Robertson, and more specifically the anti-D&D hysteria of the 80s and early 90s, is a bit too easy at this point, so I won’t bother. But I do want to point out a few things about this video, which aims to scare people away from Dungeons and Dragons by suggesting that playing the game leads to child sacrifice and the wearing of terrible homemade wizard/KKK robes.

The most obvious thing is that nothing at all in this video remotely resembles anything that ever would be said, seen, done, or heard at a Dungeons and Dragons game. The “game” that they’re playing, which looks like a homebrew Candyland variant, bears no resemblance to D&D.

No big surprise there; few anti-D&D attacks like this showed signs that their creators had ever seen or read D&D, or talked to people who did. But look at the date this video was released: 1993, almost twenty years after D&D was first created! It’s even ten years later than Jack Chick’s infamous Dark Dungeons tract. In those two decades, nobody at The 700 Club had so much as flipped through a D&D rulebook at Toys ‘R’ Us. That graduates it well into “willful ignorance” territory.

And for somebody trying to warn of the dangers of pop culture trends, Pat Robertson has completely missed the boat here; by 1993 D&D’s heyday of popularity was well behind it. A little card game called Magic: the Gathering was just about to explode onto the scene, and as far as evil roleplaying games went, Vampire: The Masquerade and its sister games had decisively eclipsed D&D as the Shock Your Parents™ games of choice. In 1993, D&D was quaint.

Consider what this video says about Robertson’s intended audience. Anybody who had actually played D&D would immediately dismiss it as being insulting, slanderous, and irrelevent; so it clearly wasn’t bothering to address people actually playing the game. This video is talking only to people who had no clue what D&D was about, and who could be relied upon to never try to find out. Despite either laughable ignorance or simple contempt for truth, Robertson was asking people to respect his judgment about a topic they knew little about.

Ah, well. If you want to know what really goes on in the dark basements of D&D players, this remains the best source.

(Bible quote is from the Contemporary English Version.)

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Why Are Gary Gygax’s D&D Modules Still Unavailable?

The cover of "Keep on the Borderlands," perhaps the most famous and influential roleplaying adventure ever published.

Next month, Wizards of the Coast is reprinting the 1st edition AD&D core rulebooks, with some of the proceeds to benefit the Gygax Memorial Fund. (And if you missed it, yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Gygax’s death.)

I’m really glad they’re bringing back, even if just for a limited print run, some vintage D&D books. But as cool as that is, it also reminds me how crazy it is that almost all of Gary Gygax’s most famous and influential work is out of print. Long out of print.

In addition to the assorted early edition D&D rulebooks, Gygax authored some of the most influential, fondly-remembered, imaginative adventures and campaigns: The Keep on the Borderlands, Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, the “Against the Giants” trilogy, and oh, about a bazillion others.

All of those are gathering figurative dust in Wizards of the Coast’s basement someplace, instead of being available to gamers or civilians who want to delve into the history of the roleplaying hobby. From a gaming perspective, the craziness of keeping the hobby’s greatest hits out of circulation for decades is obvious. And from a non-gaming perspective, it’s odd that, given Gygax’s influence on pop culture and the attention his death received by mainstream news outlets, none of his defining works are available. As anyone who’s read or played those old modules will tell you, Gygax’s voice and writing style are incredibly unique; it was in these adventures and campaign modules that his quirks as a creator and visionary were truly apparent. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s real literary value in keeping his early D&D works available.

More Gygaxian awesomeness in "The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth."

Low-quality scans of most of these works were available as (legally purchasable) PDFs for a while, but were yanked offline by Wizards of the Coast a few years back for reasons that, uh, I suppose made sense to somebody. And you can grab a lot of them used from the usual suspects online, but prices for some of them have skyrocketed. (And I have to imagine that most Gygax modules still out there for sale are tattered, bescribbled, Mountain Dew-stained relics you’d be afraid to actually open, lest they crumble into Cheeto-flecked dust.)

The limited reprint of the AD&D rulebooks is a promising sign, as are the promises that the upcoming 5th edition of D&D will somehow bridge gaps between the various editions of the game. And maybe if the AD&D reprints sell well, we’ll see an anthology of Gygax’s greatest adventure modules follow. With the rising popularity of ebooks and the maturation of print-on-demand technology, there are many ways a creative publisher (I’m assuming it’s Wizards of the Coast, but Gygax Games might or might not have some say in the matter) could make Gygax’s work available to modern readers without a massive financial commitment. Here’s hoping.

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One man's unplayable game, another man's source of endless fun

What makes a good game good, and a bad game bad? If you’ve ever frequented any of the big RPG forums, you know that gamers can be vicious in their criticism of games that don’t meet their personal standards. This rather mundane observation sprang to mind today as I was reading Grognardia‘s post on Monte Cook’s new “Dungeonaday” venture.

The Dungeonaday project is interesting, as is James Maliszewski’s insightful-as-always commentary on it. (Seriously, that’s a blog that should be on your daily reading list.) But I did a full stop (actually, I let loose with a bemused “hah!”) when I read this sentence from the post:

[Monte Cook] was, after all, the writer of the execrable Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The "execrable" game itself.Why did that strike me as funny? Because I think I’ve run Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil more than any other adventure campaign in my gaming career—at least three or four different times, for a different gaming group each time. And I loved it each time, as did my players. So hearing somebody describe it as “execrable” is just amusing; I’m sure they have a perfectly good reason for disliking it, but for such a horrifically bad product, it’s provided me with a heck of a lot of entertainment!

I have not read a formal review of Return, so for all I know I’m alone in my opinion that it’s a really fun D&D campaign. And I’m not criticizing James for his judgment at all; I have my own list of games and sourcebooks I think are terrible that somebody out there absolutely loves. There is no product or work of art in the world that isn’t loved by some and hated by others. But I think the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” holds particularly true in the gaming hobby, where creativity and enthusiasm can redeem even the most poorly written, badly designed game product.

This is one reason I tread more carefully with game reviews than I do with movie or book reviews. There’s not much I can do to make The Phantom Menace an excellent movie. But it’s a rare gaming product, however mediocre it might be, that can’t be turned into something fun if you’re willing to put in the effort.

There are a lot of game materials I’ve had a great time with that are often roundly (and in some cases accurately) condemned when they come up in online discussions and reviews:

  • No online discussion of Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG is complete without people chiming in to remind us that its combat system is “horribly broken” and “unplayable”—a fact my game group somehow managed not to notice during our entirely enjoyable adventures with that game.
  • TSR’s early Dragonlance modules for AD&D are legendary for committing the cardinal sin of gaming: railroading. Ask a veteran gamer and you’ll hear how those awful modules force players down predetermined paths, leeching all the fun out of the gaming experience. And yet that didn’t stop my young self from having a great time with them (they were among my earliest introductions to D&D, as it happens).
  • Rolemaster‘s supposed glut of charts is often said to make the game painful at best and unplayable at worst. But my high-school self ran that game for years without being troubled by its alleged unplayability.
  • Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying is generally considered to be quite unsuited for roleplaying in Middle Earth. But as with Rolemaster, I ran it for years and somehow failed to notice this supposedly game-damning problem.

(I often suspect that Rifts players can relate to this; I can think of few games that are criticized quite so much as it is, and for generally compelling reasons; but it makes me perversely happy to think that people are having fun with Rifts anyway.)

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t critique games, or even declare them Bad if we think they merit the condemnation. And hey, many of the games above actually are flawed, some of them in serious ways; in many cases the critics are dead-on with their judgments. Those Dragonlance modules really are railroady. Rolemaster really does have way too many charts. The combat system in Decipher’s LotR really does have serious problems. For all I know, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil really does have some terrible feature that makes it bad.

But I’ll never cease to be amazed at how much fun you can have with a “terrible” game. And if you’re having that much fun with it… how terrible can it really be?

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D&D players strike back

If you’re still smarting from those disparaging remarks about D&D by the John McCain campaign, take heart: the folks at Hasbro have stepped forward to champion the cause. Take a look at this letter from a Hasbro exec to the McCain staffer who wrote the infamous press release:

Dear Mr. Goldfarb,

I was disappointed to read the disparaging intent of your comments regarding Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) fans, both in your response to New York Times editors, and on the John McCain campaign website.

Dungeons & Dragons is a global game with millions of consumers in the U.S. and abroad. The brand is owned by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.

For fans, the game is essentially about heroism and therefore it is not surprising to us that thousands of military personnel play and enjoy the game. Hasbro, in turn, supports the U.S. Armed Forces by sending multiple crates of game products, including Dungeons & Dragons, to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently a soldier who saw your comments online said, “Wizards of the Coast (the makers of D&D) has sent care packages to the troops on many occasions, providing free gaming supplies in support of our men and women serving the country overseas to help them decompress after hours. McCain’s people should really check their facts before they spout off. Does John McCain have no idea how many GIs play D&D?”

We would very much appreciate you not making any more condescending comments about D&D — as it is a great game enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Thank you.

Wayne Charness
Senior Vice President
Hasbro, Inc.

Weirdly, this is apparently not the first time that D&D has been used as a political pejorative by Goldfarb; earlier in August he issued a clever apology for his first such offense [note: looking at this apology, I’m unsure if it actually happened or is just a joke that’s circulating around the web. If you can confirm one or the other possibility, please comment below!]:

If my comments caused any harm or hurt to the hard working Americans who play Dungeons & Dragons, I apologize. This campaign is committed to increasing the strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma scores of every American.

OK, that’s pretty amusing, and lends credence to my suspicions that Goldfarb is a D&Der (or a bitter ex-D&Der). I mean, he even listed the stats out in their correct order.

And lastly, faithful reader (yes, I seem to have one or two of them) Raymond points out a very nice photoshop job of McCain reaching out to the gamers his words have so deeply wounded:


(If McCain thinks the Iraq War debate has been brutal, he’d be well advised to steer clear of the D&D edition wars.)

So at any rate, this is all just a lot of silliness, although I’ve seen more than a few gamers online taking the D&D jab a little too seriously. McCain, let us put this regrettable incident behind us. And yes, I admit that I am probably shallow enough to vote for whichever candidate first poses with a D&D Player’s Handbook.

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Alienating the RPG voting bloc!

I’m back from Gencon—pictures and details in a future post. But this morning I’m just trying to wrap my brain around this quote from a recent John McCain press release:

It may be typical of the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd to disparage a fellow countryman’s memory of war from the comfort of mom’s basement, but most Americans have the humility and gratitude to respect and learn from the memories of men who suffered on behalf of others.

On the contrary, I thought you couldn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons & Dragons and not learn a little something about courage! Maybe an enterprising DM should volunteer to run McCain and his staff through the Tomb of Horrors?

And is it wrong of me to secretly hope that “Dungeons & Dragons crowd” will become a frequently-used political pejorative this election season like “flip-flopper” or “limousine liberal”? No publicity is bad publicity. Seriously though, unless McCain is secretly nursing a grudge against a DM that killed off his 12th-level rogue years ago, I don’t really see why one would use that phrase as an intended political insult, or what it’s even supposed to mean.

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Gencon, here I come

Well, it looks like I’m definitely going to Gencon this year. I’m excited! My one previous visit to Gencon was back in (I think) 2003, and I had a great time. It was, among other things, my first exposure to convention RPG games, in all their beauty and (in at least one case) horror. (The horror occurred during a game of All Flesh Must Be Eaten—and I’m not talking about the sort of horror you’re supposed to experience during a zombie RPG. But that’s a tale for another day.)

I hope to play in more events this time around than I did in 2003, when I spent too much of my time wandering the dealer hall spending money…. So I’ll be there again, armed with my D&D 4th edition books, my copy of World in Flames, and (if I get them painted in time) my Battletech miniatures!

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Random thoughts on Christians, culture, and Dungeons & Dragons

This is a response to an excellent post over at the ThinkChristian blog (where I post as well) about D&D and the Christian response to it in the 1980s. As a Christian who struggled, back in the day, with whether or not my favorite hobby was satanic, this topic is one that really interests me. Here are a few semi-random thoughts in response to the post.

Great post, Chris. Hsu’s post has a lot of good insights.

This is a subject that’s near and dear to me, since I played D&D and similar games a lot when I was younger (I still play them, actually, as Peter and KDC note) and heard/read a lot from well-intentioned Christians who thought it was satanic.

Looking back at the Christian response to D&D, it strikes me as a good example of how not to respond to a questionable piece of culture. A few random observations about how Christians mishandled the D&D thing:

  • If you were a D&D player reading a typical Christian critique of the game in the 80s, it was clear to you that most of the Christians condemning the game had only a marginal understanding of it, and had apparently done no research beyond skimming a rulebook looking for occult-sounding terms. Many of the more extreme concerns (that D&D caused suicide, that it was an occult recruitment tool) would have been put to rest by spending 3 hours sitting in on an actual D&D game, but you rarely got the sense that the Christian critics had even done that minimal level of research. Obviously you don’t have to know every nuance of something to critique it, but it didn’t seem like Christians were trying very hard to understand the game before condemning it. Also, despite the fact that there were (and are) Christians working in the game hobby, nobody thought to seek them out and ask for their perspective.
  • As Hsu points out very eloquently in his post, this was a classic case of Christians condemning something without offering any better alternative. Nor did Christians spend much time asking why the game appealed so much to kids. Here was a whole new social/relational activity that was meeting a genuine need in the lives of kids like myself, and the only thing Christians had to say about it was to tell people they shouldn’t do it. Instead of helping people to pursue the roleplaying hobby (which was certainly not evil, even if you thought D&D was) in a way consistent with their faith, Christians just indulged in a knee-jerk rejection of it all, baby and bathwater alike.
  • As PCG points out, those few Christians who tried to offer up alternatives mostly just ended up aping D&D in the same way that some types of CCM just ape mainstream music. I don’t mean to trash all Christian attempts at making Christian RPGs, because some of them were interesting; but a lot of them could be summed up as “Like D&D, but less fun.” And even these attempts were condemned by some Christians.

The result of all this was essentially to drive away people who might otherwise have listened to a Christian perspective. Christians sabotaged any chance of participating meaningfully in this particular discussion by failing to approach D&D, D&D players, and the whole issue of roleplaying in a respectful and intelligent manner. Ridiculous stories about D&D being an occult recruitment tool may have scared a few nervous Christian teenagers into giving up the game, but most gamers I know (Christian and otherwise) just decided that Christians had absolutely nothing useful to say about gaming, and ignored them. The “it’s satanic!” reaction just made D&D more popular by turning it into a Forbidden Fruit, and it’s now quite entrenched in popular culture, even if you don’t hear about it as much these days. So even if you believe Christians were right to condemn the game, the way they went about doing so must be seen as a complete failure, because it had the opposite of its intended effect.

This failure was particularly unfortunate because there really were spiritual issues surrounding some popular RPGs (some of the games that followed D&D went much farther in depicting violence, occultism, and other unpleasant stuff than D&D ever did), but by that time, nobody was paying any attention to what Christians were saying about it.

Wow, this whole topic—D&D and the Satanic Panic—seems so silly in retrospect. But at the time, I (and other Christians) took it very seriously. That’s what 20 years of hindsight perspective will get you, I suppose.

Just my $.02, as a Christian who played D&D back in the day.

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GaryCon 2008: Mr. Gygax, we salute you

gygaxMany, many people have in the last few days written eloquent tributes to Gary Gygax, so I won’t try and compete with them—I’ll just say that if Gary Gygax had not created a little game called Dungeons & Dragons, my life would be radically different than it is.

How many hours did I spent in my youth poring over game rulebooks, plotting out adventures in my mind, rolling up dozens and dozens of characters just for the sheer imaginative thrill of it? My first roleplaying experience was Tomb of the Lizard King—not one of Gary’s modules, but it wasn’t long before I was soaking up every piece of Gygax writing I could find. My cousins and I had so much fun with Tomb of the Lizard King that we proceeded to hole up for three straight days doing nothing but playing D&D (much to the consternation of our parents, who didn’t know what the heck to make of our excited babbling about clerics and hit points and gelatinous cubes). None of us had even the slightest idea what we were doing (my cousins made me GM even though I had never before laid eyes on a rulebook), but we knew we had stumbled upon something incredible. I have vivid memories of hours spent intensely reading through my cousin’s copy of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. After that it was Top Secret, Middle Earth Role Playing, Mechwarrior and many others… games written by others but which owed their existence to Gygax’s pioneering. Thank you, Gary Gygax, for sharing your creation with the rest of us, and for giving this awkward teenager an outlet for his imagination.

garyconTonight we participated in what some are calling “GaryCon”—a game of dungeon-crawling, kobold-killing, treasure-looting D&D in memory of Gary. I ran the players through a mostly improvised dungeon populated by skeletons, giant rats, and an owlbear, and remembering Gary’s DMG advice not to coddle players, I even managed to kill one of them with said owlbear. It was not the best game I’ve ever run, nor was it the worst: it was just a good game, and that seemed perfectly appropriate.

At the end of the game we each rolled a d20 in honor of Gary. I rolled a 19.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gygax.

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RIP, Angus McBride

I learned this week from the Ex-Teenage Rebel blog that Angus McBride, well known for his marvelous fantasy illustrations, passed away just a few days ago. He did a lot of different illustrations throughout his life, but I’m most familiar with his work for Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying Game, the RPG on which I cut my gaming teeth. His depictions of the people and places of Middle-Earth were enormously influential on the way I perceived Middle-Earth during my formative teenage Tolkien phase. To this day, his artistic style (much more than, say, Peter Jackson’s film trilogy) is the main filter through which I visualize the colors and style of Middle-Earth.

Here are my two favorite McBride Middle-Earth illustrations; the first is the cover of the Riders of Rohan module, and the second is from Gates of Mordor:

The gaming world is much richer for McBride’s contributions. Rest in peace.

(Both of the above images I found here, where you can browse many of his other excellent Tolkien illustrations.)

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