Category Archives: D&D

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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D&D Greatest Hits: the dungeon survival guide I want to see

While browsing the local bookstore the other day, I came across the Dungeon Survival Guide, a fairly new D&D release. (Yes, the wife and I periodically trade baby-care duties long enough to let each other take short sanity breaks at the local bookstore. Sooner or later the bookstore owner will realize that our book-buying money is now going entirely into the Baby Formula fund, and he’ll be less pleased to see us walk through the door.)

Where was I? Oh, yes: the Dungeon Survival Guide. Now this is a perfect idea for a D&D book, in my mind: a coffee-table style retrospective on 30+ years of great D&D dungeons. There are so many classic dungeons and modules in D&D’s history that you could easily fill a full-size book with lovingly nostalgic memories of them.

Unfortunately the actual Dungeon Survival Guide as published doesn’t seem to be quite what I would have hoped for it. But the idea is so fun, I just can’t let it go. Here’s what I would’ve done with this book had I been in charge of writing/editing it:

  • Pick 10-15 classic D&D dungeons, from all three editions of the game, to feature. Some of these would be chosen by the D&D team and others would be selected based on a poll of D&D gamers. I’d make sure that a few little-known gems were featured alongside the predictable classics like the Tomb of Horrors and the Temple of Elemental Evil.
  • Get designer’s notes for each dungeon (assuming the author is still alive and willing). What inspired them to create their dungeon? Was it to showcase a particular monster? Make use of a hitherto-unused environment or setting? Kill off as many adventurers as possible? I’d love to hear reflections and anecdotes about these dungeons straight from the creators themselves.
  • Get actual-play accounts from D&D players who actually played or GM’d each dungeon. What was memorable about playing through the dungeon? What off-the-wall tricks or strategies did their party use to survive? Or did their party get wiped out—and if so, by what?
  • Show us the cool parts of the dungeon! Give us details and stats for the most memorable encounters, scenes, or monsters from the dungeon. If space allows, give us the entire dungeon floor plan with key encounters described! Did the dungeon have a particularly memorable final boss battle? A really clever series of deathtraps? A bizarre environment with strange new monsters to go along with it? I wan to see ’em! I may never run my players through White Plume Mountain, but I’d love to see what encounters, traps, and opponents made it so classic—so I can borrow them or use them as inspiration for my own games. Guidelines for incorporating these encounters into the latest edition of D&D would be useful too.

The last item is the most important—as much fun as it would be to read accounts from the dungeon creators and players, what I’d really want to see is the specific encounters and dungeon elements that separated these classic dungeons from the hundreds of non-classics. I suppose what I’m describing is closer to a “D&D greatest hits compendium,” with a bit of flavor commentary on the side. Surely there are enough noteworthy dungeon elements from D&D’s long and colored history to make one heck of a useful grab-bag book for DMs.

Maybe the Dungeon Survival Guide does some or all of those things. I don’t know because the money I might’ve spent on it went into this week’s supply of Pampers. But if not, maybe somebody else will come along one day and make the D&D Greatest Hits book that I’m looking for.

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Here’s a fun one: an automatic dungeon generator that creates not just a map, but also a complete list of encounters for a dungeon based on the parameters you set. The results are surprisingly game-able, in an old-school sort of way! File this one away for the next time you find yourself at the game table woefully unprepared.

No insta-generated dungeon could possibly be worse than a few of the completely-made-up-on-the-spot dungeons I’ve foisted on my players in the past. Of course, cobbling together random monsters and dungeon layouts is a time-honored D&D tradition, and is made easier by the fact that typical D&D dungeons tend not to be marvels of architectural logic. As long as the players think you know what you’re doing, it’s all good.

It would be a fun gaming challenge to auto-generate a half-dozen of these random dungeon maps and then play straight through them as one mega-dungeon, using the listed encounters as written and not worrying about internal consistency. I’d say that has about an equal chance of either being the most entertaining gaming experience of my life, or the experience that finally makes me consign my Dungeon Masters Guide to the flames and take up a normal hobby, like golf or LARPing.

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Remembering the dungeons of yesteryear

This weekend I had a chance to do some old-school, first-edition, dungeon-crawling, goblin-hacking RPGing. The stuff of which the first RPGs were made back in the 70s, before games got angsty and introspective and narrative and all that.

I was actually a bit nervous about running an old-fashioned site-based dungeon crawl. The game we were playing (Castles and Crusades) is a great little system for doing old-school gaming, so I wasn’t too worried about that. But “dungeons” have never really been my forte as a GM. I appreciate the idea behind them, and I like the just-have-fun-and-don’t-ask-questions aspect of most dungeons. But as hard as I try, I have never really been able to silence the voice in the back of my mind that asks those nagging questions like “Why does this random dungeon exist out here in the countryside? What do the goblins eat and do during the 99% of the time when there aren’t adventurers hacking their way through the dungeon? How does it make sense that there’s a beholder in this room, and there’s a green slime in the next room over, and a room full of giant ants across the hall?”

But I did my best to ignore those pesky questions of “realism” and just ran the adventure as written (the module we played was “Dark Chateau” by Troll Lord Games). And it was a blast! Driving home after the game, I was so excited that our dungeon crawl had gone well that I started reminiscing about other dungeons that I’ve enjoyed over the course of my gaming career. I came up with four dungeons that stand out in my memory as being particularly fun and entertaining:

  • The ruined castle of Herubar Gular in the Trollshaws. This was from the sample adventure in the MERP rulebook, and I’ve run this adventure for just about every gaming group I’ve ever played with. This was a multi-level dungeon beneath a ruined castle–nothing too spectacular-sounding, but the real fun of this adventure was infiltrating the ruined castle to get to the dungeon. The castle layout allowed for some truly interesting tactical possibilities, and each of the groups I ran through this adventure came up with a different scheme (some successful, some not) for getting inside. As far as dungeons go, this one was pretty “realistic,” although there were some quirky monsters to encounter (a golem, a kraken, a few others) in addition to the usual orc patrols.
  • Undermountain: The Lost Level. (Incidentally, one of the inspirations for this blog’s name.) This was a single-level dungeon crawl designed to be fit into the Undermountain uber-dungeon, but I just ran it as a standalone dungeon. Fun layout, great monsters (including a pack of animated severed skeletal hands–creepy!); this dungeon had nothing truly innovative in it, but all the pieces just seemed to come together. Also, you know how most dungeons have one or two super-poweful magic items hidden away so securely that the party could only ever find them with the GM’s blatant help? Well, this was the one such dungeon where the party stumbled across the Awesome Magic Treasure on accident, and without any help whatsoever from me, the GM. Cool!
  • Nightmare Keep. Hoo boy, was this one ever epic. By far the highest-level adventure of any kind I’ve ever run (I think it was recommended for a party of 17th-20th level PCs), this 2nd-edition D&D mega-dungeon just about had it all. Because it was so high level, it featured all those insanely powerful monsters that you usually just read about in the Monster Manual but can’t actually use in your game due to their power level. I remember few details of this dungeon (and I’m sure I mangled reworked it heavily to fit my gaming group), but I recall something about an undead dragon turtle and a demi-lich. Good stuff, good stuff.
  • Forge of Fury. This was a lower-level dungeon published back when 3rd edition D&D was just coming out and they were trying to support it with a line of short adventure modules. We had a lot of fun with this dungeon, which involved a good mix of fighting and non-combat challenges–I remember an entertaining bit of diplomacy as the party tried to talk its way past a roper (a bizarre monster that was more powerful than the PCs). The final battle was against a young dragon, and was a tough fight for low-level adventurers; the PCs planned out their battle strategy very carefully beforehand, and it paid off when they were victorious. (I do recall that somebody failed a Dexterity roll and fell into a lake while wearing plate armor, though–I don’t remember how that worked out for them.)

Ah, nostalgia. I can’t say that these four dungeons were the best-designed or most brilliantly written ones available, but they stand out as some of the most fun old-school dungeon exploring I’ve ever run in an RPG. If you should happen upon one of them, pick it up, give it a run through and let me know if you had as much fun as I did. And watch out for the giant centipedes lurking in the room just down the hall–if you pass the gelatinous cube, you’ve gone too far.

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Remembering the Silver Princess

Here’s a fun bit of gaming history: the story of Palace of the Silver Princess, an old Dungeons and Dragons module that was recalled by the publisher on the very day of its release. (You can download the module in PDF format at the above link.) The module was recalled due to objectionable artwork. As the article above notes, the artwork sounds rather tame by today’s standards, but was considered inappropriate for a children’s game.

The module was revised rather heavily and re-released later in a much-altered form. But interestingly, the recall and revision of Palace of the Silver Princess may have saved the gaming community from more than just questionable artwork. Here’s a glimpse at some of the module’s actual content:

By revising the adventure, Moldvay spared us from some really, really lame monsters getting into the canon. There might be some adventurers who want to fight six-legged duckbill rats (“barics”) or go toe-to-toe with bubbles (they’re . . . bubbles), but the prize for true weirdness has to go to the ubues — three-headed, three-armed, oddly gendered creatures who feel as if they’ve somehow wandered out of Gamma World into D&D. Ironically only the decapus, the source of the illustration that caused all the trouble, survived (perhaps because it was featured on the color cover art!).

Duckbill rats? Bubbles? Maybe there’s a place for “oddly gendered” monsters in a roleplaying game somewhere, but I don’t think that place is in an old-school D&D dungeon-crawl.

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How will the next D&D compete with Warcraft?

Interesting musings at OgreCave about the future of D&D. As games like World of Warcraft begin to compete successfully for the attention of tabletop gamers, what can D&D do better than an online roleplaying game?

A few years ago, nobody would’ve been taking this question seriously, as computer RPGs were still relatively crude and offered little of the social experience that’s so integral to a tabletop RPG. But that’s changing rapidly, and it may fall to the next edition of D&D to demonstrate what a traditional tabletop RPG can do better than a beautiful-looking, highly interactive online RPG can. Then and now, most people would cite face-to-face interaction as tabletop RPG’s trump card. From the OgreCave post:

So here’s the question: if having other real live in-the-flesh people at the table with you is a competitive advantage over WoW – and I think it is – how can the next version of the D&D rules take advantage of it instead of just falling back on it as granted? How can tabletop RPG rules actually make the fact of tabletop-ness part of the game itself?

That’s a great question with which to begin!

(As an aside: I’m glad somebody else is talking about it, because I too have been getting the exciting-yet-ominous sense that a new edition of D&D is out on the horizon… distant, to be sure, but getting closer.)

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