Reviews > Culture

Dark in the Dungeon

Culture | A quarter century of role-playing games

Issue: "Fighting Potomac fever," Feb. 27, 1999

Dungeons and Dragons, the original fantasy role-playing game, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Its parent company TSR ("Tactical Studies Rules") was launched in 1974, pioneering a leisure-time activity that would mutate into ever-darker forms. Arising from a convergence of interest in historical boardgaming, medieval miniatures gaming, and the huge popularity of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, Dungeons and Dragons pioneered the concept of the role-playing game (RPG). Players roll dice with as many as 20 sides and follow a set of rules and procedures that allow a person to play the role of a specific character (e.g., a mighty warrior, a magician, a thief), in a given fantasy world. The role-playing game is normally played by a group of people and refereed by the "gamemaster," who structures the interactive sequences in which players make choices and undertake actions. Players accumulate skills, powers, and status over time and from game to game, based on their performance (typically calibrated in terms of how many monsters they slay, and how much treasure they loot). As Dungeons and Dragons became an increasingly prominent aspect of pop culture in the early '80s, and fueled by some highly publicized teen suicides, concern about the apparently occult nature of the game grew. However, in relation to what was to follow in the '90s, the mostly Tolkienian role-playing "world" prevalent in the early '80s was very tame indeed. Although played with low-tech dice, pencil, and paper, the games, with their interactivity and virtual reality, proved a good match for the new computer and video game technology. Many RPGs lend themselves to being played with others on-line, in so-called Multi-User Dungeons (MUD) or Multi-User Shared Hallucinations (MUSH). Among the most popular nonelectronic RPGs today are Deadlands: The Weird West, in which an earthquake sinks California and releases a plague of evil spirits and occult energy in the 1870s, and the undead walk the land. Its even more gruesome sequel is Deadlands: Hell on Earth, set in the same world in the 21st century, when the evil forces have virtually destroyed humanity. TSR has its own "dark world" setting for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons system, Ravenloft. White Wolf has a whole World of Darkness where one can role-play vampires, werewolves, magicians, and wraiths. FASA, another major company, has Vor: The Maelstrom, where evil energies have broken the Earth up into a twisted shell. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu is based on H. P. Lovecraft's delirious horror stories. Pagan Publishing has produced a supplement to that game, called Delta Green, with both the Cthulhu mythos and surreal conspiracies. Some games are based on twisted religious ideas. Heresy, from Last Unicorn Games, establishes a "post-apocalyptic" setting, with all manner of religious and social transgressions. Steve Jackson Games, another industry leader, has In Nomine, which portrays the struggle between angels and demons in the current-day world but in a manner very far from Christian beliefs. The company has also pioneered, in a tongue-in-cheek but disturbing fashion, the whole "surreal conspiracy" concept, typified by their Illuminati games and settings. Why are these games so popular? Many young people today share a thoroughgoing nihilism. The notion of surrounding, powerful dark forces may lead only to diversionary, jaded entertainments, yet those who long and obsessively indulge in these amusements may open themselves up to a more concrete embrace of evil. These role-playing games can flourish only in a milieu devoid of history. Nearly all of them immerse their players in a rich, ersatz historical context. Such games also flourish in a climate of highly pampered comfort. When life is all too comfortable, it becomes all too boring. Many young people today have never faced a real test of character or conviction. The games put them through virtual trials and tribulations, and thus presumably give virtual meaning to their lives. They need to be trained in the virtues of genuine moral heroism. They can be given true roles to play and taught how to be victorious in the life-or-death struggle that is real life.
-Mr. Wegierski is a Canadian writer and researcher.

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