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    >My new video "A HARD DAY'S KNIGHT," in which I don chain mail to find glory, donuts and spare change for my quest. BIGGER SCREEN ON YOU TUBE

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    Entries in d&d (44)


    Gygax Biopic in the works

    The has reported and confirmed a rumor that’s already been echoing through the dungeons of D&D talk: that a Gary Gygax biopic is in the works. Michael Tresca wrote:

    George Strayton confirmed he is … the scriptwriter for a $150 million movie based on Gary Gygax’s life. George describes the film as a ‘combination action movie and bio pic.’ The movie will tell the story of how Gary created Dungeons & Dragons, switching between his real life and the fantasy realm of Dungeons & Dragons.

    Strayton is the CEO/Lead Designer of Secret Fire Games, as well as a writer for TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys andXena: Warrior Princess, and the animated feature Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight.

    Another morsel: Tresca said that “George let it slip that a ‘huge star is playing Gary.’”

    I’m game.

    That said, some skeptical voices have already begun to pepper the blogosphere. As James Maliszewski says over at Grognardia, “I’d frankly be amazed if any studio thought that the life of Gary Gygax had enough mass appeal to be made into a movie, let alone one with a big budget and a huge star.” It’s an excellent question.

    This certainly raises the question if the non-nerd world is ready for a biopic on an essential, but for many, still unknown pop culture innovator who helped usher in a new gaming and leisure genre. The Whole Wide World, the 1996 film about Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, and starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger, proved that more obscure subjects for biopics can be made. But … while that film was largely well-received critically, it tanked at the box office.

    The life of Gygax and genesis of D&D certainly sounds like a promising idea for a movie. Who among lovers of RPGs won’t want to see the reenactments of D&D’s early years? Those behind-the-scenes scenes of early play-testing? And to settle once and for all the junk food dilemma — did Gary prefer Doritos or Cheetos?

    More updates on this as I hear more.



    Two New Books Lavish in 80s Video Game Culture

    READY PLAYER ONE By Ernest Cline [Crown, 374 pp. $24.00]SUPER MARIO: How Nintendo Conquered America, By Jeff Ryan [Portfolio, 292 pp., $26.95]It’s easy to cast a long shadow of nostalgia across your geeky past, now that you are standing taller.

    There’s no shame, no risk of ridicule or reprisal, now that nerds top the food chain. More confident, you might even find yourself admitting, “Sure, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons. Had an 18th-level paladin named Argathon. One righteous orc-slaying dude.’’

    I do. I played more than my share of video and role-playing games during a less friendly era, the 1980s. Fantasy and science fiction had not come out of the closet. The financial success of genre franchises had not yet made geekery acceptable. Gaming culture was nonexistent.

    A bonus of my then fringe game habit: It felt user-driven, indie, even subversive. When free time, not money, was my currency, gaming created a peculiar, and intimate, community. I inserted real quarters into singular machines shared with others. No Internet. No interruptions from texts. Total immersion in virtual worlds was possible even as, paradoxically, cutting-edge special effects were analog, not digital.

    And a game of Donkey Kong, its chunky graphics about as sophisticated as the dungeons I sketched on graph paper, might last only a minute, while a game of D&D, limited to the primitive technology of dice, pencils, and brainwaves, would take months.

    Differing both in approach and success level, two new books -- Ernest Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel “Ready Player One’’ and Jeff Ryan’s historical reportage “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America’’ -- plumb and pay tribute to the genesis of our gaming culture. To a time when to find out who was the best at Asteroids or Galaga, you hoofed it down to the mall to witness the heroism gracing the “high score’’ screen, where someone’s tag -- “ZAK’’ or “LED’’ -- was hallowed only in the halls of your local arcade.

    Ryan, a video game critic, painstakingly charts the Japanese company Nintendo’s startling success. When its 1980 Space Invaders rip-off Radar Scope failed, technicians retrofitted 2,000 of the machines with a new arcade game, designed by an underling named Shigeru Miyamoto. Donkey Kong was born, as was the character Mario, based on a real mustachioed landlord who once showed up at Nintendo’s US headquarters to collect the rent and “grew so incensed he almost jumped up and down.’’ The red overalls and hat came later.

    Ryan does a fine job describing Nintendo’s growing rivalry with Atari and Sega and subsequent shrewd moves, as arcades shuttered, to dominate the home console market. Super Mario Bros. became the “dense’’ game-changing killer app, Ryan writes, which “called for deep exploration instead of facile button mashing.’’ A new generation of gamers could explore endlessly, wandering tubes, hopping platforms, and collecting shells and coins. Nabbing the high score wasn’t the point. Mario helped kill quarter-based game culture.

    Ryan can be insightful, and his prose colorful, but also distracting. Images and metaphors compete and clash - the Zucker Brothers follow Derrida, a music reference is slammed cheek-by-jowl with a baseball analogy. At times, the text seems translated from the Japanese. What is “a nebula’s improvement in graphics’’? A “veritable sleuth of unsold Teddy Ruxpins’’? It’s also difficult to picture the graphical evolution of Mario and his game world when the book has no illustrations.

    Most frustratingly, we never hear directly from any Nintendo designers, not even Miyamoto or company head Hiroshi Yamauchi. Curiously little on-the-ground reporting of personal travails or internal corporate tensions. After the first 100 pages, the narrative devolves into a cheery laundry list of game releases. It’s as if Ryan reported the book from the distance of the Internet.

    Still, “Super Mario’’ remains an important link to understanding how we got from Donkey Kong to Wii, and why the wee Jumpman still rules. “Mario is the id: working off of instinct, never having much of a plan, always able to leap into the middle of things. We all become younger as we play Mario, because when we’re Mario we simply play.’’

    More so than Ryan, Cline banks on blatant nostalgia for our geeky pasts. The year is 2044 and the young protagonist of “Ready Player One,’’ 17-year-old orphan Wade Watts, narrates his own progress in an elaborate, online scavenger hunt. He lives as an economic refuge in a crime-ridden shanty town, “The Great Recession was now entering its third decade,’’ Watts says, and like many who have given up on the “real world,” he spends his waking hours as an avatar, named Parzival, in a massive, Matrix-like virtual space called OASIS.

    Created by a reclusive, Reagan-era game designer, the game melds Tolkienesque riddles with ’80s pop arcana - from Matthew Broderick’s lines in “WarGames’’ to dungeons designed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. Solve the puzzles and you inherit the game designer’s vast fortune. An old-fashioned “high score’’ leader board pops up periodically in the narrative to remind us who’s winning.

    Such is the post-apocalyptic, nerd-friendly premise of “Ready Player One.’’ Watts is one of thousands of other players known as “gunters,” or “egg hunters” because they are looking for Easter eggs, or clues, hidden in the thousands of designer virtual lands that populate the OASIS. Watts steeps himself in the period, eschewing the world of 2044 to effectively live and breathe the era’s most mundane factoids, memorizing characters  from “The Breakfast Club,” plot points from “Star Wars,” tactics for an obscure arcade game like Joust. Clearly having fun with the reader, and himself, Cline stuffs his novel with a cornucopia of pop culture, as if to wink to the reader, “Remember the TRS-80? Wasn’t it cool?’’ The conceit is a smart one, and we happily root for Watts/Parzival and his gaming buddies on their quest for the big egg -- and hope they win before a villainous, corporate-run gaming guild declares “game over.’’

    Not that the novel is without its problems. Cline, the screenwriter who gave us “Fanboys,’’ oddly chooses a first-person narrator. What is the occasion for a 17-year-old explaining the plot of “Blade Runner,’’ or that “ ‘2112,’ Rush’s classic sci-fi-themed concept album’’ hit record stores “in 1976, back when most music was sold on twelve-inch vinyl records’’? Long, awkward passages of  exposition bog down the story, and conflict with Watts’s own distinctive narrative voice. A third-person, roving point of view would more logically allow for these passages of authorial intrusion. Also a bummer: Much of the action is virtual, statically describing Watts’s online moves: “I took a screenshot of this illustration and placed it in the corner of my display.’’

    One can picture much of this working better on the big screen, where asides won’t be needed. We’ll hear “She Bop” on the soundtrack or see a character wearing a “Muppet Show” T shirt and get it. No surprise, Cline’s movie adaptation of Ready Player One has already been sold.

    But ignore these narrative hiccups and “Ready Player One’’ provides a most excellent ride. Once the story is up and running, and the novel blasts to its world-ending climactic battle, I found the adventure story and its revenge of the dorks dream fully satisfying.

    Both Cline and Ryan’s books lavish in the toys and pastimes of our youth. And also nostalgia, which may soft-focus the hard and real edges, and yet we're happy to lavish in it nonetheless. We aging humans traffic in it. Perhaps we must to make sense of our past lives.

    Like the film “Super 8,’’ these two books play also into a final fantasy: that things were once simpler. Today, some attribute the violence in Norway, unfairly, to video games. Suddenly ’80s pop culture looks less troubled. But of course, the arcade and role-playing games of yore were controversial scourges bent on the destruction of youth. Remember?


    On His Birthday (Today), You Can Help the Memory of Gary Gygax Last Forever

    [Originally appeared on's GeekDad]

    Logo for the Gygax Memorial Fund. Also the Gygax family heraldry, this shield was used by the knight on the cover of the AD&D DM's Guide and was the coat of arms of the city-state Fax in the campaign setting of Greyhawk.Today (July 27) is the birthday of Gary Gygax, who would have been 73 this year had he not passed from this earth in 2008 to dance forever on the astral plane, which (according to the DM’s Guide) is a realm of thought and memory, and also the place the gods go when they die or have been forgotten.

    Gygax, D&D’s co-founder, is gone, but certainly not forgotten. One way he’s being immortalized is in bronze and stone. Previously I wrote for GeekDad about the Gygax Memorial Fund and the increasing likelihood that a monument in his honor will be built in Gary’s hometown of Lake Geneva, WI. The city has granted parkland for the memorial, and the fund has incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

    Now the next step is to raise money, and the hope is for much of the dough to be croudfunded, with this year’s Gen Con and Gary’s birthday as the impetus.

    D&D die-hard and occasional Geek Dad contributor Tavis Allisontells me that at this year’s Gen Con (Aug. 4-7), the fundraising for the monument begins in earnest. Gen Con, you see, was Gary’s baby.

    Over at the booth for ye Old School Renaissance Group (booth #1541), a collective of publishers and fans working to carry the torch of Dungeons & Dragons the way Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson imagined it, Mr. Allison says Gary’s widow, Gail Gygax, will be “talking about conversations she had with her husband before his death about how he wanted to be remembered, the resulting vision for the statue, and the goals of the Memorial Fund.”

    And I can’t imagine anyone who stops by to drop some spare change in the bucket will be refused.

    This illustration by Erol Otus is the cover of a new book Cheers, Gary a collection of Gary's correspondence with his fans. The image is Gary, as the wizard seen on the front of the original D&D box set.To encourage you to give, Tavis says that cool donor rewards include T-shirts with the Gygax Memorial logo, and a book calledCheers, Gary “which selects the best of his correspondence with fans at the EN World Q&A threads.” Editor Paul Hughes will be signing books, which have an Erol Otus illustration on the front cover depicting Gary as the wizard seen on the front of the original D&D box set.

    The big goal?  Raise $500,000 via Kickstarter. Allison thinks it’s doable, with your help, of course.

    “I think there is real potential for the Fund to achieve the $500K goal for this campaign through crowdfunding alone. This would be the most ambitious Kickstarter goal in history, but it’s not unprecedented and if Gary doesn’t have ten times the dedication than Robocop does I’ll eat my dice bag,” Tavis says.

    To help continue the Fund’s momentum, and in recognition of everything Gary meant to gamers everywhere, Allison asks for your assistance in getting the word out about these efforts. Even if you can’t make it to Gen Con, please pay tribute to Gary’s birthday and the role D&D played in your life by posting news to your blogs, social networks, and communities that the Gygax Memorial Fund will be at Gen Con booth number #1541, and that folks can donate in memory of Gary at Gen Con, or directly on the website,

    See you in the dungeon.


    Gygax memorial makes progress

    Gary Gygax the way the folks at "Futurama" drew his cartoon versionLake Geneva, Wisconsin, was always a mythical land of enchantment to me, a kid raised far away on the east coast who spent much — OK, way too much — of his allowance on Dungeons & Dragons gear.

    While the mailing address — TSR Hobbies, Inc., POB 756, Lake Geneva WI 53147, U.S.A. — felt like an imaginary realm, I knew it was also a real land where that mysterious co-creator and co-godfather of D&D lived and worked: Gary Gygax.

    When my local hobby shop didn’t have a module or rule book on their shelves, I’d mail in my order form directly to the source in Lake Geneva (with my check, of course, that covered the price plus “shipping and handling”). The elves and orcs who toiled there would fill my order, and in a few weeks I’d get a package in my mailbox. And the next crucial adventure could continue.

    Ever since Gygax passed away in 2008, his widow Gail Gygax and others have spearheaded an effort to honor him and his contribution to gaming lore with a public monument in Lake Geneva. The Gygax Memorial Fund website just announced that goal is one step closer:

    The Gygax Memorial Fund has reached a huge milestone. We have been granted land for the memorial site at Donian Park. Donian Park is a four acre open space site which encompasses a wetland and the 100 year recurrence interval floodplain along the White River in downtown Lake Geneva.

    On the website for the Gygax Memorial Fund, there’s a link to donate, if you are so inclined. There’s also a forum to share your testimonials of how Gary and D&D changed your life for the better.

    Long live Gary!



    We all role-play now

    [Note: Ethan Gilsdorf speaks at the Boston Public Library Wed, Oct 20. Other upcoming speaking engagements: Attleboro, MA: Oct. 29th (part of a Creature Double Feature tribute!); Brattleboro, VT: Nov 11th; Somerville, MA: Nov 13th; Cambridge, MA: Nov 15th; Providence, RI: Nov 18th; Burlington, MA: Nov 20th; Brooklyn, NY: Nov 22nd. More book tour info here]

    We all role-play now 

    Those Dungeons & Dragons skills can come in handy in the world of Facebook

    "The Social Network,'' Hollywood's latest box office king, charts Facebook's meteoric rise to near ubiquity. Few have not heard of the world-girdling website or been ensnared by its tendrils. In six years, Facebook has woven its way into the daily lives of some 500 million users.

    Whether to check up on friends' exploits or play games like "Mafia Wars,'' we've grown accustomed to its promise of instant intimacy and, some might argue, its voyeuristic pleasures. Many cheer the way Facebook has democratized the flow of information; no longer top-down, news is now horizontally and virally dispersed. Others gripe that it's warped our idea of significance, making what I had for breakfast as important as the latest developments in the Mideast peace process. Facebook's vast and sticky web of connection has caused us all to re-evaluate what we mean by "friend.'' And, I suppose, "enemy'' as well.

    Unforeseen social aftershocks such as these have rippled in Facebook's wake. Others have yet to be detected. But there's something else at work with Facebook. It's actually making role-players of us all.

    Role-playing? Like that conflict-resolution exercise your sales team endured last year? Or role-playing, as in Dungeons & Dragons - that strange and wondrous game I (and perhaps you) played back in the Reagan administration, rolling dice in a basement and slaying goblins and dragons and snarfing bowls of Doritos?

    I'd argue all these experiences - including posting a witty Facebook update - are cut from the same role-playing cloth. We all share that desire to be someone else. To be better, stronger, faster; to appear more handsome, more clever, more attractive than our fleshy selves might ever be. "My, aren't we having fun?'' say our photos, snapped while we're half drunk and posted in a day-after haze. On my profile, I offer clues that might seduce. I suggest, in a whisper of pixels, "I am your ideal man.''

    Not that role-playing is devious. It's a necessary counter to the way we've been civilized. While hidden behind the screen, we give ourselves permission to behave more dauntless or brazen than we'd allow in real life. We get to practice being the best version of the person we can be, or want to be.

    That said, some role-playing experiences, especially offline ones, are deemed more acceptable than others. Dressing up as Tom Brady and painting your body blue and red for the big game? That's OK. Dressing as Gandalf and wearing a purple wizard hat for the big game? Not so much. Even as World of Warcraft and D&D and Harry Potter fandom have become passable in many circles, adults raiding Mom's closet for goofy clothes for "make-believe'' still remains verboten.

    Except, of course, at Halloween. This odd holdover from pagan times is a socially acceptable way to bust loose. Here, costumes are fine. And playing "bad'' is encouraged. Being Dracula or Nurse Hottie for an evening can be instructive, even liberating.

    The irony here is that even in our pre-Facebook existences, we've always engaged in day-to-day role-playing. At a wedding or cocktail party, on a first date or during a job interview, or when home for the holidays, we all dress the part and adopt another character: Brilliant or Well Adjusted, Stockbroker or Salesman, Happy Son or Perfect Mom. If you're not willing to play along and put on a mask, friends (and potential employers) will think, "What's wrong? Come on, get into character.'' Life is a dungeon crawl, full of monsters and opportunities to be on your mettle. Be prepared. Chin up.

    So here's the rub. Eventually, we have to live up to these personas we've created. Many a first date has witnessed the crumbling of expectation's towers and spires. And despite my hundreds of Facebook friends, I wonder who I can really count on in times of trouble. When I really do need to be brave and slay that dragon.

    Ethan Gilsdorf is author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. More info on Gilsdorf and the book here.


    On the appeal of fantasy role-playing games

    One of the author's D&D dungeon maps

    In a previous post, "Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life," I talked about how I came to play the game. Here's a little more about my background as a fantasy gamer in the 1970s and 1980s. Hopefully this will resonate with some readers --- if so, please post a comment.


    We craved adventure and escape.

    When people ask if I played sports in high school back, I tell them I was on the varsity Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) team, starting quarterback, four years in a row. (I was also president of the A/V club. And I memorized Monty Python sketches. And learned BASIC computer programming.) For me, RPGs (role-playing games) like D&D were empowering and exciting, and a clever antidote to the anonymity, monotony, and clique warfare of high school. In lieu of keg parties or soccer practice to vent our angst, we had D&D night. Who needs sports stardom when you can shoot fireballs from your fingertips?

    I played every week, sometimes twice a week, from eighth grade to senior year, Friday night from 5:00 p.m. until midnight. JP, my other neighborhood friend Mike, and I first played by ourselves, then found a peer group of other gamers: Bill K., Bill S., Bill C., Dean, Eric M., Eric H. and John. Some of us had endured plenty: my Mom had suffered a brainaneurysm and came home damaged goods; Eric H.’s mom had died, John’s dad had suffered a brain injury similar to my mom’s, and JP was born with a disease that caused brittle bones, cataracts, and stunted growth.

    I think on some level we knew we didn’t fit in. Perhaps we were weird. Girls were scarce commodities for us, and our group may have proved that tired cliché that outcasts, dweebs, and computer nerds couldn’t handle reality, let alone get a date for the prom. But nothing stopped us from playing, and the popular kids didn’t really care one way or the other. We were left alone to our own devices: maps, dice, rule books, and soda. It didn’t take long before words like halberd and basilisk became part of my daily vocabulary. Like actors in a play, we role-played characters—human, Elvish, dwarven, halfling—who quickly became extensions of our better or more daring selves. We craved adventure and escape.

    One of us would be the Dungeon Master (DM) for a few weeks or months. Games lasted that long. The DM was the theater director, the ref, the world-builder, the God. His preprepared maps and dungeons, stocked with monsters, riddles, and rewards, determined our path through dank tunnels and forbidding forests. Our real selves sat around a living room or basement table, scarfing down provisions like bowls of cheese doodles and generic-brand pizza. We outfitted our characters with broad- swords, battle-axes, grappling hooks, and gold pieces. “In game,” these characters memorized spells and collected treasure and magic items such as +2 long swords and Cloaks of Invisibility and Rods of Resurrection. Then, the adventure would begin. The DM would set the scene: often, we’d be a ragtag band of adventurers who’d met at the tavern and heard rumors of dungeons to explore and treasure to be had. Or some beast or sorcerer terrorizing the land needed to be slayed. Before too long, we’d enter some underground world to solve riddles, search for secret doors, and find hidden passages.

    We parleyed with foes—goblins, trolls, harlots—and attacked only when necessary. Or, wantonly, just to taste the imagined pleasure of a rough blade running through evilflesh. We racked up experience points. We test-drove a fiery life of pseudo-heroism, physical combat, and meaningful death. Whatever place the DM described, as far as we were concerned, it existed. Suspended jointly in our minds, it was all real. We were bards, jesters, and storytellers. We told each other riddles in the dark.


    And each dungeon level would lead to the next one even deeper beneath the surface, full of more dangerous monsters, and even harder to leave.

    At Least There Was a Rulebook

    The joy in the game was not simply the anything-can-happen fantasy setting and the killing and heroic deeds, but also the rules. Hundreds of rules existed for every situation. Geeks and nerds love rules. D&D (and its sequel, AD&D, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) let us traffic in specialized knowledge found only in hardbound books with names like Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide. As we played, we consulted charts, indices, tables, descriptions of attributes, lists of spells, causes and effects—like a school unto itself, filled with answers to questions about the rarity of magic items, crossing terrain, and how to survive poison.

    And we loved to fight over the minutiae. (Sample argument: Player: “What do you mean a gelatinous cube gets a plus on surprise?” DM: “It’s invisible.” Player: “But it’s a ten foot cube of Jello! Let me see that . . . .” Player grabs Monster Manual from DM. Twenty minute argument ensues.) 

    We could tell a mace from a morning star, a cudgel from a club, and we knew how to draw them. We knew a creature called a “wight” inflicted one to four hit points of damage when it attacked. Could we recharge wands? No. If I died, I could be resurrected, because, according to page 50 of the Players Hand- book, a ninth-level cleric could raise a person who had been dead for no longer than nine days. “Note that the body of the person must be whole, or otherwise missing parts will still be missing when the person is brought back to life.” All good stuff to know. The trolls and fireballs may be fanciful, but they have to behave according to a logical system.

    Like in life, fantasy rules were affected by chance—the roll of the dice. And, as if they were jewels, we collected bags of them: plastic, polyhedral game dice, four-, six-, eight-, ten-, twelve-, and twenty-sided baubles that, like I Ching sticks or coins, foretold our fortunes when cast. A spinning die, such as the icosahedral “d20,” could land on “20” (“A hit! You slice the lizard man’s head off and green blood spurts everywhere!”) as often as “1” (“Miss! Your sword swings wide and you stab yourself. Loser!”).

    The lesson? Real life thus far had taught me that in the adult world, fate was chaotic and uncertain. Guidelines for success were arbitrary. But in the world of D&D, at least there was a rule book. We knew what we needed to roll to succeed or survive. The finer points of its rules and the possibility of predicting outcomes offered comfort. Make-believe as they were, the skirmishes and puzzle-solving endemic to D&D had immediate and palpable consequences. By role-playing, we were in control, and our characters—be they thieves, magic-users, paladins, or druids—wandered through places of danger, their destinies, ostensibly, within our grasp.

    At the same time, we understood that our characters’ failures and triumphs were decided by unknown forces, malevolent or kindly. Such was the double-edged quality of our fantasy life, where random cruelty or unexpected fortune ruled the day. The game was a risk-free milieu for doing adult things.


    It was also a relief to live life in another skin, and act out behind the safety of pumped-up attributes. D&D characters had statistics in six key areas: strength, intelligencewisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. These ranged from three to eighteen. Ethan the real boy’s stats would have been all under 10; his fighter character Elloron’s were all sixteens, seventeens, and eighteens.

    And who wouldn't want to be that?

    [adpated from Ethan Gilsdorf's award-winning travel memoir and pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now available in paperback. For more info, see:]



    The author's old, worn-out D&D dice

    Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

    The author, circa 1982

    The summer before my eighth-grade year, when I was 12, I learned to escape.

    This was 1979. My mother had been home from the hospital for a few months, and my sister, brother and I were still coming to understand the “new Mom.”

    This new mother had survived a brain aneurysm. Her left side was mostly paralyzed, and she behaved strangely. Sometimes she scared me. We called her the Momster.

    I couldn’t tame her, not this beast, and I knew I couldn’t save her, either. I was stuck with a mother I didn’t know how to love

    But later that summer, something wondrous happened—I learned how to face my demons in another way. I learned that sometimes, checking out from reality was not just a fun diversion, but necessary for survival.

    An article about that mysterious, possibly dangerous, new game fad D&D

    A new kid named JP had moved across the street from me. One hot August day, JP showed me a clever trick—how to step away from my own body and mind, my family, and travel to places I’d never even seen. A way out.

    “Ever play D&D?” JP asked, standing in my kitchen, eyes bright and magnified behind his extra-thick glasses. He was quite short, frail-looking, but feisty and fast-talking.

    “D&D?” I said. “What’s that—a board game?”

    “Dungeons & Dragons? It’s not a normal board game. . . . See, you play a character. . . . There’s all these rules.” He rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a pile of books, then poured a sack of colorful objects onto the table. They looked like gemstones. “Check out these cool dice! See, I’m the Dungeon Master. I create a scenario, man adventure, a world. You tell me what your character wants to do.”

    “Character? What do you mean?” I asked. This kid was weird.


    Invented by two geeks in the Midwest, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the was only five years old back in 1979. Few had ever played anything like this before. Born of a similar swords-and-scorcery, myth-laden backdrop as J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Middle-earth, D&D was a game where you got to take action, be the hero, go on a quest. The game taught social skills, leadership, and strategy; it inspired creativity and storytelling, and provided rites of passage, accomplishment and belonging, even belief systems. I didn't get it at the time, but D&D and its ilk let people safely try out aspects of their personalities --- often dark, evil sides, or extroverted or flirtatious --- they could not or would not flex in "real life." The games connected folks tomagical thinking, to nature, to a primal, pick-up-your-battle-ax and kill mentalities long suppressed by so-called society. All of which would later serve me well in life.

    D&D would open up a universe of creative expression to shyintroverted, non-athletic kids like me who felt about as powerful as a three-foot hobbit on the basketball team

    But at the moment, I was confused. I had no idea how play. 

    JP sighed. “OK, it goes like this. Pretend you’re in a dark woods. Up ahead on the path, you see a nasty-looking creature: seven feet tall, pointy ears, mouth full of black rotten teeth. ‘Friend or foe?’ it grumbles. Its fist tightens on the morning star in his hand, and it begins to heft it. Like this.” JP grabbed a frying pan off the stove. He swung it in the air. “What do you do?”

    “What do I do?”

    “It’s an orc. What do you want to do?”

    “Uh . . . ” I stalled. What is going on? I thought. I didn’t even know what a morning star was. Or an orc.

    "What are you going to do?" JP asked again, a little more impatiently.

    “Uh, I’ll attack? With my sword. Do I have a sword?”

    JP rolled the dice and squinted at a rulebook. “OK, your short sword strikes its shoulder. Black blood spurts out. It screams, ‘Arrghhh!’ You whack it for four hit points.”

    “Cool.” I wanted to ask what a “hit point” was, but it didn’t matter. My anxiety, my weird home life, my mother’s limp, all of it began to fade. I was hooked. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dungeons & Dragons was about to save my life.

    “Now the orc comes charging at you. He’s really mad.” JP bared his teeth for effect. “Now what do you do?” he asked, a big grin spreading across his face.

    What do I do? I was 12. It was 1979. I had just discovered the power of escape, and vicarious derring-do. Later, I would learn much more about orcs and morning stars and a universe of wondrous things. There was so much I wanted to do. 

    Who needs varsity sports when you can be a wizard and shoot fireballs from your fingertips? 

    Adapted from the Prologue to Ethan Gilsdorf's travel memoir and pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. More info:


    Geek Out!

    Like when the planets align, there are a few times each year when geeks can fly their freak flags high and proud, in vast numbers, and at the same time in different parts of the universe.

    This coming Labor Day is one of those weekends.

    On the west coast, we have Pax, in Seattle, a three-day game festival for tabletop, videogame, and PC gamers and a general celebration of gamer-geek culture. (And in the other corner, Atlanta, we have Dragon*Con. But more on that another time.)

    In fact, Pax calls itself a festival and not a convention because in addition to dedicated tournaments and freeplay areas (The east coast version in Boston this spring had a very cool classic arcade game room, which was amazing! All your fave games like FroggerGalaga and my fave, Robotron 2084), they’ve got nerdcore concerts from awesome performers like MC Frontalot and Paul & Storm, panel discussions like “The Myth of the Gamer Girl,” the Omegathon event (A three-day elimination tournament in games from every category, from Pong toHalo to skeeball), and an exhibitor hall filled with booths displaying the latest from top game publishers and developers.

    But I was thinking that probably the best part of PAX (and similar events like Dragon*Con, the other big fantasy/science fiction fandom event of the year) is this: You get to hang out with kindred folk who love their games and books and movies and costumes. They will argue and defend their fandom universes to the death. They will argue why Tom Bombadil should not have been cut from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. They will battle over Kirk vs. Picard. They will annoy and astound you with their detailed, persnickety knowledge.

    In other words, a geek is less what someone loves as it is HOW they love that object of affection. Geeks are passionate about their thang before it became fashionable and long after it’s passed from the public eye. Perhaps that’s the best definition of a geek.

    If you’re headed to Atlanta or Seattle this weekend, check here for how to win a free copy of my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, now out in paperback.

    Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning travel memoir-pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now out in paperback. You can reach him and get more information at his website


    Real-Life Role-Playing

    Real-Life Role-Playing


    The Game Loft fosters risk-taking, leadership, and camaraderie. 

    I think it's easy to forget about "healthy" aspects of gaming and fantasy because (as I have written before) the media loves sensational stories about people taking games and other fantasy experiences "too far." Much of this has been exaggerated, and its roots delve back to the 1980s and Pat Pulling's Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) campaign to ban D&D (because, in her estimation, D&D was responsible for her son's suicide). In another so-called gaming tragedy, the famous "steam tunnel incident" supposedly led to James Dallas Egbert III's disappearance from Michigan State University in 1979, after getting lost in the campus's tunnels while playing a live-action role-playing game. Rumor was, this led to his death. (In fact, Egbert had simply fled campus, and sadly killed himself a year later.) The death was unconnected to D&D: the kid was depressed, suffered from pressure about school performance from his parents, and had a drug habit. Nonetheless, a movie was made starring Tom Hanks, called Mazes and Monsters (based on these events, itself adapted from a quickie novel of the same name). Forever after, D&D and its ilk was linked to abnormal behavior.

    In the past couple of years, more sensationalized stories have appeared about addicted gamers in Korea and China, about cold-turkey boot camps to cure Internet addicts, and about a gamer who died from exhaustion at his keyboard. Stories of flirting and affairs (often in character, in role-playing game worlds) have also bopped around the blogosphere. A recent movement sees the Harry Potter phenomenon as dangerous and satanic; in the words of Chick Publications and its comic book tract "The Nervous Witch," "the Potter books open a doorway that will put untold millions of kids into hell." It's exactly what D&D faced as a pop culture fad when I was a teen in the 1980s. D&D was going to corrupt the minds of teenagers or turn them into Satan worshippers. Remember Jack Chick's "Dark Dungeons"? Hilarious, if it wasn't so sad and misinformed.

    All these fears  --- D&D as dangerous --- all seem quaint today. No one takes that threat seriously anymore, except perhaps the fundamentalist wingnuts.

    Still, stereotypes and prejudices against gaming and fantasy persist. Most people don't realize that for 99% of players and fans, these activities are integrated in healthy ways into the lives or normal people, and they provide an essential community, rites of passage, ethics and values, just like other clubs and hobbies.

    But funny thing: gaming does even more. It lets us try out new roles. There's personality development that arises in a role-playing situation. And if you're a geeky shy kid like I was back in the day, role-playing games can be a necessary tool for socialization. 

    I recently discovered a teen center --- the only one like it in the nation --- that uses table-top (not video) games to teach these exact life skills. Based in the small town of Belfast, Maine, The Game Loft fosters risk-taking, leadership, and camaraderie. Especially for kids who find the football gridiron to be a foreign world, The Game Loft immerses them in a different sort of team sport, where they can find achievement and connectedness.

    As I wrote in a recent article for the Christian Science Monitor ("Role-playing games pull reluctant school kids into a supportive crowd"), Game Loft members play characters armed not with football padding and hockey sticks but chain mail, broadswords, light sabers, and magic spells. Working together, they charge onto battlefields and explore underground dungeons, seeking valor in these imaginary realms. Re-enactment games that let kids inhabit other selves from local history give them a stake in their own community. For those at risk of dropping out of high school, The Game Loft can provide empowerment, accountability, and a way back in.

    As founders Patricia and Ray Estabrook put it, "At the Loft we know that good things happen to kids through games and The Loft kids can identify these good outcomes with ease. Our games program is designed to encourage these good outcomes."

    Too bad the Game Loft hadn't existed back in the days of Mazes and Monsters, and James Dallas Egbert III.