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On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted January 22, 2024

This year marks the 50th anniversary of both the establishment of TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), and the launching of TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, the original fantasy role-playing game, in 1974.

Arising from a convergence of interest in historical boardgaming, medieval miniatures gaming, and the huge popularity in the U.S. of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, Dungeons and Dragons pioneered the concept of the RPG.

What this essentially consists of is a set of rules and procedures (mostly based on the rolling of variegated combinations of dice, e.g., three six-sided dice (standardly noted as 3d6), or one twenty-sided die (d20)) which allow a person to carry out a participative interaction as one individual and character (e.g., a mighty warrior), in a given fantasy world (e.g., Tolkien's Middle Earth). Whenever there is some important action (e.g., in combat) about which there is some uncertainty, the dice are rolled to gauge the character's degree of success at the action, which can range from spectacular triumph, to total failure. The RPG is normally played by a group of people, and refereed by the gamemaster -- who structures the interactive sequences, in a storytelling-like fashion.

The individual players' choices definitely have an impact on the evolution of the "campaign." There is also a structure for increasing one's skills, powers, and abilities in relation to how well one performs in the earlier interactions. This is usually calibrated in terms of how many monsters one has slain, and how much treasure one has looted. The notion of "real magic" (and the presence of magic-users), for which the archetypes are the Merlin of Arthurian legend, and the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, are integral to many RPGs. Also integral to many RPGs is the presence of various non-human races, e.g., elves, dwarves, halflings (i.e., hobbits), goblins, and so forth, which have appeared in Tolkien's work (but many more are added). Another very common aspect is the presence of various interesting, more or less gruesome monsters to fight, typically dragons or goblins. (Goblin-type creatures are very often called orcs in RPGs, after Tolkien's usage, and they are very often the standard "cannon-fodder"-type opposition to the player-characters.)

As Dungeons and Dragons became an increasingly prominent aspect of the pop-culture in the early 1980s, there was some concern expressed about the allegedly occult nature of the game, fuelled by a number of very highly publicized cases of teenage suicides. Indeed, there was a made-for-television movie, Mazes and Monsters (obviously cribbing the Dungeons and Dragons name) that explored the most prominent of these suicides. The hue-and-cry over Dungeons and Dragons in the early 1980s was, to a large extent, ridiculous. However, in relation to what was to follow in the 1990s and later, the mostly Tolkienian roleplaying background or "world" prevalent in the early 1980s, had been very reserved indeed.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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