The Radical Freedom of Dungeons & Dragom: FOUR DECADES AFTER ITS CREATION, GARY GYGAX'S FANTASY WORLD OF UNBOUNDED CHOICE IS MORE APPEALING THAN EVER.

Author:Ciaramella, C.J.
 
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YOU MIGHT NOT recognize the nameGary Gygax. But even if you've never rolled a critical fail on a d20, you have almost certainly consumed some movie, TV show, book, comic, computer game, or music influenced by Gygax's most famous creation: Dungeons & Dragons, the world's first and most popular role-playing game.

The FBI certainly knew who he was. Between 1980 and 1995, agents compiled a dossier on the gaming company TSR Inc. and Gygax, its founder. In 1980, a note on TSR stationary about an assassination plot drew the FBI's attention, leading to a search of the company's offices in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The note turned out to be materials for an upcoming espionage game.

In 1983, an FBI field report about an investigation into a cocaine trafficking ring in Lake Geneva cryptically references Gygax--but whatever his alleged role was, it has since been heavily redacted by the Bureau.

The company appears again in FBI reports from 1995, as part of the agency's sprawling investigation into the Unabomber. The FBI was apparently looking into a possible tie between the string of then-unsolved bombings and a bitter legal dispute between TSR and a rival gaming company in Fresno, California.

In an FBI field report describing the convoluted history of TSR, one source at the company describes the father of role-playing games as "eccentric and frightening," a "drug abuser" who is "known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prisoner." He would be extremely uncooperative if the FBI tried to interview him, the source warned.

The report also claims Gygax set up a Liberian holding company to avoid paying taxes and "is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party."

The FBI's source could have been any number of professional and personal enemies Gygax made in the turbulent decade between the debut of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 and his eventual ouster from the company--once one of the fastest-growing in the United States--as it foundered under mismanagement.

But D&D survived. Today, more than 40 years after its invention, it is experiencing a renaissance. The number of players is increasing, both at the traditional table and on the internet. On Virtual Grounds, a popular online gaming site, the number of D&D games rose 55 percent, from roughly 255,000 in 2016 to 395,000 in 2017. The game has moved out of the basement and into game nights at hip bars and pop-up cafes. One of the most popular podcasts of 2017, The Adventure Zone, features three brothers and their dad playing D&D. The game's strange dice are tossed behind prison walls and used as a learning tool for children on the autism spectrum. And it remains a refuge, as always, for nerds, theater kids, and other strange birds.

The latest supplementary rule-book for the game, Xanathar's Guide to Everything, cracked several bestseller lists when it was published in November. What is driving hordes of people to throw down good money to buy a narrative-free tome full of spell descriptions and rules about sleeping in armor?

The sinister-sounding allegations in Gygax's FBI dossier (obtained by Reason via a Freedom of Information Act request) hint at an explanation. It's not a surprise the game's creator was a self-declared libertarian or a proud pen pal of prison inmates. He was an individualist at heart who had always chafed against discipline. That perpetual inclination to seek out ever more possibilities--"why not?" rather than "why?"--is baked into D&D. The same thing that drew the ire of overheated evangelicals and parent groups is leading to the game's newfound popularity today.

D&D is a deeply libertarian game--not in a crude political sense or because its currency system is based on precious metals, but in its expansive and generous belief in its players' creative potential. It's collaborative, not competitive. It offers a framework of rules, but no victory condition and no end. The world you play in, and how you shape it, are entirely up to you.

In the afterword to the original D&D manuals, Gygax encouraged players to resist contacting him for clarification on rules and lore: "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?"

'THE THEATER OF THE MIND'

IT'S THE GAME'S unboundedness that has seduced millions of people--children, teenagers, and adults--to sit around tables and essentially take part in highly codified games of make-believe.

In D&D, each player becomes a character with a race (dwarf, say) and class (ranger, cleric) based on classic fantasy tropes. The objective is to quest for loot and fame--or justice and saving the world. Players work together to delve into dungeons and defeat baddies, gaining power and abilities as they go. If this premise sounds familiar to players of video games like Destiny or Skyrim, well, D&D invented it. The adventuring is run by a "dungeon master," or D.M., who adjudicates the rules and controls the monsters and non-player characters. The players tell the D.M. what they want to do, and the D.M. describes the results. If an action requires a special skill, the player rolls variously sized dice to see if he or she succeeds. Most of the action happens in the "theater of the mind," although map grids and miniature figurines can be used as visual aids.

In this way, D&D anticipated and solved the problem inherent in even the most exciting new video game. No matter how realistic the graphics, deep the gameplay, or big the map, at some point the seams start to show. The more a video game is played, the smaller the world feels.

D&D provides the opposite experience. At first, overwhelmed by the thick rulebooks and not used to flexing their imaginations, some new players have trouble grasping the full freedom it allows. The finest moments in D&D are when someone in the party figures out a solution to a problem that the dungeon master never prepared for, likely never even imagined. Working together is mandatory for success, but individual initiative gives every player a chance to shine.

What if, instead of just attacking the tribe of goblins raiding the caravan route, the party converted them to pacifism via religion? It's a strange, probably stupid idea, but there's an easy way to find out if it could work: make a pitch to the goblins, preferably with the aid of magic, and roll a "persuasion" check.

Because D&D is a cooperative game, it's an effective social lubricant, too. Strangers working together to accomplish a common goal soon become friends, and their exploits and foibles become shared memories. It's pure escapism, and when it works well and all the players buy in, the game is such an unvarnished, natural joy that it's hard to believe it hasn't always been around--that someone, somewhere had to invent it.

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