Archive for March 9th, 2011


How “Dungeons & Dragons” changed my life

Ethan Gilsdorf, riding the subway in chainmail. Photo by Peter Tannenbaum for Slate.

I got to know Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, via a comment here at the Mule and thus had the pleasure of talking with him this weekend as he was working on a piece on Dungeons & Dragons nostalgia that appeared in Salon today. Ethan’s essay is chock-full of good stuff:

“D&D is intrinsically nostalgic,” Tavis Allison told me in a recent e-mail. Allison, 40, is a fundraiser for a hospital in New York City and an avid D&Der who also moderated a panel discussion called “Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art” at a New York City gallery this fall. “The art in the oldest books is weird and crude and like a medieval manuscript; even when it was new it reeked of some strange past, and part of the appeal of fantasy in general is this longing for a past that never was. Can you be nostalgic for something you never had?”

This insight about old D&D art belongs to Doug Kovacs and probably also Grognardia, so I can identify it as “good stuff” without praising myself. I was pleased to see that several other ideas I got from the old-school revolution and passed on to Ethan also made it into his top-notch essay. A related one that didn’t was some nostalgia paradoxes in my gaming nowadays:

  • The White Sandbox campaign is a re-creation of the earliest days of D&D – we’ve put a lot of work into doing things as they might have been done between 1974 and 1979. This period is beyond nostalgic for me; when I started playing in 1980 I wasn’t even aware of this era of the past.
  • The open-table gaming I’ve been doing through and thanks to New York Red Box is the best I’ve ever experienced. It’s not better than the way I played back in the day because I’m using a different RPG system now – it’s better because I’m being more faithful to what original D&D was telling me all along.
  • In the afternoon class and birthday parties, James and I are playing old-style D&D with kids who’ve never played before. This doesn’t rule out the idea that we’re just doing it to re-live our own childhoods, but can we say that this is a nostalgic-for-the-neverwas experience for the kids who are telling us “this is the greatest game ever”?

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2011

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