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”?

6 Responses to “How “Dungeons & Dragons” changed my life”

  1. 1 Richard
    March 9, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I think nostalgia refers to a version of the past that is at least as imagined as it is remembered. When you indulge nostalgia you don’t have to be reliving your own past or passing it on, in fact, it’s very unlikely that anyone ever does, but instead a past that your present self would have preferred. There’s also a strong aspect of ‘homecoming’ to it, which often refers to a home you never had. As an inductee to AD&D 1e who never read anything in Appendix N, the game was always a bit mysterious to me. I got enough to be able to play but I had no idea why it was the shape it was. I wasn’t at home in it, but from where I stood I could look in the windows and see weird-looking furniture. So I can well imagine that I could still have a novel ‘homecoming’ with OD&D now, if that makes sense.

  2. 2 James Nostack
    March 9, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Congratulations Tavis! I think “original D&D gangster” is a little bit of a rhetorical stretch, but it’s a good article.

  3. 3 Charlatan
    March 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Nice quotings, Tavis!

    I’m still thinking about the relationship of nostalgia, pastoralism, and the fantastic. I’m not content with nostalgia as the organizing principle for what I do when I play D&D, because I want to preserve (or create?) the space to depart from nostalgia’s fundamentally conservative trajectory. Not to suggest that the fantastic is necessarily creative/alter/revolutionary/etc., but I think it encompasses more possibilities than nostalgia per se.

  4. 4 Richard
    March 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Pastoralism? Are you thinking Romantic literature here?

  5. March 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Not to speak for Charlatan, but when he says pastoralism I think of the strain of sentiment for the Shire in the Lord of the Rings, and where I imagine that to be coming from in terms of mid-century England.

  6. 6 Richard
    March 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Oh lord. You’ve just made a connection in my mind between Wordsworth, poet of the expanding empire, and hobbits, busy little improvers of the world-garden. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to see them separately again.

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