orgtheory.net

the genius of dungeons and dragons

Fabio

450px-gary_gygax_gen_con_2007.jpg

Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, died last week. A hard core nerd, I’ll miss him. He’s one of the few people who impacted my life by creating a truly unique and, in my view, profound hobby.

The first major innovation of D&D was the melding of two vastly different activies: free form storytelling and dice based strategy games. How? Instead of letting people drive the story any which way, a “dungeon master” sets up a scenario and the other players would verbally describe their actions within the imaginary world. The clever part was to come up with rules that allowed players to resolve complex actions and add structure to otherwise chaotic exercises. Something for everyone: math geeks had tables of numbers, board gamers could toss dice, drama queens could endlessly work on their “character,” and frustrated kids could shred monsters.

The second innovation is more profound and very Goffmanian. D&D allowed players to cooperatively construct new narratives from collectively shared imaginary worlds. As long as players could tap into cultural scripts defining certain situations, you could make a game out of nearly anything. D&D quantified swords and sorcery; Traveller was an early science fiction game; Gamma World was about a post-nuclear war America.

In the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of games aimed at all kinds of situations: The End, a religious horror game about life after the Rapture; Pandemonium, about tabloid newspapers; and even the strange, Mitch Duinier-style, Urchin, a game about life among the homeless. With a little creativity, you could make any social millieu or fiction genre into a game. A post-tenure project of mine is “R&R, the role playing game of life inside the academy.”* Sadly, I think no one would ever play, even though I did once discover a game about medieval monasteries where characters can beat each other in theological arguments. Maybe there’s hope.

That’s the real genius of dungeons and dragons and other role playing games. It’s about rituals and institutions that allow people to create a social space of stable meanings where you can explore worlds, which could be fictional or reality based. As long as the culture can sustain a given imaginary landscape, you can do it. These rituals then give rise to communities with their own rich subcultures. For that, thank you, Gary.

* What about The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, the game of backstabbing in academia? Good point, but if you play it, you realize it’s more a horror/Lovecraft card game rather than a regular rpg about the strangeness of academia. Sure, you get to humiliate and kill a lot of professors, but … but … maybe it’s not such a bad game!

Written by fabiorojas

March 9, 2008 at 7:04 pm

24 Responses

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  1. Fabio: do you have an avatar in second life?

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    tf

    March 9, 2008 at 8:53 pm

  2. No. I am fascinated by the 2nd life phenomena, but between work, family, and my 2000 other hobbies, sadly, I can’t squeeze MUDs into it. Do *you* have a Second life avatar? Is it finish?

    Like

    fabiorojas

    March 9, 2008 at 8:56 pm

  3. I should have written: “Yes, Teppo, I have an avatar, but I tell people I’m Ron Burt!”

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    fabiorojas

    March 9, 2008 at 9:07 pm

  4. I am fascinated as well — a nice laboratory for everything social and org’l.

    I also noted the following from the second life wiki entry:

    1) “Second Life has recently begun offering virtual classrooms for major colleges and universities, including the University of Florida, Princeton, Rice University, University of Derby (UK), Vassar College, the Open University (UK), Harvard, INSEAD, Pepperdine, Saint Joseph’s University, Praxis Business School, Drexel, Ball State, University College Dublin, Edinburgh University, Elon, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bowling Green State University, Ohio University, New York City College of Technology (CUNY), New York University, Ithaca College, University of Houston, University of Colorado at Boulder,” etc. etc. I guess Indiana U. is not in the mix.

    2) And…the following countries (in order) have ‘recognized’ second life and have embassies there: Maldives, Sweden, Israel and a few others.

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    tf

    March 9, 2008 at 9:09 pm

  5. That’s smart for the Maldives. They’ll be underwater in a hundred years. Might as well establish an alternative path to sovereignty, while we’re at it.

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    fabiorojas

    March 9, 2008 at 9:12 pm

  6. Apparently, it’s trendy to have a unicorn babies on SL! I don’t participate in this virtual world, but find the whole thing intriguing as well.

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    Monsoon

    March 9, 2008 at 9:16 pm

  7. Unicorn baby? Don’t women have a tough time already with round headed babies? A horn on the skull? Ouch!!!

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    fabiorojas

    March 9, 2008 at 9:17 pm

  8. Hmm, orgtheory.net really needs an SL presence!

    Like

    tf

    March 9, 2008 at 9:17 pm

  9. At the orgtheory embassy, my avatar will be Ron Burt. If I can’t do that, it’ll be Paul DiMaggio. He can’t complain. It’s just mimetic isomorphism!

    Like

    fabiorojas

    March 9, 2008 at 9:19 pm

  10. I also have to thank Gary Gygax and D&D for my honours project at the University of Melbourne entitled “The psychological correlates of fantasy role-playing” where I discovered that the intensity and duration of D&D play did not increase psychopathology (despite media hype to the contrary) but that you were 10 times more likely to meet a psychopath playing D&D than in the general population! Know what I mean, Fabio?

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    stevphel

    March 10, 2008 at 5:00 am

  11. You’re crittin’ me, Steve! Nat 20!

    Like

    fabiorojas

    March 10, 2008 at 6:03 am

  12. I have paper on SL, trying to meld the gaming studies and basic org theory.

    My avatar is named JordiSunhine Takacs if you want to find me there.

    I’m still trying to figure out if its more interesting because of how similar or different it is from RL (SL speak for Real Life).

    Abstract of paper: http://netsweweave.wordpress.com/2008/01/09/serious-play-a-title-for-paper-on-second-life/

    Like

    Jordi

    March 10, 2008 at 8:02 pm

  13. MR says:

    “Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality. This seems to be less popular than Synthetic Worlds but in terms of social science I think it is better and deeper; recommended.”

    I am buying/finding a copy, looks very interesting.

    Like

    tf

    March 10, 2008 at 9:21 pm

  14. He teaches here at IU. I should hunt him down.

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    fabiorojas

    March 10, 2008 at 9:29 pm

  15. Indeed. You’ve got some interesting folks there at Indiana: also Hofstadter, I recently read (most) his new book, I Am A Strange Loop.

    Like

    tf

    March 10, 2008 at 9:38 pm

  16. A less theoretical but ethnographically rich work is Peter Ludlow’s account of the _SecondLife Herald_.

    http://www.amazon.com/Second-Life-Herald-Witnessed-Metaverse/dp/0262122944/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1205201171&sr=8-1

    How do I get rich editing in comments, BTW?

    Like

    Jordi

    March 11, 2008 at 2:07 am

  17. Jordi – WP doesn’t allow rich editing in comments. No idea why.

    Like

    brayden

    March 11, 2008 at 2:10 am

  18. How do I get rich editing in comments, BTW?

    My first thought was “If I can’t even get rich writing posts, there’s certainly no money in editing comments.”

    Like

    Kieran

    March 11, 2008 at 2:28 am

  19. […] memoriam Gary Gygax, créateur de Dungeons & Dragons et figure tutélaire du jeu de […]

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  20. How did teppo get his book link then, for I am a strange loop

    Like

    Jordi

    March 11, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  21. Aha! html codes. The above was an experiment. Now, i need to know html code for a link
    .

    Like

    Jordi

    March 11, 2008 at 3:36 pm

  22. This man gave life to what is now the entire style of gaming mmorpg and muds and so much more. It is amazing to see how one game could grow into something like that.

    Like

    Free RPG

    March 17, 2008 at 9:36 pm

  23. […] and Dragons.” I won’t repeat my rant about what a great game D&D is – you can read it in my post following Gygax’s passing, but I will share my one random encounter with […]

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  24. […] more orgtheory posts on role playing games, check out Fabio’s dedications to the […]

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