Video games are an enormous, multibillion-dollar industry, growing like Super Mario on mushrooms. But the business can trace its roots to a simpler time, when a humble game played with pen, paper and a set of funny-looking dice ruled the rec and dorm rooms of geeks, nerds, dreamers and math majors. That game was Dungeons & Dragons.
Writer David Ewalt, a self-described “writer, gamer, geek,” first suspected the deep influence of Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D, as its devotees call it) on contemporary video games when he began writing about the game industry for Forbes Magazine. He talked to the leading minds of the trade and asked them, “What made you want to create video games for a living?”
“Over and over again,” according to Ewalt, “these guys said, ‘Well, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid’… Almost every single time. It was a really universal experience.”
Ewalt took a deep dive into the subject, and the result is his thorough and entertaining new book on the grandfather of role-playing games, with a peerless title: “Of Dice And Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.”
According to Ewalt, D&D “invented some concepts that are now everywhere in the game world. Things like having a character that you stay with, and that gets more powerful over time, and that levels up and gains new abilities. Games didn’t do that before Dungeons & Dragons.”
Today’s multi-player games draw their inspiration from D&D’s social nature.
With D&D, “it’s really more like collaborative storytelling. It’s very creative. The people at the table are working together to tell a story and to explain how they’re heroes in the story,” Ewalt said.
“A lot of the very first video games were direct simulations, where people were trying to create a computer program to do what D&D does,” Ewalt said. “[Game developers] were copying it and trying to make it faster by saying, ‘Oh, the computer can do the dice rolling for me.’ … Over time, video games became bigger and more complex and more interesting. And role playing games kind of disappeared.”
Yet, like an ancient, rune-covered scroll, D&D is being dusted off, and it may cast its spell on a new generation of enthusiasts. A game associated with Renaissance fairs may be experiencing a renaissance of its own, as Ewalt sees the first generation of D&D-ers grown-up and pining for the games of yore.
He described the average former player’s feelings for the game as, “Man, I missed that. It was really great to sit down with my friends and play that game. I want to do it again.’”
Just as D&D paved the way for contemporary video games, so too have video games allowed D&D to gain acceptance.
“Video games are now everywhere. Even my grandparents are playing something on their phone,” said Ewalt.
“The idea of Dungeons & Dragons and this idea of a tabletop or role playing game is not as strange as it used to be, so it’s an easier leap to say, ‘You know what, I am going to try [D&D].’ And when people try it,” said Ewalt, “they inevitably say, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun.’”
Those new to the world of Dungeons & Dragons needn’t fear it.
“It’s real easy to learn,” Ewalt said. “The game can get very complex, but it doesn’t have to be. … It doesn’t take years of practice and memorizing all the rules.”
And the game may have its benefits, as well. “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau played D&D as a youth and, Ewalt said “[Favreau specifically has credited D&D as the tool that taught him how to tell a story. There’s tons of people like that.”
They include Joss Whedon and Stephen Colbert, not to mention video game legends like John Carmack, the co-founder of id Software.
“The game was hugely influential,” Ewalt said. “It taught a lot of us how to tell a story. A lot of people grew up and became novelists, became filmmakers, became writers for TV and movies, and they look back and say, ‘Yeah, that’s where I learned how fun it was to tell stories.’”