The woods are quiet tonight. A soft rain has sent the animals into hiding and turned the air thick with moisture, so the dome of light from the campfire bleeds into the darkness. Hedge sighs and wipes a dollop of mud from her boot. If she had a burrow to go into, she’d be there too. The scent of mold seeps up from the ground, the fire before her burns down and the stained bedrolls arranged in a semi-circle snuffle and wheeze; her companions are getting some well-earned rest while she cleans her boots and watches the trees. Hedge is good at watching trees — she’s a druid.
Hedge is a sixth level caster from the Eldeen Reaches of the continent Khorvaire in the world of Eberron, and she lives on a sheet of dog-eared paper in a binder on the fourth floor of Morse College. She consists of a series of statistics and the imaginings of seven Yalies who, every week, bring her and her companions to life. She is a character in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game based on common knowledge of an imaginary world and a set of rules called the “d20 system.” What this means is that while players decide what characters will do, the success of their actions is determined by rolling 20-sided dice. Just as in real life, however, there are elements of talent and acquired skill in achieving success. Traits like charisma, strength, and intelligence are assigned numerical values, which depend in part on a character’s race (elf, human, etc.). A character’s profession dictates which specific skills she’s been trained in, and also how fast she gets better at them as she gains experience and age. Hedge is a practical person with a knack for noticing small details and holding her ground (high wisdom) but when it comes to persuading others, she’s tangle-tongued and naive (low charisma). When she wants to see if a paw-print in the mud is from a badger or a wolf, she’s much better at telling the difference than anyone else, because Knowledge Nature is a druid skill.
The harder the task at hand, the higher the Difficulty Class — the sum of innate ability, skill, and random effects needed to succeed. If the central storyteller (the Game Master) says that the track Hedge is examining is smeared and several days old, her player will need a high roll on her d20 to succeed in identifying it. And if the GM suggests she hurry, because rain has begun to fall and she can hear legs slapping against leaves as her pursuers draw near, the DC has just gone up.
Some of the concepts in D&D came from war games like Risk, where battling armies win or lose skirmishes depending on their size, strength, and dice roll; some of them were devised by gamers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson when they released the first edition of the game in 1974. The original setting was peopled with races and creatures from ’60s and ’70s fantasy novels (the race now known as “halflings” had to be changed from “Hobbits” to avoid copyright infringement), and the emphasis was, at first, largely on combat. Since then, D&D has gone through three editions, each of them wildly popular. It has evolved to encompass improvisational acting, strategy, and storytelling in addition to battle. Hundreds of lavishly illustrated rulebooks detailing the magic, creatures, gods, and gear of the characters’ world have been released — they are anthropologies of imagined societies, food for the novelty-seeking brain.
Hedge and her five companions exist in a world populated with non-player characters (played by the Game Master) who give them information, quests, and often, trouble. For instance, when Hedge’s party arrives in a city, they receive a mysterious message offering them employment. The sender, who meets them in a lush hanging garden, will reveal nothing except that he wishes to test them before giving them the job. The man tells them they are to find an escaped dire gorilla — bigger and nastier than the average ape — in the garden. Then he retires to watch the scene play out.
Characters rarely react to a problem the way you expect, says Max Saltonstall ’02, the Game Master (GM) of Hedge’s campaign and a founder of Nexus, Yale’s gaming group. GMs must be ready to work with whatever characters throw at them, and games should not be designed so that there is only one solution to any problem. Max is a tall, sandy-haired man with hyperactive eyebrows and a gigantic grin.
Becky Slitt ’99, a petite, bird-like woman, agrees. She is a fellow GM and Max’s co-planner for their annual gaming convention, AnonyCon; together they look like an advertisement for the emotional stability and demographic diversity of gamers. “Some GMs have trouble with the unexpected,” she remarks. “They think they know how their game is going to end, but it never turns out that way … Gaming is a collaborative art form. It is nothing without other people’s creativity.”
This synergy allows for an infinite variety of stories — one of the attractions that draws people to role-playing. There is a certain honesty to it: Max’s campaign has been meeting weekly for a year and a half, and every “day” of the characters’ lives is as new and complex as any real day. This phenomenon cannot be replicated even with sophisticated computer games, since the primary limit to action is the players’ imagination. There are rules about things like how fast characters can travel and how fast they learn, but these are the restrictions that exist in life, and the restraints to the imagination are somehow more satisfying than unlimited power. These are the things that separate gaming from any mere child’s play. If you say, “Got you!” your opponent could do some quick math and retort, “No, you didn’t. You slipped in the mud.” And he would be right.
Playing Dungeons & Dragons — or any role-playing game, of which there are many — depends on a pact between the players, an unspoken agreement to honor the fourth wall. You must suspend disbelief, or the coach turns back into a pumpkin and the glass slippers disappear. The integrity of the game is in constant danger from the players themselves, who have to relentlessly stretch and ask themselves, “What would a shape-shifter with identity issues do? What would she say?” It takes a lot of strength to build a convincing fantasy.
But if this synergistic improvisation fails at any point — if a player does something out of character, or stops contributing to the scene — the game loses momentum. It grinds to a halt within minutes.
And there you are, sitting in a living room, caught in your emotional underwear — pretending to be a magician.
As mortifying as it is, having the bottom fall out of your fantasy is not the first danger that occurs to critics of the game. Dungeons & Dragons has been the subject of intense condemnation since its release, partly from Christians denouncing the game’s depiction of the occult. In a well-circulated Christian tract called “Dark Dungeons,” a young woman trained in D&D is inducted into a coven of witches by her Game Master. She casts spells of mind-control on her father so he’ll buy her more rulebooks; she won’t talk to a friend who then commits suicide because of the game. In the end, however, she converts to Christianity and burns her books, crying, “I want You to control my life … not that lousy D&D manual.”
A real-life incident that spawned a novel and a movie contributed much more to mainstream suspicion of D&D. Four years after the game was released, in 1979, a young University of Michigan student suffering from depression and a drug addiction tried to kill himself in the university steam tunnels, purportedly as part of a live-action D&D game. Though the claims had no factual basis, D&D’s reputation still suffers from those accusations.
The social aspects of the game are often overlooked by critics who harp on the “unhealthy” fixation on a fantasy world. Gamers know perfectly well that what they’re doing isn’t real; there is, in fact, a whole branch of humor called “meta-gaming.” However, though the world is imaginary and the characters made-up, the emotions are real. Laughing in character has all the same benefits of laughing as oneself. If Hedge and a companion go drinking together, their players will enjoy the camaraderie of inebriation without the hangover. And players face dilemmas that force them to think as they never would in reality, act as they never would in reality, and develop a form of empathy all the more potent for its seeming distance from the real world. Max once played a flying humanoid who believed, utterly and without a doubt, that he was a cat. When hurt, he retreated to a high corner to groom himself with his tongue and glare imperiously at his companions. For hours, Max had to react and think as someone whose basic assumptions about the world were fundamentally (if comically) different from his own. With enough practice, very few human emotions seem out of reach.
The biggest reason for playing, of course, is that it’s fun to be someone else. Players design characters who are different from them not just because of the challenge, but because they want to be someone dangerous, or mysterious, or magical. A bit of escapism can be immensely satisfying, especially if one’s real life is as hectic as the average Yalie’s. And if, as a child, you yearned for a daemon or fell in love with Narnia or built forts in your backyard, you can understand the desire for the world to be a little more magical. You feel that wonder stirring when you enter the nave of Sterling Memorial Library, or when you read Yale’s snow-covered inscriptions with something akin to joy. A taste for the extraordinary and a quest for everyday magic brings numerous ambitious pilgrims to Yale.
The irony is that finding Dungeons & Dragons on campus can be difficult. Like members of a secret society, gamers don’t talk about gaming to people who don’t game. Many small nodes of players coexist, oblivious to each other, and although the D&D Core Rulebooks — thick, gilded hardcovers — sit on any number of shelves around campus, gamers discover each other by accident. At the root of this situation, of course, is the nature of the game. Dungeons & Dragons is both difficult to play with strangers and difficult to explain satisfactorily to those whose idea of gamers centers around pale, pudgy men sitting around in a basement. It is often easier to say nothing.
Max and two classmates founded Nexus in part to bring this fragmented tribe together. In the fall of 2001, they put out a mailing list at the Freshman Bazaar for a “gaming nexus,” collecting emails from people interested in board, strategy, and role-playing games. Each year the group has grown, and it shares many members with AnonyCon, the annual convention in Stamford run by Max and Becky. If Nexus is the Yale gamers’ embassy, AnonyCon is the nation it represents.
In December, I ride the Metro North to Stamford, Conn. I have never been to a gaming conference before, but I know that players pay a flat fee, plus hotel room, to play as many games as they like for the weekend and enjoy the company of fellow gamers. I feel like a member of the gaming diaspora, returning home to a place I’ve never seen.
The venue is the lower level of the Stamford Marriott. At four-hour intervals, when games let out, the halls fill with people carrying rulebooks, sheaves of paper, and small sacks of dice. The vendors’ room features an artist who will draw a portrait of your character. The elevators are full of exuberant people talking about their adventures.
A third of the gamers in the main room Saturday afternoon are Yalies, including two of the five GMs. Becky leads a story set at the Yale-Harvard Game; she tells a senior to play an enthusiastic freshman assigned an article for the Yale Daily News. In the corner, a Yale grad describes the fall of the USSR. The peach-and-green conference room is filled with chatter and excited laughter as players get into character. At one table, the GM opens a 24-ounce can of Jolt with a hiss and a pop. It is 3 p.m. on the dot.
I sit this slot out, watching the players from an empty table. I’ve played for less than a year — usually as Hedge, my first character and equal parts myself and who I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve never played with strangers. But at the next slot, I join a table of a cyber-punk game called Shadowrun. Around the table are J., a gamer with a reputation for eccentricity, A., a large, balding man who loans me dice, R., a bespectacled thirty-something, and Chris, our GM, who writes software for the Center for Language Study at Yale and runs the Freestyle Dueling Association.
Chris tells us that we’re being hired to retrieve stolen Mayan artifacts. He gives us a list of the artifacts, where they were purchased, and where they were stolen from. Then he clams up. It is very quiet in the basement of the Marriott. The four of us look at the sheet of paper.
At the museum security office, I say we’re interested in security in general, thinking to play it wide, but A. interrupts and says we want to know about the theft and if there are any videos. J. doesn’t say anything. He slowly leans forward on his elbows. R. is quiet as well. A burst of laughter rises from a table of my amused friends.
In a game based on trust, playing with strangers is about as dicey as accepting candy from them. I look around the room to where my friends are playing. We know each other, so our play is coordinated and smooth. We’re not afraid to go out on limbs because we know that the others will follow our lead.
At the moment, my table is not the band of hard-bitten cyber investigators Chris says we are. At the moment, we are four people in the basement of a hotel in Stamford, and it’s hard to believe that I’ve decided to spend four hours of my life pretending to be cyborg.
Max has told me, “If a game stalls out, it can be really painful. Someone has to get it up to speed again.” I am telling myself, “If someone doesn’t jump-start this thing, it’s going to be a long four hours.” And I tell myself, even if you are embarrassed, you have to make this situation work.
I take a deep breath and try to focus on the game. Acutely aware of the other’s eyes, I purr into an imaginary cell phone: “Hey, Johnson. I’m looking for info on some artifacts.”
To get the addresses of the two security guards who were on duty, I stick my chrome finger into a wall Net jack. Oops. Chris says my jack is in my temple. Flourishing an imaginary jack cord, I grin around at the faces of my fellow investigators. I will them to believe me. Then I pull the jack up to my forehead and insert it with a pop.
The others chuckle. I think everything’s going to be okay.
At the front desk, Becky distributes tracking forms to GMs and registers players. She herself will GM later and help out as a non-player character in a live-action game going on upstairs, but for the moment, she is steering players and Game Masters to the right game.
Some “modules” — four-hour adventures — have been written specifically for AnonyCon by the Game Masters, while others are from the company that owns Dungeons & Dragons. From cyber-punk mysteries to superhero dramas to medieval quests, the full range of stories is available — a whole catalogue of adventures drawn from the imagination of Game Masters. Game Masters get in free if they run three or more modules, but they are here mainly as volunteers. This phenomenon is, in large part, why gaming conventions are possible. They consist of large numbers of people dedicating their time and energy to give others pleasure.
The gamers walking the halls at AnonyCon are part of a minority that is traditionally understood to be uncharismatic. They have a reputation for being reclusive and uninterested in life outside the game. As much of a generalization as this is, it is true that for some players, human interaction is easier through the construct of the game, through the fantasies they invent. But in the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, there is a small caveat under the description of charisma:
“This ability represents actual strength of personality, not merely how one is perceived by others in a social setting.”