Everything I Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons

Here’s a reprint of an article that I wrote back in 2009 that I still totally agree with!

When I was a kid, the country went through a full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons hysteria, where the fantasy role-playing game was accused of everything from turning kids onto Satanism to encouraging them to kill themselves.

Decades later, we’ve now reached a point where D&D is seen as sort of a harmless, if incredibly geeky pastime.

But isn’t there a third option? Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a dangerous, evil force in the world, nor is it just harmless fun; it’s actually one of the most worthwhile activities ever created, and there is literally nothing better for turning a kid into a thoughtful, creative, passionate, open-minded adult.

Almost everything I know today I learned from Dungeons & Dragons. And almost everything I’m passionate about, I first discovered while playing the game.

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at age twelve, when my friend Tim asked for, and received, a “starter” box set of the game for Christmas.

I immediately loved it. It gave a focus to all those lazy afternoons with my friends. It was something for us all to be passionate about, an endless countryside for us to discover and explore — endless because we made it up ourselves.

But it didn’t just focus those afternoons with my friends; it focused the rest of my life too.

Before the game, I’d had little interest in reading for pleasure. For me, books were something that were assigned in school — staid, musty tales that said nothing about the things I was interested in and had absolutely no relevance to my life.

But because I was so enamored with the world of D&D, I started reading fantasy books. For the first time in my life, I realized, “Hey, books aren’t necessarily boring! Sometimes they can even be really, really interesting!” It was a revelation. In months, I was devouring every fantasy book I could get my hands on — even long, complicated sagas that I wouldn’t have looked twice at before (Stephen R. Donaldson was, and still is, my favorite author).

In school, I’d always hated history. It had always been presented to me as nothing more than a long list of dates to be memorized.

But in the world of D&D, in the adventures we were concocting for each other, history came alive. And why wouldn’t it? We were literally living it! And like almost every virgin D&D player, I immediately embarked on my own extracurricular study of weaponry, of myths and fables, of medieval life — even castle-building.

Philosophy and ethics? At my Catholic grade school, that meant just another list to memorize, this time of picky little rules to follow.

It was while playing D&D that I discovered the notion of “alignment” — the idea that everyone has a point-of-view in life, and that few people think of themselves as “evil.” Instead, ethics necessarily follow from one’s perspective. This acknowledgment of the obviously relative nature of all things made my head feel like a balloon; I could almost feel it expanding on my shoulders.

Even better, by implicitly granting me the right to make my own ethical choices, and by having me role-play different choices and then forcing me to accept the consequences of my actions, I think the game made me a much more ethical person. It definitely made me a far more broad-minded one.

In school, I had absolutely no interest in debate or public presentations. My sixth grade presentation was on Bolivia, and I literally could not have cared less.

But because D&D involves such an elaborate set of rules, many of which are, uh, ambiguous, an essential part of Dungeons & Dragons means arguing a case, both to your fellow players and to the dungeon master.Year later, in college, professors would always say, “You did debate in high school, didn’t you?” I never knew what they were talking about — until it finally occurred to me that I had, in fact, spent every weekend of my high school years engaged in passionate debate with some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

Before D&D, I’d never thought of myself as a storyteller, or a performer in any way. But when you’re the dungeon master, you’re required to be a performer, acting out the role of the narrator and dozens of other characters — and you’d better be an incredibly quick-thinking performer at that, since most of what you do is improvisation in response to something your players did that you didn’t expect.

If you write your dungeons yourself, as we usually did, you’re also forced to confront the notions of character motivation, the importance of a good antagonist, of theme, of rising tension and resolution.

In short, if he’s going to keep the attention of his players, a dungeon master must quickly intuit all the elements of dramatic structure.

Best of all, you tell your stories in direct engagement with your audience. If that doesn’t tell you exactly what does, and doesn’t, work when it comes to storytelling, nothing will.

Finally, there’s math. I didn’t like that either as a kid — more memorization, natch. Truthfully, I still hate it, but when you spend countless hours adding up dice-rolls in your head, you’re suddenly a whiz  — and when your character’s life is at stake, you pick up statistics pretty quickly too!

Dungeons & Dragons would have been worth playing even if it built no “character” whatsoever — if it did nothing but entertain. And maybe this essay will do nothing but make today’s generation of kids less likely to play it; that’s probably how I would have reacted.

But the truth is, the game does so much more than entertain, and it’s about time it got credit for it.

As an adult, I’ve done a number of things for a living: teach at the high school and college level, edit two websites, and write novels, plays, and screenplays.

If it weren’t for Dungeons & Dragons, I couldn’t have done any of these things well.

If I hadn’t found D&D, would I have discovered some other passion as a kid? Video games? Sports? Horticulture? It’s possible. But it’s almost impossible to imagine that any of these activities would have given me such a long and varied list of skills and interests.

As an adult, I occasionally run into parents who mention that their children have discovered Dungeons & Dragons. They usually roll their eyes and shrug, as if to say, “At least they’re not out robbing liquor stores.”

I always tell them they’re wrong to dismiss the game so casually; I try to tell them all the things I’ve written here.

They never listen to me. They always say something stupid like, “What kind of game is it if you can’t ever win?” The stereotypes run too deep. To them, D&D means being silly, dressing up like an elf and rooting around in sewers. They can’t dismiss it fast enough.

In a way, I’m sad — sad that they don’t appreciate and support the passionate, creative, intelligent, interesting kid they’re probably raising (no thanks to them).

But mostly I’m sad that they themselves have to go through life with such a narrow, limited perspective. That wouldn’t be the case if one of their friends had ever introduced them to D&D — but now, of course, it’s probably too late.