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Dungeons and Dragons: the weirdest and most popular game in years

Meet the the Triton Wargaming Society of UCSD

Everett Boyer, a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer, controls a character of some renown in San Diego, the powerful Elrond. (The character appears originally in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.)
  • Everett Boyer, a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer, controls a character of some renown in San Diego, the powerful Elrond. (The character appears originally in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.)

For those who long for a world of fantasy and magical deeds, who want danger, wealth, and dice to mingle on a table and dispel the dreariness of ordinary life; for those who live in their minds as fully as they do in their hands and their hearts — may we introduce Dungeons and Dragons, the most outlandish fantasy game in the U.S. of A.

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game of war, which means that its characters meet with foul play and barbarous death. That fact must be stated at the outset because the game’s controlling feature is violence; the war game is authentic in that respect. At the Command Post, a war game store whose business bombed until it moved from peaceful Del Mar to Kearny Mesa, a sales clerk says Dungeons and Dragons is the weirdest and most popular game to enter the hobby market in years.

Dungeons and Dragons is weird in the sense that other games use counters (miniature soldiers and other pieces) in staging battle scenes, whereas D & D takes place in the mind, where imagination draws the battle lines in a fanciful world of magicians, knights, goblins, and monsters. Playing the game is like reading a book: images occur behind your eyes, voices speak there, characters play out their roles and take on greater value than the paper they are written on.

In fact, books are the basis of Dungeons and Dragons, which was created five years ago in Minneapolis and in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, by a group of amateur war game enthusiasts. The game’s medieval settings and most of its characters originated in the fantasies of the late John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. The works of other fantasy writers such as Fritz Lieber, Robert Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs influence the game, too, insofar as they charge the imaginations of D & D players. “All of us are science fiction fans,” says twenty-year-old Susan Lanoe, a political science student at San Diego State University. “And with Dungeons and Dragons, you don't just read science fiction — you get to be in it.”

The game itself consists of three booklets (ten dollars a set) which sketch the basic characters and the rules governing their play. The only equipment needed is a pencil and paper, and an assortment of dice. Each player controls a character who is sent through dungeons or forests “infested by evil things and dreadful dangers, as Tolkien would say. These players compete against the dungeon master, or referee, who creates the scene of play by means of a paper map, kept hidden from the players, and showing the lay of the dungeon and the placement of the monsters within it. The players are allowed to question the dungeon master as their characters grope their way through the darkness. A typical dialogue goes like this:

Dungeon Master: ”Okay, you guys have just entered a room that’s ten feet wide and twenty feet long, pretty dark, with a wooden door at the far end.”

Player: "Is the door locked?"

D.M. (gleefully) “Go find out.”

Player:“All right. I push on the door”— thereby releasing a thirsty vampire and a bloodcurdling hoot from the dungeon master, who has nicely surprised the poor character whose master pushed that door. Now the action halts a moment while tumbles of the dice determine who or what pays the game’s highest penalty.

The object of this game, then, is simple survival, for a character who lives through several adventures acquires immense power and wealth, perhaps even a bit of fame.

Everett Boyer, a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer, controls a character of some renown in San Diego, the powerful Elrond. (The character appears originally in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.) This blond and sturdy elf has acquired so much magic and treasure that his very name raises mutterings of jealousy. There are those who would love to get that elf in their dungeon. Which brings up a vexing point about D & D: even the most powerful characters can still be killed in a trice by unknown monsters conjured expressly for that purpose.

“The fear of death is ever present,” says the philosophical George Popa, a UCSD student, “but you have to remember — the only thing that really dies in the game is a piece of paper. When a character gets killed, you just tear his paper up” — and conceive another character on a fresh sheet.

Legions of characters have died beneath Blackmoor Castle, whose dungeon is wantonly fiendish. Yet members of the Triton Wargaming Society of UCSD have sent a small troupe of adventurers down to the dungeon tonight, a Friday, the evening of the club’s weekly meeting in Room 3050 of the Undergraduate Science Building.

In this classroom where fantasy rages beyond the normal hours of lecture and discussion, one sees five persons — four players and the dungeon master — seated at a table. For a couple of hours they laugh and roll dice and shout at each other in a convivial way, while within the game itself — within the dungeon and the players’ imaginations — quite a different scene occurs.

This is what that scene was like:

“They were making quite a lot of racket as they walked single file down the dim and sloping corridor, but the noise could not be helped. Cadmus the magician, who had already survived one adventure in the dungeon, had put himself in charge and ordered everyone to wear thick leather boots, the kind needed to protect their feet against the dungeon’s horde of plague-ridden rats, guardians of the dreaded vampire, Sir Fang.

“Behind Cadmus clumped Solan the dwarf, a crossbowman and a first-class shot, whose sharp senses could guide them through the dark maze. His skills were certainly more tangible than those of J.B. the cleric, who followed next in line, stumbling and grumbling over his heavy boots. He was useless in battle, unable to wield a sword and a natural coward besides, yet the cleric might be useful for his wisdom and spiritual insight. Last in line was the Lawful fighter Paladin. Youthful and untried like the rest, he was especially given to rash judgments and to onslaught against the forces of Chaos, which they would encounter soon enough.

“They walked as stealthily as they could, contending with the gray dimness and the rough-hewn stones, and groping with their hands along the wall. There were the usual dungeon odors of wetness and of ancient slime, together with the sound of water dripping to a puddle, somewhere in the distance.

“They followed on until the corridor ended at a great wooden door. Cadmus looked it over carefully, then said, ‘Step close, J.B., and say if you can tell what lurks within the chamber.’ But Paladin had already drawn his sword and the dwarf had placed a quarrel in his crossbow. And so it was settled: with these armaments behind him, Cadmus kicked at the door, which opened to a spacious, bare, and strangely lighted room. Hundreds of torches flickered on the walls, revealing nothing. The room was empty but for a column of stone that stood from floor to ceiling in the center of the chamber. ‘Perhaps some magic has cleared this room of monsters and treasure,’ said Cadmus, squinting at the chamber’s comers and recesses which danced in the flickering light. Meanwhile, Paladin had advanced to the column, and seeing a golden ring protruding from its side, touched it. Instantly the column disappeared, leaving in its place an old man in rags.

“‘His face is deathly pale,’ the cleric warned. But it was too late for Paladin, who raised his sword and cried, ‘Art thou of Law or Chaos?’

“Cadmus just had time to close his eyes and fear the worst, which, of course, occurred. Paladin was killed in a wink, and just as fast the old man changed to upright stature and revealed himself in black cloak and hoary visage: an undead demon, servant of Sir Fang — perhaps Sir Fang himself!

“Cadmus was not inclined to ask. He bolted for the door but was already behind the dwarf and the cleric, who cursed his heavy boots. Then Cadmus thought he might do well to turn invisible for a moment, for the creature might be hiding some fantastic treasure and powerful tools of magic. But no time remained to discuss the strategy with his fellows, who were hurrying headlong out the door, and who would take poor Cadmus for dead if he did not appear at their heels....”

And then the players took a break and sent for junk food from the vending machines nearby.

So there is the basic idea: the characters intrude into the dungeon in search of treasure, relying on each other to combat the game’s hidden and formidable monsters.

“I’ll say that since this game came out (three years ago) we’ve sold at least 800 of them,” said salesman Mark Bahlmann at the Command Post. That figure makes Dungeons and Dragons the store’s most popular game by far, another clerk agreed.

“And the weirdest thing of all is the variety of people who get into it,” Bahlmann added. “You have dyed-in-the-wool historical wargamers; you have fantasy freaks who have read all the Tolkien books; you have people we’ve never seen in here and will never see again .... And basically you get people who want to put reality aside for a little bit, who want to create a place and project themselves into it, who want to leave wherever they are and get into a place they've never really been.”

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