Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
– Quoted in this article are selected lines from William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.”
As kids, my sister and I spent long hours constructing complicated fortresses out of blocks, that we then populated with plastic animals and multicolored dinosaurs. We invented stories about the world we had created: sometimes there was peace, and resources were spent building up the fortress – other times war broke out, or a Fisher Price army lined up outside the gates and lay siege. I remember one specific time (was it the last time?) when my sister – almost four years older – declared that a flood had destroyed everything. I insisted that the green pterodactyl had survived; I remember swooping it back and forth, until it eventually found purchase on a shelf. My sister left, considering the game concluded. She was getting too old for imaginary games, but I think that I never outgrew them: instead, they took on other forms, more palatable to my slow-maturing brain. Chief among them was Dungeons and Dragons.
For those not aware, pen and paper role-playing games (RPGs) involve one player (the Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons, the Keeper in Call of Cthulhu, and so forth) building the framework for an adventure, and a group of other players (the party) walking through it, using the rules of the game to determine success or failure: the players tell the Dungeon Master what actions they take, and the Dungeon Master tells the players what happens in the world.
I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but role-playing games are a codified extension of the creative, imaginative play that is unique to childhood, and very different than the experience of reading a book – in which a writer guides a reader through a narrative, playing a computer game – which is both passive and active, or watching a television program or movie – where the viewer witnesses a narrative unfold (rather than experiencing it in his or her head).
It is the shared story taking place in the minds of the Dungeon Master and players that most directly links pen and paper role-playing games to childhood, a time defined by ad hoc world creation and shared narratives. Seen in this light, accessories like miniatures and maps become the direct descendants of wooden blocks and plastic animals. Rules serve to prevent (or at least moderate) disagreements, and facilitate the completion of shared stories that in childhood would have ended in disarray.
Like most teenagers, the last thing I was interested in (at least consciously) was extending the imaginative life of my childhood. At the time, I would have told you that Dungeons and Dragons was fun and creative, and left it at that. I might have admitted to there being some level of escapism, but I would have likened it to reading a book or watching T.V. Every week, my friends and I got together for marathon sessions, with liters of pop and boxes of donuts at the ready.
Looking back from my middle twenties, I saw a depressed kid who found in role-playing games an environment where he could excel, and at the same time escape from a real world that he was struggling to navigate. By then I hadn’t played in several years: most of the old gang had drifted apart, and I didn’t have much interest in finding new people to play with. Role-playing games, I felt, had burned up hundreds – thousands – of hours that I should have spent focusing on the real world: it had all been a waste of time.
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life–
I never connected my interest in writing to Dungeons and Dragons, even though by the time I finished college, I’d been creating stories in the form of role-playing adventures for my friends for years. Fiction offered me a depth and complexity that gaming couldn’t, but looking back, I wonder how many speculative fiction writers told their first stories to a group of friends clustered around a table, each with a character sheet and a set of polyhedral dice.
I stopped going to Gen Con in the late ’80s. By the early ’90s my subscriptions to Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had lapsed. Role-playing was something I used to do, that had left a bad taste in my mouth. The economy was lousy, and I couldn’t find a job. I moved to Europe and taught English as a second language, and went back and forth between Europe and the United States for half a dozen years. I moved into the city. I got married. Twenty years passed, and though I’d written some novels, nobody was banging down my door to publish them. I tried my hand at urban fantasy, and found that I had more fun writing it than I had had writing anything in years. In a world where the chances of my making a living as a novelist seemed slim, whatever ideas I might have had about who I was as a writer seemed less important than how much joy I could experience doing it, and I realized that that meant writing fantasy and science fiction. Poking around, I found that the community had grown, gone online, and joined the mainstream. I felt like a man who had unexpectedly moved back to his home town, and discovered that though many of the landmarks remained, new stores and shops had appeared. Would I be able to find my old haunts, or discover new ones? Would I still feel welcome?
A week ago I went out with some friends, and we started talking about Dungeons and Dragons, and role-playing, in general. It was interesting to see how varied each of our experiences had been. What would be different, if I played, today? I’m older, and happier. I know myself better. I understand that as a creative guy who lives largely in his own head, imagination is a currency I have to spend carefully: if I want to get anything done – especially anything creative – I need to tightly control my daydreams. Twenty-five years ago, I used Dungeons and Dragons to escape from a difficult world, and in the process let it take up too much of my imaginative landscape. I think I could avoid that, today – but why bother?
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
What does Dungeons and Dragons – role-playing – have to offer me, and what are the alternatives? I’m attracted to narrative games like Storium, but I think I want something more social: I’m more likely to write stories than play Storium. MMOs offer adventure and advancement, but I’m intrigued by the idea of more imaginative play. What story elements, I wonder – what decisions, what themes – could be integrated into an adventure, to push the limits of what it could be, while still retaining its essential sense of fun?
We devalue imaginative play in adults, I think: we see it as a waste of time, or a distraction. I’ve thought of it that way, too, but I don’t think it has to be. I can’t shake the idea that there’s a unique kind of nourishment, there. I clearly want to play, but I’m still turning over and over the context in which that might happen. My guess is that someone would have to invite me. And I’d have to say yes.
Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons, or a game like it? Would you? If you have kids, do you feel that that satisfies your need for imaginative play – do you feel you have that need? What do you think of when you think of adult, imaginative play?
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.