Stranger Things, the Netflix original series, takes place in a small town in rural Indiana in 1983. The main characters are a group of middle school boys around the ages of 12. These boys are avid players of the role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, which saw its height of popularity in the 1980’s, and is a key part of the story Stranger Things tells.
As I watched the series, I noted several things that I have in common with them:
- I grew up in a small, rural town (Macedon, NY)
- I was a middle school student in the early 1980’s
- I was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons
Yes, you read that last bullet correctly. I played Dungeons & Dragons from middle school through high school and at least into my first year of college.
It was Summer 1983 when a friend introduced me to the game. I convinced my parents to mail-order (no Internet or Amazon way back then) the basic “red box” edition as an early birthday gift. Soon after it arrived, I was busy creating my initial band of characters while my friend served as the Dungeon Master.
The game was so foreign to me. No board? No tokens? Just dice, paper, and pencils? Our imaginations were the game board as we traversed a rough countryside, explored the legendary Keep on the borderlands (the name of the adventure module that came with the basic rule set), and fought off orcs, bugbears, and bandits. I was hooked!
Other friends joined us over for a few sessions now and then, but only one other friend was as hooked on the game as we were, and the three of us played for many years. In fact, when the leader of my original party (the only one left from that initial band) finally died, I had played for over six years. During that time, this character had befriended a dragon, battled wring-wraiths and demons, saved a lost city from evil warlords, and ultimately perished at the hands of a former party member who had gone rogue. At that point, it was time for me to retire from the game.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1970’s out of their mutual interest in war games (Grimm, “5 reasons to play D&D,” 2012). By 1981, the game had approximately three million followers worldwide, and by 1984, TSR, the company Gygax and Arneson created, sold about 750,000 rule sets a year (“Dungeons & Dragons,” Wikipedia). The game was not without controversy. Christian and parent organizations protested against some suggestive drawings of figures in the rule books, and lobbied that the game promoted cult-like behavior and devil-worshipping. The suicide of James Dallas Egbert III, and the murder committed by Chris Pritchard, have been linked to the game as well (“Dungeons & Dragons,” Wikipedia).
Sure, Dungeons & Dragons has some skeletons in its closet (pun intended), but that’s not why I chose to focus on with this post.
One of the reasons I chose to write this post is to talk about the educational values role-playing games (RPG) like Dungeons & Dragons offer. I believe RPGs foster the development of essential educational skills. In his article, “Dungeons & Dragons: An Educational RPG,” Michael Krebs agrees:
Dungeons & Dragons is not just a role-playing game, it is an educational RPG. Dungeons & Dragons helps the players build academic skills like reading and writing, basic mathematics, critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. These academic skills are important to developing people at a young age.
Krebs also talks about how RPGs help foster social interaction and teamwork:
…the game requires a large amount of social interaction amongst players. Through normal game progression of the story players are challenged by obstacles that require teamwork and coordination that is comparable to participating on a baseball, soccer, or football team.
The game provides structure in order to play it, but there is plenty of room for the imagination to add color. In his article, “5 reasons to play D&D,” Adam Grimm elaborates on the premium that imagination plays in Dungeons & Dragons:
Dungeons and Dragons is about imagination. It is sitting at a table, with some books, paper and pencil…and using the power of your mind to throw yourself into a fantasy world. Everything that your characters do is something you decided for them to do. This is no video game designer laying out choices for you. In my 20-plus years of gaming, our characters have started wars, ended wars, rescued people, killed monsters, started towns, started criminal organizations, thrown parades, stopped parades, bought bars, built temples, in addition to countless other things.
The great thing about a game like Dungeons & Dragons, and other RPGs, is spontaneity, the element of the unknown. Yes, there is structure and rules, and the pre-made adventures have a story line to follow, but that doesn’t account for spur-of-the-moment things that may come up. There are no right or wrong paths or directions to take in an RPG. You can go “off the board” and still have an exciting adventure. This makes it difficult for the Dungeon Master because he or she must always think three or four steps ahead of every player character and non-player character, and anticipate possible outcomes for yet-unmade decisions. The Dungeon Master must be able to keep the game flowing smoothly while seamlessly handling any surprises that may pop up. Why? Because these surprises may be the differences in an okay adventure, and an adventure that everyone will remember forever.
Playing Dungeons & Dragons is like playing Chess: always thinking things through, anticipating all possible moves, formulating a plan, and executing the plan. Sometimes it works and you capture the villain (or, in Chess, a valuable piece), or it backfires and you find yourself surrounded by the villains with no way out (or, in Chess, checkmated). That’s what makes this game so much fun! Expecting the unexpected!
The other reason why I chose this topic is because Dungeons & Dragons has become relevant to me again, and not because it was featured in “Stranger Things.” Both of my daughters are talented artists and enjoy drawing Anime, Manga, and fantastical images. My oldest is infatuated with dragons. In fact, one of her drawings earned the Superintendent’s Art Award and is featured in the 2016-2017 school calendar. A couple of years ago, we were talking about dragons and other fantasy creatures. I was struggling to describe something when I remembered I still had my Monster Manuals for Dungeons & Dragons. Not only did the illustrations in these books catch my kids’ attention, but they were surprised to learn that these books were part of a game. Long story short, they insisted I teach them how to play this game that didn’t involve a game board, tokens, a screen, or controllers. We played through some scenarios and a partial adventure, and they were hooked! Sadly, they also became extremely busy with school activities, youth sports, and musicals, and before we knew it, the books, dice, and adventures were packed away again.
My youngest wouldn’t let the game go. Every so often, she’d ask, “Dad, when are we going to play Dungeons and Dragons again?” I’d reply with “I don’t know,” or “when we have some time,” or “hopefully soon.” Well, fortunately for us, “hopefully soon” came along. She told me that a friend of hers had played a little bit at a camp over the summer and she wanted to play more. They talked, and next thing I knew, I was leading them, her friend’s dad, and my oldest through one of my favorite adventures: The Lost City.
I’ll admit, I prefer being a player character. Being a Dungeon Master is hard. As mentioned above, the spontaneity and the element of the unknown make this game very attractive, but it can be a nightmare for a newbie DM. My pacing is shaky (although I think it’s getting better – nobody has quit yet), and I feel I’m handling the curve balls better thrown at me by the players. There is also a good mix of age, gender, and experience: the other dad and I are close in age and we are the only males, my oldest is 2-3 years older than her sister and her friend. My daughters played with me for about a year; the other dad played sparingly when he was young, and his daughter recently played for the first time. This mix in age, gender and experience makes for interesting interactions and strategies to get themselves out of the jams they created, or for the ones I intentionally threw at them. Being the Dungeon Master (aka the referee, narrator, hint-giver, etc.) is growing on me. I can draw on my past experiences playing the game to keep it moving, or my interests to add wrinkles to the story (I’m a fan of the original Star Trek series, and I enjoy a number of zombie apocalypse series; there are idea floating in my head on how to interject some of these elements into our current adventure).
What I value the most about this latest venture with Dungeons & Dragons is the uninterrupted stretch of time together with my kids. I’m sure the other dad in the group can relate to this as all of our children are teenagers. As our kids grow, the opportunities for time together like this will grow fewer and farther between until it can no longer happen – much like what happened to my friends and I when we stopped playing. School, sports, part-time jobs, and life took priority. I’m eagerly awaiting our next session when I can say something like this:
You find yourself at an intersection in the corridor. To your right is a door. Ahead of you, in the distance, you hear the sounds of metal clanging against metal punctuated by shouts. What do you do?
“Dungeons & Dragons.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified September 13, 2016.
Grimm, Adam. “5 reasons to play D&D.” grimm wisdom (personal blog). Posted August 5, 2012.
Krebs, Michael. “Dungeons & Dragons: An Educational RPG.” The Artifice (online magazine). Posted June 18, 2014.