Destroy All Monsters

Our next post comes from one of the first RBV players, Jason L. Thanks, Jason!

I am a 41 year old white North American male. This means that during the early 80s my friends and I were directly in the crosshairs of TSR in it’s heyday. I wasn’t a wargamer nor did I have the White Box but we pretty much had everything they put out after that. We played Boot Hill, Gamma World and Top Secret but were pretty much the target demographic when TSR was selling 7000 Red Boxes a month.

In Grade 7 our free thinking teacher, Mr. Bergland, allowed us to take over a large alcove in the back of the classroom. On the table there we laminated to the surface our various character and tables to the exclusion of all others in the class. This meant we gamed at recess and lunch in addition to our after school and weekend sessions.

One weekend we convinced my father to go up into the woods behind our town and set up a sort of D&D proto-LARP. He drew detailed maps and hid little treasures then we tore around battling imaginary goblins and beholders that came out of the woods. We had plastic swords and I believe these Star Trek disc guns that we were somehow able to integrate into the fantasy narrative.

All these reminisces were brought to mind after coming across an article in McSweeney’s The Believer magazine called Destroy All Monsters.  In it, the author Paul LaFarge, describes his lifelong experiences with D&D.  The article is in 2 parts: in the first he describes the game and how it came to be.  It is a well written account and he tries to link the popularity of the game with his pet theories about how:

“in a society that conditions people to compete, and rewards those who compete successfully, Dungeons & Dragons is countercultural; its project, when you think about it in these terms, is almost utopian. Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other! And perhaps D&D is socially unacceptable because it encourages its players to drop out of the world of competition, in which the popular people win, and to tune in to another world, where things work differently, and everyone wins (or dies) together.”

We certainly felt this way when we were young boys immersed in our fantasy world.  Not only did it cement friendships that I have maintained until today but at the time it generated an “us vs them” feeling that I think helped us weather the small town peer bullshit that was a part of growing up then.  The reason I play D&D today is not because it is “retro” but because it brings together people who I like to spend time with.  As LaFarge says:

“D&D conjoins: this is not the first thing you notice when you enter the cave; nor is it mentioned very often by the game’s recruiters (or by its detractors), who prefer to talk about killing and money and other things the uninitiated can understand. And yet it is an essential feature of the game—ritual–whatever you want to call it. Adam’s fighter may be more powerful than Brian’s elf, but if the fighter kills the elf, or even pisses him off seriously, who will find the secret door? In order to get very far in the cave, the players need to work together. Which would make D&D not very different from any other team sport, if there were another team; but there isn’t. The remarkable thing about D&D is that everyone has to play together. Even the DM, who plays all the monsters and villains, has to cooperate; if he doesn’t–if he kills the entire party of adventurers, or requires players not to cheat on life-or-death dice rolls–the chances that he will be invited to run another session are small.”

3 Comments to “Destroy All Monsters”

  1. From the linked article:

    Together you tell a story: a fantasy epic à la Tolkien or whomever you will; or rather, given that the game has no natural end, maybe we should call it a fantasy soap opera.

    Fantasy Soap Opera. That’s a neat way of looking at it.

  2. I’m gearing up to run an after-school D&D group for kids at my son’s school, between age 8 and 12, and achieving this cooperation is in my experience so far basically the whole effort. Time spent playing is like 95% all shouting over one another, getting upset that someone doesn’t accept the genius of your plan and threatening to kill their character, and only 5% actual moving events forward. I think Ron Edwards points out somewhere that, unlike other team sports where there’s an adult coach, kids navigate this process in isolation; those who manage to do so successfully and cement friendships & loyalties have great memories of D&D, whereas in groups that don’t achieve a functioning social contract everyone is miserable.

    It remains to be seen whether, as an adult in the situation, I can teach them skills to do this on their own instead of just negating the problem (and thus the rewards of solving it). In Israel, where afterschool RPG programs are common, many adult gamers complain that it’s not in the programs’ economic self-interest to teach kids “this is something you can make happen by yourself”, so that RPGs are just something your parents pay for you to experience during a certain period of your childhood, not a vocation you can pursue.

  3. Tavis, here’s a thought: rotating callers. Designate one kid to be the leader for a little while, let him figure out which plan to follow, etc. Let them take turns being in charge–they might learn to treat each other better, so they’ll get reciprocal treatment when they’re in the driver’s seat.

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