The assignment: find out about Dungeons and Dragons

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If you believe toy salespeople, Dungeons and Dragons -- commonly and fondly known as D&D -- is the most popular item on the market since hula hoops and bubble gum. According to James Ward of TSR Games, the company that manufactures the game, about 34,000 D&D games are sold each month, and the number climbs steadily.

Dungeons and Dragons is strikingly different from most games. Played without a board or a time limit, it is an exercise in fantasy role playing.

The game focuses on the creative imagination of each player, and all the action, passion, drama, and adventure spring from the minds of the players. Dungeons and Dragons is undeniably entertaining, but it is also generating concern and mistrust.

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Concern about the game arises because the role a player may take could necessitate assuming an evil persona. Mistrust stems from the fact that in such a role a player is asked to exploit evil motives to acquire points.

D&D is challenged because the sustained contemplation of evil becomes a legitimate strategy subordinate only to the higher goal of winning.

To play Dungeons and Dragons the leader, or Dungeon Master (the DM), conceives and describes an imaginary dungeon.

Each player becomes a different character complete with that character's personality, that character's strengths or weaknesses, that character's positive or negative attributes.

Using a map, the DM reveals the dungeon bit by bit to the players; and they use magic spells, swords, physical strength, and trickery to defeat the monsters , spirits, vampires, etc., which they find lurking around corners and in deserted passageways. The players "go adventuring" in the dungeon together, inventing good and malevolent creatures to encounter, as well as monsters and evil spirits.

Fans of D&D include everyone from elementary-school children to adults. Captivated by the game, players seem to want to spend as much time as possible playing, often to the distress of family and friends.

D&D apparently has a psychological fascination. A toy store salesman hesitatingly described D&D players as "very dedicated. . . . I wouldn't say they're addicted," he said cautiously, "but they certainly are enthralled."

Financially, the game becomes a trap. The initial instruction books are expensive ($10 to $15), and buying the game almost guarantees an obligation to buy more pieces and advanced instruction manuals. "You're almost locked in," according to one toy salesman. "There's no end to it."

A woman whose son is a D&D fan also expressed concern about the "substantial financial investment" involved in playing, fearing that it draws young people toward "elitism." She pointed out that D&D "is not a game that everyone can afford."

Yet, an argument can be made that the game manages to lure young people away from TV's influence. James Ward stresses that people who play D&D "are not being spoon-fed their entertainment."

Reading and research skills contribute to playing D&D. Detailed instruction books and background information are provided for the main characters. Another toy salesman called D&D "an educational experience. It's a lot of fun and really stimulating."

Parents of D&D players add that their children have made new friends through playing the game, and they feel that that is a "positive thing." The continuous nature of the game, which can go on for hours and sometimes even days, along with the amount of time spent playing, seems to encourage both cooperation and closer friendships.

Gary Gygax, the creator of D&D, is obviously enthusiastic. He mentioned another asset: because both adults and children can play, "there's no generation gap. It promotes interaction."

The director of a Boston-area camp, also a local educator, stated enthusiastically that D&D is "remarkable" because it "involves group dynamics as well as being a solitary thing." She has seen it "make solitary children into a real group."

In Arizona, D&D is used in many programs for gifted children.Some teachers feel it requires more imagination and cooperation than more structured lessons. One Arizona administrator commented that the game helps children to express their frustrations; another, that it "teaches children to hate."

Violence and conflict? The adult players I talked with denied or did not see violence in the game. A Boston area man who has played D&D since May commented thoughtfully, "Well, there's no overt violence. It's just battling with monsters and stuff like that."

Added another player: "This is no hack- and-slash game. You win by creativity."

A parent, however, expressed concern: "The violence certainly is there, and it certainly does concern me."

Mr. Ward of TSR sees this preoccupation with violence and competition, as well as "the desire for advantage," as the game's greatest flaws. He argues, though, that they are "secondary" to the positive aspects of D&D.

And the camp director agrees: "It is wonderful -- it takes children to the outer limits of their imaginations. It's very challenging."

Others expressed concern about the game's reliance on the minds of the players. Because the game depends so heavily on people, "People can get out of hand."

People who play the game mentioned the danger of becoming too absorbed. Gary Gygax cited this as the game's major danger. A player added that people "can become their characters. Reality is that fragile."

"I have very mixed feelings," says a parent.

The introduction in the "Dungeon Master's Guide," one of the advanced handbooks, states: "D&D is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity."

Mr. Gygax echoes this in defense of Dungeons and Dragons, stating that it was developed "just for fun."

But a grandmother, also a teacher, remarked that "there's too much hate involved." When two children she knows stopped playing D&D as part of a school club, they said they were astounded at the hate and constant violence.

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