Tuesday, 28 September 2010

D&D in The New Yorker

There's a short story by Sam Lipsyte in this week's New Yorker that takes as its setting a dysfunctional high school D&D campaign sometime in the Old School Era. You can also read a short interview with the author (he's not much of a gamer these days.)

There will now be a short pause so you can read the story.
Well, that was certainly one way to work D&D into the perennial theme of American literature: success and failure according to the American dream.

The Varelli kid is a dick DM, a killer DM. His campaign is brutal, his mental health questionable, and he verbally abuses his players. But his players also bring failure on themselves again and again, doomed by their greed or overconfidence or inability to cooperate or undeserved hope they'll get a break. Given the chance to play in a more placid and rewarding campaign, the narrator feels like he doesn't really fit in, and has this wistful reflection:
We fly dragons, battle giants, build castles, raise armies and families and crops. But something is missing. No goblin child will shank you for your coin pouch. You’ll never die from a bad potato.

Out of context, sure, you might take this as evidence that Lipsyte gets the appeal of high-risk, high-grit old-school gaming. But the real message is more bleak: that style of game is preparing all its players and its DM, accurately, for their predestined and self-inflicted life (or death) as losers. In fact, strike one against the story is its cliched epilogue, where "loser" translates literally to "flipping burgers" and "crazy loser" translates, a la Dark Dungeons, to "death by hanging." Strike two (working backwards) is the ham-handed way Lipsyte muffs the climax, dead baby sister and all. We'll call it a foul that HAY THE GUY WHO PLAYS AN INCOMPETENT THIEF IS IN REAL LIFE AN INCOMPETENT THIEF.

But in spite of all this, the story reaches a base on balls for its accurate portrait of a bad D&D campaign, and its matter-of-fact approach to the game as something that is not necessarily seriously screwed-up - it's just more interesting to write about a group that is.

Even more entertaining is the metafilter comments thread, where blogger Malcolm Sheppard (mobunited) weighs in on his old-school campaign, edition wars creep in like the inevitable green slime, and we're treated to an account of how ex-Crips do roleplaying games. (As it turns out, with a strong sense of teamwork learned from their gang experience.)

While we're in this literary mood, please do visit the Huge Ruined Pile and get in on the ground floor of Scott's gargantuan, year-long fantasy author elimination cagematch.


  1. Great post - thanks for sharing this!

  2. I swear I played with those guys... I liked the story and didn't come away from it believing that the author was making the automatic connection with "playing D&D" and "being a loser," although he does reference the worries that his mother has that the game will make her son "turn out" wrong (which was certainly a part of the zeitgeist of the late 70s/early 80s --- I was told by teachers and other students that I was 'ruining my life' by playing D&D).
    I think the story is a bit more complicated than that. The narrator has a crappy self image, but he is also a 14 year old boy --- reading the story was like revisiting myself from decades ago. Everyone in the story is damaged (except maybe for the gifted students), but it's not a 'pity party.'

  3. limpey, I didn't think the author was connecting all gaming to loserdom either, just the specific campaign run by the "Dungeon Master." He makes a point of bringing up the other, school-approved, positive achievement-oriented game as a foil to that campaign. That's why I give the story the props I did.