Hey. Hi. You don’t know me at all, but me and you, we go way back. Or me and a part of you, anyway — a division known as Wizards of the Coast, which you bought in 1999, which, in turn, bought my old friend TSR in 1997. What we’re really talking about is a 30-year-old game you now own called Dungeons & Dragons.
Surely you know what I’m talking about, though I’d wager D&D is just a fraction of a fraction of a balance sheet entry to you. Wizards of the Coast is probably more well-known in your boardrooms for its lucrative “Magic: The Gathering” card game franchise. I doubt D&D comes up much in conversation around Hasbro HQ, especially when there are Play-Doh and NERF earnings to recount.
But to me, D&D has meant quite a bit more.
When I was 11 or 12, my parents took us to Pizza Hut (our typical Nice Dinner Out). After we ordered, and before the food came, I requested my usual leave to browse the next-door bookstore. And that’s when I feasted my peepers on this:
What was it? I had no idea. But I knew it would be mine. Those pages! Illustrated with swords and knights and mages and beasties, filled with intricate tables as mesmerizing as they were incomprehensible. I had recently finished “The Hobbit” and was currently halfling-deep in “Lord of the Rings,” so I knew this genre was a toy box full of epic stories to be plumbed. I wanted in.
It was 20 or 30 bucks, something big. I asked my parents immediately for a loan and got laughed out of our Pizza Hut booth. It was a lot of scratch for a middle school kid in 1981.
Somehow I saved enough to plunk down cash for it — this thing was still so mysterious I had no idea it was not the starting point for a D&D newbie. (That would be the Player’s Handbook. Another classic cover to a classic book. And a second expensive purchase to pinch pennies for.)
It took some time to really understand the concept of “role-playing game”: Roll dice to generate characters — heroes — who appear in stories of your own telling. Roll dice to generate bands of wandering monsters for these heroes to face. Roll dice to see if their longswords cut through the hides and shields of said monsters. Roll dice to dice to generate random piles of loot that litter the underground lairs of these freshly slain monsters.
Roll dice; tell a story. I don’t know what it is about this magic combination that transfixes us, we hordes of nerds and brainiacs. Like many fledgling geeks my age, I fell in with like-minded friends who debated rules, created more characters than could ever fit in a dungeon, theorized about which of the chromatic dragons would win in a cage match, and, occasionally, actually played the game.
But then high school rolled along. I dropped out of the D&D orbit — dropped the fantasy books, too — as I attempted to leave behind childish things.
Don’t take it personally, Hasbro. I may have broken things off, but D&D was never far from my heart. Despite my new pledge to be More Adult, I continued to sample genre fiction and action movies and increasingly elaborate board games, all kindred souls of our storytelling RPG.
Then something unexpected happened. When you released the third edition of the D&D rules about 10 years ago, a group of my friends caught wind, and they had an idea: What if we rekindled some of the mirth of middle school? What if we came back to D&D?
As pre-mid-life crises go, it was hardly a Ferrari. But it was a youthful hoot nonetheless. I also realized that I never really understood the rules to begin with. “D&D is hard,” I said at the time.
But when properly understood, it is fun, Hasbro. You guys should try it. It’s more than just a set of random rolls and tables, it’s a collaborative event where everybody contributes ideas and solutions and new wrinkles. Want to race across the rooftops to pursue the thief? Let’s do it. Want to convince the goblin chief you mean no harm so you can infiltrate his lair and steal his loot? Go get ‘em. Want to drink too much at the tavern and wager your weight in gold with a one-eyed dwarf over a game of darts? Bring it.
Our wives would tease us by asking things like, “Did you win tonight?” but we laughed back that they were utterly missing the point: everyone wins this game if everyone has a mind to.
Which brings us to the modern age. I don’t know if you knew this back in your Pawtucket campus, Hasbro, (after all, those WOTC offices are a continent away in Seattle), but the current keepers of the D&D brand recently launched the “fourth edition,” as an attempt to renew the brand for younger generations: the “red box” starter set, which looks so much like the boxed sets of yore, it really warms the cockles of an old gamer’s heart.
And here’s me with a 10-year-old son of my own with a penchant for goblins and orcs and other fantastical fictions. So I bought him a copy. At $14 on Amazon, it was impossible not to. When the box arrived, I set it out on the counter, and said, “Oh, hey, here’s this thing. Maybe you’d like it? I dunno.” Within hours, the result was this:
Hasbro, your designer guys had a kind of genius idea. They made the starter kit look deliciously intricate while reducing the proceedings to something simple. So simple, it reads like a choose-your-own-adventure story, and at the end, you’ve got a stat sheet full of numbers and attack powers and a hook to go on a little quest.
And my son took your bait.
He pored over the book and laid out the map, reading and referencing and asking curious questions. When he had his first character drawn up, an elven thief named Shuk-tai (where did he come up with that?) we sat down and followed the adventure that came with the kit. With me running the monsters and a few companions, an amazing transformation came over him on the first roll.
Do you know that scene in “Jack Jack Attack,” the DVD extra on “The Incredibles,” where young Jack Jack hears Mozart for the first time and his eyes refocus ever so slightly — a moment that awakens all his latent superpowers? That was my son with his first D&D encounter. Gone went his aimless observations and restlessness and lack of focus. In their place was a kid with a singular purpose: a pressing need to, as Samuel Jackson may have put it, get all these mutha%@$# goblins outta this mutha%@$# dungeon. He planned our attacks, dictated not just what his character would do but how (down to hand gestures and full body re-creations), and even offered helpful suggestions for how his opponents were going to act, react, speak and meet their untimely ends. He immediately created a new character for our ranks, a female slayer (a girl? really?) with anger management problems. It turned out that “Arien” likes to provoke her quarry with insults and taunts before pursuing them to their inevitable grisly ends, working out all manner of pent-up tween frustration in the process.
“I like playing Arien,” he told me. “She says all the stuff I’m never allowed to say.”
Here’s a small indication of how engaged my son is with your product, Hasbro. One monster in our inaugural encounters threw an ax at Arien and missed. My son immediately countered with, “Can I catch that and throw it back at him?”
I responded, dumbstruck: “Yes. Yes, you can. If this game is about anything, it is about catching handaxes and throwing them back upon your enemies.” We instantly instituted HOUSE RULE NO. 1: If an enemy attempts to attack with a thrown weapon and rolls a 1 , you are considered to have caught the weapon and can make an immediate thrown attack as a free action.
Later, I taught him the rules for flanking, which grant a bonus on attack rolls when two allies stand with an opponent in between them. (You’ve simplified the rules a lot, Hasbro, but there are still an ever-loving crapload of them.) He could have been bored by all this rule-mongering, but instead my boy had another brainwave: “Could I duck out of the way so the two flanking guys hit each other?” HOUSE RULE NO. 2: If a flanking enemy rolls a 1 on his attack roll, the attack is considered to have hit the guy on the other side.
Later still in our first adventure, we faced a wily dragon that clearly was meant by the writers to be a Thing That Cannot Be Killed — in other words, it was to teach the common D&D lesson that some problems should not be stabbed away, but reasoned with. After learning the hard way that we would not prevail in a fight, we walked (ran) away. He continued to mull over how he could get at that dragon’s fat lewt and soon his muse struck. As we were beset by yet more foes, my son lowered his weapon and tried to convince them that it was in their best interest to help us defeat that dragon. He argued persuasively, and I granted him bonuses to a few skill rolls — and before long, we had not just a party of four but a party of eight ganging up on a mighty white dragon that until so recently had been Unkillable and was now just more cuts of exotic meat. (My boy thought to collect the head and carry it with us as a trophy to strike fear in all who would defy us. So far it has worked wonders.)
This is beautiful.
You may not see it that way, Hasbro, except as the beauty of more sales, but to me it’s as pretty as a sunset. My son has discovered his inner storyteller, as well as an aptitude for thinking creatively on his feet. In the real world, he is presented with problems and all too often shuts down rather than solves them, or uses inelegant tools like whining and avoidance to deal with them. In D&D, he is learning the opposite: Problems are conquered, creativity is rewarded, and everything you get must be earned.
We’ve enjoyed our time so much, that he has roped in a few friends, and their dads have been joining us for some afternoons of laughing and slaying. A new generation has heard the call of Dungeons & Dragons and come a-running.
Recently I saw you had introduced another product for the beginner, a set of sturdy cardboard tiles for building a dungeon map on the fly. (At $14, it would be a crime not to invest…) I placed the box on the counter. “Oh, hey, here’s this thing. Maybe you’d like it? I dunno.”
You be the judge:
We have a gamer for life, Hasbro. I render him, and much of his disposable income, unto you now. Reward him well.
Thanks, Hasbro, for all the memories you’ve peddled at me over the years. And for all the ones yet to come.
Drew “Groggi Greatbeard, dwarven warpriest” Scott