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The Independent

Trolls, Churches, and Fantasy: “Rise of the Dungeon Master” Review

Grant Spathis, writer

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There is a wide range of assumptions that are associated with players of Dungeons & Dragons: geeky, socially awkward, a loner.

However, if there’s one thing that “Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D” written by David Kushner with illustration by Koren Shamdi makes clear, it’s that D&D meant much more to people than most realize. What started as a strategic wargame in a basement in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin became a global phenomenon played by 20 million people in 50 languages.

As “Rise of the Dungeon Master” makes clear, getting to that point was far from simple.

Gary Gygax, the creator of the game, was a child who loved adventure and became addicted to strategic war games of his day. When those games were unable to satiate his desire for a more improvisational and creative board game, he chose to create his own.

It was not an easy path, and “Rise of the Dungeon Master” does a wonderful job showcasing the struggles that come along with following a creative passion. That drive was not achieved by a singular man. Dave Arneson was brought on board to help clarify the game because Gygax was unable to remove himself from the minutiae of the rules.

That creation was not without bumps on the road, in spite of its massive success. When a young man went missing from college in the early 80s, Gygax’s love of Dungeons & Dragons and the ensuing puzzle he created shook the nation. Worried parent groups quickly sprang up with claims that the game was Satanic, and they attempted to shut down production.

This attention was far from what the creators hoped for as the fear mongering reached a fever pitch. A film, starring a young Tom Hanks, was made featuring a young man losing his mind due entirely to a D&D-esque game.

This incident was part of the catalyst that led to Gygax selling off his portion of the company in 1985. He continued creating games but none reached the status of Dungeons & Dragons. Shortly before he sold his stake, he ran into a disagreement with Dave Arneson, who is now credited as a co-creator of the game, following a lawsuit against Gygax.

Arneson is responsible for two of the most important parts of the game. First, that it takes place in a dungeon (because what is Dungeons & Dragons without dungeons). His second piece of invaluable input was a leveling system, allowing every player to play until they tire of the character they have created.  This is a concept co-opted by every role-playing-game since, both on computers and off.

That idea, the unending game, is where Dungeons & Dragons’ true legacy lies. The widespread influence of the tabletop game can be seen almost everywhere, from television shows like “Stranger Things” and “Game of Thrones” to “World of Warcraft” being a literal love letter to the classic game.

The cultural impact of Dungeons & Dragons is inexplicably tied to the widespread popularity of geek culture that is currently ongoing. David Kushner and Koren Shamdi’s “Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D” does a wonderful job of weaving the tale of how it came to be, and why it’s creator fought so hard to make it happen.

Find “Rise of the Dungeon Master” at your local store by going to indiebound.org.

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