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Astral Weeks: In D & D we trust

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For the past several months, my home page has been James Maliszewski's blog Grognardia. Though it's nominally about "the history and traditions of the hobby of role-playing" -- Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk -- it's also an invigorating meditation on aesthetics. Maliszewski is an adherent of the "old school" movement, which favors flexible, elegant gaming systems (the original D&D, circa 1974, a.k.a. OD&D, published in "little brown books") to those that pile on so many supplementary rules and tables that they begin to feel restrictive rather than prescriptive.

How many rules -- how many words -- do you need to create a world?

The same question could be asked of literature. Indeed, a session of a role-playing game, or RPG, with its emphasis on character and absence of winning or losing, often resembles a story, collaboratively generated by the players. Reading Maliszewski's lucid writing -- on vintage RPGs, unearthed Gygaxia, the literary DNA of D&D, and contemporary system-philosophy brouhahas -- is both a kick of nerdy nostalgia and a satisfying take on what it all means, even if you're someone (like me) who hasn't rolled a 12-sided die in ages.

If a rich, well-orchestrated RPG bears similarities to a work of fiction, what happens when a work of fiction is about an RPG? The answer, in the anthology "Gamer Fantastic" edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (DAW: 310 pp., $7.99), is something akin to vertigo. Despite the goofy cover (a kid giddily wielding a Nintendo handset, planet exploding in the background), "Gamer Fantastic" is more about this blurring between RPGs and reality than remote-control video mayhem. The brisk opener, Chris Pierson's "Escapism," manages a clever twist on the character of the first-person-shooter-obsessed teen, but most of the other 12 stories here involve significantly lower technology. As with writing stories, the games in question are primarily built of words -- albeit with oddly shaped dice thundering in the background.

I've always liked the bottomless pit of pages 112 through 114 in 1979's "Dungeon Master's Guide." Here, author Gary Gygax (the co-creator of D&D) suggests ways in which characters from D&D's swords-and-sorcery milieu might "time/space warp" to the Wild West (via Boot Hill, a game published by TSR, who also put out D&D) or to an irradiated dystopia of mutants and enigmatic technology (via TSR's Gamma World). Worlds within worlds!

Donald J. Bingle's "Gaming Circle" opens on a typical evening of tabletop adventuring, with social misfit Alex complaining about his life (dreary job, no girlfriend) to his fellow gamers. The next scene apparently translates these modern-day players into their game-world avatars -- a group of mammoth-hunting cavemen. But then the story jumps forward several millenniums (to a man in a space station, arguing with his food synthesizer), before going back a bit for a glimpse of a secret agent garotting her way through security. That these transitionless episodes are all parts of a single game is the story's rug-pulling conceit, and the final scene turns even the opening sequence on its head. The constantly changing scenery is a gimmick -- but one that illuminates the more profound gimmick of creating worlds out of words.

The prose throughout "Gamer Fantastic" is generally workmanlike, with some flashes of humor. It's fair to say that some interest in fantasy gaming, whether nostalgic or active, is a prerequisite for enjoying the collection -- as is an appetite for Möbius strip constructions of fantasy and reality. S.L. Farrell's "The Gods of Every Other Wednesday Night" proposes that the actions described in an RPG campaign might be an evening's entertainment for the players -- but wreak utter chaos for the inhabitants of the fantasy world in which the actions transpire. Orcs and dwarfs, who rub along OK in that world, are suddenly flung against each other in senseless, murderous combat once the gods -- the unseen gamers -- start rolling their dice.

Farrell's first-person voice is highly inflected with the second person, the way a DM (dungeon master, the one responsible for running the game) typically describes a situation to a player: "Oh, God, you think. More 'character development.' Get on with it already. You skip ahead a page." Farrell freely critiques his story as it unfurls, and somehow by downplaying it, he makes the scenario fresh and surprising.

As if these examples weren't vertiginous enough, a cluster of stories takes on the story of Dungeons & Dragons itself. Jody Lynne Nye's "Roles We Play" imagines that a psychoanalyst named Gerhard Ernest, a contemporary of Freud, devised a fantasy role-playing game with which to treat his patients. Their marked recovery (from the "black dog" of depression) does not sway Ernest's colleagues, alas, one of whom states: "But the game itself is insane. . . . Do not create greater freaks than you find." Faced with rejection by the scientific community, Ernest stops his game treatment -- though the cognoscenti will pick up that "Ernest" was the aforementioned Gary Gygax's first name (he sometimes went by "E. Gary Gygax"). And the promotion of RPGs as a mental health palliative is a jab at the hysteria that surrounded the hobby during its first decade, linking it to everything from devil worship to suicide. (Rona Jaffe's 1981 novel "Mazes and Monsters" -- later a TV movie starring Tom Hanks -- is the most memorable crystallization of public dread toward D&D.)

In Brian M. Thomsen's "You Forgot Whose Realm This Really Is!" a Gygaxian game designer (creator of "Famed Empire") gets ousted by the company that buys him out; his revenge is appropriately RPG-engineered. The collection's longest piece, Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Game Testing," perhaps comes closest to having a three-dimensional character. The down-and-out heroine, Jen DeAngelo, has never played an RPG before winding up in Lake Geneva, Wis. (the real birthplace of D&D), where she finds employment at a most unusual hobby shop. She already lives by some rules:

1. Stay until life became unbearable.

2. Get close to no one.

3. Stop wherever the car did.

4. Never live in the same state more than once.

If any of these stories might appeal to the nongamer, it might be Rusch's, because it's about an outsider to the culture, a woman whose learning curve is exactly the reader's own.

Park is an editor of the Believer and the author of "Personal Days," a novel. Astral Weeks appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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