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Return to the ‘Dungeon’

I was so young when I started playing “Dungeons & Dragons” that I assumed Gary Gygax, the game’s creator, wasn’t real -- just as I figured there’d never been a Walt Disney or burger chefs named McDonald. When I finally realized Gygax indeed lived in Lake Geneva, Wis., near the post office box address listed on every “D&D;” book, I pictured him in a mansion filled with piles of gold and women in metal bikinis. More insane, I deeply believed these outfits would be practical for swimming.

But when Gygax, who conducted a weekly game up until the end, died on Tuesday, he was not rich, despite my best efforts from fourth through eighth grade. And in part, I realize, that is my fault. Because unlike the paunchy, white-ponytailed Gygax, who was not afraid to let his geek flag fly, I have spent the last 20 years avoiding “D&D;” because I was ashamed. Gygax influenced my childhood more than any writer, filmmaker or teacher, and I turned my back on him. I am a traitor to my people. Luckily, they are among the few peoples I can beat up.

Sure, I talk about “D&D;” a lot, but it’s with defensive self-mockery, as if my nerdishness was some larva stage that I had cocooned out of. Into a butterfly of “Shaft"-like smoothness. That’s what a few TV appearances will fool you into thinking.

But this week, I had my old “D&D;” books sent to me, and proudly put them on my bookshelves. Paging through them, I realized they are the best books I own: detailed, weird, creative, smart, funny -- encyclopedic lists of rules for spells, monsters, gods, weapons, trade and career advancement. “D&D;” exceeded any single mythology; it embraced Camelot’s knights, Dante’s devils, dinosaurs and the Yeti. And I still think the line-drawing of the succubus is totally hot.

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But reclaiming my “D&D;” pride is not going to be an easy process.

As soon as I started reading Gygax’s fantastical compendiums as a kid, I realized how mundane non-gamers’ lives were. They lived in flat world, where all the dice had only six sides. We had imagination and a leader who never talked down to us, even if he did sound like Yoda. “This work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another,” Gygax wrote in “The Dungeon Master’s Guide.” “Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from ‘on high’ as respects your game.” My “D&D;” friends and I loved his hippie-geek insanity. We were mixing theater with math and debate and other after-school activities that didn’t involve helping people in the community. That was for nerds.

The game allowed you to navigate the mayhem of adolescence through fantasy -- perhaps even including the kind that might lead a boy, just for a little while, to play a female character. “That’s cool, right? She’s like a half-elf, like a hot half-elf, just to mix it up. And she’s got spells. And a flagon of mead. In case anyone is interested in that.” Usually, though I was a magic-user. I was such a nerd that my nerd fantasy was simply to be an even bigger nerd.

But the true thrill of the game was that it made you feel smart. You constantly had to consult actuarial tables in the back of the dozens of “D&D;” books to determine the results of a battle, convert currency or figure out how many kilograms your character could carry. Everything was documented in such detail that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, Gygax had left survivors a complete guide to replicate society. A society like a Renaissance Faire.

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Gygax also expanded my vocabulary, though many of the words meant the same thing. Wench, courtesan, harlot, strumpet -- all interesting townspeople a nice preteen Paladin could meet.

The thing is, I didn’t meet many townspeople. Like most “D&D;” players, I read the books, learned the rules, created tons of characters, mapped out dungeons, even subscribed to Dragon magazine -- but I almost never played the actual game. Because -- as I was reminded in 2003 when I played it with Elijah Wood of “Lord of the Rings” -- the game itself sucks. It’s slow and silly and entails an endless amount of prodding by the Dungeon Master to force players to step into the traps he spent all weekend devising -- but that will, of course, not kill your favorite character because if it did you’d never play with him again.

“Wasn’t someone always saying, ‘No, seriously, guys’ the whole time? ... And then someone would get mad,” said Matt Selman, who writes the Nerd World blog for time.com, when we started to reminisce.

Exactly. We didn’t spend our time playing as much as fantasizing about playing in a fantasy world. Which is why “Dungeons & Dragons” is the best game ever invented. I’m pretty sure Gygax knew that. And I bet he knew that someday I’d grow up enough to put his books back on my shelf.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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