Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life): Ethan Gilsdorf at TEDxPiscataquaRiver (Transcript)

Ethan Gilsdorf – American writer

Who do you want to be? A brave dwarvish warrior, a wizard who can cast spells an elf who is skilled in the art of archery or a stealthy hobbit thief? You are a member of a team of adventurers! And your quest is to rescue a prince who is last seen near the ruins of an abandoned castle. As you approach the castle, you see up ahead of you a creature 9 feet tall, green and grumbling and holding in its hands a massive axe! It’s a troll. And it’s chained to the entrance gate to the castle.

What do you do? Do you rush and attack? Do you shoot it from afar with arrows or blast it with a magic fireball? Perhaps you sneak around and try to find another way into the castle. Or something else. What do you do?

Hi, my name is Ethan and I’ll be your dungeon master for the next 15 minutes. If I could just ask you to put that scenario with the troll aside for a moment, we’ll return to that later. I want to tell you a different story. I want to tell you a story about why our journey into the world of fantasy can help you navigate the real world.

So, I grew up around here in the seacoast area of New Hampshire in the 1970’s, and like a lot of kids during those times I played a lot of board games. Let’s see, there was Risk, Stratego, Battleship, Clue Sorry, Monopoly and they were good. But then in 1974, along came a new game a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Also known as D&D. It was a game that changed everything. D&D introduced to the planet, rules for fantasy role-playing. And I want to remind you, this is a time long long ago before video games like Minecraft or World of Warcraft. Before cell phones, before the internet, before Star Wars, before twerking.

And when I was 12 in 1979, when I was first introduced to this game it blew my mind, and me and my buddies, we played it a lot. These are some stills from an actual home movie that I shot in 1981 of me and my buddies playing D&D and the stills you’ll see here will give you some idea of how the game is played. You will see on the table in front of the players assembled some rules books with names like The Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. There are maps, and pieces of paper and pencils. There are lots of dice, strange polyhedral dice. And when you roll them, what you roll determines the outcome of your success or failure in the game. There’s also Mountain Dew and Doritos. Important provisions for you on your quest.

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Now, you’ll notice that while there is a table there and this is technically a board game there is no board, OK. This game is played in the imagination. And the way you play it is each person around the table assumes the role of a character. And each character has skills and attributes which are represented by numbers. So, you might have 16 strengths, pretty good 3 charisma, hmm not so good. And one player, known as the Dungeon Master or the DM; it’s kind of the referee, the God the creator, the world builder. And sets the scenario into motion, and when you play you describe to your fellow players what you’re going to do so you might say something like “I ask the bartender when was the last time she saw the prince.”

Or “I rush it the troll with my Warhammer and try to smash its skull.” So, as a group, you tell the story together. And best of all, no one knows what happens next.

Now I know what you’re thinking. D&D and other role-playing games also known as RPGs are make-believe, it’s pretend. Fantasy games are for nerds! And dweebs and geeks and dorks! And guys, let’s face it, mostly guys who can’t get a date and live in their parents’ basement and have to escape the real world. Am I right? Well, maybe not. What do all these people have in common? What a bunch of losers!

It turns out that all these cool, weird smart people, all cut their creative teeth on role-playing games. And Dungeons & Dragons. Fantasy games impacted their lives in incredible ways. So maybe these games aren’t a waste of time. Maybe they don’t warp your social skills. Maybe they can be good for you.

Now, as a kid at the time, I was dealing with my own monsters. The same year that I learned to play Dungeons & Dragons in 1979 this woman, my mother was stricken down by a crippling brain aneurysm which left her physically and mentally and emotionally disabled. She was unpredictable, she did strange things and as a kid I was scared. I was already a hopeless introvert and this situation made me feel even more powerless. As if my world had been turned upside down. As if, I was trapped in the maze of my own adolescence. And so these games allowed me to escape my fears. And to enter into a fantasy world where I could be someone else. Someone with power, someone with control, someone with agency.

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And I played these games obsessively through my childhood and then I stopped. And then 25 years later, I began to play again as a 40 something more or less grown up adult male and I realized something. These games were important. These games shaped me, these games gave me incredible tools, a coping mechanism to deal with my situation at the time. These games are powerful. But fantasy role-playing games can benefit anyone.

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