Dungeons and Dragons and Historical Memory

Just the other day I read a fascinating article about the enduring significance of Dungeons and Dragons. Writing for the Online Library of Law and Liberty, author James Poulos argues that it’s not just the way that D&D engages your imagination that makes it so important, but the fact that it connects players with the myths and archetypes of our past.

The reality is that D&D depends even more on memory—the living memory of the archetypes, traditions, cultures, and anthropological preoccupations of inherited myth and experience, as well as the particular in-game memories of the players building personal and relational quest narratives—than it is on imagination. I believe the evidence is plain, given the way that online life has first commodified and then disenchanted imagination, that the return of D&D to a place of prominence as a national pastime has to do with its welcoming function as a safe yet inspiring access point to the personal, relational, and distinctly (if not exhaustively) Western retrieval of individual and collective memory.

As someone who has played a two-year D&D campaign, I believe Poulos is onto something. The reason I first got into the game was to use my imagination to go on Tolkien-esque quests, and to get ideas for fantasy fiction stories I would like to write one day. I achieved both of these goals: D&D is a wellspring of inspiration for fantasy writers, and an excellent narrative testing ground for anyone brave enough to try their hand at being a Dungeon Master. But looking back I can also see how the game allowed me and my friends to encounter our mythical western roots.

Source: Dungeon Master’s Screen

I was not very good at the game, as my fellow dungeon crawlers would tell you. When I should’ve studied the Player’s Handbook in advance of our Sunday night sessions, I was often doing a grad school assignment. The result was that I usually made poor choices during combat and was a lackluster problem solver when facing puzzles or riddles on our adventures. Still, the game granted all of us a refreshing break from the grind of life, and an escape from our modern tendency towards disenchantment and the reduction of everything to Procustean problems with scientific solutions. As Poulos puts it, “To open the game’s manual of monsters and adversaries is to see spread out before you characters and themes almost as old as our historical memory itself.”

Despite my mediocre performance I was good for at least one thing: writing down the funny things people said. Originally I compiled the best quotes and posted them to our campaign’s Facebook group, but Poulos’ article inspired me to share them here for a broader audience. Hope you enjoy!

Notes: I edited some of the lines for the sake of clarity, and I used character names instead of the names of the players for the sake of anonymity. DM = Dungeon Master. And there are some *ahem* adult themes and minor vulgarity. You have been warned.

Context: A character named Lynn activates her spider cloak in order to walk up a ceiling and talk to some minotaurs that the party encountered in a dungeon.

Lynn (waves to the minotaurs): How.

Minotaur Leader: How … what?

Lynn: How … do you do?

Minotaur: Well, mostly we piss on the ground and eat rats and… wait, hey! Who the hell are you?

Lynn: I’m a wandering adventurer.

Minotaur: Well get down because we have to kill you.

Lynn: Why?

Minotaur: Because someone told us to kill whoever comes in this room.

Lynn: Where’s the fun in that?

Minotaur: It’s a lot of fun, actually.

Lynn: But does anyone come here often?

Minotaur (leans on his axe, strokes chin): No, not really. Now that you mention it… (turns to other guards) Has anyone come here before? (They shrug, and the guard turns back to Lynn.) You’re the first one in hundreds of years.

Lynn: See what I mean? Sounds boring.

Minotaur: I suppose you’re—curse you! We will kill you!

Lynn: But I’m on the ceiling.

Minotaur (points at his wings): I have wings, bitch!

Lynn: Wings take work. I don’t even have wings and I’m just chilling here. My powerful cloak is better.

Minotaur: Hmmm. You do have a nice cloak.

Lynn: Thank you.

Minotaur: You may pass if you give us your cloak.

Lynn: Uhhh, nope, you’re gonna have to die. Lightning bolt!

Context: Thanatos the Rogue encounters a Beholder, one of the most hideous monsters in the D&D mythos.

Thanatos: I was almost turned to stone, turned to dust, eaten alive … What else? Like will save, will save, fort save, will save, will save. What is my biggest f***ing weakness in the whole entire game? (Turns to DM) F***. YOU. (Turns back to game) I bolt as fast as I f***ing can in the opposite direction, chugging a cure serious, throwing a net behind me, flying with my bat cloak, clinging to my shield, shrieking in fear.

Context: The party encounters something very strange in the dungeons below a place called Geran Castle.

DM: You see a polar bear with golden eyes and wings, fighting a floating shark.

Morena (incredulous): Really?

DM: I assumed everyone would be drunk or high by this point in the game.

Context: Thanatos the Rogue scoffs at Rowan the Cleric before a fight. (For the uninitiated, the role of clerics is typically to cure the party’s wounds.)

Thanatos to Rowan: What are you going to do, heal it to death?

Context: Sexism. 

Lynn: Do you have a cooking profession? Because I made a 21 woman check.

Context: A cleverly-worded statement of distrust between two players who were always at odds with one another.

Player 1 to Player 2: I can tell you’re lying because your lips are moving.

Context: The King of Bailey explains why he chose a warrior named Aja, a Kensai, to be one of his guards.

Rowan (asking about Aja): And *he’s* you’re knight?

King: He’s good with an axe. And he’s from China. He makes us look like an equal opportunity employer.

Context: An anti-climactic encounter with an iron door.

DM: You approach a great iron door!

(Party feels somewhat cautious and nervous)

Thanatos: I attempt to open it.

DM: It does not open!

Rowan: Careful! It must be magical. Or it could be rigged with a trap!

Thanatos: 29 lock pick check.

DM: It opens!

Context: Dragon Protection Society, anyone?

Player 1 (approaches a store clerk to buy special weapons against dragons): I need a dragonbane arrow, dragonbane longsword, and three potions of cure serious wounds.

Clerk: I suppose this would be a bad time to ask you to join the Dragon Protection Society? They’re becoming an increasingly endangered species, and they really are such meek and gentle creatures.

Context: The DM gets angry at Rowan.

DM: Oh, yeah? Well a troll shows up and eats your horse!

Rowan: I don’t have a horse.

DM: Well then minus ten horse points!

Context: Morena the paladin hopes she doesn’t start rolling dice as poorly as another player.

Morena: I don’t want to be the new Rowan! I like rolling high!

Context: Noob sarcastically wonder whether there’s such a thing as a “sex” skill. 

Noob (looking over character sheet): Where’s my sex skill?

DM: It’s not a skill. It’s stamina plus dexterity plus experience.

Context: The ubiquitous loin cloth.

DM: You are naked, except for a loin cloth that seems to permeate all RPGs.

Context: The rogue Thanatos lights a fire in a dark tunnel.

Thanatos: Can I carry the fire?

Context: The DM passionately cries out against a player who gets his terms wrong.

DM: He’s not an outsider! Stop metagaming and stop being wrong.