For Weekly SurgeJanuary 29, 2014 

It was 1979. Anthony Hannon was eight-years-old and living in New York when he got a gift that permanently changed his idea of what it meant to play.

It came in a red box. It was not G.I. Joe, or Matchbox cars, or one of the era’s fledgling computer games such as Simon or Mattel Electronic Football.

This was a game to be played with paper, something to write with, a few dice and his imagination.

Hannon’s uncle had given him the basic starter set for the iconic role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

“My uncle gave it to me because he really was the one who wanted to play it, and I ended up teaching him how to play,” Hannon said. “And I’ve been involved with the game on and off ever since.”

The Socastee resident’s love for role-playing games, an activity based around the simple act of telling a story, was sparked by that first introduction to Dungeons and Dragons. It’s an activity he still enjoys 35 years later, at age 43, and it’s also how he makes a living. Hannon is the manager of White Widow Games, a gaming store and activity center in Socastee that has become one of the Grand Strand hubs for all things Dungeons and Dragons. There, fledgling players can still pick up a starter set much like the one Hannon was given.

And even though we’ve entered an era when what most people think of gaming as something done on video screens, Dungeons and Dragons is still going strong.

The role-playing game turns 40 this month and, despite ups and downs like everything else, shows no sign of losing popularity. Groups of players still get together worldwide – and around the Myrtle Beach area -- to delve into the gaming system’s rich, seemingly endless labyrinth of possibilities.

Staying old school

What makes the game different in this day and age, devotees say, is its distinct old-school, D-I-Y vibe. There’s no sitting in front of a computer screen waging battle for hours on end with nameless, faceless folks from halfway across the globe ala World of Warcraft. There are no fancy hand-held controls or game consoles that cost hundreds of dollars.

D&D, in fact, might be one of the most wallet-friendly hobbies for difficult economic times.

A good basic starter set for the game, for instance, can be purchased for about $20, and a set of the three basic gaming books goes for about $75, said Steve Haines, 43, manager of X-Con Comics on Main Street in Myrtle Beach, which offers a basic line of D&D products, including a recently released set of 40th anniversary books.

“Dungeons and Dragons has lasted so long because it allows each person a chance to break out of their own persona on a daily basis, your job and life and everything else,” said Myrtle Beach resident Darren Miller, 43, who started playing D&D in 1982. “You get to be a hero if you want to, slay dragons if you want to. There’s nothing else like it as far as hobbies go.”

A little Dungeon history

The elves, warriors, trolls, wizards and monsters of Dungeons and Dragons all emerged from the minds Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, both since deceased, who developed the game and released it sometime during late January in 1974, although hard-core researchers have never been able to determine the exact date.

D&D grew out of an older tradition of diminutive war games which involved intricate networks of miniatures and military strategies. Its initial rule system, in fact, was based on one of these games called Chainmail. What Gygax and Arneson did differently was to shrink the huge battles of the old war games into a more personalized heroic fantasy realm, with each player assigned their own character to develop and play with according to their own imaginations.

D&D, as it’s known for short, has taken on a life of its own. Dungeons and Dragons’ tabletop brand of gaming, functioning around small groups that use the game’s basic guidelines to create their own stories, is widely considered to be the model for all other modern role-playing games.

Like everything else, D&D has grown and changed through the years. The original company, TSR Games, was purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. New editions of the gaming system have been released periodically. The most recent, the fourth edition, came out in June 2008 to decidedly mixed reviews, especially from veteran players who feel the original strengths of the game have been watered down through the years to make it more “kid-friendly.”

“Starting in the early ‘90s, they changed a lot of stuff and have really started to aim it more to the kids, taking out a lot of the monsters, changing a lot of the artwork,” Miller said. “The later editions really have alienated a lot of the long-term players and split the fan base.”

Game enthusiasts now are hoping some of those glitches will be reversed and redeemed when the game’s wildly anticipated next edition is released this summer.

The critics haven’t stopped D&D from remaining at the top of the role-playing industry, however. These days players can not only play the traditional way, but also expand their D&D experience through board games, video games and an ever-growing pantheon of fiction centered around the game. Much of this material can be found at the game’s central Web site

And, of course, D&D couldn’t have been around so long without plenty of other people trying to cash in on variations of the game’s fantasy world. Starting with a 2000 flick of the same name, a trio of films based on the game has generally been dismissed as a series of real stinkers. D&D also spawned an animated series that ran in the 1980s.

Also, like everything else, D&D has spawned its share of controversies. During its first 20 years of existence, some claimed the game caused people to become addicted and lose touch with reality, and even blamed the game for a couple of homicides. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, when something of a satanic panic took over many conservative religious circles in the U.S., the game was widely panned by parents, pastors and others who said it was the devil’s work because of the violence and monsters used in many storylines, as well as the use of spells, incantations and other forms of magic optional for characters to use.

Miller has an especially vivid memory of when the church ladies interfered with his gaming life. He had moved to the area from New Jersey and was dungeon master for a D&D group at Lakewood Elementary School. The kids more than once had to scrape together money to help one of their buddies buy a new set of gaming books after his mother burned all of his.

Dungeon Basics

In a world with ever more elaborate technology emerging daily, where video games have graphics that rival photographs and every Smartphone can do triple duty as a game console, video camera, and movie theater, Dungeons and Dragons is deceptively, almost laughably simple.

Equipment? All you really need to begin a game group are the basic rulebooks, some paper and something to write with, and a set of dice.

Yep, that’s it.

Most people probably have a basic idea of how the game works, but if you have been living under a rock with a misplaced troll or orc for the past 40 years, here’s what happens.

Each player begins by choosing their own character and mapping out his or her skills and characteristics on a character sheet. You can pick your character’s species (human, elf, etc.), occupation, moral alignment, powers and skills. Character selection, for many players, is one of the most liberating parts of the game. You might be a grocery store clerk or a movie usher in real life, but in D&D you can end up as a druid, a ranger or an assassin.

One player is the Dungeon Master. This is the person who basically runs the entire story and decides what will be the result of each character’s chosen actions.

During the game, often called a campaign, players respond to the ongoing storyline by telling the master how their character will respond to a specific crisis or situation. The DM, in turn, determines whether or not the character succeeds, usually by rolling dice.

Another thing about Dungeons and Dragons characters that make them so much fun is that in many cases, they can be essentially immortal. Head chomped off by a particularly nasty monster? Incinerated by a dragon? Depending on how your game is going, there may be resurrection spells and other reanimation possibilities available to you. If not, it’s always possible to get out the character sheets and start all over with a new identity, something that unfortunately can’t be done in real life unless you qualify for the Witness Protection Program.

The charm of D&D is, as noted above, its simplicity. Beside the basic materials, all that’s needed is a basic, flat surface to set out the papers and dice.

White Widow Games in Socastee , for instance, offers the perfect set up for D&D-style gaming. Walk in the door and you see a room full of long tables with chairs sitting around them. There’s a video game console on one wall and gaming books and accessories for sale along another wall, and at a counter in the back. But to know anything about the joy of Dungeons and Dragons, you have to realize that the tables are the main thing. That’s where people who show up for the store’s weekly D&D sessions on Sundays gather to play. No frills, no difficult equipment to set up. Just a table and the players.

“The good thing about D&D is that if you’re interested in playing, all you really have to do is show up, watch a game, learn a little and then start playing,” Hannon said.

X-Con’s Haines said the game is also appealing because it engages players on so many levels and offers so many choices.

“You don’t just plug in and go,” Haines said. “Dungeon masters put a lot of work into their stories. Some people fill reams and reams of notebooks with ideas. Other people who use miniatures will spend hours painting them to make them look nice. There really isn’t an end to what you can do with this hobby. It’s all up to the player.”

It’s more than just elves, dice and dragons

The main goal of playing Dungeons and Dragons is like every other game – to have fun. But dedicated players say another reason the game has lasted so long is because it offers some tangible benefits that last way beyond the latest campaign.

For one thing, D&D demands that players learn how to work with other people, develop storytelling and narrative skills, and nurture their imagination. No player is successful – and face it, their character won’t survive very long – if they simply sit at the gaming table, don’t say anything and don’t come up with an original way to use their skills or find a way out of the latest encounter with a particularly nasty orc.

“The game is an imagination engine, it demands creativity,” said Ryne Martin, 24, who plays various role-playing systems at White Widow but started with Dungeons and Dragons.

Communication – good old fashioned talking to each other – is also central to the game. It’s a skill that you may have noticed is lacking in some people these days, particularly teens and 20-somethings who have spent most of their time talking to others through keyboards and computer screens. If you play D&D in the real world, you have to be able to talk to people, even if you don’t say much.

Role-playing games can help draw players out of their shells. Hannon said he knows more than a few teenagers who would hang out at his shop but rarely say anything until they became involved with a gaming group.

“Before I started playing I was a very shy person, I couldn’t talk to anyone, and now I can strike up a conversation with anyone,” said Linda Landgraff, 23, of Conway. “I remember I was in Nashville (Tenn.) last October and I started talking with a couple who was just sitting next to me. I never would have been able to do that before.”

Miller also brought up another key thing about the D&D experience. For many players, then and now, the game and its world of never-ending storytelling can be a much-needed, treasured haven from everyday problems large and small.

For Miller, it sheltered him from a sibling’s problems.

“When I was a teenager, my brother was schizophrenic and this made growing up in my house pretty difficult,” he said. “Dungeons and Dragons really gave me a safe place during those years. My dad bought me a 17-foot travel trailer that my gaming group and I fixed up. It was parked in our backyard and became our gaming location of choice. Playing D&D out there was my escape from my brother’s illness.”

Where are all the warrior women at?

No matter where you go to play Dungeons and Dragons, whether it’s at somebody’s house, a gaming store, or a convention, there’s probably going to be one thing you notice immediately: a distinct lack of estrogen.

The world of role playing games, particularly D&D, is notorious for being mainly a male stronghold. That’s not completely unusual. Other hobbies and fandoms, ranging from Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings, for years have been known as virtual man-caves, although that has changed in recent years as more women get into the various movies and involved through the Internet and social media. Women have also become more active in role-playing games with the rise of online gaming. Face-to-face D&D playing, where you still sit around the table and roll the dice, however, still is mainly a bro thing.

Not always, however. Female players exist, and they’re dedicated. Hannon said the weekly gaming sessions at White Widow attract a small, dedicated group of women. There are Web sites run by and for women gamers, and even books dedicated to the topic.

Landgraff got into the game about three years ago because her boyfriend regularly played with some friends. She quickly got hooked and now plays every Tuesday and Wednesday with a group of eight that includes three other women.

“My favorite character to play is an elf wizard, but I’ve also enjoyed being a druid and I’ve been a rogue,” Landgraff said. “It really doesn’t matter to me what race my character is because they all have their own benefits and uniqueness about them.”

Like many players, Landgraff stays with the game because it gives her an escape from the daily grind and a chance to get herself into and out of situations she’d never encounter in real life.

Being a woman can be hard enough in that real life, and she acknowledges it’s sometimes daunting for females to enter the world of role-playing, no matter how much the story lines or action might appeal to them.

“Just go with your gut,” she said. “It is intimidating sometimes to walk into a gaming store, for instance, because there are usually always guys in there. But a lot of these guys are thrilled that a female wants to play. Have confidence and go with it because you never know what you’re going to produce. I used to say I’ll never play D&D, but now I’ll never quit. When I have my own kids I’ll still be playing.”

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