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Astral Weeks: In D & D we trust

How RPGs -- role-playing games -- have much in common with fiction, as the stories of 'Gamer Fantastic' attest.

January 24, 2010|By Ed Park

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

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