D&D for Me and for Thee

by Maria on February 19, 2016

I went to a conversation the other night. It was between David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro and the approximately two thousand people watching them.

David Mitchell said he always asks other writers whether they played Dungeons and Dragons as teenagers. He keeps a mental list of writers who did and who didn’t. He played D&D himself (surprise!) and feels a certain bond with other writers who did.

Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. And also, he is that kind of very straight writer who conjures a pinch of the clothes peg when dabbling in ‘genre’. (That said, he came across as a lovely man, and one who has come carefully to terms with his necessary public persona.)

But, guess what, according to David Mitchell, Michael Chabon not only played D&D but was a dungeon master to boot. I wonder what other contemporary writers played D&D or who *must* have done? It would make me like them a little more, too.



Snarki, child of Loki 02.19.16 at 6:52 pm

“I wonder what other contemporary writers played D&D or who must have done? It would make me like them a little more, too.”

Except if they were one of those snooty lawful-good Elf Paladins, in which case, f’em.


D Franklin 02.19.16 at 7:07 pm

The obvious name to conjure with here is, of course, China Mieville, who has a whole riff about adventuring parties in Perdido Street Station… but he’s very much a genre writer, even if arguably one with crossover into the mainstream (especially with This Census-Taker), so perhaps doesn’t count, since it’s so widely spread amongst genre writers.


Eskimo 02.19.16 at 7:46 pm

Depending on the decade and the degree of computerization, D+D is either a charmingly nerdy hobby or a dangerously addictive drug.
In elementary school (1970s and 1980s), I liked to read the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual, Dragon magazine etc. But it seemed the kids I knew did not have the patience or attention span to play D+D for more than about 10 minutes without it veering off into “my character has super powers and wins everything.”
Then at university (1990s), I met people who were capable of spending all night playing D+D the right way, and enjoyed it. My ten year old self would have loved to join them. But at that point, I preferred to play guitar rather than nerd out.
After graduate school, I discovered a “multiple user dungeon”. Wrecked my career. But the point is: you don’t have to be in the same room or country with the other people playing. And the computerized structure made sure the rules were followed, although lots of players tried to cheat anyway.


Blanche Davidian 02.19.16 at 7:59 pm

I’m a year older than Ishiguro and my friends and I were into the game in a very big way around 1980 and thereafter. I was generally the DM, but I wasn’t working on my Master’s in creative writing at that time. I wouldn’t hold a thing against Ishiguro for not having played, nor would the fact that someone had played mean more to me than that he or she might have a laugh at some inside jokes about the game. I burned out on the game when it became like performing a play with different ad libs every session. As a result, I have no use for role players in the MMOs I’ve been playing for the last ten years.


David W. 02.19.16 at 8:11 pm

Steven Brust was a dungeon master back in the day, and his Jhereg/Vlad Taltos books have tabletop gaming influences.


Russell Arben Fox 02.19.16 at 8:11 pm

Like Blanche, I was into Dungeons & Dragons pretty heavily by the early 1980s, even though I was only 12+ years old at the time. At conventions I met tons of folks that were 10-15 years older than me, and had caught the bug only a few years before I did as an adolescent, so I really don’t think the “wrong generation” argument gets Ishiguro off the hook.


Gary Othic 02.19.16 at 8:20 pm

I was the wrong generation (on the other side) for D&D. But on this subject I think it’ll be interesting to see, with a new generation of writers, how many of the literary ones fess up to having played computer games and/or being massive Pokemon fans when they were young.


Neville Morley 02.19.16 at 9:06 pm

I would have much greater trust in those who played Runequest (far superior system), Traveller (before all the idiotic military super-hardware supplements) or above all Call of Cthulhu (unimaginative, hyperaggressive players die very early).


Lawrence 02.19.16 at 9:22 pm

@Neville Morley
The Traveler supplements you didn’t like, were those Mercenary and High Guard or the whole 2300 AD expansion? I never played the latter, and quite liked the former.


Dylwah 02.19.16 at 9:30 pm

Ta Nehisi Coates played a lot of D&D


Neville Morley 02.19.16 at 9:43 pm

And, yes, the distinction between dungeon masters (or equivalent) and mere players is highly significant.


Rich Puchalsky 02.19.16 at 9:47 pm

It’s TV rather than written, but the pop culture influenced most obviously by D&D is Adventure Time.


Martin Schafer 02.19.16 at 10:04 pm

I think we should be clear that when D & D is being used for the whole class of f/sf role playing games. Steven Brust and Pat Wrede were both DMs and rolled their own systems. John M Ford DMed and we mostly played Gurps. I played a few times in MAR Barker’s EPT campaign. Kara Dalkey, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull all participated at least briefly. I haven’t played with him but Bruce Schneier has an annual D & D retreat with his old college gaming group.


Phil 02.19.16 at 11:57 pm

I don’t see that Ishiguro is too old, necessarily – he’s six years older than me, and I knew D&D players at university – and I don’t think it’s a clothes-peg he applies to deal with SF, fantasy and horror; in fact I think he’s a much weirder writer than he’s given credit for. He does dine with a long spoon, though.


John Holbo 02.20.16 at 12:09 am

I am a famous writer who played a ton of D&D. (Except for that first part.)


Kresling 02.20.16 at 12:21 am

Loads of D&D vocabulary eventually appeared on my SAT’s. Thank you, Gary Gygax.


Josh Lukin 02.20.16 at 12:54 am

Saladin Ahmed. Definitely Saladin Ahmed.


Charlie Stross 02.20.16 at 12:58 am

Me! (Old-school 1st edition Basic D&D, and AD&D as the manuals came out.)

Oh, and my first professional publications? You can still find them in old copies of The Fiend Folio. (Player, DM, and monster designer.)


Jonathan 02.20.16 at 1:36 am

I personally make references to the Slaadi and Githyanki once or twice per week, so thank you.


Sean 02.20.16 at 6:39 am

I never played DnD because I didn’t have friends, but I did read the 2nd edition core rule books multiple times. Occasionally I would sit alone in my room imagining that I was DnD player imagining that he was a gnome.


Meredith 02.20.16 at 7:07 am

This is all way past me. I just read (present and simple past, both, still) lots of books. And road my bike in places my parents told me not to go and played with friends free range (wish I could play with spelling to continue the present and simple past game, but that game goes on anyway). Sometimes I even watched TV. Limited my children’s watching it, best I could, but otherwise they were pretty free-range — I mean, outside the door, near no electronics. Neither of them (in their thirties) is into this stuff. Though they are into much I do not fathom, they have no time for all this. The bottoms of my trousers are rolled, I guess, but I am glad they have other interests than this. Sorry to be contrary here, Maria!


Bruce B. 02.20.16 at 8:27 am

Scott Lynch, and I believe also Elizabeth Bear.

George R.R. Martin, of course, and a bunch of other New Mexico sf/f/h writers. Wild Cards was famously born as a tabletop campaign; The Expanse was also, though less famously so.


Charles S 02.20.16 at 10:03 am

Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie are also D&D players. I’d be surprised if Charles Yu hasn’t played D&D, although I suppose its possible he may have only played CRPGs or MPORGs.


Adam Roberts 02.20.16 at 10:26 am

I never played D&D but at university I played a ton of Star Fleet Battles, which is a D&D-style game only SF, set in the Star Trek universe. And, I daresay, infra dig for true D&Ders.


John Holbo 02.20.16 at 10:50 am

“I played a ton of Star Fleet Battles”

Star Fleet Battles!

Man, the memories.


Maria 02.20.16 at 12:30 pm

I stand corrected on the generation(s) you needed to be part of to play D&D.

So many great names here! And what a thrill that CT stalwarts Charlie Stross and Adam Roberts were – of course – RPG players.

Meredith, the free-range experience of the Farrell household in the Tipperary countryside gave way by our teens to a serious D&D habit led, of course, by one able DM Henry. When he sent away for 12-sided and upward die (that’s when I learnt the plural of dice) I seriously thought it would be a repeat of the sea monkeys fiasco. i.e .that they couldn’t possibly be real. It blew my mind when they arrived. Henry was a great DM, mainly because he favoured me over my younger brother Remy, who always seemed to get beset by orcs and the like, no matter which way the dice rolled. Good times.

Actually, all this has reminded me that a short story I wrote a few years ago got long and then short-listed in a competition David Mitchell was judging. The few weeks that passed in between long and short were weirdly thrilling. I would go around thinking, he could be reading my story NOW. Or NOW. I didn’t win. Clearly should have played more D&D.


AcademicLurker 02.20.16 at 1:38 pm

Definitely played D&D, Call of Cthulhu*, Traveller, and other more obscure games from about middle school through college. Although we also had the free range experience Meredith describes in 21.

I’m pleased to know that John M. Ford was a DM. The Dragon Waiting is a great piece of historic fantasy which I shamelessly stole from when DMing one of my own games.

*I first discovered Lovecraft through that game. I wonder how many people that’s true for?


marcel proust 02.20.16 at 1:42 pm

Maria: The vocabulary lesson seems not to have stuck: that’s when I learnt the plural of dice. I think you mean “that’s when you learnt the singular of dice”… unless you are refering to a vegematic and “dices”.


Maria 02.20.16 at 1:48 pm

Ah, as in ‘the die is cast’. Blush. Thanks, Marcel.


Gary Othic 02.20.16 at 3:14 pm


“Henry was a great DM, mainly because he favoured me over my younger brother Remy, who always seemed to get beset by orcs and the like”

Ah, sibling rivalries, you can’t beat them ;)


Grad Sockpuppet 02.20.16 at 5:44 pm

Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont.

Unfortunately, their work is a little *too* close to D&D, in the end.


Barry Freed 02.20.16 at 5:48 pm

Neville Morley @8. Seconding his evaluation of RuneQuest, a much superior system indeed with a far richer world as a backdrop. So few seemed to have played it though. Also played a lot of Call of Cthulhu but never played Traveller.


Peter Erwin 02.20.16 at 9:24 pm

There are also cases of writers who wrote RPG material as well as just playing it. John M Ford is the most prominent example, I think (given how much he wrote), but China Miéville has contributed to at least one Pathfinder supplement, and Walter Jon Williams wrote a swashbuckling/pirate RPG back in the 1980s. (And there’s Charles Stross, of course.)

(Personal experience: D&D, Traveller, TFT, and GURPS…)


Henry Farrell 02.20.16 at 9:38 pm

John M. Ford as DM must have been a wonderful experience.

Charlie – which creatures were you responsible for? (we played from Fiend Folio back in the day).

I’m not surprised at Chabon – he’s very evidently One of Us (Gentlemen of the Road is a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tribute thinly disguised as a historical novel)


Anderson 02.20.16 at 10:52 pm

Wikipedia of course has a list of notable D&D players. Because, Wikipedia.

I (non-notable) have DM’d more than played, but that’s been 20 years ago. If I could find some interested folks, I’d figure out how to make the time. If you don’t have at least 4-6 hours at a stretch, don’t bother, is how D&D rolls (heh).


Anderson 02.20.16 at 10:54 pm

34: okay, gotta check out GOTR now, thx!


Anderson 02.20.16 at 10:57 pm

Respectfully, I’ve played Star Fleet Battles, and it isn’t D&D-like at all. It’s a wargame with starships from Star Trek (never could figure out the copyright angle).

D&D is a role-playing game where players play the roles of adventuring characters and a DM (dungeon master, hence the urge to abbreviate – “game master” in similar games) plays the roles of everyone they meet.



mds 02.21.16 at 3:47 am


Remember, Anderson, CT doesn’t use Gravatar, so this is somewhat cryptic without an accompanying picture of Vaarsuvius.


MilitantlyAardvark 02.21.16 at 4:19 am

“Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. ”

Gary Gygax: born 1938
Kazuo Ishiguro: born 1954.

Clearly, Gary Gygax was much too old to have had anything to do with this D&D stuff.


David Jensen 02.21.16 at 4:57 am

Never heard of it? What is he, a 100? And in that case he wasn’t (clearly he actually wasn’t) paying attention or has severe memory loss.


Adam Roberts 02.21.16 at 7:55 am

Anderson @37: there was much more to SFB than just the spaceship-battles (fun though those were). We played with a de facto dungeon master who plotted out adventures: there were long interludes on various planets, exploring long-ruined cities, recovering vital crystals etc. Or maybe we played an idiosyncratic version of the game.


Peter Erwin 02.21.16 at 2:47 pm

@Adam Roberts,

Anderson is correct that Star Fleet Battles was (originally, at least) a purely a spaceship-battles boardgame, using a late-1970s license that has apparently remained valid (but which means that they can’t refer to anything from Star Trek later than the Animated Series). I’m amused by the story in the Wikipedia article which says that inspiration was a guy playing a WWI naval boardgame (“Jutland”) when a Star Trek rerun came on TV…

There was a fully fledged role-playing game in the same setting (the “Star Fleet Universe”) called Prime Directive, which appeared in 1993. But if you were at university before then, it sounds like you were playing something made up by your DM — possible combining SFB with one of the “official” Star Trek RPGs — which impresses me more than a little.


Ronan(rf) 02.21.16 at 7:21 pm

Interesting . I never played it, but also like kazou Ishiguro more than I do chabon, Coates or Mitchell (although I don’t dislike the other three). I think this is a result of a cognitive disposition towards an aristocratic mindset. There’s nothing more noble than pottering around the big house as per Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson IMO .


Adam Roberts 02.21.16 at 8:25 pm

@Peter Erwin: it was definitely SFB, not Prime Directive; but yes our DM wrote adventures for us. These generally ended up in a big space-battle, which provided a nice climax for the game. I’ve never (whisper it) played actual D&D, but maybe something similar happens in that?


Bill Murray 02.21.16 at 11:43 pm

John M. Ford’s “YELLOW Clearance Black Box Blues” for Paranoia was a great example from a fun game system.


Tom Slee 02.22.16 at 2:02 am

I agree with Phil #14 about Ishiguro and genre. If the root of the OP’s suggestion was the fuss around Ursula LeGuin’s comments on “The Buried Giant”, but I think Ishiguro defended himself well at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/08/kazuo-ishiguro-rebuffs-genre-snobbery.

Related: I think Atwood has also defended herself well against similar charges, for example at http://www.wired.com/2013/09/geeks-guide-margaret-atwood/. She regularly insists that everything in the MaddAdam trilogy and in The Heart Goes Last already exists, and so “truth in labelling” demands that it not be called science fiction.


Rich Puchalsky 02.22.16 at 3:39 am

I’ve written literary criticism framed as RPG promotional copy for one of Adam Roberts’ novels.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóíd 02.22.16 at 10:44 am

Jo Walton certainly played/plays RPGs and co-authored GURPS Celtic Myth with her then-husband. I think she has said that the influence on her writing has been indirect (as in, DMing improving narrative/plotting skills).


Luke Silburn 02.22.16 at 12:56 pm

“…and Walter Jon Williams wrote a swashbuckling/pirate RPG back in the 1980s…”

Ahem, a swashbuckling and naval officers RPG (ie Aubrey/Maturin or Hornblower rather than Calico Jack Rackham).[/nitpick]

The game was written in parallel with a short series of historicals he did that were focused on naval action in the Revolutionary War/War of 1812 era. WJW has the novels up on Smashwords now that the rights have reverted, but the game was released through FGU which means it will never be re-released (a bunch of interesting gaming properties from the early 80s are unlikely to see a sequel or reboot any time soon thanks to behaviour that verges on copyright-trolling by the current owner of the rights).

Luke (who could bore for England if I started listing my gaming/DMing history)


mds 02.22.16 at 2:25 pm

She regularly insists that everything in the MaddAdam trilogy and in The Heart Goes Last already exists, and so “truth in labelling” demands that it not be called science fiction.

That’s … not a particularly acccurate or useful way to define science fiction. The basic knowledge/technology exists, so the wildly speculative uses to which it is put can’t be science fiction? The MaddAddam series includes lion/lamb chimeras and genetically-engineered herbivorous humans with limited breeding seasons, for goodness’ sake.


nick s 02.22.16 at 9:01 pm

Hari Kunzru‘s talked about his RPG obsession a fair bit, though that’s not really a surprise: the extended UK tech/lit circle of the mid-to-late 90s was heavily grounded in RPGs and text adventures.


otpup 02.26.16 at 4:20 am

Comments on this entry are closed.