Behind the Dungeon Master’s Screen

Ivan Kreilkamp

From Dickens’s David Copperfield and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus to Elena Ferrante’s Elena Greco, we are familiar with the fictional protagonist as novelist, or as novelist-to-be. Recently, 40 years after E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), we have seen the emergence of a new spin on this convention: the fictional protagonist as fantasy role-playing-game Dungeon Master.

Role-playing games have been a regular subject of fantasy and sci-fi novels for years. Andre Norton’s Quag Keep (1978), which features gamers transported to another universe by touching magical game pieces, is credited with being the first novel inspired by D&D. In 1984, TSR, Inc., the publishers of the Dungeons and Dragons game manuals, branched out into fiction with the Chronicles of Dragonlance series, initially written by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis; close to two hundred novels have now been published.

But fantasy gaming has only more recently begun to crop up in literary  fiction. Junot Díaz has remarked that his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) was written “in honor of my gaming years” in New Jersey in the early 1980s, with Díaz usually taking the author/narrator role of Dungeon Master, the person who designs and administers the fictional world in which the others play. Díaz’s tragic hero Oscar Wao is not only a passionate consumer of fantasy and science fiction in books and film, but also “a role-playing game fanatic” whose teenage ambition is to “dedicate his life to designing role-playing games” and “to turn into the next Gary Gygax.”

Oscar’s commitment to what Díaz simply calls “the Genres” of science fiction and fantasy isolates him from his peers. While his classmates go through “the terror and joy of their first crushes, their first dates, their first kisses,” “Oscar sat in the back of the class, behind his DM’s screen, and watched his adolescence stream by.” The Dungeon Master’s screen—the cardboard partition that conceals dice, notes, maps, and other paraphernalia from the game’s other players—operates as a symbol and cause of social and erotic alienation. To be behind the DM’s screen is to be cut off from romance and from life itself, stuck in an embarrassing zone of sexless male-nerd fantasy. The novel’s primary narrator, Yunior, a former boyfriend of Oscar’s sister and a successful ladies’ man, explains incredulously that “Oscar’s idea of G [game] was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!).”

For Yunior, to play fantasy games is to have no game, to be the opposite of a player; to immerse oneself in a fantasy world is to cut oneself off from the real pleasures of the world. Oscar’s gamer tendencies amplify the disadvantages he already experiences as a nerd in a poor Dominican neighborhood: “You really want to know what being an X-man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary US ghetto. Mamma mia!  Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”

Oscar’s fantasy nerd proclivities, however, are not merely a liability. Díaz suggests that realism purified of fantasy’s flights of imagination is inadequate to represent contemporary reality—especially as experienced by members of a transnational Caribbean diaspora. The novel’s first reference to Oscar characterizes him as “a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man” who “believed that that was the kind of story we were all living in. He’d ask: What’s more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” Later, conveying rumors that the Dominican Republic’s savage dictator Rafael Trujillo was in fact “a creature from another world” possessing “Dark Powers,” Yunior adds, “What can I tell you? In Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow… That was some New Age Lovecraft shit.”

Díaz ultimately implies that Oscar, who “had always wanted to live in a world of magic and mystery,” was right all along—our brutal and beautiful world can only be truly apprehended through the lens of fantasy genres. The Dungeon Master’s screen does not merely block vision; it can also enhance one’s ability to see the real world, with all the magic and mystery it contains.

Photograph by Marc Majcher / Flickr

Díaz is only one of many writers who have recently credited D&D as a lasting influence on their work. But the surprise best seller Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle—the singer and lyricist of the popular indie rock band the Mountain Goats—is to my knowledge the first instance of a non-genre novel in which administering a role-playing game constitutes much of the book’s action. Darnielle’s protagonist Sean Phillips has been disfigured by a teenage suicide attempt: a gunshot to the head has left his face looking like “bent wheel spokes pressed into taffy.” Still living with his parents, he now passes his time and earns a modest income by managing a fantasy role-playing game he has invented. 

The game, Trace Italian, is not Dungeons and Dragons, but is presumably inspired by it; at one point in the novel a character reads a copy of The Dungeon Master’s Handbook he received for Christmas. Played slowly by handwritten moves sent via snail mail, Trace Italian situates players in a post-apocalyptic, radiation-contaminated future America filled with “misshapen half-human creatures on bony horses,” among other perils. The game’s goal is to reach the legendary Trace Italian, a massive protective shelter built by some of the world’s surviving humans, inspired in part by Sean’s recollections of a high school history lesson about medieval fortifications. The Trace Italian “rose from the landscape, bigger than its medieval counterparts, a shining structure on the plains, protecting the sprawling self-contained city underneath it, a barrier against the outside world and a sign to would-be intruders that its architects were people of great vision and design.”

This uncanny structure functions in the novel as an objective correlative for the power of imagination and the aesthetic—something like Tennyson’s Palace of Art or Coleridge’s Xanadu. Darnielle’s Sean Phillips resembles Díaz’s Oscar in his social isolation and alienation, and in his deep commitment to the Genres. Sean’s game functions as an allegory for novel-writing and for artistic creation more broadly. “[L]ying supine and blind for days” after his self-inflicted injury, “faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit,” Sean builds himself “a home on an imaginary planet” with the game, and in so doing enters into strangely intimate relationships with the game’s many players, who “scatter details of their daily lives throughout their narratives,” which they mail to him as game moves.

The Dungeon Master’s screen does not merely block vision; it can also enhance one’s ability to see the real world, with all the magic and mystery it contains.

As the novel develops, it is revealed that Trace Italian was at least indirectly responsible for the serious injury and death of a young couple who, attempting to fulfill a move from the game in real life, dug a hole for themselves off a Kansas highway and spent the night, catching hypothermia. Darnielle endorses Sean’s courtroom defense of the game as “something that was supposed to have been a place where people could feel safe and have fun, where nothing ever really happens except inside our own heads.” But he also suggests that the “wild freedom” these games represent cannot be purified or rendered entirely wholesome. Trace Italian was inspired by Sean’s lesson in medieval history, but also by his passion for “shameful and garish”  pulp fiction, for fantasy films he watches on old VCR tapes, and for obscure DIY death-metal cassettes that serve as soundtracks to his Conan the Barbarian novels: all aesthetic objects that can function as “a hallway full of doors leading to dark places.” Drifting into sleep while watching Krull, a movie about worlds “enslaved by the beast and his army of slayers,” Sean observes that the “muffled electronic screams” from the soundtrack take hold “of something inside of me that [is] basic, primal, essential,” a place of “dark caves” of the imagination.

In the way it defends role-playing games as an authentic exercise of the aesthetic imagination while still acknowledging that those dark caves may contain genuinely unpleasant or scary things, Wolf in White Van brings to mind another recent tale of teenage gamers. The title character in “The Dungeon Master,” from Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts (2013), is an unnamed teenager who is much less sympathetic than either Darnielle’s Sean or Díaz’s Oscar. A sadistic bully who is rumored to have once caused brain damage to a classmate with a blow from an aluminum baseball bat, he “sinks down at the desk behind his screen, which on his side has all the lists and tables for playing printed on it, and on our side has a mural full of morning stars and fire. We’ve been ordered never to touch the screen. We never do.”

Lipsyte’s narrator describes the experience of playing with the Dungeon Master as “squirming beneath a nutso’s moods.” The games tend to be brief, as no matter what strategy the players employ, they quickly encounter humiliating deaths; the narrator tells of characters perishing of such indignities as “poisoned ale, or infections borne on unwashed steins.” This Dungeon Master’s screen shields not a zone of ludic fancy but one of petty domination. Finally, the players revolt. “I stand, whack the screen off the Dungeon Master’s desk, see the dice, the sheets of graph paper, the manuals and numerical tables. There are doodles on the blotter. Cross-hatched vaginas with angel wings.” A brawl breaks out, a wrist is broken, and the game is over. 

Later, when the narrator joins the school’s official after-school D&D club, he plays the game for the first time without the tyranny of a deranged Dungeon Master. “We fly dragons, battle giants, build castles, raise armies, families, crops.”  But something doesn’t sit right. “It’s all too majestic, really. No goblin child will shank you for your coin pouch. You’ll never die from a bad potato. I miss the indignities.”

Must we transform every one of our dark caves into a brightly lit classroom for skill-building and vocabulary lessons?

Lipsyte—who, incidentally, once sang in a noise-punk band called Dungbeetle—suggests that D&D, in its canonization as a reputable after-school activity rather like chess or robotics club, may risk losing its garish subcultural soul. The 40th anniversary of the creation of Dungeons and Dragons has occasioned a newly respectful discourse about role-playing games. Fantasy gaming, like so many other subcultures before it, has passed through what could be called the four stages of cultural recuperation. Initially ignored by the mainstream, then feared as a dangerous influence, then ridiculed as a sad waste of time for nerds and losers, gaming is now respectfully celebrated. We hear the ringing tones of a newly positive discourse of teaching and learning, of role-playing games as useful instruction. Not simply a fun way to while away a weekend afternoon, Dungeons and Dragons, as Díaz himself has said, serves as a “storytelling apprenticeship” for authors, a “formative narrative media.” For others the game has been a literary tutorial that can “help build the skills to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively.” The novelist and editor Ed Park “celebrates the magnificent vocabulary of the game” (“melee,” “thaumaturge,” “paladin,” “charisma,” “homunculus”); the founder of two “successful technology companies” even asserts that “Dungeons & Dragons helped train him for the rigors of tech entrepreneurship.”

I don’t doubt any of this. I almost certainly learned the words “charisma” and “paladin” from playing the game, and my own middle school dungeon master is now an Ivy League law professor. Such endorsements were probably necessary as a corrective after decades of disdain and insult. But this sort of praise may turn the game into something a bit “too majestic,” like the wholesome but dull fantasy experience at the end of Lipsyte’s story.

Consider the cover of the original 1970s D&D Players Handbook. Two adventurers clamber up the head of a grimacing, glowing red demon effigy to pry out one of the statue’s enormous ruby eyes, while two lizard creatures lie recently slain below, blood oozing from their bellies. In the foreground confer four more adventurers, the moustache of each hero bushier than the last. The scene is more than a little ridiculous. But for those to whom it calls out, it touches something inside that is “basic, primal, essential.”

“You are standing outside the entrance to a dark and gloomy cave.”  So begins a D&D adventure. When you and your stalwart companions strike a light and enter, what do you hope to find? Must we transform every one of our dark caves into a brightly lit classroom for skill-building and vocabulary lessons?