Monstrous Futures: Dungeons & Dragons, Harbinger of the “None” Generation, Turns 40

From The Book of Miracles.

This year, 2014, is the 40th anniversary of the game Dungeons & Dragons, the pen-and-paper role-playing game that not only launched an industry but provoked a wide-ranging cultural shift. In celebration of the anniversary—incidentally, also the 10th anniversary of its videogame-changing scion, World of Warcraft—Wizards of the Coast launched a new, and already best-selling, edition of D&D, and with it they will, later this month, issue the latest incarnation of the single most important and widely read bestiary ever published: The Monster Manual.

New generations will wonder at the immensity of our monstrous imaginations while many relish anew their dreams of an enchanted world. And so, thanks to the game and The Monster Manual, we have a moment to contemplate what it means to imagine monsters and what it means to imagine the future—for it turns out that to do the one is to do the other.

We wish for an enchanted world, and such a world is by its very nature monstrous. How then, if we hope to see the world reconfigured and made meaningful and transcendent, could we do so without welcoming back the demons and dragons in all their glory? Indeed, our popular culture is rich in zombies, vampires, and even a 50-meter radioactive lizard, all being reimagined, reinterpreted, and pressed into the service of each generation’s dreams.

[T]he seeds of today’s religious landscape were present in The Monster Manual, with its dreadful dangers and exuberant enchantments.

There’s a long history here. Take, for example, The Book of Miracles, a recently published facsimile of the 16th century text first published in the city of Augsburg, whose authors, illustrators, and even patron are all unknown. A product of the Protestant Reformation, The Book of Miracles traces a history of celestial phenomena, chimerical births, and invading monsters as marking the imminent end of the world—thereby predicting a reformed Jerusalem and the advent of a divine kingdom, all observed through monsters and magic.

As harbingers of doom and joy both, bestiaries are part of historical transitions and inaugurate new religious visions. Of the book’s Reformation context, the New York Review of Books’ Marina Warner noted that:

[T]he new focus on reading the Bible led to a resurgence of interest in stories of direct divine intervention, and Protestant Europe in the sixteenth century saw a “boom” in compendia of miracles…

The Monster Manual is likewise a product of its time, an expression of the secular age. One of its accompanying texts, Deities & Demigods (later renamed Legends & Lore), taught religious pluralism to countless children. As a reader turned the pages, he or she saw one religion transition into another, each of which was given credibility and imaginative expression. All myths, heroes, and religions were on equal footing. The only religion that towered above them all, that absorbed them into its enchanted world, was the game itself.

Dungeons & Dragons gave players a miraculous world in which to live, a substitute for traditional theologies locked into hidebound dogmas and uncritical assumptions. These imaginary worlds have paralleled the rise of other secularized religious beliefs like those observed among millennials, the generation of the “nones.” It’s a new world for religion, and the seeds of today’s religious landscape were present in The Monster Manual, with its dreadful dangers and exuberant enchantments.

A bestiary can both catalogue the threat of our demise and foretell the joy of a new world; it is a story of grotesque threats and glorious salvation. Indeed—as cartographers knew long before recent conspiracy theorists saw the Loch Ness Monster in Apple Maps—at the limits of our knowledge, at the frontiers of our imagination, here be dragons!

For many, The Monster Manual was a monster itself; it provoked fear among Christian conservatives and provided a locus for the kind of moral panic and public rhetoric that Dr. Leslie Smith has recently labeled “chaos rhetoric.” And perhaps those fears were, in some sense, well-founded; for like The Book of Miracles, The Monster Manual foretold a new world, not just a world of the imagination.

For the past decade or so, it has been obvious that D&D was not simply the idle play of disaffected teen boys; it was the game that launched a thousand careers—and ten times a thousand new worlds. Once ridiculed as the escape of disaffected teenagers, D&D is now revered for its influence on authors, technical innovators, and even humble academics. The Monster Manual was, for so many, not just the escape from mundane reality, but a dive into progressive dreams about what the world ought to be.

Today’s media marketplace was constructed on a scaffold of adventures, role-played in the depths of the night, fueled by pizza, soda, and dreams. Today’s videogames are the highest grossing entertainment medium in the world, and they are the direct descendants of D&D.

These digital worlds populated by monsters and magic were made possible by The Monster Manual. That volume, with more than 200 monsters described (and often illustrated), was the first hardcover book issued for D&D, and what could be more appropriate than that the bestiary be honored so? The Monster Manual introduced so many of us to the possibilities of an enchanted existence; to a world peopled by monsters and described by our imaginations and defined by our rigorous mathematical calculations of hit points, armor class, and magic resistance. As we engaged those monsters, we did so with a bag of polyhedral dice, starting with our “lucky” ones but swapping those for others when our providential expectations met with no success.

And today such monstrously populated worlds emerge in vivid graphics on our computer screens and in Hollywood films. We part company with conventional reality for a moment and take up residence online, joining millions of others in a search for the sublime reality that can be only momentarily captured in a book of monsters, which is always and ever a book of miracles.

The dreams we realize in movies, virtual realities, and videogames are the dreams we have always dreamed; the monsters we find there are the monsters we cherish, for it is their presence that reminds us of what matters. Or, better, it’s their presence that reminds us that we must make the world matter.


  •' Jim Reed says:

    You could look at this description of dungeons and dragons as a step forward in the evolution of mankind. I was from the generation before and never had any contact with dungeons and dragons. The good part of this fantasy world is the understanding that those children had that the monsters and miracles are fantasy. The movies and all the rest including Harry Potter are fantasy. As the generations get deeply involved in these fantasies, we can appreciate they are not real, and the children know this. I was from the earlier generation that was more likely to think miracles were real, and monsters were feared. We knew there was fantasy, but my generation also believed. I think humanity will use the role playing fantasy to express what is inside us, and know miracles are not real. Each generation now seems to know this better than the last. There is less real belief in miracles, and what belief in miracles is left, we are learning to fear that belief because there is danger in the belief of actual monsters. Harry Potter presents no real danger. The Bible does.

  •' Rmj says:

    You make the usual arrogant and foolish assumption: that the generations before you were benighted fools, and your generation alone has discovered Truth and can separate wheat from chaff, fantasy from reality, and use both to enhance this world and save it from the ignorance of the past.

    Which is pretty much the attitude generations 200 years from now will have about this present age.

    It’s the continuing assertion that right now is the best of all possible worlds, and only right now do people think and act as people should, and from right now springs the millennia in which we will put aside our fears and ‘monsters’ and step finally into the light of a new age.

    Same as it ever was. No generation is wiser than all others, no generation makes less complex use of ideas than another, no generation is monolithic in its thinking, except as it fails to understand the complexity of others, in time as well as in space (cultures do vary by geography, not just chronology).

    What you have said was, ironically, said by the Protestants in the 16th century; and the Puritans in America in the 17th century; by the Romantics in the 19th century, and the Enlightenment in the 18th century. And back to the Greeks of Athens, an up to the Romans of Cicero and Augustus; and so on and so on and so on.

    Same, as I say, as it ever was.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I’m only trying to help us get past this religion thing.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    um… …and it is also a lot of fun to play

  •' SisterLea says:

    There is indeed a “religion thing” we need to get past, Jim. Whether that thing requires the disappearance of religion, I’m not so sure. I think the future existence and usefulness of religion depends on religion recognizing the difference between its idolatrous and its authentic expressions of what it means to human…as in what it means to be “made in the image and likeness of God”.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    We just need to make sure our religion is kept away from our politics. There isn’t really anything of value that religion can add to how our world is set up. Whenever a people tries to use religion in how things run, it only gets worse.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    Not so sure this is as easy as you suggest Jim. I totally agree with the whole separation of church and state, and as an atheist, I defend it vigorously, but in the end religion is often about what we value in life and I don’t think its possible to ask someone to “turn off” their values when walking into a voting booth. Now, having said that, I think religious people ARE able (or SHOULD BE ABLE TO) to recognize the difference between a pluralistic society and a particular religious organization and not expect the folks they vote for to try mirroring doctrine/dogma in society. I just think its a little more grey than just “keeping religion out of politics”

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Christianity is a prime example of the dangers. The world started changing in the 60s, and they felt uncomfortable about that. What happened next? The rich are smart people, and they saw the opportunity here, and they had the money to execute on it. Feed the Christians a little Republican propaganda mixed with messages the Christians want to hear, and presto, a lockstep voting block that can be directed through the pulpit, and that will put lots of effort into keeping itself (the voting block) in line. The block was never expected to hold together forever, but 40 years is a great start, and the profits from it have been enormous, probably unrivaled in American history.

  •' Peter Amthor says:

    Was waiting for the article to make some sort of point. It never did…

  •' Ramone says:

    It actually did. The last paragraph summed it up quite nicely. Maybe you were reading it as an opinion piece rather than an essay.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “It’s the continuing assertion that right now is the best of all possible
    worlds, and only right now do people think and act as people should…” -Rmj

    I disagree. I think Jim was just implying that things were getting better, not that we have achieved Utopia. I agree with you that each generation likes to say that they have all the answers (or that the previous generation was a bunch of idiots), but Jim seems to be saying that the new generations have been able to shake off a little more of the willful ignorance that humanity seems to embrace with its religious precepts and dogma.

    Looking back at our society over the past two centuries or so, I am happy I live now…I like indoor plumbing with clean drinking water, the chance to attend higher education, and the ability to openly discuss ideas with those I disagree with. In general, things are much, much better than they were even 100 years ago, when those opportunities were limited to a very small minority of the population.

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