A recent issue of The New Yorker featured the short story, “The Dungeon Master.” (Please note, this story features not-safe-for-work language.) We spoke with the author, Sam Lipsyte, about his own gaming experiences and the approaches he took to a tale about a group of troubled players.
Wizards of the Coast: Your story, “The Dungeon Master,” concerns a group of gamers and their experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons—as well as their fairly downtrodden experiences in life that’s bonded them as much as the game has. The gamers in your story—however dysfunctional—have a verisimilitude to them. So, let me ask: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the gaming community?
Sam Lipsyte: "Are you now or have you ever been..." That sounds like the beginning of a question that was very popular with a certain congressional commission in the mid-twentieth century! I'm not sure if I qualify as a member of the gaming community, but from about 1981 to 1984 I played a great deal of Dungeons & Dragons. I also became fond of Boot Hill and Top Secret and I think I had a passing attraction to Gamma World.
Wizards of the Coast: Despite years of abusing characters, the Dungeon Master appears to lead them to a chance at victory against the dragon, which they end up cowardly squandering. Do you feel they might have been achieved success had they, like the narrator, faced the dragon? Or does the Dungeon Master feel his job is to teach them that life cannot be “won” as it can in a game (and as it is with the other, school-sponsored gaming group)?
Sam: Generally the Dungeon Master does see it as his duty to teach them that life is disappointment, or at least that his life is, and it would be fitting to think that he has led them into another trap inside the mountain—but I do have the sense that he is actually rooting for them to defeat the dragon, and is even perhaps experiencing a tiny change in worldview himself, right up until the moment most of them flee. Then perhaps he reverts to his usual vindictive self.
Wizards of the Coast: Likewise, when the protagonist joins this school-run group, he’s left unfulfilled—he’d rather retreat to his room rather than face potential accomplishment. In essence, is that what we’re meant to take away from these players—that they will find ways to deny themselves happiness?
Sam: Yes, I think these are some pretty downcast kids, for various reasons, living through a particularly painful time in life. It's really the first time one has a sense of a looming world in a sustained way, and it's scary, even happiness is scary, because it is so alien. They don't have any way to make things better for themselves at the moment. And the Dungeon Master, older, is stuck in that moment; he wants to keep them there with him, and the game is a kind of tool for that. But a part of him doesn't want the darkness either. Or can't live with it anymore.
Wizards of the Coast: It’s never quite stated what the Dungeon Master wishes to teach the protagonist in the end; one might assume to become another Dungeon Master—is that what you had in mind? And what might that say about the protagonist: that he’s cynical enough for the job, or that he can break the current Dungeon Master’s cycle of abuse (since he alone faced the dragon, even if he perished)?
Sam: It's intentionally vague, and I think it's probably not just about being Dungeon Master, though that's part of it, but to truly induct the narrator into some vision of life. But the idea that the DM wanted to "teach" the narrator is also kind of ridiculous—it's too late—and I think the DM knows it, and is almost mourning the death of that possibility. And of course the narrator is already following another path, even if he isn't conscious of it yet, perhaps inspired by that suicidal charge at the dragon.
Wizards of the Coast: You mention the “old media stories” about the game’s perceived evils. How did you wish to comment on those stories in “The Dungeon Master,” with how these admittedly troubled players experience the game?
Sam: Back when I was playing there was a lot of press about the evils of these games, how they drove kids to madness and death. It was silly, but it was briefly part of the national conversation. There was a TV movie starring Tom Hanks called Mazes and Monsters, about a college kid who goes off the deep end in a role-playing game. I'm sure Tom Hanks would like to pretend this movie never happened, but it did. Actually, I think one of the ways I first got familiar with the game was that my father, a journalist, had bought the box to see if he wanted to write a story about the D&D hysteria. But he never wrote about it and the box just sat on his desk at home, catching my eye. Finally he just gave it to me. I guess he'd come to the conclusion that it was safe. Or maybe he was conducting an experiment.
Wizards of the Coast: Do you take a view on gaming or gaming culture yourself—as healthy cathartic entertainment, mindless frivolity, or—as the Dungeon Master seems to express—as false exercise for life?
Sam: I think gaming and gaming culture are many things. It's like asking what somebody's view of film or literature might be. Much of it is case-by-case. Cathartic entertainment, well, Western civilization is built on that notion—it's not such a bad thing. A lot of it appears quite mindless as well. Some of it seems really fascinating and complex. But I'm not up on it. I haven't played anything in many years. I think I could fall down the rabbit hole if I did. I wouldn't lose my mind, just what little time I already have for writing short stories and novels. Those are my games right now.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.