[image-1]

As you surely know, this Saturday is the 31st Worldwide Dungeons and Dragons day. What, you didn’t have it marked on your calendar? Your geek credentials are hereby officially revoked.

Company execs with Wizards of the Coast (the Hasbro-owned company that now owns the rights to D&D) are expecting some 40,000-plus people to gather for extended sessions of role-playing goodness. And while I honestly doubt that this hallowed event means that you’ll be seeing 20-sided dice rolling across the tables in every Starbucks and Barnes & Noble in Charleston, it gives us another perfect opportunity to reflect on the ways in which Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game that began in the dark depths of dorkiness, has grown into a pop-culture force far too powerful to ignore.

Think I’ve taken one too many hits from the +5 potion of overstatement? Consider this: the legions of dark elves and tauren clerics of doom running rampant in the virtual fields of Worlds of Warcraft — last year’s hugely successful PC game and one of the industry’s biggest gaming hits ever — owe the origins of their massive multiplayer online playground to ideas first floated by D&D creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (Leroy Jenkins ain’t nothin’ but a role, baby).

A gigantic wave of geek-chic has surged over Hollywood in the last five years, giving us Peter Jackson’s Oscar-wining take on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the sweeping resurgence of the superhero film. The guys (and gals) who conceived, produced, and executed all the tricky computerized special effects on those films? Betcha a fair chunk of them grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons — or one of its many RPG offshoots — before learning how to program.

There’s scarcely a computer or video game — or, for that matter, collectible card game or miniatures-based game — that doesn’t owe some part of its design, mechanics, or plot points to the arcane but simple rules and fantasy universe Gygax and Arneson laid down in Lake Geneva all those years ago. In 2005, the number of people who play these games is in the millions; the amount of cash they generate each year in the billions.

Have you strolled into the fantasy and sci-fi section of your local bookstore lately? It’s packed full of bestselling stories featuring elves, warriors, and hirsute halflings storming dungeons and besting any number of fantastical creatures.

Once the full-on purview of geeks, losers, and eggheads, Dungeons and Dragons has moved so beyond square it’s lapped 3-D. Pop-culture icons like Comedy Central It boy Stephen Colbert and action-star Vin Diesel proudly admit to playing — you wanna tell them they’re dorks?

For many misfits in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s — and yes, even me — the opportunity to sit down at a table and role-play was an especially clever and subtle form of salvation. Dungeons and Dragons represented a chance to belong to something when playing varsity football or leading the student council seemed impossible. Sure, not everybody caught the vibe; plenty mocked it, and plenty more thought D&D was the greatest threat to polite society since comic books and rock music. (Who else remembers a young Tom Hanks going psycho as a mentally unbalanced gamer in the laughably bad made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters?)

Despite being branded with a scarlet “G,” Dungeons and Dragons struck a chord because it capitalized on a particularly essential human need: the opportunity to stretch your imagination, and then use it to create a world and become someone else. Somebody with cool powers and a cool job. Somebody rife with what modern gamers might have dubbed phat lewt, like a +7 Holy Sword of Smiting. Somebody with an evil streak a mile wide. Maybe even somebody with blue skin and pointy ears.

But it’s more than that. Role-playing in D&D also forced you to become something many of us hadn’t been before: a storyteller. After all, someone had to come up with something interesting for all those characters to do once the dice fell and stats were rolled up. (Prefab dungeon master modules only take you so far, you know.) As most writers and sociologists will attest, storytelling is a uniquely potent form of power. It’s the same vibe that keeps those legions of World of Warcraft players pouring endless hours into just one more level-up — it’s merely a little harder to recognize.

Last year marked the big 3-0 for D&D, and although it’s competing with many more gaming options now than when it debuted in 1974, middle age hasn’t slowed the game’s influence one bit. Those early dungeon masters are all grown up. Richard Florida never seems to mention them in his talks about the Creative Class, but they’re among the ones making coin working as designers and film directors, musicians, novelists, computer programmers, advertising execs, and webmasters.

Many of them are also still avid gamers. They’re the ones fueling the popularity of modern-day Shakespeare and Renaissance festivals. The ones forming LARPs, “live action” role-playing groups, so they’ll have company when they head into the nearby forests to beat on each other with foam swords. Or the ones running vibrant online role-playing communities like “Charleston by Night,” a chat-room RPG experience based on White Wolf’s vampire universe.

Maybe you’ll see some of them this weekend, huddled around a coffeeshop or library table with their painted lead miniatures and multi-sided dice — or maybe you’ll see their kids. Either way, shoot ’em a thumbs up and tell ’em to take an extra saving throw for me.