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Five Things I Learned Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

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d4, d20, and d10

This is a follow-up of sorts to my post From the Red Box to World of Warcraft in Eight Steps.  In an off-hand remark, I mentioned how many things I learned playing AD&D in high school.  Now it’s time for ugly details and disclosure.  Because people like to read things in a silly list format, here are five of the things I learned playing AD&D:

1.  Probability

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that AD&D, with the help of a few good teachers, put this rural kid on the east coast working in places like Philadelphia and New York and experiencing things out in the big world.

It started with the dice.  Playing AD&D I developed a very firm, intuitive understanding of probability.  For example, I might not have had the formal language to explain it, but I understood the difference in variance between rolling one die vs. rolling three.  In other words, the act of adding up independent dice rolls invokes the Central Limit Theorem, which means that rolling that 18 STR on three rolls really was quite special and not the same as rolling 18 on an imaginary 16-sided die numbered 3 to 18.

Another important aspect of probability in D&D is the sort of subtle manipulation of likelihood that happens in random event table construction.  Say you were rolling a ten-sided die for a random potion to be rewarded to an adventurer.  Perhaps a desired outcome as the DM was to reward high-utility healing potions while retaining the element of chance (or even booby prizes, as was often the case in AD&D).  Given ten possible outcomes of the roll, you could assign four of the outcomes to be a healing potion, creating a 40% chance outright.  This is simulation in action, and it often raises the question as to what the best model for reality (fantasy or otherwise) is.

I went to college and found my way into mathematics, but things didn’t click for me until I took the major’s class in probability and the follow-up course on mathematical statistics from Dr. Asimow.  Probability and statistics remain the most intuitive and entertaining part of mathematics to me to this day.

My mathematical inclinations directed me into pursuit of actuarial science, which is an amalgamation of finance and probability used to predict the future.  Very broadly, actuaries make sure insurance companies have enough money on hand to pay the company’s obligations and charge a competitive and sustainable price for products.  My area of specialty was pension plan funding and accounting.  The dice we rolled?  Lifespan, as modeled in actuarial tables.  Does the fighter get a battle axe +3? What will next year’s cost-of-living-adjustment cost the company?  It’s all just probability.

I worked for seven years in the business before the call of academia pulled me away.  The people I met, the places I went, and the things I did as an actuarial analyst are a key part of my personal history.  I don’t think I would have gotten there without AD&D being a part of my mis-spent youth.

2.  How to use an index

As a business model, Dungeons & Dragons exists because it sells books.  Nowadays the owners, Wizards of the Coast, revise the rules often to keep sales going.  Back in the first edition of AD&D, TSR opted for complicating their rule set with additional volumes handling special situations.  It’s like modern (i.e. 4th edition)  D&D is software, while the first edition of AD&D was tax code, becoming more byzantine the longer it existed.

The core set of rules was and still is defined by the player’s and referee’s (DM’s) manuals, each having in excess of 200 pages.  The level of detail with which rules are written can be amazing, but practical game play requires a referee to have good skills looking things up quickly.  Thus, the index became the most worn part of the manuals.  Now that I’m a librarian I have a great appreciation for the index.  It’s a great piece of technology that creates access to information, and even a simple index must address the vagaries of language by controlling vocabulary.

3.  It’s great to do things with friends

Something that is really lost in the CRPG implementations of the pen and paper experience is the fun and extracurricular goofing off hanging out with your friends.  Even a guild in a MMOG doesn’t quite replicate the experience, as the guild only exists as within virtual space in most cases.  A few of my friends, myself included, became pretty good improvisers in theater (several high school all-state acting awards to our credit).  In that theater experience I overcame anxieties about speaking to groups of strangers.  Much of it came from entertaining one another around the table with tales of stereotypical dwarves and semi-literate fighters lobbing their scimitars at anything with more or less than the appropriate number of limbs.  By provided a sandbox for some-what structured storytelling, the game actually encourages a great deal of creativity, which leads to memories and an improved ability to express oneself.

The flip-side of this quality of the game was that we mostly stayed out of trouble through junior high and high school.  All of us have attended college, most of us have degrees and careers we care about.  I think because we had something to pass our idle time with we didn’t feel the tug of drugs or alcohol beyond copious amounts of caffeine.

Yes, I still have the books... $5 for a copy of Oriental Adventures or the Fiendish Folio

4.  Reading and analyzing large amounts of detailed information

A corollary to learning how to use an index, AD&D’s complexity and attention to detail developed my core ability to process information.  My best performance on the GRE was in the now-defunct analytical portion of the exam.  The tuning of my mind to interpret and inquire translated into improved academic writing and research in college, reading legal paperwork on the job, and breaking down the complicated parts of life that people often avoid doing: taxes, investments, reading mortgage terms, understanding medical bills etc.  Very often these things aren’t difficult, merely tedious and overwhelming in their volume.  I’m constantly surprised how many otherwise-intelligent people outsource their handling of them.

5.  Enjoy what you enjoy; damn what “normal” people think

When I started playing AD&D in the 1980’s the game had a bit of a bad reputation due to very reactionary conservatives who conflated a mostly-innocent game with Satanism.  Today it still carries a reputation of being a “geeky” pass time, although I find the appellation silly in today’s culture given how many people under the age of forty regularly play computer games that could be described as equally frivolous.

Denying yourself things you enjoy, things that aren’t counterproductive in your life or the lives of those around you, is just an exercise in killing passion.  Without passion, what do you allow to fill your life?  I’m not certain there is anything better and I know there a lot of people who want to fill your life on your behalf.

So that’s what I’ve got.  If the math stuff seem long winded, you have no idea how much I had to rein myself in on that topic.  As always, I’m always looking for someone to comment and share their thoughts.  Extra credit to the first comment that brings up a life lesson from D&D that I forgot!

Written by Bill

October 23, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Posted in RPGs

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  1. I can think of another life lesson from D&D – creative imagination. I had almost more fun coming up with new worlds, maps, dungeons, characters, historical alliances and political boundaries than I did actually playing the game. I would spend hours in my room writing page after page detailing the strange pit on the edge of town.

    Your point in No. 3 where you mention that D&D kept you out of trouble is somewhat ironic when contrasted with the fact that parents groups and the like wanted D&D banned.


    October 24, 2010 at 10:17 am

  2. Extra Credit to Adam!

    I thought about adding an item about creativity, but ended up leaving it out for no good reason. Creativity in RPGs for me was mostly about mechanics, as opposed to roleplaying or storytelling. As a heavy fantasy reader, I was drawn to world-building from an early age.


    October 24, 2010 at 7:11 pm

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