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Lesson to study, Inside the 40 Year-Long Dungeons & Dragons Game | Obsessed | WIRED (1)

Inside the 40 Year-Long Dungeons & Dragons Game | Obsessed | WIRED (1)

- [Narrator] Remember that game of D&D

you started when you were 11?

What if it never stopped?

- My name is Robert Wardhaugh.

I am a history professor

at the University of Wester Ontario.

I am a dungeon master

for a campaign that has been going on for 40 years.

- [Narrator] What began in secret with a few friends

has turned into a game that takes up much of Robert's life,

and most of his house.

Robert has around 30,000 hand-painted figurines,

countless custom made pieces of terrain

and dozens of devoted players taking part in his campaign.

- If you're gonna keep a game going for 40 years,

it's gonna have to be a good game.

If you're gonna have people who are gonna wanna play

and are gonna wanna fly in,

you're gonna have to offer a product

that is going to be better than all the other alternatives

that are out there.

I can certainly say with confidence

that this is the best Dungeons and Dragons game

in the world.

[cinematic music]

So if I'm playing for 10 hours a week,

at 52 weeks in a year,

that means, if I'm doing that times 40,

that would be 20,800 hours.

- [Producer] How many minutes is that?

[Robert laughs]

- So if I figured that out in minutes,

that would end up being 1.24 million minutes, I think.

As you crest the ridge, there seems to be quite a commotion.

You estimate it could be as many as two dozen or so goblins.

You surprise them as much as they have surprised you.

I need a surprise roll.

- [Narrator] That's really just the start.

Almost every major decision in Robert's life

is designed to keep the game going.

- When I was buying a house, the most important part for me

was getting a gaming space that I could use.

My entire basement is my gaming area.

- [Narrator] If he doesn't slow down,

he's gonna need a bigger house.

[light music]

- I have a lot of figs.

I've got Orcs, I've got elves, I've got dwarves,

I've got all the basic things that you'd expect,

but I also have very distinct and unique figs.

I have vampires, I have undead, I have zombies,

I have werewolves, beholders.

Tiamat, the mother of all dragons.

All the big demonic lords from the Demogorgon.

- The Demogorgon!

[kids groaning]

- What deep [beep].

- But also heroes.

So all the great kings and queens of countries,

the high level wizards, all of these things.

My goal is to have everything.

- [Narrator] But what's the point

of having so many figurines

if you don't have any amazing terrain to place them on?

Robert has no shortage in that department either.

- I need to be able to adapt

to wherever the party's gonna go.

That means that I need to have my green terrains,

I need to have mountain terrain,

I need to have all of my winter terrain, my desert terrains,

my water terrains.

If they're gonna go into a town, now I need a town.

Okay, are they in a Roman town?

Are they in an Anglo-Saxon town?

Are they in an African town?

Is it high medieval?

Is it low medieval?

So now I'm trying to be able to put out a village or a town

for every one of these historical settings.

[door opens and shuts]

I can't put figurines on the table

unless they are painted up to a certain level.

That means that someone's gotta do

a heck of a lot of painting, and so that ends up being me.

If you found me on an average day working on the game,

you'd probably see me in my painting room

and I'm gonna be spending two, three, four hours

painting figs.

- [Producer] And do people take their figs home?

- No, no.

Nobody is allowed to take their figurines home.

Nobody is actually allowed to touch the figs on the table.

So that's also something that'll be different.

A person who played Dungeons and Dragons

would probably come to my table

and they would immediately reach over to grab their fig,

and I'm probably gonna growl at them

and tell them, "Don't touch the figs",

'cause I have to move everything.

I'm sure my critics would say

that there's a God complex going on about that.

This here is the figurine of the demon lord Orcus.

It's well known to Dungeons and Dragons,

and in my campaign, 100 years ago,

which would be, in actual time, something like maybe 1989,

the group banished this demon, so they thought that's fine.

Only recently, last year actually, the demon's back.

They don't know where he is,

they're desperately trying to find him

and he's definitely up to no good.

- [Narrator] While fantasy role playing and nerd culture

are often celebrated today,

Robert's campaign started during a time

when people felt like they needed to play in secret.

- In the 80s and 90s, it was certainly more difficult

to try to talk about or explain the game to people.

I grew up in a very small town

and it was quite a conservative town,

and so the town inevitably found out that we were playing

and they didn't know what the heck we were doing,

and Dungeons and Dragons had very bad press at the time.

- Tonight, we begin with a story

about make-believe adventure and real life violence,

what some critics fear is a connection between the two

in a game called Dungeons and Dragons.

- A movie came out while we were playing

called "Mazes and Monsters",

and it's the story of how they play this game

and then they try to act it out in real life

and basically bad things certainly happen.

- Can you tell me of the giant dragon?

On my travels here, I heard him.

- What's now called the satanic panic

was going on at the time.

"Why does my son want to play this game all the time?

"Why is he obsessed about it?

"What are you doing to him?

"Are you a cult leader?"

I get called a cult leader, a Communist,

all these crazy labels.

When I watched "Stranger Things",

it obviously hit home for me.

- [Mike] It is almost here.

- What is it?

- What if it's the Demogorgon?

Oh Jesus, we're so screwed if it's the Demogorgon.

- It's not the Demogorgon.

- The whole concept matched exactly what we were doing

in the early 1980s.

- [Narrator] Over the following decades,

Robert went on to build a campaign of unrivaled complexity.

- One of the things that makes my game unique is the story

and the depth of the campaign.

My world is an alternative fantasy version

of historical Earth

within other historical aspects added to it.

So if somebody comes in and they want to go to Athens,

I can now bring in that history, philosophy, religion,

into the game.

I'm able to create what I need to create,

come up with totally new races, totally new nations,

totally new cultures, totally new mythologies,

but also to use what the world already has.

- [Narrator] A typical dungeon master curates the quest

for a handful of players over the course of a few months.

Robert, meanwhile, is tracking the adventures

of more than 50 players,

with story arcs that often span decades.

- Since the beginning,

there's probably been about 500 characters

that have been made and played within the game.

When a new player comes in, I'm inviting them to play a game

that they're gonna be welcome to keep playing until I die.

So you could start a character,

nine generations later, that family could take over,

let's say, the Roman Empire.

On one level, you're playing that individual character.

On a macro level, you're also controlling the Roman Empire.

So there are numerous story arcs that are going on.

Many of those last for generations.

There's love stories, romances.

There's quests, there's vengeance.

All these things are happening.

So even though there is this large campaign quest,

this large ultimate goal, you've got literally thousands

of sub-plots and sub-campaigns going on.

[people talking]

- [Narrator] From the beginning, Robert quickly learned

which rules could be bent and which rules could be broken.

- When we started playing,

there was probably a short period of time

when I played according to the actual rules.

But after that, I had to fill in holes,

and so I developed my own rule system

and I've never really gone back.

So I have what gamers would call a home brew rule system,

and actually that's how the game was intended.

When the game first came out,

one of the lines in the dungeon master guide

told you that these are a set of rules,

but to apply these loosely.

And within my game and my world,

there are all kinds of different aspects

that you wouldn't see

in an ordinary Dungeons and Dragons rule system.

My rules are fast, they're quick flowing,

people don't have to stop and check things,

and that speed of gameplay

is something that I find so different in my game

from ordinary Dungeons and Dragons.

- [Narrator] Robert strives to keep the stakes

as high as possible for his players,

especially when it comes to life and death consequences

for their characters.

- I want death to mean something.

I don't want this to be like a video game

that you simply hit the reset button

and you're just gonna start a new character.

So when your character dies,

if you don't have any other characters,

then you're out of the game.

The game's over for you.

And so when characters die or bad things happen,

I have seen grown men weep at the table,

and that's something also.

People who don't play are a bit disturbed

if they hear that somebody who's been playing

a character for a long time weeps at the table,

but I'm trying to create emotion.

I'm trying to create excitement.

People are scared, and knowing that if you die,

you could be out of the game

or that character that you put so much time in is now dead,

obviously people's heart rates are up,

there's emotion going on.

So I can't be shocked and surprised when that character dies

that there's a show of emotion.

I have one daughter, and ever since she was a baby,

she's been around it.

I think maybe when she was six or seven

was the first time when she asked whether she could play,

so she created a character as a fairy

and she still plays now.

She's 20 years old.

I mean, obviously there's other stuff going on in her life

but she's been playing all the way through.

The interesting thing happens when she starts dating

and then her boyfriend wants to play,

and of course, I have to tell her straight off now,

this relationship might not last forever,

but the game's gonna last forever.

So get ready, 'cause I'm anticipating a situation

when you break up with him, I can't break up with him.

So once I allow somebody to come into the game,

I'm never ever gonna stop them from playing the game.

So, sure enough, that situation happened,

so it can be a little bit awkward at times.

But it means a lot to be able to have my daughter

play the game and to have her interested in the game,

and she obviously knows what the game means to me, for sure.

I think there's an assumption that at some point,

we're all gonna grow up and we're gonna stop playing games,

and so people will say, "How does your game end?

"How's it gonna end?"

And it's like, well, my answer is always,

"How does the world end?

"How is your end gonna end?"

"Well, it's probably gonna end when I die."

For you, it ends, right?

And so, the answer's largely the same.

It's much like life.

More than anything else, the game represents friendship,


Inside the 40 Year-Long Dungeons & Dragons Game | Obsessed | WIRED (1)

- [Narrator] Remember that game of D&D

you started when you were 11?

What if it never stopped?

- My name is Robert Wardhaugh.

I am a history professor

at the University of Wester Ontario.

I am a dungeon master

for a campaign that has been going on for 40 years.

- [Narrator] What began in secret with a few friends

has turned into a game that takes up much of Robert's life,

and most of his house.

Robert has around 30,000 hand-painted figurines,

countless custom made pieces of terrain

and dozens of devoted players taking part in his campaign.

- If you're gonna keep a game going for 40 years,

it's gonna have to be a good game.

If you're gonna have people who are gonna wanna play

and are gonna wanna fly in,

you're gonna have to offer a product

that is going to be better than all the other alternatives

that are out there.

I can certainly say with confidence

that this is the best Dungeons and Dragons game

in the world.

[cinematic music]

So if I'm playing for 10 hours a week,

at 52 weeks in a year,

that means, if I'm doing that times 40,

that would be 20,800 hours.

- [Producer] How many minutes is that?

[Robert laughs]

- So if I figured that out in minutes,

that would end up being 1.24 million minutes, I think.

As you crest the ridge, there seems to be quite a commotion.

You estimate it could be as many as two dozen or so goblins.

You surprise them as much as they have surprised you.

I need a surprise roll.

- [Narrator] That's really just the start.

Almost every major decision in Robert's life

is designed to keep the game going.

- When I was buying a house, the most important part for me

was getting a gaming space that I could use.

My entire basement is my gaming area.

- [Narrator] If he doesn't slow down,

he's gonna need a bigger house.

[light music]

- I have a lot of figs.

I've got Orcs, I've got elves, I've got dwarves,

I've got all the basic things that you'd expect,

but I also have very distinct and unique figs.

I have vampires, I have undead, I have zombies,

I have werewolves, beholders.

Tiamat, the mother of all dragons.

All the big demonic lords from the Demogorgon.

- The Demogorgon!

[kids groaning]

- What deep [beep].

- But also heroes.

So all the great kings and queens of countries,

the high level wizards, all of these things.

My goal is to have everything.

- [Narrator] But what's the point

of having so many figurines

if you don't have any amazing terrain to place them on?

Robert has no shortage in that department either.

- I need to be able to adapt

to wherever the party's gonna go.

That means that I need to have my green terrains,

I need to have mountain terrain,

I need to have all of my winter terrain, my desert terrains,

my water terrains.

If they're gonna go into a town, now I need a town.

Okay, are they in a Roman town?

Are they in an Anglo-Saxon town?

Are they in an African town?

Is it high medieval?

Is it low medieval?

So now I'm trying to be able to put out a village or a town

for every one of these historical settings.

[door opens and shuts]

I can't put figurines on the table

unless they are painted up to a certain level.

That means that someone's gotta do

a heck of a lot of painting, and so that ends up being me.

If you found me on an average day working on the game,

you'd probably see me in my painting room

and I'm gonna be spending two, three, four hours

painting figs.

- [Producer] And do people take their figs home?

- No, no.

Nobody is allowed to take their figurines home.

Nobody is actually allowed to touch the figs on the table.

So that's also something that'll be different.

A person who played Dungeons and Dragons

would probably come to my table

and they would immediately reach over to grab their fig,

and I'm probably gonna growl at them

and tell them, "Don't touch the figs",

'cause I have to move everything.

I'm sure my critics would say

that there's a God complex going on about that.

This here is the figurine of the demon lord Orcus.

It's well known to Dungeons and Dragons,

and in my campaign, 100 years ago,

which would be, in actual time, something like maybe 1989,

the group banished this demon, so they thought that's fine.

Only recently, last year actually, the demon's back.

They don't know where he is,

they're desperately trying to find him

and he's definitely up to no good.

- [Narrator] While fantasy role playing and nerd culture

are often celebrated today,

Robert's campaign started during a time

when people felt like they needed to play in secret.

- In the 80s and 90s, it was certainly more difficult

to try to talk about or explain the game to people.

I grew up in a very small town

and it was quite a conservative town,

and so the town inevitably found out that we were playing

and they didn't know what the heck we were doing,

and Dungeons and Dragons had very bad press at the time.

- Tonight, we begin with a story

about make-believe adventure and real life violence,

what some critics fear is a connection between the two

in a game called Dungeons and Dragons.

- A movie came out while we were playing

called "Mazes and Monsters",

and it's the story of how they play this game

and then they try to act it out in real life

and basically bad things certainly happen.

- Can you tell me of the giant dragon?

On my travels here, I heard him.

- What's now called the satanic panic

was going on at the time.

"Why does my son want to play this game all the time?

"Why is he obsessed about it?

"What are you doing to him?

"Are you a cult leader?"

I get called a cult leader, a Communist,

all these crazy labels.

When I watched "Stranger Things",

it obviously hit home for me.

- [Mike] It is almost here.

- What is it?

- What if it's the Demogorgon?

Oh Jesus, we're so screwed if it's the Demogorgon.

- It's not the Demogorgon.

- The whole concept matched exactly what we were doing

in the early 1980s.

- [Narrator] Over the following decades,

Robert went on to build a campaign of unrivaled complexity.

- One of the things that makes my game unique is the story

and the depth of the campaign.

My world is an alternative fantasy version

of historical Earth

within other historical aspects added to it.

So if somebody comes in and they want to go to Athens,

I can now bring in that history, philosophy, religion,

into the game.

I'm able to create what I need to create,

come up with totally new races, totally new nations,

totally new cultures, totally new mythologies,

but also to use what the world already has.

- [Narrator] A typical dungeon master curates the quest

for a handful of players over the course of a few months.

Robert, meanwhile, is tracking the adventures

of more than 50 players,

with story arcs that often span decades.

- Since the beginning,

there's probably been about 500 characters

that have been made and played within the game.

When a new player comes in, I'm inviting them to play a game

that they're gonna be welcome to keep playing until I die.

So you could start a character,

nine generations later, that family could take over,

let's say, the Roman Empire.

On one level, you're playing that individual character.

On a macro level, you're also controlling the Roman Empire.

So there are numerous story arcs that are going on.

Many of those last for generations.

There's love stories, romances.

There's quests, there's vengeance.

All these things are happening.

So even though there is this large campaign quest,

this large ultimate goal, you've got literally thousands

of sub-plots and sub-campaigns going on.

[people talking]

- [Narrator] From the beginning, Robert quickly learned

which rules could be bent and which rules could be broken.

- When we started playing,

there was probably a short period of time

when I played according to the actual rules.

But after that, I had to fill in holes,

and so I developed my own rule system

and I've never really gone back.

So I have what gamers would call a home brew rule system,

and actually that's how the game was intended.

When the game first came out,

one of the lines in the dungeon master guide

told you that these are a set of rules,

but to apply these loosely.

And within my game and my world,

there are all kinds of different aspects

that you wouldn't see

in an ordinary Dungeons and Dragons rule system.

My rules are fast, they're quick flowing,

people don't have to stop and check things,

and that speed of gameplay

is something that I find so different in my game

from ordinary Dungeons and Dragons.

- [Narrator] Robert strives to keep the stakes

as high as possible for his players,

especially when it comes to life and death consequences

for their characters.

- I want death to mean something.

I don't want this to be like a video game

that you simply hit the reset button

and you're just gonna start a new character.

So when your character dies,

if you don't have any other characters,

then you're out of the game.

The game's over for you.

And so when characters die or bad things happen,

I have seen grown men weep at the table,

and that's something also.

People who don't play are a bit disturbed

if they hear that somebody who's been playing

a character for a long time weeps at the table,

but I'm trying to create emotion.

I'm trying to create excitement.

People are scared, and knowing that if you die,

you could be out of the game

or that character that you put so much time in is now dead,

obviously people's heart rates are up,

there's emotion going on.

So I can't be shocked and surprised when that character dies

that there's a show of emotion.

I have one daughter, and ever since she was a baby,

she's been around it.

I think maybe when she was six or seven

was the first time when she asked whether she could play,

so she created a character as a fairy

and she still plays now.

She's 20 years old.

I mean, obviously there's other stuff going on in her life

but she's been playing all the way through.

The interesting thing happens when she starts dating

and then her boyfriend wants to play,

and of course, I have to tell her straight off now,

this relationship might not last forever,

but the game's gonna last forever.

So get ready, 'cause I'm anticipating a situation

when you break up with him, I can't break up with him.

So once I allow somebody to come into the game,

I'm never ever gonna stop them from playing the game.

So, sure enough, that situation happened,

so it can be a little bit awkward at times.

But it means a lot to be able to have my daughter

play the game and to have her interested in the game,

and she obviously knows what the game means to me, for sure.

I think there's an assumption that at some point,

we're all gonna grow up and we're gonna stop playing games,

and so people will say, "How does your game end?

"How's it gonna end?"

And it's like, well, my answer is always,

"How does the world end?

"How is your end gonna end?"

"Well, it's probably gonna end when I die."

For you, it ends, right?

And so, the answer's largely the same.

It's much like life.

More than anything else, the game represents friendship,

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