Dungeons & Dragons: New Graphic Novel Exposes Heart of Geek Game Culture

David Kushner and Koren Shadmi tell story of role playing game in 'Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D'

David Kushner says playing Dungeons & Dragons felt "felt underground at the time, subversive, empowering." Credit: Paul Rodriguez/The Orange County Register/Zuma

Sometimes, a good story leaves behind the seeds of other stories, plots and templates that others can use in their own work. The story that writer David Kushner and artist Koren Shadmi are telling in their new book Rise of the Dungeon Master is about just that. It's about the creation of something that changed storytelling – and one of the tools it involves is a twenty-sided die.

"To me," Kushner says, "Dungeons & Dragons is the mothership of geek culture." Kushner wrote about Gary Gygax for WIRED in 2008, shortly before Gygax's death later that year. Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D builds on the work that he did in the article, but also introduces another aspect by shifting things into another medium. Shadmi's artwork is equally adept at capturing the nuances of interpersonal interactions (Gygax being awakened by a phone call from a player eager for him to clarify a rule, for instance) as it is in dramatizing actions within the game, occasionally showing teams of clerics, wizards and rogues in pitched battle with mystical creatures, and finding places where the mundane and fantastic can blend.

Telling the story was also personal to Kushner. He has been a fan of the game since childhood. 

"I started playing when around 4th grade, so like late Seventies. I was heavily into MAD magazine, Atari, comics, so being drawn to D&D was a given. It felt underground at the time, subversive, empowering, even though we were too young to know what all that meant."

"I've always been a fan of comics and graphic novels," Kushner adds. The appeal of using the comics medium for a biography – in Kushner's telling, a style that hasn’t been widely explored in nonfiction comics–was also a factor in the making of Rise of the Dungeon Master.

"Doing it as a graphic novel, you could do things that you couldn’t do in an ordinary book," Kushner recalls. "We can add that kind of magic realism when they're creating Dungeons & Dragons and you see the monsters invade their real lives."

Kushner speaks highly of his collaboration with Shadmi, whose other work includes the books Love Addict and The Abaddon. "We met several times and talked about the vision for the book and how it would unfold from a first person point of view, as if you're playing Dungeons & Dragons," Kushner says. He compares the experience to screenwriting – after plotting the book out, he says, "I'd write a script and we would go back and forth on that, and then [Shadmi] would bring that to life."

Since its debut in 1974, the cultural impact of Dungeons & Dragons is something that's waxed and waned. It's been adapted for other media, including a Saturday morning cartoon in the 1980s and a poorly-received 2000 movie. Now, though, it's reached a point of virtual ubiquity: high-profile fans include Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert, and the game and its creators have had an impact on everything from cult hits (experimental punks Pitchblende's 1996 album Gygax!, multiple episodes of Community) to wildly popular television series like Stranger Things.

Kushner and Shadmi's book isn't the only biography of Gygax to emerge in recent years, either: Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons was published in 2015. One could argue that the existence of multiple books focusing on Gygax’s life and the shifting fortunes of his creation are yet another sign of the depth to which Dungeons & Dragons has become embedded in pop culture.

Rise of the Dungeon Master also covers the time in the early 1980s when Dungeons & Dragons drew the ire of religious conservatives and other moralizing types. Jack Chick drew a comic suggesting the game might draw people into the occult, and a 1982 television movie starring a young Tom Hanks, Mazes and Monsters, suggested that gamers might be unable to distinguish the game from reality.

Kushner's beat as a writer includes numerous forays into the place where gaming, technology, culture and industry converge. Among his books are 2003's Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture and 2012’s Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto. The story of Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons echoes and anticipates much of what was to come in the industry–and even as he focuses on tensions between Gygax and some of his contemporaries (including the game's co-creator, Dave Arneson), Kushner is sensitive to the game's broader influence on society.

Kushner describes the creation of Dungeons & Dragons as "this incredible startup story." And it's an interesting wrinkle on the tale of how Gygax created D&D but fell victim to bad luck and unfortunate business dealings–including a power struggle that cost him his control of TSR, the company he co-founded to distribute the game. Kushner's description of things could just as easily describe a Silicon Valley startup in 2017: "How did these guys come out of nowhere and create a whole new kind of game experience, and spawn a culture and an industry that has become so ubiquitous today?'"

He's also conscious of how the game may have influenced storytelling as a whole. "D&D was a tool kit that other people that use to create their own experiences," he says. "That was a really radical idea." And throughout the book, Kushner navigates the paradox inherent in D&D: it's a set of rules for a game that also promises a wholly unique experience.

"One of the most thrilling things that I've ever experienced in 20 years of reporting was being able to sit down and play a game with [Gygax]," Kushner says. This dates back to his visit to Gygax at his home while working on the piece for WIRED all those years ago.

Along the way, Kushner also learned an interesting fact about Gygax: “I went to visit him in Lake Geneva, and I said, 'Will you show me around? Let's go on a tour,'" Kushner recalls. "He said, 'Okay, but you've got to drive, because I don’t have a license.'"

Kushner’s account of the interview suggests that any filmmakers seeking to make a gaming-centric version of The End of the Tour will have some comic gold on their hands. “I conducted the interview with him in the passenger seat and the seat belt beeping the whole time, because he wouldn’t buckle up,” he says.

Kushner doesn't play the game all that regularly these days. "[I]t takes more work to get people together in the same room," he says. "You need a concerted effort to do that." Though the game's ubiquity has also, for him, changed some of the way playing has been perceived. "D&D is everywhere now; it infuses other games." And in Rise of the Dungeon Master, Kushner and Shadmi demonstrate just how we got to that point.