The Dungeon Master by Sam Lipsyte

This week in The New Yorker magazine, there's a fiction piece by Sam Lipsyte called "The Dungeon Master". As the title implies, it largely revolves around a regular D&D game (obviously, even if the brand name isn't itself used) played by a certain DM and four players.

To my mind, it's a rather surprising throwback to 80's-style portrayals of D&D, in the tradition of Mazes & Monsters and stuff like that. The teenage boys playing are all outcasts, losers, kleptomaniacs, abusers and/or abuse survivors, mental patients, and likely suicides. While the four players have names, the DM doesn't go by any name in his social life other than "the Dungeon Master" (somewhat like the Seinfeld episode of "The Maestro"). This DM runs a nightmarish game, heaping emotional abuse on the players, repetitively killing their characters at an inn, a store, a kitchen, in bed, by disease, etc., with implicitly unfair adjudications, and without them ever seeing any actual dungeon or adventure.

Now, in its defense, the story makes some knowing nods to the fact that there are potentially other ways to interpret the game. There is a separate school-sponsored game for the kids "in gifted", although that game sounds like a Monty-Hall wish fulfillment exercise, and the players unsympathetic and described in-character as "some snotty faggots". The narrator's mom clips newspaper stories "... about how the game makes kids crazy? Makes them do horrible things?" to which the Dungeon Master responds, "The game doesn't create suicides. If anything, it postpones them." So I guess that's as good as it gets here.

Not that everything needs to be a polemic promoting my favorite game, but I was mildly surprised at what an early-80's D&D-scare-story vibe I got from reading this. I guess if I start flag-waving for an "old school renaissance", I should be careful how I phrase my wishes. :-)

Read the story here -- "The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lipsyte.


  1. How very 80s. What a throwback!

    Then again, it was in the New Yorker...

  2. I have a marginally more positive review of the story here.

    Even in more sympathetic "gaming insider" takes on D&D like Knights of the Dinner Table, the maladjusted greatly outnumber the adjusted ... there's something intrinsically more funny and interesting about a pathological campaign and players.

    The implication I read from the story is that the way they played, not the game they played, reflected or even caused their miserable life outcomes. A small difference, but an inch of progress nonetheless.

  3. Well, it's not an exposé. It's a story that uses the game as a medium to tell us things about the characters. Interestingly, when the DM finally relents in his sadism and plays the game "right", it's an empowering and imaginative experience for all the characters.

  4. @Fitzerman: Except for how that scene is really just a trap ending in real-world tears and violence.

  5. @Roger: I think I can agree with you on "the story reaches a base on balls". It's a good, fair review -- thanks for the link.

  6. Also, interesting short interview with the author. Pinged my radar with "I guess my feeling was that all of those dice and graphs were ultimately there to create a narrative, and I could use words to do the same thing."

    Which I consider to be the classic novelist misunderstanding of the games-vs-stories continuum (e.g., Hickman), and synchronizes with some of the other ways I find this particular story to be skewed.

  7. It's really disappointing to see something this tired and jaundiced. The New Yorker does, in fact, realise what a cliche it all is right?

    Yeah.. maybe they don't.

  8. Guys. It's a story by a guy who is probably our age, about playing D&D when he was a kid.

    Of course it's a jaundiced view of the game. Who didn't play a destructive pre-teen version of D&D? Show of hands, you aliens.

  9. Raising my hand. This story looks nothing like any of my D&D play experiences. The DM certainly did not ignore the rules for the purpose of abusing the players.