David Kushner on exploring the journey of D&D in Rise of the Dungeon Master

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Jun 27, 2017

Over the last few years, it feels like Dungeons & Dragons has experienced a bit of a renaissance. The tabletop role-playing game is appearing in all corners of media, from TV to podcasts, with new generations discovering its appeal.

If this resurgence has made you curious about the game's origins and how it grew to what it is today, you're in luck! A new graphic novel written by journalist David Kushner, with illustrations by Koren Shadmi, explores that origin story.

Kushner published an article in 2008 about the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, and it's that article about how the popular game was created that's given new life in Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D. Released in May, the book explores Gygax's life, the other co-creator and individuals who contributed to D&D, and the popularity of the game today. Its illustrations and the way it casts you in the roles of Gygax and the others offers a unique way to learn about and experience this classic game's history.

We spoke with Kushner about the new book, what it was like adapting his article to this format and whether there might be more graphic novels in his future.

What's your background with Dungeons & Dragons?

David Kushner: Not to date myself here, but I played when I was growing up in the '70s, so I was I guess part of that first D&D generation. For me, I think like a lot of people at the time, interests went hand in hand, so there was a good chance if you were interested in video games and science fiction and comics you'd be interested in Dungeons & Dragons, so I definitely fit that bill. D&D was very new and different at that time, and it was this cultural phenomenon that I participated in. Then, as I grew older and as I just became a writer, I always maintained a fascination with the game, not only as a source of recreation and entertainment but as an influential piece of popular culture that I thought maybe hadn't gotten its due.

The graphic novel is adapted from an article you wrote. Can you tell us a little bit about that article and what it was like meeting Gary Gygax?

I did a story for Wired magazine back in 2008, and it was a profile of Gary Gygax. I went to meet him at his home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, during a gaming convention he was organizing and was genuinely thrilled to meet the guy. He's kind of like the Jerry Garcia of gaming. People came from all over to meet him, and certainly just for me personally it was a thrill to meet him and also play a game with him. To have him DM a game was incredible.

Sadly, it ended up being one of his last interviews, because he died not long after that, so the story that came out in Wired, my piece, ended up being kind of a posthumous reflection also on his legacy, and it wasn't just him. I also went down to Florida and I met with the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Dave Arneson, who also passed away not long after Gygax, and interviewed a few other people in and around the D&D universe. So meeting him was a real thrill, and then all these years later, I was always thinking about that story and thinking about how I could explore it further and go into other areas that I didn't include in the article, and I thought it would be fun to do it as a graphic novel.

Have you worked in graphic novels before? How did the idea come about to adapt that article into this form?

No, this is the first time that I've collaborated on a graphic novel. I've just always been interested in the form of comics. As a comics reader, I always loved them and thinking a lot about how you could tell true stories in graphic novels. I think that I just saw opportunity for a journalist like myself to collaborate with an illustrator like Koren Shadmi, because a lot of graphic novels are done by one person. The author is the illustrator, the illustrator is the author. In terms of nonfiction there's a lot of graphic memoirs that fall under that category. There's not as many collaborations that I found between journalists and illustrators to create graphic novels, and I was really intrigued by that, because I'm lucky if I can draw a stick figure. Also, Koren's a gamer himself and he grew up on D&D, so it was a good match and we had a lot of fun making it.

What was the process like working together, and what additional work did you have to do for the book?

From my standpoint, it was almost like I was writing a screenplay. I was kind of adapting the work that I'd done into a script form, essentially. Basically, I wrote a script based on my story and then gave it to Koren, and we would go back and forth about "Well, I was there; maybe here are ways it can be illustrated," and he would then come back to me, and so that's how the collaboration worked. It started with the article, with the research I'd done and I expanded on. For example, there's a part of the book that gets more in-depth into the disappearance of Dallas Egbert, who was this gamer in the '70s who went missing in the steam tunnels of Michigan. That was something I was like, "I think I want to go further into that story," so we ended up bringing that all together. Then just from the get-go [I wanted] to bring a real fantasy element to the storytelling so that it was an homage to the game, so a lot of the book is told in second person, where the reader is like a character, just like you are in D&D. I don't think I would ever do that. I would never write in second person, well, never say never, but that was an explicit choice because of the material. It seemed organic to the story that we were telling.

What was the hardest part of that process?

I think it's always hard to explain something unfamiliar to people. Especially a game like Dungeons & Dragons, because anything I write I'm trying to reach a general audience, so how do you convey something like D&D to someone who has no idea what it is? And maybe they don't even care or they have biases. That's a challenge. How do you do that? How do you take someone into the world, and how do you explain the rules of the game? How does it work? So doing that in a way that doesn't get bogged down, that's a challenge. Keeping it moving and just distilling it all into a comic book of the right length.

How do you think this graphic novel then can appeal to those who might not know anything about D&D as well as those who are familiar with the game?

I hope so, like I said, that's my hope for everything I do. I'm always trying to reach people who maybe aren't familiar with something, because you know it's a personal passion too. D&D is important, and there's a part of me that wants the world to understand why. Why should we care about this? Why is the show Stranger Things so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons? What is that about? I think it's a double thing, because hopefully people who would never pick up a comic or a graphic novel might pick it up and read it, and I've already heard that from people. People who maybe they've never read a graphic novel. I think it's a fun, accessible way to learn true stories that I think is far from being fully realized. I think it's a fantastic way to reach readers, because sometimes you don't need to write a 300-page single-spaced book to tell a story, so I'm excited by the opportunity that can be had, and this was a way of sort of getting my feet wet, and I definitely intend to do more nonfiction graphic novels or bio comics, comics journalism. Whatever you want to call it!

So you’re interested in doing more work with graphic novels? What about more on Dungeons & Dragons?

D&D I don't know. I feel like I've done this, but graphic novels definitely I feel like there's many, many more stories to be told in this form, and it allows me as a writer to tell stories in a very unique way, so I'm definitely looking forward to doing more.

Rise of the Dungeon Master is available now.