When I think back to the demons of my childhood, I almost always linger longest on the rust monster. Though it resembled a crudely drawn armadillo, it was the size of a mountain lion. Other, more dangerous, beasts lived in the caves where I found it; there were neither claws on its three-toed feet nor fangs in its mouth. Still, it was a frightening creature: Tentacular whiskers, each longer than a human arm, emerged from its smirking maw. Those unearthly appendages probed the empty space between us, tasting the air. Whenever they touched a metal object—my shield, my armor, my sword, my dagger—it would immediately oxidize, crumbling into a useless pile of reddish flakes. And then the rust monster would feed.
I met this creature in a solo adventure that accompanied the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons basic rule set my mother brought home from the library. Before our fateful encounter, I would ably fight off less-challenging antagonists like giant rats and angry goblins, but the rust monster, which presided over a cache of precious gems, undid me. It wasn’t the beast’s own stats—its formidable hit points or the difficulty of piercing its armored hide—that frightened me, but its ability to literally eat away at my own protective gear. Our struggle would leave me defenseless. I’d flee the cavern with only my fists to fight back against the other horrors that lurked in the dark and only my thin skin to protect me against their jagged blades.
In Dungeons & Dragons, as in many of the role-playing games that it spawned, almost everything is reducible to numbers. As a player, you take on the identity of an adventurer who sets off on quests with others, always guided (and sometimes antagonized) by a storyteller known as the dungeon master. The basic outlines of your character—whether you wanted to play a noble paladin, a winsome elfin bard, or something else altogether—are usually a matter of personal choice. Traditionally, however, a series of complex die rolls determine the more structural details: how strong and clever you are, how much punishment you can endure, and so on.
Your equipment (all that metal stuff the rust monster destroyed) further enhanced and transformed those details, from how much damage you dealt when you struck an enemy to how quickly you moved. Most importantly of all, you gained experience as you fought your way through hordes of enemies, increasing your capabilities as your level grew. While other qualities were harder to quantify, including alignment, a measure of your ethical compass, they still felt like statistics in an important way. At the core, this mass of data was you—or was, at least, the character you played.
Though the game’s exact influence is difficult to pin down, many of the ways we live today mirror this data-driven approach to identity. There’s certainly a clear line between Dungeons & Dragons and the gamification of everyday experience. In a Slate excerpt from his book Empire of Imagination, Michael Witwer proposes that the game’s legacy “reaches even the mainstream avenues of online social networks and social media.” Similarly, the academic writer Joseph B. Meyer has suggested that the game informed the platform Klout, which attempts to measure the “influence” of social media users. Even the app I use to learn French has an experience meter—a feature that more clearly recalls my youthful battles with orcs and skeletons than my classroom studies. Here, as in other elements of our digital lives, masses of data provide metrics for understanding individual merit.
A still more dramatic manifestation of D&D-adjacent thinking arguably powers the quantitative self-movement, which aims to improve our corporeal experiences by encouraging us to contemplate the data our bodies generate. When we measure our sleep cycles, count our steps, track our heart rates, and otherwise record the details of daily life, we effectively set out to assemble digital duplicates of ourselves. Numbers come to stand in for one’s whole person, the better to level up our stats with experience.
None of this is entirely new, of course: We’ve long been collecting data on ourselves, numerical and otherwise. Literate scholars had surely been recording their bowel movements for eons before paper was plentiful enough to wipe with. More familiar historical eccentrics—Swift, Boswell, Rousseau, and beyond—composed similar personal inventories, though they did so with varying degrees of seriousness. Even the playful French writer Georges Perec (who to the best of my knowledge knew nothing of Dungeons & Dragons) once rounded up everything he claimed he had consumed in 1974.
More systematic and collective data-gathering about the status of individual bodies likewise dates back centuries. As Michel Foucault argues in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, secularized models of confession provided a basis for sociopolitical norms long before the Kinsey Reports turned private bedrooms into popular peep shows. Such statistics have, of course, only grown more pervasive, as we see in projects such as Slate’s own sex frequency calculator, which invites you to evaluate how your own erotic performance stacks up against that of your peers. Our character sheets may not have always been so explicit, but they’ve likely been with us in one form or another since we started counting on our fingers.
Dungeons & Dragons’ creators obviously did not invent the quantified self any more than they did our fascination with measuring our sexual prowess, but their approach may have given us something more valuable: the tools to question our often-willing reduction of the individual to mere numbers. In the worlds it helped us create, we learned to distrust data, recognizing that it was not the end of our stories, only the beginning.
Think again of the rust monster, a creature I met near the start of my own adventures. The old rulebook in which I first discovered it describes its predations in largely statistical terms, telling me how it will make my other enemies stronger: “If you lose your shield, give them a +1 bonus. If you lose your armor, give them a total +7 bonus to their Hit Rolls.” When the rust monster destroyed my accessories, in other words, it turned me into something less than myself. No longer a sign of my strength, these numbers became an index of my fragility.
The rust monster was terrifying, then, because it exposed me to the fact of contingency. Though the game had always been governed by die rolls, my character was now dramatically exposed to their polyhedral eventualities. Later, I would learn of similar monstrosities that awaited me in the deeps: Barrow-bound wights could drain away whole experience levels with a single touch, abruptly depriving characters of hard-won progress earned over hours of questing. Lovecraftian mind flayers could burrow into your skull, sometimes permanently stealing intelligence points. Nothing, I learned, was stable: not my equipment, not the progress I had made, not even my supposedly fundamental characteristics. Only chance was real, and it threatened to destabilize every semblance of certainty.
Here, though, I think not of the rust monster, but of where it came from and what happened after I sparred with it. It was, I would eventually learn, a creation of Gary Gygax, co-designer of the original Dungeons & Dragons system. As the gaming historian Kent David Kelly tells it, Gygax had been inspired by a bag of Chinese toys that he used to populate the imaginary mazes through which he led his friends and children. He found other beasts in that eclectic set as well—among them the owlbear and the umber hulk—that would grow into hallmarks of his seminal Monster Manual. These oddities may have been plastic, but it was the plasticity of Gygax’s mind that brought them to life.
Responding to a 2008 Slate essay critical of Gygax, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, “D&D’s rules were always supposed to be guidelines; following them in a rote, strict manner violates the whole idea of role-playing.” When I fled the rust monster, I was responding to those rules, but the narrative I wove was entirely my own. It wasn’t the data or the unfortunate die rolls that stuck with me but my own terror, the story I assembled around the numbers. I came to love Dungeons & Dragons in that moment because it made me a coward. Later, weaving other tales for my friends over cluttered tabletops, I would watch them become heroes.
The ideology of big data—still the ruling rhetoric of our moment if only because we have internalized it—holds that numbers tell our stories. Dungeons & Dragons suggests a different possibility: that numbers are only as good as the stories we use them to tell.