As It Happens

'This is my passion,' says man who's been running Dungeons & Dragons campaign for over 38 years

A London, Ont., man who has been playing the same game of Dungeons & Dragons for more than 38 years says he has no intentions of ever stopping. 

Some players have created generations of characters from the same family line, says Robert Wardhaugh

Robert Wardhaugh has been running a single campaign of the classic fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons for over 38 years. (Submitted by Jason Hashimoto)

A London, Ont., man who has been playing the same game of Dungeons & Dragons for more than 38 years says he has no intentions of ever stopping. 

Western University history professor Robert Wardhaugh has been running a single campaign of the classic fantasy game since he was a teenager in rural Saskatchewan in 1982. 

"There hasn't been a time when I've gone longer than a couple weeks without playing," Wardhaugh told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"There's no real end to it.... Well, I guess when I end, it'll end."

First released in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game in which people embody characters of their own creation and, together, weave a story.

The dungeon master — in this case, Wardhaugh — guides the adventure along by building the universe, crafting story arcs, setting parameters and introducing obstacles for the characters. 

It's that freedom to be creative that initially drew Wardhaugh to the game when he was 14 years old, he says, and it's what keeps him playing now. 

"You're able to do things in the game that you can't do in an ordinary game. I mean, we all grew up playing board games and card games, but the rules are very set. And so all of a sudden, you begin to push back the boundaries on those rules," he said.

"I have people who created a character and now they're playing the 13th generation of that same family line, so they've developed massive dynasties and family trees and all these things."

The Western University history professor's campaign dates back to the '80s. (Submitted by Jason Hashimoto)

The universe Wardhaugh has created combines two of his greatest passions — world history, and the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien

"The world that I created even back in 1982, it's very much based around an alternative version of our history. So within the world that I created, even though it's very Tolkienesque, you have ancient Rome, you have ancient Greece, Sumerian, Babylonian, Indigenous nations," he said.

"Every pre-gunpowder society that exists in our history, I have incorporated into my world."

And he bring it alive with detailed props — more than 30,000 hand-painted miniatures, and elaborate handcrafted terrains, all of which he keeps on display in his basement.

"Obviously, this is my passion. It's my hobby. It's my creative outlet," he said. "And so the amount of time and work and effort that I can pour into that, I mean, I'm never bored."

From 'Satanic Panic' to pandemic 

When Wardhaugh began his campaign with a few close friends in Borden, Sask., the western media was gripped with so-called "Satanic Panic," and anything that appeared remotely occult-like or otherworldly was a source of controversy.

"There certainly was all kinds of concerns over how could these boys be playing this game for hours on end and why do they want to play it so badly. And of course, my answer was always because it's a fantastic game that allows such opportunity for creativity. But when people don't understand things, they tend to see it as dangerous," Wardhaugh said. 

"In a very small town that I grew up in, there certainly was concern among parents and the community that we were possibly getting into something that could be cult-like, or something like that. So I did my best to try to convince them otherwise. But when you're a 14-year-old boy, you don't have much of a voice."

Since those early days, Wardhaugh's campaign has grown significantly.

He now has about 60 players from far and wide who rotate in and out of the game. Some are old friends he's been playing with all his life. Others are new players he's picked up along the way.

Since the pandemic hit, he says they're playing more than ever — sometimes two or three times a week — with most people participating virtually.

People need an escape, he said, and something to talk about other than the horrible headlines. 

"It's a game about personal connection," he said. "Whereas people are playing video games these days and you're off in front of a screen for so many hours, what's also made the game unique and powerful is that it brings people together."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Peterson. 

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