“The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte – another of 2011’s “Best American Short Stories”

For the second week in a row, the luck of the draw has led me to read a short story from my anthology “The Best American Short Stories of 2011.” I drew the nine of diamonds. Diamonds are my suit for new to me authors in my annual short story reading project, Deal Me In. This is the ninth story I’ve read from this anthology, and the fourth of those to which I’d give my highest recommendation.


The Dungeon Master – as you might guess form the title – is a story that provides a quick look into the demimonde of RPG’ers (role-playing gamers). As Lipsyte notes in the contirubtor’s comments section of the anthology, the story took about twenty years to germinate before fully blossoming, putting its genesis back around 1990, before these types of games were fully benefitting from Computer enhancements. I.e., the dungeon master rolls dice (doubtlessly many-sided) to determine characters’ fate in this story.


The story’s narrator is a 14-year old boy, who we only know by his character name (Valium) in the game, and who is one of a small band of social misfits that regularly gather at The Dungeon Master’s house (or rather, his dad’s house) to play the RPG. Most readers will recognize this small group from their own school days, whether from being part of a similar one themselves, or just knowing “that kind of kid” from their own experience. There are, I’m sure, social pockets of friends like this everywhere even today, though the games they play have certainly evolved. And how surprised should we be that social outcasts, frequently picked on, would flee to another world, – even an imagined one of their own creation – as often as possible?


There is ample humor interspaced with the narrative too. Even the first sentence: “The Dungeon Master had detention,” contributes. Among the place names in their game world are things like “Mount Total Woe” and and inn named “The Jaundiced Chimera.” The dungeon master of this story is a harsher one than others who play the game would tolerate, but his small group seem to be willing to face the consequences of the strict worlds of his creation. He seems to be trying to teach them how better to handle the world: “…as the Dungeon Master hopes to teach us, the world is not a decent place to live.”

Although I personally never got caught up in the Dungeon and Dragons craze, I did enjoy this story, and I was surprised to see that it can apparently be read online at The New Yorker: It was originally published in the October 4, 2010 issue.

It’s even fairly short. You should give it a read.

Are you familiar with the role-playing gamer’s world? I’ve always been fascinated by those who get caught up in it. I even live in the city where the annual, HUGE “GenCon” convention is held, uniting all kinds of “gamers” from all over the country and world. Many even roam the downtown area IN COSTUME during this extended weekend. Always a fun time of year to people watch… 🙂

(below: anyone see the 1982 TV-movie adaptation of Rona Jaffe’s novel, “Mazes and Monsters?” It capitalized on the nascent Dungeons and Dragons craze at the time and focused on the obssessive nature of some of the game’s players that became a stereotype.  In the still from the movie below, can you identify that actor in the upper left? 🙂 It was actually pretty decent for a tv movie; worth a watch if you can find it.)



  1. Dale said,

    November 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Is the actor Tom Hanks? The picture only vaguely resembles him but I seem to recall him somehow being involved in this movie. I played Dungeons and Dragons one time in the seventies. I would have been relatively young and it confused me. Even now, I can’t seem to really get into any kind of video/computer games. But this story sounds like another good one!


    • Jay said,

      November 18, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      Hi Dale,

      We have a winner! Yes, that’s Tom Hanks. If memory serves, he plyed the one who developed mental problems from becoming lost in his character and the game.

      This was a great story. Very well done, I thought.



  2. hkatz said,

    November 19, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I never joined a D&D club, but especially in late elementary school and part of junior high I played it sometimes. I enjoyed being the dungeon master, because I liked coming up with the world and the stories. One of the maps I drew up for D&D later became the basis of a novel I wrote for fun in high school for my friends. These days when the mood strikes I play a text-based RPG game on the computer (called Sryth) where you also have to roll for stats and during combats.

    I’m also interested in other women’s experiences with these kinds of games. There are many women who play computer games in general, including the kinds that are stereotyped as being for men (such as Call of Duty) and I know several who love D&D, but it hasn’t always been easy for them to find a welcoming space in clubs and sometimes in the culture more generally. But really the face of D&D and, more generally, gaming culture is quite diverse – there’s the stereotype of the nerdy white social outcast, but it’s much more varied than that.

    Anyway, I’d like to read this one 🙂


    • Jay said,

      November 20, 2013 at 11:01 am

      Hi hkatz,

      I guess, truth be told, my little brother and I did play some version of RPG, though not D&D. We bought some similar game, read the excessively complex instructions and decided to makeup our own game instead, but cannibalizing the best parts & ideas from the purchased one. We made maps and stuff, and played for a few years as one, linear chronology – somehow our characters were multi-generational. Remembering it now, it WAS a lot of fun.

      I’m aware of the stereotype of the gamers being predominantly male, but here each year for GenCon, there are always plenty of women in the crowds too.

      The story itself is more about the people than the game, but I suspect you’d like it.



  3. November 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I really wanted to enjoy this story along with the others from the collection The Fun Parts. There was just something lacking (also with the others). I think Lipsyte is a really funny and great author but these stories didn’t do it for me. Halfway through, I couldn’t finish the collection. With that said, The Dungeon Master was halfway decent but there are just so many better short stories.

    Try his novels. The Ask was very good.


    • Jay said,

      November 25, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation re “The Ask”, I’ll have to check that one out. As for The Dungeon Master, i guess we can maybe agree to disagree… 🙂


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