Monday afternoon I created Rowlfwicke Banes, the Weretouched. He is, I learned that same day, a Shifter of the Ranger class with an affinity for his Composite Longbow. He’s a creature of the outdoors – a tree climber, good swimmer, great dexterity, but not very bright and horrible around other people (… or orcs, or elves, or, like, lizardfolk, or anything really). When he shifts (when he transforms from sort of human-like to really hairy and mean) he becomes an expert tracker with the best sense of smell in his party. Even though he has perfect eyesight (he can see colors in pitch black darkness, dontcha know?) he wears a pair of glasses, because… well, because I wear glasses and they make him look cool in my head. There’s something immensely awesome and, well, relatable about imagining this lanky werebeast with a crossbow and light armor, sideburns and claws, running around the forests of an unexplored continent in glasses that look like my glasses. It all reminds me of Beast, my favorite X-Man, which is really why I decided to go in the Shifter direction in the first place. Yep, my avatar in this new Dungeons & Dragons adventure we’ve got cooking here in my neck of the woods, the first I have ever participated in, ever even come close to participating in, ever seen play out before my confused but dazzled eyes, is just like Hank McCoy, alias Beast, except taller and more gaunt, much less blue, and with a splendidly low IQ.
I dressed up as Beast two years ago for Halloween. I’d never really gotten invested in to dressing up for Halloween before, but I found this neat costume shop around the corner from my apartment and X-Men 3 had come out pretty recently, Kelsey Grammer made a great Beast, and I knew, in a moment of clarity, that the perfect costume for me was only a few tubes of blue face makeup away.
I was at it for hours. When I dress up for costume parties, I always look completely ludicrous until the moment that I don’t anymore. Suddenly, the disparate, mongrel elements I am trying to marry in order to form the picture I have in my head click, and I look in the mirror and go, “Yep, there it is. I’m not Charles anymore. I am now, for this night, this other person.” Until that moment came on that Halloween night, I will say that I looked absolutely absurd in every conceivable way possible in the grand plane of human existence. You can go ahead and laugh at me. It’s okay, I understand. When I wasn’t pulling my hair out and telling myself there was no way I was going through with this even as I kept applying more and more blue makeup to my face, you can bet I was laughing at me. I was laughing at me pretty hard.
My face, neck, and hands were painted blue. I had attempted to dye my hair blue as well, but since my hair is black, my hair just kind-of took on a blackish-purple hue that was distressingly not blue. The fake sideburns I had applied to my face with impossible to apply costume glue, however, were black. They would not take on the blue dye I was coaxing them to accept, even when I asked them very nicely. I had purchased fake elf ears to give myself the pointy ear affect, but they also, in all their plasticy wonder, would not take on any property of blueness, remaining forever a pale elven white. I hated those ears with a passion. I also had purchased fake vampire fangs which I kept switching from upper jaw to lower jaw, trying to see which looked less absurd and more Beastly. For my attire, I chose the casual, hanging-around-Xavier’s-mansion get-up over a leather jumpsuit because, well, it was a leather jumpsuit or rent for the next month, and I chose rent. Accordingly, I wore a blue shirt, to give the effect that my chest was blue (clever boy) and, over my “blue skin,” I wore an unbuttoned, longsleeve overshirt. This combination gave the effect that I was a sad young man with a perpetual slouch wearing a loose-fitting blue shirt. Where was the superhero inside me?
In my piece de resistance, I grabbed a seldom used pillow from my closet, tied a string around its center to make it butterfly out, and stuffed it up that blue shirt. This was my barrel chest. I had my abs. My roommates, aghast, encouraged me to do away with that pillow and just accept my schlubby posture as heroic enough, but I had none of it. I kept dyeing my hair, kept moving those teeth and kept adjusting that pillow until, suddenly I looked up into the mirror and saw that I had completely achieved the effect I was going for. Someone else was staring back at me. That someone else’s makeup was bit splotchy on the forehead, and his arms and legs didn’t quite have the muscle definition that his torso had, but he was a hero — and not just any hero, but the hero that I saw as closest to my own heart, the heart of a big, doofy-looking guy who you wouldn’t expect to be a gentle, docile, pure-hearted lover of words, but who was. I went to that Halloween party, and I was the talk of the room. I’m no fool, to be sure, most of that was because I was a six foot one giant blue man who, with fake abs, was about three feet wide. That definitely had something to do with it. But also, my costume was thoroughly conceived and thought out, it displayed a devil-may-care dedication to really embracing the Halloween spirit, and I acted my role well. It felt good. I felt good.
I relay this embarrassing but fondly remembered story from my past in order to highlight that I, Charles Gustine — a young man who had spent hours before a mirror trying to recreate himself as a blue masterpiece in the image of his favorite superhero, and who embraced the chance to play the role of strong but gentle, misunderstood Beast for a night of gallivanting — had, until last night, refused to participate in role-playing games. Specifically I hadn’t deigned it appropriate for me to try out Dungeons & Dragons, which I classified as too nerdy and out there for my taste. Me, Beast Boy! That’s rich in irony, no?
A few months ago, a healthy number of my band friends put together a game of D&D that they’ve been playing ever since. Some of them have been playing D&D longer then my little sister has been alive. Some of them were introduced to the game the minute they walked in the door that day. If I’d heard anything about this group formation at the time, I ignored it, because this group didn’t register on my radar until I started hearing the inside jokes. From the mishaps they shared on adventures, they started coming up with absurd nicknames for each other. My initial reaction was to roll my eyes. Then I became curious in a guarded sort of way. They began recounting adventures to each other as if they had actually happened, and I wondered, had they actually happened? What were they doing when they entered this other world, and how was it creating this bond?
My knowledge of the game to that point was cursory at best, shamefully lacking at worst. I had no idea how you played the game, just that when you did, you got hopelessly lost in a world that doesn’t even really exist. I do this all the time with TV shows, get lost in their imagined worlds, but when I do I’m a passive observer. Something about becoming an active participant in world-creating is what keeps me from video games and especially role-playing games. In my mind, Dungeons & Dragons was essentially World of Warcraft, another game I disliked on principle, but D&D was older. I thought that because it was older, it had started out as a board game where your movement on the board was determined by dice rolls, but as video games had come into prominence, that surely the board had become unnecessary and that the dungeons and the dragons had migrated to PC land to live in peaceful nerddom for eternity.
If you know anything about the game you are probably laughing at me right now, if you are not seethingly angry. My defense for not understanding: How was I supposed to know? It’s not like they teach Dungeons & Dragons at school! (Actually, at my school they do teach an undergrad course in it oddly enough.) My defense for being a stuck-up, unaccepting bastard: I don’t have one. It’s a chronic affliction I’m trying to get over. This blog is hopefully part of the cure.
In January, I was having lunch with my friends, James, who has been playing the game for thirteen years, I think, and Raena, who had never played the game but who is also more naturally curious and open then I am. James was attempting to explain to Raena how the game worked as we scarfed down our McCallister’s sandwiches, but I kept interjecting with my own disbelief that this game, which I had assumed was played on a Monopoly board or a computer mainframe, was, in fact, played out purely in the imagination of the participants. I scoffed through his explanation that there were overriding guidelines to all this imagination and role-playing and that the rolling of die and players’ choices could dramatically affect what could legally be imagined. I scoffed a lot. The idea of ten people sitting around a table imagining dragon battles in tandem together seemed frightfully unappealing and more than a little childish, but maybe that’s because I am averse to unstructured imagination. I left that day with a vague understanding of the rules of the game, but no understanding of its appeal, mostly because my aversion to complicated fantasy worlds and my aversion to game-playing had rendered me deaf.
Then the Community episode about Dungeons & Dragons aired. I saw it literally the day after I had scoffed at the notion of this game in a deli. Suddenly I was deaf no longer. Watching the Greendale gang try to save someone’s life through this game, a game which they, like me, did not understand, finally bridged that gap and made me realize anyone could play a game as open and boundless as this one, and make it exactly what they wanted or needed it to be. The episode explained Dungeons & Dragons to me in a way James would have never thought to attempt, and I mean why would he? Not everyone is as demanding as I am. But I needed a story, a compelling one which involved people who understood D&D the way I did — as nerd culture, as confusing, as silly — coming together around the game and displaying humorously but sincerely the value it can have, even for the most cold-hearted and lonely among us. Suddenly the notion of this imagined game became one I still publicly scoffed at, but, in my head, admired for reasons I couldn’t understand. When my friends shared stories of their adventures, I now listened with an envious curiosity. Would I jump right in when offered a chance? I didn’t think so, but now, because of a well-crafted half-hour of television I related to, the game seemed like something romantically beautiful and artfully quaint that other people who were very different from me enjoyed playing. I could live with that.
When, a week ago, I found in my message inbox an invitation to join a Facebook event hosted at James’s apartment called “Dungeons & Dragons & the Dog Days of Summer,” I went, “What?!?” I read on tentatively.
It’s Memorial Day and what better way to celebrate than to play D&D and eat! I invited people who are playing in Ben’s campaign and/or expressed interest in seeing the game played and/or playing in a game.
(I know a few of you can’t make it but this is also to let you know about the new D&D campaign).When you RSVP that you’re attending tell me a few things:
…1a) D&D or no
1b) Type of character you want to play (it’s fantasy)
2a) Pizza or Grilling
2b) If we end up grilling, what you’ll bringHere are the key bits of information:1pm – New Player Orientation
2pm – Character Creation
3pm – Adventure! At some point we’ll take a break for dinner. I have some sodas and we can grill some hot dogs. Let me know if we want to grill or if we just want to order pizza.
D&D or no? I looked at that for a good minute. My initial reaction as I stared at James’s invitation to his world was, “No thanks, I’ll just watch.” Figured it would be easier to acclimate myself that way, I wouldn’t have to commit myself to trying to role-play, make a fool of myself or reveal that I could never enjoy this sort of commitment (once again this is the boy who ran around in blue make-up and bedsheet abs for an evening unsure about commitment to a role). Then, all of a sudden, I said to hell with it and replied:
1) Sure why not. I’m up for trying new things.
2) Ha… Um… A tall dwarf?
4) Will take instructions. Can also bring blueberries
If that message sounds tentative, nervous, and oversincere, that’s because it was. I in no way believed 100 percent that I would enjoy giving over all of Memorial Day to creating a fictional character with which I would do battle against magical creatures I was picturing in my head. James had asked, “It’s Memorial Day, and what better way to celebrate then to play D&D and eat!” Snarkily, I could have thought up a bunch of answers to that question, and yet in retrospect I realize that I can’t remember a single other Memorial Day in my life, but I will probably remember the Memorial Day I created Rowlfwicke and fought giant centipedes, boa constrictors, and spherical blobs of gelatin for twelve hours with twelve of my close friends for a long, long time. This is an account of my being very wrong about something for a very long time, and being very sorry when I found out how very much I enjoyed experiencing it for the first time. Consider this a concession as well as a discovery. I’m glad to have Rowlfwicke in my life now (or rather to enter his life when the call goes out) and I’m sorry my own cultural preconceptions kept him out in the cold, unwanted, unused and, worst of all, unimagined, for so long.
In Part 2 of this post, I relate my experiences that day in creating and utilizing Rowlfwicke Banes, the Weretouched. I also describe his apprehension and racism toward the only human he has ever seen, his struggles with very low intelligence, and his heroic slaying of various small and arrow-prone creatures.