Alright so, when last I wrote about Dungeons & Dragons, I took the following approach: “The more flippant the better!” Or as Cole Porter said, “Be a clown! Be a clown! All the world loves a clown!”
It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying my initial foray into this new world of role-playing and dungeoneering and such – I was, very much. I felt an immediate investment in my character (one that’s only grown as I’ve fleshed him out and given him some much-needed spunk); I was immediately in awe of the creativity afforded the Dungeon Master and found that person’s role as a storyteller and facilitator in this construct fascinating; and I even liked just running around yelling that I was shooting arrows and then rolling D20s for four hours as our DM taught us how to handle combat.
But – and here’s where the jokey attitude comes from, I think – though I wouldn’t admit it, there was always a sort of cynical rejection of the treacly sincerity that comes with the whole “creative-nerd-kid-finds-a-community-in-D&D” narrative. It’s like antibodies rejecting a foreign object that was only sent into help. “What are you, you thing? Get out, you don’t belong here!”
And I’m not a particularly cynical person on the whole either. Despite that, I think your first instinct when jumping whole-heartedly into something you previously thought was really nerdy is to pretend that your whole heart’s not really in it, even if it is. Act like you’re a cynic. Let the jokes fly.
So just for a second, before I let another joke fly, let me be straight with you: Dungeons & Dragons on Sunday is what I look forward to every week.
This is readily apparent to the people I play with. I am REALLY enthusiastic. My Dungeon Master (who is also my editor, James) thinks its hilarious that our Sunday sessions keep getting cut short (because of other players’ commitments), a foregone conclusion that makes it abundantly clear when we’re wrapping up that I REALLY want to play longer. We keep only getting in one or two fights (fights take forever!) a week, and its so obvious that I’m chomping at the bit to get some actual momentum going that James promised he’d be sure to get in a longer session (something I never in a million years thought I’d want; when I’m not watching a movie, I am so impatient) so I could feel what it’s like to stick with an adventure for a while.
And so this Saturday, we’re doing a “marathon” session, a one-off adventure with new characters that will kick off at noon and be done by the time we get back in our cars and return to our respective lives around midnight. Ten hours, not so bad (says the fresh-faced kid whose never played more then three hours in a row and’ll probably be gasping for mercy by hour six.)
If you’d asked me when I was creating my first character or playing my first adventure only six months ago whether I would voluntarily take multiple hours out of my life to create a SECOND character that I would use one time and one time ONLY, I would’ve responded in turn by asking how much of a nerd you think I am! Jeez!
And yet, here I am… His name is Lukas Eko. He’s a dwarf paladin. In my mind, he is a combination of Luke Cage, the Marvel superhero with bulletproof skin, and Mister Eko, the African druglord-turned-priest from Lost. Hence his name. On paper, he’s a level six hit-point monster whose purpose in life is to soak up damage and keep others in my party out of danger – which is, I feel, rather Eko/Cage-like.
I am immensely proud of him, and playa hasn’t even emerged fully-formed from my mind into the world-at-large. Not until Saturday. Then he unleashes his drawven fury on all manner of… I don’t know what yet.
But am I ashamed of him? I can puff my chest out here on the Internet with sufficient time to gather courage, but confronted head-on with a skeptical onlooker, scoffing at me as I create said dwarf paladin on a weeknight and ask aloud what magic helmet would most benefit me in battle… yeah I’m a little ashamed. Maybe a lot ashamed.
This isn’t hypothetical postulation, mind you. This actually happened. We all got together Tuesday night to create our new characters, and someone new in our lives, a non-player we’re just getting to know as a group, stopped by to pick something up.
One of us who’s been playing for what I think is fourteen years proudly explained to our befuddled guest that we were creating characters for a D&D adventure! The guest looked at us like lepers, in the way of the unenlightened. (Essentially, how I looked at James seven months ago when he tried to explain it to me.)
As our spokesperson gleefully laid out what it was we were accomplishing by writing out character attributes on a big Scantron and asking each other about magical items, I tried my hardest to take on the properties of the couch fabric behind me in an act of failed camouflage. “Don’t incriminate me in this!” my slouching shoulders pleaded silently.
So I say this with a somewhat heavy heart – one filled with the regret that something I have come to legitimately enjoy, something that brightens my life as a young, work-drone adult is also something that makes me want to disappear whenever I’m caught red-handed with my tiny, plastic archer figure in hand. I say screw all that man! Screw the regret and the shame.
Dungeons & Dragons is fun, fascinating and, forget the geek cliché, truly rewarding for those invested in it. But the thing that has most drawn me in, and it was bound to really, is the structure the “game” provides for players and dungeon masters to create unbounded by the structures of reality.
Yeah there’s structure in the form of standard rules, but from what I’ve seen, that structure is there to let good DM’s (the ones who really know what they’re doing) play with that structure, subvert that structure, and, sometimes, in the greatest moments, completely ignore that structure, in the same way a good director will both use and abuse genre convention to produce something singular in vision. Because of this, D&D, a platform for high fantasy – something I’ve never really been able to connect to all that well – surprises me anew every Sunday because it connects on a human level that I couldn’t have previously imagined.
Yes, my exposure to D&D has been, as of yet, limited – I can count the number of sessions I’ve played on my hands, I think, and those have all been with the same Dungeon Master, my friend and colleague James. I’ve also watched a few sessions with another DM at the reins. Still I feel the possibilities, rich and boundless, coursing through the interactions we have playing D&D. It’s a time when we are allowed to lay down what inhibitions we have about what good storytelling, and “amateur” storytelling, can be, and just… go with it. Exhileratingly enough, we do.
In my creative partnership with James, I’ve always thought of myself as the more creative type – James is practical, logical, and grounded where I am whimsically soaring through the fluffy storytelling clouds of my own making. That’s the way I’ve always percieved.
Playing D&D with James as DM has actually radically shifted this dynamic. James’s ability to use a pre-defined structure to create inspired twists and turns on a short schedule, while keeping the needs of his audience (the players) in check has, if anything, inspired me as a storyteller.
An example from our weekly campaign to illustrate my point: when – after our most recent encounter with a mob of humans we met in the hallway of a creepy mansion, who had murdered a group of elven children we had assumed rationally were already dead since we had met their ghosts only minutes before – James informed us that as we chased the mob, we suddenly woke to find that we were all passed out on the floor with our weapons by our sides, my mind exploded with possibilities.
You see, we had just spent an hour playing through an encounter that WASN’T EVEN REAL – as we stood up, I realized that James had just let us, in a way, see an imprint of the massacre that had occurred where we were standing eighty before and had also let us play through it as if we were there. My reaction to this wasn’t resentment (“I can’t believe we wasted an hour doing nothing.”) It was deep admiration. Why?
Because waking up from that encounter was actually a visceral shock to my system. I had thought, when we were fighting the vision of a long ago massacre, that we were operating in the realm of this game’s “reality” because every time I’d shot an arrow before it had struck something real and if I hit that thing enough times it had really died. That characters in this game – that my character, my archer – could dream and see some other kind of reality and process shock and pain and utter dread through that filter was new to me. It’s the moment I realized that, as a player, I wasn’t just here to shoot my longbow, was I?
But my first thought after James’s twist wasn’t to congratulate James on his storytelling acumen or ponder the nature of the game as it relates to life like I am doing here. No, upon waking, what I did was this: I hastily commanded (I might have even shouted) that my character run to where we had seen the ghost children earlier, and where in our dream, we had seen them brutally slain: in their beds. I ordered my character to lift the covers from their beds. “You see the embalmed remains of the elf children,” James said calmly.
I didn’t say out loud that my archer felt pain in that moment. He just did, because I did. I imagined him crouched at that bedside frozen in horror not just at the sight of the child but at the roller-coaster that had taken him in a few short minutes from seeing a ghost child to seeing that child slain to finding, in a moment of rage and confusion, an ancient corpse. It wasn’t a move action so much as an immersed state of being.
So mad props to James. It all served as a reminder that I am not the only person I know who has the ability to imagine, and to convey that process of imagination to others in a way that transports. Not by a long shot. It can be a tough pill to swallow – I am more prone to whimsy than James is, but I haven’t staked this world’s only claim on imagination; I write with the hope that it will support me one day as a way of making a living, and I do write more, but none of that means I write better.
So here’s my point: if you’re new to D&D or something like it, something that you had thought you would never enjoy, but do with all your heart, then own that! Own that admiration and spread it. Your friends may shake their heads and laugh a little when you tell them that all you have planned for tomorrow is a marathon session of D&D (happened just a few minutes ago to me), and that may cause your face to turn red but realize this: if playing that game makes you feel valued, or inspired, or just plain and simple happy… then play it, relish it, and forget what other people think.
And if you don’t play D&D, and you’re reading this (which, I mean, I highly doubt you’ve made it this far, but if I’ve still got you, then so be it): I was you once and I get it. James tried to explain it all to me, and I gave him the same look I’m getting from people now. Probably worse.
I thought wasting your day away pretending to be someone else, whether you did that by rolling dice or clicking a mouse, would have to be just the living worst. And I was wrong. Sincerely. And I don’t expect you to start playing tomorrow because I said that, because learning the ropes takes a lot of time and there are a lot of intangibles involved that could keep you from having a good time, so if it’s not something worth investing in for you, then I understand so very much.
But know this: when all the pieces fall just right, and you let down your guard down a little, and the company you’re with is quality, and your DM is a top-notch story-teller who knows how to take care of his players needs, then man oh man! The experience can transport you, uplift you and – hell I’ll say it – change you.
As some who loves film and television for those same reasons, I can hardly stand at the gate and tell Dungeons & Dragons it can’t come in and earn my full respect. There are other things out there more deserving of our scoffs and derision. Let’s go look down on them instead.