I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.
Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?
It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”
Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.
My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.
That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.
On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.
In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.
Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.
He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.
I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.
Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.
Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.
Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.
Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.
Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.
Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.
That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.
Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.
I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragons player again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.
Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?