I eye the cave opening calmly, half-expecting that my heart might start pounding…
But it won’t start pounding, my heart, and it never will. I died decades ago, and I am grateful that my companions waited for nightfall before sallying forth. They need me, as do I them; I am their leader. The Undead make for rather unnerving leaders, to be sure, but on positive side of things…
We don’t go down easily. Men such as I have already survived death; everything else is just a trifle.
One of my fellow adventurers falls into step behind me, visibly trembling. “My lord?” he ventures. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”
“I am,” I reply calmly, “but only because you three are with me.” I smile, motioning to the heavily-armed Dwarf and Elf archer also following my lead. “And if not for you, my shifty brother-in-arms, the locks would not be picked and the traps would never be sprung. I would never face the Under-Dark without you, my dear friend.”
The mewling thief obviously draws courage from my words. “Let’s DO this, then!” he cries, raising his dagger aloft.
Even I am afraid as we enter the cave, knowing what we face. Before us lie the endless caverns of the Under-Dark – home to the Mind Flayers, and the fanatical warriors who serve the Dark Goddess Lolth. Our quest will be marked with violence, blood, and perhaps even death…
But before we enter, I need more Doritos. And Surge, LOTS of Surge to drink! I mean, hell, we’ve been at this quest for twelve hours already…
Ah, Dungeons and Dragons. The most demonized game of the nineteen-eighties, constantly railed against by legions of hysterical mothers. A game scorned by jocks and cheerleaders as a pastime for ‘nerds’, the favorite hobby of social misfits the world over.
It changed my life.
As someone once pointed out, how to play D&D is difficult to explain but remarkably easy to demonstrate. The iconic fantasy role-playing game is one-third game play, one-third acting, and one-third storytelling. With the simple purchase of the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual, endless numbers of table-top adventurers can imagine their way through endless numbers of breathtaking adventures.
My preferred role was always that of Dungeon Master.
From my throne behind the DM screen, I was ever tasked with the sacred responsibility of creating entire worlds; I was the puppet master for countless monsters and non-player characters. Over time, I learned to read the responses of my players, to ‘bounce off’ of their actions, using their shared input to make my imagined worlds increasingly more vivid.
Some would say that’s a waste of time, but I never saw it that way.
There is a camaraderie shared among role-players that non-players simply do not understand, and never will. Only players can sit down together at McDonald’s and say something like ‘You remember that time you tried to club that red dragon over the head? Didn’t like that, did he? You’re lucky that your stolen armor saved you from his fire breath, so he only bit off your leg. By the way, Stumpy… can you pass the salt? Thanks.”
Role-players bond through collectively exploring a uniquely human vulnerability: Imagination. It takes closeness to engage in a shared fantasy. Only true friends can do it, and every stranger who joins in quickly becomes a friend. There is something cathartic about diving into a group tale with one’s comrades, and thus by delving into fantasy reality becomes easier to bear.
Outsiders see role-players as social misfits, but honestly? I was always of the opposite opinion.
The current world sees organized sports as the premiere way of nurturing ‘social interaction’. But sports can only ever teach conformity, and meek submission to a group mentality. Sports teach people to give unquestioned obedience, to blindly follow the crowd while ignoring their own individual creativity. Sports create sheep, nothing more and nothing less.
Role-playing games, however, teach the same thing that music and theater programs always have: How to engage in a collective enterprise while still maintaining one’s own identity and creative focus. Role-playing games encourage cooperation without ever scrapping the notion of fierce individualism, of devotion to one’s own ideals and preferences.
Within this context, I developed several strengths that serve me well to this day.
The first was my ability as a writer. I would eventually go on from role-playing to publishing novels and composing sermons. The second was my ability as a speaker; not only could I compose sermons, I could deliver them in an engaging fashion. The third was my ability as a teacher, particularly in a religious setting. I can read the people in my Bible class like an open book, and both prod them into speaking while also learning from them… all in real time. There’s no need for me to hide behind FaceBook comments; I know how to actively spur group discussions on a face-to face level. (Side note: One of the creators of D&D was a Christian as well. Faith is faith and fantasy is fantasy, but a wise man knows how to learn from one in order to influence the other.)
It is extremely gratifying to me that D&D remains alive and well to this day. While I have enjoyed other games such as Hackmaster and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, D&D will forever remain the standard-bearer. When Magic: The Gathering debuted in my teens, I was afraid that it would overshadow and end the reign of D&D. But alas, such has not happened. Card-based games are fun (Munchkin is a favorite of mine), but they lack the drama and the raw originality of book-based gaming.
Dungeons and Dragons was a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky when my friends Eric, Rocky, and Danny first taught me how to play. You know what? D&D is still a lightning bolt to me. We’ve all moved on from the Second Edition, to the Third Edition, and then on from there. The rules have made adjustments over the years, writers and artists have changed, and the books have become more expensive. The dice have become fancier and more varied in appearance. Movies based on the game have been produced and screened, and the D&D mythos originally inspired by Tolkien went on to inspire George R. R. Martin. (At least, I think it did. You’ll have to ask Martin to be sure.)
But at the end of the day? For all its changes and accomplishments, Dungeons and Dragons remains what it has always been: A means for friends to gather around a table for the purpose of sharing a common tale, a tale in which EVERYONE has a voice and a part to play. Perhaps the memories those stories create might be artificial in nature…
Or perhaps they are even more real than the dreary, humdrum ‘lives’ that we live…
And that’s why we keep coming back to the table, again and again.