April 7, 2006
Dungeons & Dragons can now be played online. It’s not that I have anything against computer games, but playing Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, online misses the whole point of the game. Every man of a certain age falls into one of three distinct categories: as a teenager he either played D&D, he knew someone who played D&D, or he regularly beat up someone who played D&D. I was in the first category. Most weekends, and many weeknights I sat around a table with six or seven other guys throwing oddly shaped dice that ranged from four-sided pyramids to what was supposedly a hundred-sided die but which was really a golf ball with numbers on it.
The stereotype of D&D players is that they’re overweight, greasy-haired, friendless, socially maladjusted dorks who live in a perpetual adolescent fantasy world because they’re unable to cope with reality. Well, we weren’t all overweight. We weren’t friendless or socially maladjusted and we had friends. We had each other. Yes, we spent entirely too much time debating whether a fireball spell would kill an 8th Level Paladin, but that was the whole point. Even when we got on each others’ nerves we still sat next to each other and our lives intersected in ways that couldn’t be shut off with a switch. Even though most of what we did was play a silly game the relationships we built around dining room tables led us to do other things with each other like going to movies or occasionally, believe it or not, playing sports. I wish I could say it was like those movies or those dramatic TV shows where a close-knit group of kids share some horrible tragedy that unites them all in lifelong friendship and shared memories that one of them goes on to write a best selling book about, or there’s some crisis that magically resolves itself in the last three minutes, followed by a montage set to music. On second thought I’m glad nothing like that happened. Tragedy makes great entertainment but lousy living.
The most dramatic thing that ever happened was, right when we had a troll surrounded, someone’s mother came in and said, "Would you boys care for some spinach quiche?" And the real drama is that one of my friends ate that entire quiche by himself. In college I learned that writing about that kind of thing is called "slice of life", which is another term for "a boring waste of time". We had a lot of good times, although unfortunately they were mostly the you-had-to-be-there type of good times. And just being there wouldn’t be good enough. You’d have to be there, be sleep-deprived and stoked up on caffeine and of a particular mind set to fall all over yourself laughing about Sixteenth Century French pole arms. And believe me they were funny. To this day I still get a fit of giggles whenever someone says "fouchard" or "bec-du-corbin". Fortunately that doesn’t happen often.
But I digress. There was also the competitive side of D&D, the part that really fired up our imaginations. Occasionally we’d go to conventions and play tournament games where each player would be given a character with pages of detailed personality traits, and we’d be judged on how well we could portray that character. There are people who do that for a living. They’re called "actors", although most actors have it easy because they don’t have to write their own lines in between fighting giant purple worms with twenty-sided dice. Fortunately there were no Lee Strasbergs among us, so no one got impaled with a bec-du-corbin. I always thought of myself as a bit of a Stanislavsky, although the truth is I was the token guy who had no clue what was going on. The cliche that every group of individuals has one serious member, one joker, one jerk, one wacko, and one plain and normal person has never been true in my experience. We were all jokers, and we were all occasionally jerks, and we were all a little wacko, and there’s nobody in this world who’s really normal because being normal is, well, abnormal.
But I digress. I was also the insomniac. When all the caffeine and the thrill of slaying a red dragon in its lair had worn off and everyone else fell asleep I stayed up watching late night movies on cable, partly for the nudity, but also because I couldn’t sleep and there wasn’t much else for me to do. I remember one morning there was a light rain. Light rain in the predawn is always depressing regardless of your circumstances. If you won the lottery the day before and woke up to an early morning drizzle you’d be somber and contemplate the fact that even if all that money solved your problems it would bring a whole new set of problems. Everyone around me got up and started to head home. I was out in the driveway directing their cars, making sure no one backed into the wall or drove through the neighbor’s yard. If our lives were part of a movie or dramatic television show this would be the montage set to music moment, usually following some terrible event and a revelation of epic proportions. There was nothing epic about it, but that morning was the first time I realized that these friendships wouldn’t last, that for three or four years Dungeons & Dragons brought us together but it wouldn’t keep us together. We were going off in different directions to different lives, but at least we’d shared that time with each other in a way that pixels on a computer screen would never have allowed. Especially the spinach quiche.