We received weapons of every type imaginable. We cast spells that changed the very world around us. We killed fearsome monsters, saved the day, back-stabbed one another, and took every piece of treasure we could find. And through it all, we laughed our asses off.
I’m talking, of course, about the world of dungeons and dragons. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, to be precise, which was far superior to the basic version, that we had hardly played at all.
Advanced was different. The rule books alone were vast tomes, full of tiny print and so many details that no one could possibly remember them all. Which was fine. That led to some nice loopholes.
Reams have been written about the game and peoples experiences playing it, and yeah, I’m going to add some more. Because the game had a huge effect on me. And not only the game, the people who were playing it along with me, many of whom are still friends to this day.
A few years ago, the series “Stranger Things” premiered on Netflix. I didn’t watch it right away, because I was a grumpy old man who refused to pay for a streaming service. When I relented and picked it up, “Stranger Things” was one of the first programs I watched, and it quickly became one of my favorite shows of all time. A large part of that was watching the characters play Dungeons and Dragons, and the way it permeated their world and brought them together.
Our world was kind of like that. I still remember chasing the Demogorgon through the halls of school, our near-mute friend from the secret lab by our sides…
Okay, no, not really. I’m not that delusional. But the kids on “Stranger Things” are a lot like we were—at least some of us. Not jocks, not real druggies, nothing like that. But we found common ground where a sword and sorcery game was more than just that, it was a way of life. By the end of our senior years, we’d embraced our inner nerds, well before Sheldon and the rest the Big Bang crew made it hip.
And it started because of one friend. He learned the game at an outside of school group that he belonged to. Soon, he taught it to three of us, and we were off and running.
Those early games were pretty simple. “You’re in a dungeon. Which way do you go? You open the door. There’s a monster. We kill it, collect the loot, move on. Oops, there’s a trap.” There wasn’t much in the way of storytelling.
But then we started to see the potential of D+D adventures. Those books weren’t there just to draw a bunch of lines on graph paper. They were there to open up whole fantasy worlds. And the same kid who taught us how to play led the way.
He developed into an amazing DM. If you’re reading this and don’t know, a DM is the Dungeon Master. He who runs the game and ruins your life. For our lucky group, our DM turned out to be a storyteller of the first rank. And soon, we weren’t just “in a dungeon”. There were reasons we were there, and it led to something greater, something bigger.
The game turned us all into storytellers of some sort. We had our characters, and we gave them elaborate back-stories and histories. They had families and pasts and, hopefully, futures. And the most important thing? They had rivals. Often within the group of us who played.
By that time, our group of three had expanded dramatically. Now, there were regularly seven to ten of us playing. Occasionally even more. New friends, and even—gulp—a few girls!
Others of us tried taking the reins and acting as DM from time to time. It was something I insisted on trying fairly often, but in looking back with a jaundiced eye, I have to admit I wasn’t very good at it. I liked the big story, the overarching world in which things happen. But getting the details down, or reacting on the fly when one of the players threw a wrench in the gears? Not so much.
Which is funny, since I’ve now written several books and have been forced to put down some of the details, although my books still tend to be very plot driven.
But I digress. We were being transported back to a world of sword and sorcery that we manipulated with the aid of D+D dice, those multi-faceted arbiters of fate. Perfect twenty! Off with his head! A one! Crap. Lose a turn while I pick up my sword.
I’m sure not everyone played with those rules, but we did, and we loved them.
This all took place right around the same time as the great Satanic Panic, one of the most unintentionally funny times in American history. Supposedly, Lucifer himself was into just about everything that teenagers liked. He had his fingers in rock and roll, daycares were hotbeds of truly atrocious behavior, and our game was a gateway to Hell. I suppose there was a certain feeling of thumbing our noses at those who believed the hype, but mostly we ignored it, and kept on rolling those dice and killing those monsters.
There were other games over the years. But after high school ended so did that game, and none of the others were ever quite the same. They were fun, they had good stories. Hell, in many cases probably even better stories.
But they didn’t have the magic of those high school games. In the basement of one friend’s house. In the loft bedroom of another’s, or the kitchen table of yet someone else’s. It didn’t matter where we played, where the sword and sorcery happened, as long as it did.
I credit that game, and those friends, for a lot of what I do now. The imagination that it took for all of us to sit around a table and share a whole other world was something special. We weren’t alone. Kids all across America were doing it, and still are today.
But it was our game that mattered.