Friday, October 14, 2011

Nerd poker

Like any geek worth my salt, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons.  Like many of my kind, it was my introduction into the world of role playing games.  For reasons that really pass understanding, I've been thinking about it lately.  

My first exposure to the game was a series of ads run in Marvel comic books.  (Geez, it really doesn't get any geekier than that, does it?)  These ads were full-page comics, showing off the adventure and excitement of a D&D campaign.  Being familiar with the work of Tolkien, especially The Hobbit, the game immediately appealed to me.  I got the "starter kit" for Christmas when I was 12 years old and found that it was not exactly a game you can start playing right out of the box.  There are computations to be made, elaborate rules with which you must be familiar, and the construction of the identity of the character that you want...right down to his/her philosophical and moral view of the the fantasy world.  As a young Catholic boy, I had been brought up to take such things as ethics with earnest seriousness and I spent more time than I needed to laboring over what constituted "ethical" character choices.  

I also found that you need other people around you with which to play the game.  That is, other people who were willing.  My parents had less than zero interest and my brother was six at the time.  I'd try to engage him in a dumbed-down version of it, but the campaign just never seemed to hit its potential height.  Maybe it was because he just wanted to play with the little pewter characters.  I eventually found others my age to game with but in a rural community we were rather spread out so sessions were infrequent.  That and they required copious amounts of time just for set-up.  In the spaces between, I take to reading for research and development.  I learned about medieval weapons, castles, and became especially interested in British and Celtic myth.  My version of the game came with a "suggested reading" list of both fiction and nonfiction books.  Many of them were available right in the middle school library.  With a stack of graph paper, I designed my own D&D castle and forest settings.  Yep.  Uber-nerdom came at an early age.  

This "nerd thing" took off into a full-blown industry for Gary Gygax and TSR, the people who sold Dungeons & Dragons.  I like to call the game "nerd poker" for that was our social game of choice.  Often it took place on a regular night of the week and it almost always had snacks involved.  There was never any betting in the campaigns I was in but I can see how it could happen.  "Bet my guy can shoot an arrow through that tiny slit of a window and nail the orc straight in the eye."  "You're on and I'll raise you my magic fire sword."  "Deal."

Of course there were the scandals.  "Dungeons & Dragons leads to suicide and Satanism" and all that rot.  That did happen in a few extremely rare cases however the vast majority of D&D sessions were far less sanguine...and almost downright pathetic in their banality.  The only violence would be in the following types of sad arguments: "how could I possibly be hit by a sword from around a corner?" "You can't cast magic missile twice without leaving the play area to relearn the spell!" "Who took the last Mountain Dew?"  "Why did they name the game that if we never really go into dungeons and our guys aren't strong enough yet to face dragons?"  Ahh the truly weightiest of matters argued over that rickety card table.

In college I met more gamers who became my best friends.  One guy had even created is own fantasy game.  Most of the time however, we played science fiction and superhero-oriented rpgs and I found those more to my tastes.  But a part of me still yearns for those D&D days.  More than affording me a fun time with friends, it enhanced my imagination.  It wasn't a game, it was a narrative.  It was a story unfolding that while guided by the dungeon master, it was really being composed by the characters as we went along.  We, I would argue, were not playing as much as we were writing.  When I was with people who took their game seriously, I saw how they demanded that players be consistent with their characters as if they were acting in a movie or play.  Know your character's psychology and play accordingly.  It was worlds apart from the gamers I ran into in adulthood who preferred the "hack and slash" method of combat-only gaming.  In other words, lots of frosting, very little cake.  An incredible training ground and field in which to play for a writer.  Because for me it was all about story.  It wasn't a game, I really was a half-elf sorcerer in a party of fearsome adventurers who slew a vampire in the cemetery of a medieval monastery.   In a way, this interactive storytelling was a cosmogony of sorts, our collective consciousness dreaming these things up and thereby making them real in at the very least our minds.  There might have actually been a bit of profound in with our pathetic.

So due to my recent nostalgia, I bought the 2011 version of the Dungeons & Dragons starter kit.  It was quite cheap at a Borders graveyard dance, so I figured why the hell not?  If you're in the far west Chicago burbs and feel like rolling a few dice, hit me up on email or in comments.  Let's see if we can get something going.

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