Tumbling polyhedrons

Technically, I never stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons. My regular game with my childhood friends went on ice when my obsession with music swallowed all my other interests, but you could still find me on my Commodore 64 at night, bathing in the pixels of Telengard, or Bard’s Tale, or whatever other fantasy titles the studios brought to my home computer. Besides baseball simulations and Katamari Damacy, there aren’t too many videogames I’ve committed myself to that weren’t based on Dungeons & Dragons; Shadows Of Amn, and Icewind Dale, the original concept of Dragon Age, the ground-shaking thunderclap that was Planescape: Torment, and even Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, which was just Dungeons & Dragons in outer space. Then there were the many ways that D&D became my frame of reference for non-fantasy reality, like my observance of alignment protocol, my constant desire to level up and gain new skills, and my ongoing, well-chronicled attraction to the elfin. My early interest in Leiber and Lovecraft came straight from the D&D sourcebooks that referenced them reverentially when they weren’t ripping them off, and vocabulary is still straight from the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook. Gygax and Arneson forged my consciousness as surely as any teachers did, and that’s because they were teachers, too, only their subject matter was unbeatable, wasn’t it?

So it wasn’t my interests that changed — it was my social world and my interpersonal priorities. At fourteen, I went from making music on my own and playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends to making music with friends and playing Dungeons & Dragons on my own. And so it went for decades until the quarantine. I haven’t raised my voice in a practice space with others in months. Not so coincidentally, one of my bandmates told me on the phone that he had a hankering to play D&D over Zoom, and he volunteered me to be the game-master. I’m not in a position to turn down a request like that. I set to work on a milieu: encounters, non-player characters, a mythological system, maps and dice and all of it.

We’ve tried a couple of sessions. How have I done? Not too well, by my own estimation. As a young person, I was never the Dungeon Master: I was always a player, and I was deeply invested in the survival and progress of my tween-age creations. Attempting to run a game over a videoconference is a tricky proposition, but I don’t blame the software or the distance. I just think I haven’t managed to instill that sense of consequence or intrigue that good Dungeons & Dragons campaigns always had. My own fumbling attempts to get the milieu off the ground and make my play-world compelling have given me new respect for the older kids who ran the superb game I participated in when I was young. Granted, it’s easier to enchant eleven-year-olds than jaded grown-ups, but that’s really no excuse. Either the spell holds or the spell fails; there’s not a lot of in-between.

Regardless of my limited talents, re-engagement with Dungeons & Dragons has been rewarding. I returned to my First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (a book that, as a player, I wasn’t supposed to look at) and enjoyed Gary Gygax’s wonderfully pompous purple prose all over again. Via mail order, Hilary gifted me with a vintage copy of TSR modules D1 and D2 — brutal, grotesque higher-level adventures that sure tested my characters and my stomach when I was in sixth grade. Those were fun to re-read, and they made me want to play; they also made me want to hunt down the mesmerizing sequel The Vault Of The Drow. Beyond that, much as I try hard to contrive some, there just aren’t that many occasions to roll a dodecahedron in ordinary life. Computer-generated random numbers are fine as a direction, but there’s really no substitute for throwing a natural 20. It’s not accurate to call it a nostalgic thrill, because D&D has never been far from me. Shaking hands with Gygax again, forcefully, has provided some comfort during a time when I can’t shake hands with anybody else.