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Desert Companion

Mage against the machine

Mage Against the MachineGrowing up playing fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons involved epic, courageous battles with fearsome foes — and that was just the parents

The journey begins

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 12. It was during the early ’80s, when the game was still relatively new, but had nevertheless already attracted a sizable cult following. My story begins the way many Dungeons & Dragons adventures begin:

 

You all meet in a tavern ...

 

When you’re playing D&D, you role-play a character: a half-elven wizard, a barbarian from the Great Wilds, a dark rogue with a score to settle with the lizard people who enslaved your family. You band together to seek adventure in a dangerous, exciting world filled with living statues and evil priestesses and bands of marauding hobgoblins. First though, in the beginning, you have to find each other. Usually this happens in a tavern, over flagons of mead and ale. You can spot each other among the townspeople by your battle-dented armor, your well-worn weapons, the glint of wanderlust in your eye as you meet each other’s gaze.

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In the ’80s, we had no Internet, no social media. We lived in a primordial chaos in which like-minded individuals didn’t have the ability to locate each other in milliseconds. If your group wanted to find another adventurer because you needed a healer, for example, or an assassin, you had to scout them out.

That’s how the merry band of socially awkward misfits who played Dungeons & Dragons at my school found me. I was a bright, bookish preteen. I wore Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirts while everyone else was wearing Izods. It was only a matter of time before the scout sniffed me out. His name was Jhonny. He had flaming red hair that drew attention to him like a beacon, which he tried to counter by moving slowly and quietly through the halls. One day, he smuggled something large and cumbersome underneath his Members Only jacket into school.

“I saw you reading Tolkien in study hall,” he said. “Which book are you on?”

“The Return of the King.”

“Already on the last one. I’m reading through the whole trilogy again for the third time.”

“I’m on my second time through,” I lied.

I must have passed the test. He nodded. He considered me for a moment, then reached into his jacket, pulled out an oversized hardcover book and slipped it quickly into my locker. I only caught a glimpse of the cover as it blurred by: a red-faced demon, a razor-sharp blade, a half-naked blonde about to be disemboweled. Jhonny slammed the locker door shut and leaned against it as if the book were a wild animal that might escape.

“Read it cover to cover, and don’t let any teachers see you or they’ll confiscate it, and you’ll get detention. We’re meeting on Saturday. You’ll have to buy your own after that.”

The book he had loaned me was the Dungeons & Dragons First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. Just like that, I was in. Soon I’d be joining fellow adventurers to explore the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, to discover the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, to do battle with the Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

 

The hearth at the center of the tavern blazes with a fire which wards off the chill of the wintry winds outside. A bard strums a melancholy dirge on her dulcimer and quiets the crowd with a dramatic retelling of ancient battles and heroic quests ...

 

Dungeons & Dragons is 40 years old this year. While that doesn’t exactly make it as venerable as the Seer of Urnst, it is indisputably the granddaddy of all things geek. Those of us who have grown up alongside the game have watched it transform through the years, from obscure hobby to fan-fueled phenomenon, to lightning rod in a misguided culture war. About a decade or so ago, right around the time sales from its merchandise passed the $1 billion mark worldwide, something unexpected happened. The taint of scandal that plagued the game in its early years seemed to dissipate, and D&D began to settle into its current role as the reigning elder statesman of nerd culture, the proverbial wizard behind the curtain to which mainstream pop-culture phenomena such as Pokémon, World of Warcraft and modern video games gratefully tip their hats.

It took a long time to earn this distinction. My friends and I began playing D&D during a decade when the game was caught in the crosshairs of a bizarre culture war — back when organized bands of Christian fundamentalists used to stir otherwise reasonable folks into irrational frenzies across the nation. They preached against the dangers of heavy metal music, long hair, gays, artists and, yes, Dungeons & Dragons, all of which they claimed could lead to Satanism and damnation.

 

In the tavern, your party approaches the man you came to meet, a frail mage hidden in the shadows of his cowl, seated alone in the corner. His arms are folded over a large tome bound in thick, reptilian hide. “The spellbook you seek, as agreed upon. You must promise to deliver it without allowing anyone to break its magical seals. What it contains could spell doom to any who dare look within ..."

 

The book Jhonny gave me was published while Dungeons & Dragons was still young, going through a painful growth spurt, akin to the prepubescence we ourselves were experiencing at the time. The first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was gangly and unwieldy. Exhaustively comprehensive, its rules were presented in dense charts, one after the other, forcing Dungeon Masters across the land to pore frantically through it in search of specific information in the middle of the game. The finer points between infravision and ultravision? Page 59. Which scrolls can be used by clerics? Page 127. And where’s that bone-chilling little chart where you can use dice to determine when your character will die of natural causes, in the unlikely event he doesn’t get gobbled up by a dragon first? Try page 12. (It helps if you’re a gray elf; they can live to be 2,000 years old.) The first edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide seemed arcane to new players, but it was also glorious, creative and maddeningly overambitious. And like us young people about to enter the minefield of their teen years, perhaps the authors were unaware of how royally they were about to screw up their own best-laid plans.

The bold illustration on the cover was one of several that would send the wrong signal to the public: On a stark black background, two bedraggled adventurers make a desperate attempt to save a half-naked, dagger-wielding woman from a massive, red, horned demon-creature brandishing a scimitar and a fiendish glow in its eyes. To us prepubescent boys, it was simply a cool cover. But to many parents, it was a cause for alarm. Where we saw a fantastic enemy to vanquish, parents saw the devil. The book itself? To them, it was an occult tome for summoning demons, a manual for performing black magic, a tool for promoting Satanism. Across the nation, there were calls for boycotts, exorcisms, even book burnings, all by people who had never even looked inside the books, never tried to play the game themselves, never sat in on a session or spent time talking to a gamer to see what it was about.

 

The mage gesticulates madly, weaving glowing sigils into the air where they coalesce into patterns of arcane energy. When the spell is complete, a burst of light envelopes your party and you find yourself magically transported outside the tavern, near the stables. “Go, quickly. I’ll keep them from following you.” Flashes of lightning crackle and hiss, igniting the barn next to the tavern and lighting up the sky behind you as you and your companions gallop away at full speed ...

 

Attack of the mom-beast

Our D&D games must have seemed strange to our confused parents, our dedication fiendish and obsessive. When we cleared our schedules of school obligations and holed up in a basement for a weekend sleepover, we surrounded ourselves with sleeping bags, binders full of maps and drawstring bags of polyhedron dice and did nothing but play. We exhibited all the traits of drug addicts or cult members. We went for hours and sometimes days at a time, rarely eating or sleeping, just to get more time in.

It was intoxicating, this exciting new presence in all of our lives. Most of us were more brainy than brawny. We couldn’t win middle-school playground scuffles with our fists, but role-playing a fireball-slinging mage or a sword-wielding barbarian in a raid against a tribe of orcs from The Keep on the Borderlands, we were invincible. We built rich, complex, imaginative worlds together. We grew into young adults, side by side, sitting on rickety picnic tables in shady backyards in summer, and at card tables in drafty basements in winter. We bickered, bonded and became young men together. And how we did it was contrary to the way most preteen boys do. We didn’t compete to race to the finish line and beat everyone else there. We cooperated to enjoy an experience together. But there was trouble brewing.

 

The journey through the Spiderweave Vale is treacherous. When night falls, dark and hostile forces emerge from the shadows and surround you, threatening to keep you from completing your mission. You must draw upon every last reserve of might and magic you possess if you are to forge ahead on your noble quest ...

 

After wearing out our welcome at several of our dungeon lairs, we ended up meeting at Jhonny’s house for the first time. His mom had been reluctant to host us; rumor had it she had caught wind of the bad press D&D was getting and had serious reservations. But Jhonny had very few friends, and we were it, so she grudgingly agreed.

The tension was thick as a bugbear’s hide as we entered the house that Saturday afternoon, backpacks laden with heavy rule books and stacks of character sheets. Jhonny’s mother, unlike most parents who just stayed on the periphery unseen, was hovering at the door. She looked us up and down as we filed past her. My AC/DC hand-me-down concert T-shirt from my older brother sent an eyebrow up. Our half-elf rogue’s hair was too long for her liking. I was already chilled by the time I descended the rickety wooden stairs into the frigid basement. Light bulbs hung from strings, jars of mysterious pickled objects lined the shelves along the rough stone walls. Even we battle-hardened warriors and sorcerers were creeped out.

During the game, when we cheered a victory or argued about a rule change, she poked her head through the doorway at the top of the stairs and asked, “What are you boys doing down there?” Jhonny, exasperated with having to answer again and again, finally snapped.

In a mock-sweet voice, he called up the stairs: “We’re worshipping the devil, Mom!”

It felt tremendous when Jhonny just blurted it out. We laughed hysterically until we were out of breath. She slammed the door behind her, making her way down the basement stairs as we sat in frozen, terrified silence, as though she were a monster descending into the dungeon to devour its trapped prey.

“Time to finish up now,” she said, then turned to walk away.

I was the only one who didn’t recognize the tone or its finality. My parents didn’t use it with me. They weren’t strict. We had discussions. We had trust.

“But we’re not finished yet,” I said.

Jhonny, pale and shivering, was silent. The other boys got the message loud and clear. They began doing as she said, quickly. Just to make it clear to me — the only one who didn’t understand what was going on — she said without turning around: “Jhonny, now.”

“He was just joking,” I said.

Jhonny’s mom snapped her head around and glared at me, a medusa’s stare. She slammed her hands down on the table, rattling the dice and the books. There was a collective gasp. She closed her eyes for several excruciating moments. Nobody moved or breathed. Then she turned and calmly walked back up the stairs.

We all began packing in a rush, putting the wrong books in some bags, leaving some behind. We hustled up the stairs as if we were escaping a burning building.

“Wait, I left my Player’s Handbook down there.”

“You’ll get it later,” our half-elven rogue said, pushing me along.

 

Your party reaches its destination. It has been a long and arduous journey. “The tome, as we agreed.” You deliver the reptilian-bound spellbook to its rightful owner. “This will save countless lives.” The mage-king smiles, genuinely pleased. You exchange a glance with the others in your party, wondering if the sacrifice was worth the gain. It is time to mourn those companions who were left behind.

 

Jhonny said he would return my book at school the following Monday. But he wasn’t in school Monday. He was in big trouble, the kind of trouble I couldn’t fathom. Prayer-meeting and stay-home-from-school and intensive-therapy trouble. Turned out his mom had thrown away all the books left at his house that day, just swept them up and scooped them into the trash, along with the coffee grounds and eggshells, as if they were garbage, including the ones that weren’t his. He said he would buy us new ones, but we felt so bad for him we just said forget about it. He wasn’t allowed to play with us anymore, and that was that.

We still wanted to be friends. We tried our best, but to be honest, seeing devil-fearing hysteria rear its ugly head had terrified us and made us a little uneasy around him. We were all afraid it could happen to us, as much as we were perplexed that it was happening at all. Why were these irrational, nonsensical beliefs gaining traction? Why were adults twice and three times our age who should have known better acting this way? We knew better, we knew the game was nothing but an overwhelmingly positive influence in our lives and that the claims against it were unfounded, and yet, no one heard us, no one took us seriously when we tried to defend it, when we tried to defend ourselves and each other.

 

Back in the tavern where you first met, curious eyes watch your party suspiciously. You saved the village from great evil by delivering the ancient spellbook to the mage king, and still they watch your every move as if you were the criminals who started the trouble, not the heroes who brought it to an end ...

 

It’s too bad the game was so misunderstood — whether people feared it as a gateway to devil worship or dismissed it as desperate power fantasies for weaklings and geeks. Dungeons & Dragons helped many of us become the people we are today. We grew up together, went through the same awkward phases and came through the other side, self-actualized, respectable, trustworthy, maybe a little boring. The next generation of gamers won’t have to struggle against ignorance and ridicule like we did.

Dungeons & Dragons made many of us champions of justice in more ways than one. Together we defeated the evil demi-lich Acerak, we rescued Orlane from the Cult of the Reptile God, and along the way we learned that this great, glorious, too-often misunderstood game is much more than a mere game to millions of devotees. It’s been a reminder to us throughout our lives to stand up for the underdog, the disenfranchised, the misunderstood, victims of persecution, those maligned and harassed by the false slander of bigots. And, of course, a reminder to never judge a book by its cover.

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