Dungeons & Dragons, and iPhones and pizza
I stood at the end of a dark passageway, illuminated by a strange blue glow. To my left slouched an injured dwarf and a shifty paladin, both drinking a miraculous energy-restoring potion. Behind me stood a half-elf who, I’d been told, was “the One” and his companion, a gnome with a pronounced desire to kill anything that moved near his friend. Me? I was your average time-traveling human who had seen things in the future and the past that made this moment fraught with danger.
The tension was unbearable. I turned to the half-elf and asked the one question that needed immediate answer: “Is there any beer left?”
“Look in the kitchen,” the half-elf said.
“Hey, where’d you get this pizza from?” the gnome said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had pizza with a poppy seed crust.”
And just like that, the dark passageway dissolved into the living room of a house in the Hollywood Hills. The various creatures morphed too: The dwarf and half-elf were brothers who also happen to be actors and filmmakers named Richard and Brian (their home was our dungeon), while the paladin was an animator named Mark and the gnome an actor-filmmaker named Clive. Also in the room, manipulating this all, was Lyle, the Dungeon Master -- yes, yes, we were playing Dungeons & Dragons, but more on that in a moment.
The only sign of femininity -- apart from the coasters we’d all been instructed to use -- emerged when Richard’s girlfriend walked through the living room and proclaimed us all hopeless losers.
This was my first time playing D&D in at least 25 years. As a child, I played for a very specific reason: I loved to tell stories, but because of my severe dyslexia I couldn’t do it very well on the page. Every time I sat down to write, my thoughts would overwhelm my pen, and when I was done scribbling my story out, huge sections would be missing.
It wasn’t until high school that I was actually able to write. But I spent years -- first with Army men, later with “Star Wars” action figures and later still, with these role-playing games -- creating stories. And if none of my childhood friends wanted to play with dolls (because let’s be honest: Army men and “Star Wars” action figures are dolls) or in my dungeon, I would sit in my bedroom and create these stories by myself, often silently, lest one of my siblings walk in and find me talking to my bedspread.
In the years since, I’ve tried the video games that mirror the old role-playing games but have found myself hopelessly bored. The joy of mind-based role playing was that I could always escape, could always find a spell to save my life and would never get cornered, because I had other people with me, even if I was alone in my room. In a video game, when someone chops off your head, it’s for good. Or at least until you restart the game.
Even though I now usually get my ideas on the page without incident, when the invitation came from Richard to play D&D, I jumped at the chance. What would it be like to revisit my 13-year-old self? Would I remember how to play? Would it be as cool as it had been?
Well, revisiting my 13-year-old self was embarrassing and my memory is a sieve, although it is pretty cool to invest yourself in a fantasy narrative . . . to an extent.
The embarrassing part is simple: About 40 minutes into the game, I started periodically using a faux British accent, which was weird. But it also reminded me of how, at 13, I sometimes pretended to be British. In public. That I dressed like I was in the Cure didn’t help.
The memory issue was trickier. I had no idea how to play anymore because I don’t think I ever knew how to play. I’m pretty sure I made it all up as I went along. Fortunately, Mark the paladin is one of those guys who never stopped playing, has his own painted figurines and knows so much about each character that he could solve any problem.
It was impressive, since no matter what happened in the game, Mark had experienced something just like it and could recount the event in Technicolor detail. He was also, un-ironically, wearing a T-shirt that read “I Rolled a Twenty . . .” and continued with an admonition that the rest of us, euphemistically, had not.
The truly difficult thing, though, was investing in Lyle the Dungeon Master’s narrative. An acclaimed comic book writer, he knew what he was doing initially, but by the time we all got to the end of the dark passageway, I began to sense that he wasn’t going to let any of us die or get irreparably maimed (though I had been viciously attacked by a griffin, as happens). When an unexpected circumstance came up, his natural fallback position was to come up with something oddly reminiscent of either “The Matrix” or “The Lord of the Rings.”
I also began to realize that even though I’d been given certain unalienable gifts -- like the apparent ability to time-travel -- mostly I was there as an expositional device. I would have settled for being the Fifth Business, but I was more akin to a fellow in red on “Star Trek”; just the rare one who lived. Maybe I’d read too much into Lyle: He had to call his kid to say good night, so maybe he was distracted. But this was the opposite of why I’d loved playing the game as a kid, when the story was essential and I was more than just a cog.
I decided to go from exposition to action. After another beer, I told Lyle that my next move would be to stab the gnome in the neck, because I’d been to the future and the past and I knew this gnome was not to be trusted.
“Roll,” Lyle said. I got a four. “Again,” and this time I got a three. “You miss.”
I checked my character sheet and it said my sword was pretty awesome and that I had serious cleave power, which allowed me to hack away at people berserker-style. I told this to Lyle, no British twang to be found.
“Roll again,” he said, and when I came up with a seven, he announced, “And just like that, the gnome disappears!”
Fortunate for the gnome, I suppose, since at that moment he was making plans to play next time via Skype while off shooting a movie and thus hadn’t really noticed my attempt to kill him.
We played for a few more minutes, until Lyle’s iPhone alarm went off -- it played “Don’t Fear the Reaper” -- letting him know it was his child’s bedtime. He went into the dining room while our merry band of magical creatures talked about the projects filling their actual lives: a short film touring the festival circuit, a voice-over project from hell, a script’s 11th rewrite.
As for the story? Mark the paladin’s meticulously hand-painted figurines stood frozen in the middle of a coffee table surrounded by dice, imported beer, iPhones and piles of poppy seed crusts, silently waiting to find out what that blue glow might be, their narrative suspended by adult responsibility.
Goldberg’s books include “Living Dead Girl,” “Fake Liar Cheat” and “Simplify.”
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