Monday evening I had some friends over to do something so shameful that I hesitate to blog about it. One might suspect that the orgies, sex clubs, and pornographic movies that have comprised my not-so-distant past would place me safely beyond the reach of shame.
One would be wrong, however, because what we did was play Dungeons & Dragons.
For those of you who were normal, well-adjusted teenagers, Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game invented by a crazy person named Gary Gygax in the mid- to late 1970s and popular since then with high school nerds and social misfits of all ages. Players create characters of various races (elf, human, gnome, etc.) and classes (mage, paladin, druid, etc.) and band together to go on adventures, fight monsters, win treasure, and forget momentarily the fact that they are acne-ridden losers who will go to their graves without ever having sex.
Though I certainly played my share of Dungeons & Dragons as a youth, I seem somehow to have overcome both the acne and the lack of sex. However, in recent conversations with various friends, I discovered that they, too, played Dungeons & Dragons as youths. Perhaps there’s something about a hidden shameful past that draws people who share it together, sort of like how the closeted gay kids in high school all seemed to become friends without saying a word about their secret. I’ll skip over the details of how the members of our cabal found each other; suffice it to say that at 6:00 Monday, seven hardy souls, whose names I will never reveal, not even under torture of the worst kind, gathered together to play D&D.
At first we were utterly overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the rules. I am amazed that I ever even comprehended them, much less knew them intimately enough to play with confidence. There were charts for how fast you could move depending on what you were carrying, charts for how vulnerable you were to attacks by petrification, charts for how likely you were to be able to memorize a spell you found. Terms like THAC0 and Armor Class and Hit Dice jumbled themselves confusingly together to befuddle us all.
In the end, we decided more or less to wing it.
The first thing you have to do when playing Dungeons & Dragons is create a character. My character was a human mage named Zoltan the Vengeful; Zoltan was an exact physical replica of me except ten pounds lighter. He was accompanied on his adventure by Friar Thomas of Middling Tolerance, a human priest; Treegrass Rootleafstamen, an elven ranger and secret environmental terrorist; Sunshine Joyslayer, a half-elven bard; Pennyroyal, a dwarven fighter/thief [N.B.: pennyroyal is an herb that was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to induce abortion]; and Spotsylvania Jones, M.A., a thief who was either a gnome or a half-elf (the player started out as a gnome but for some reason my memory is telling me he changed his mind and became a half-elf). My backstory was that Zoltan the Vengeful was a closeted homosexual and was in love with Sunshine Joyslayer; I confided this information only to the Dungeon Master (the player running the whole thing) and to Spotsylvania Jones, M.A.
For the next four hours, we all sat appalled as sentences like “I speak Orcish–I listen through the door and try to understand what they’re saying” and “I have a 30% chance to detect hidden portals” flowed ever more easily from our mouths. At one point, we turned a corner in the ruined castle and a “jelly-like substance of a disgusting ochre color” fell on Treegrass Rootleafstamen and Pennyroyal. “Zoltan leaps out of the way,” I said, “to make sure his robes aren’t stained.”
I’d intended to give Zoltan a gradual and tortured coming-out process over the course of the game. At first this went well, despite Spotsylvania Jones, M.A.’s thinly veiled threats to expose Zoltan unless he agreed to go left at the fork rather than right. Soon enough, though, I was so addled from trying to keep track of the rules and so horrified to be saying things like “I cast a Burning Hands spell at the wraith” that complex character development was beyond me. Eventually I gave up and said, “While we’re recovering from the gargoyle attack, Zoltan puts the moves on Sunshine Joyslayer.” To my delight, Sunshine Joyslayer felt desperate enough in his girlfriend’s absence to succumb to Zoltan’s advances. Unfortunately, however, the honeymoon didn’t last long.
“Through the mist in the tunnel,” said the Dungeon Master, “you see a giant centipede curled up.”
“Zoltan holds hands with Sunshine Joyslayer,” I said.
“You can’t hold hands with me,” said Sunshine Joyslayer’s player. “I’m trying to play a morale-boosting song on my harp.”
Men have said that to me before and I’ve always taken it at face value, but somehow this time I found it hard to buy.
By the time the clock struck midnight, we were all exhausted and, though we were only halfway through the dungeon, we decided to call it quits. The Dungeon Master revealed the secret of the ruined castle, we all gasped, and everybody went home. The only mystery left is what exactly Spotsylvania Jones’s M.A. was in.
Perhaps, if we don’t all die of shame, we’ll play again someday and find out.