Thursday, October 6, 2016

There Are Stranger Things Than Dungeons and Dragons

There are stranger things in this world than Dungeons and Dragons, but in the small town I grew up in there didn't seem to be in 1983. It was the height of the Satanic Panic, and the Devil was everywhere. 

That summer my cousin Jeff had been staying at our house because he couldn't get along with his abusive father, and a couple of times his friend Brett came over to stay with us, too. He brought his Dungeons and Dragons books and we played a few rudimentary campaigns that he made up spontaneously. He was a brilliant person. Nerdy. The total opposite of my cousin Jeff who was a born con man and charmer. He was a year older than me, and my favorite cousin. Just full of it. The two of them seemed liked the most mismatched friends of all time.

As far as Dungeons and Dragons: I was hooked from the beginning. That first time I saw the Efreet on the Dungeon Master's Guide my imagination was unlocked. I always was fascinated with mythology and was just starting to become obsessed with horror movies, and it was the first season of Elvira's Movie Macabre, and all of this coalesced to ensure I wouldn't be able to show any interest in my first year of high school.

Dungeon Master's Guide first edition

The second time Brett stayed for the weekend he left me his Dungeon Master's guide and several modules. Actually, I traded them for a nudie magazine I had stolen from my uncle. It was the best trade I ever made.

I was so obsessed with studying my tomes that I had no time for school and barely knew all my friends had joined the Cross Country team. The coach tracked me and my friend Royal down and asked us if we were interested. We said we didn't know, and his quote was "Well, it's time to shit or get off the pot." We decided to shit because our friends were on the team, and group of friends I would keep through my high school experience was formed.

Royal was familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, but the rest were newbies. Their interest was tepid, but we'd meet in basements on the weekends when we could and Royal usually did the honors of Dungeon Mastering.

Then we made the mistake of trying to play after practice night in the school commissary. Retribution was swift and absolute. Not only was Dungeons and Dragons banned from the school, but a committe was formed and dozens of books removed from the library. 

People were honestly scared. The Attorney General had formed a commission to investigate Satanic Ritual Abuse in America, which according to Geraldo Rivera was rampant. 

But this only drove us underground. We started to expand our circle and fall in with some of the older guys on the Cross Country, who also were, surprise, surprise, Dungeons and Dragons nerds. Many of the kids I knew then went on to be very wealthy in fields such as computers and even entertainment. There was a small hobby shop next to the Ben Franklin called Claire's, and she carried a nice variety of Dungeons and Dragons products. My collection grew, and by today's standards was very impressive and valuable. 

It was a junior named David who was the ring leader now, and we'd try to organize sleepovers whenever we could to play. But mostly we talked about playing. And really deep stuff. It's interesting talking really deep stuff with adolescents who mostly go on to be supra geniuses.

Then the books disappeared. Someone had gotten to my mother, who was in the early stages of becoming very ill, and also in the early stages of becoming very religious, and explained to her how Dungeons and Dragons was a gateway to Satanism. I came home one night and my books were gone. 

I guess I slowly got into other things. Sports. Horror. I was till a long ways away from being able to attract the attention of girls, so I moved on and read a lot. 

Then at a cross country meet three years later I heard that Brett had committed suicide with a shotgun the previous summer. He also was a cross country runner. He never made it to eighteen years old, but I can say he had an impact on my life. It was so important in that Revenge of the Nerds 80's America that I knew there were others who shared the desire to get out, to explore other realities and interests without being persecuted, which we were mercilessly, even though we were jocks.

At least I was. The others were smart enough to drop it the moment they were confronted with the taunting. I don't blame them for that at all. Most of the time I wish I had, too. Lived out those two years of high school in what really was and still is an idyllic place, at least for those who knuckled under and didn't make waves. At least back then.

A while ago I was searching for information on some of the guys from that Dungeons and Dragons group, and saw almost all had really made it. They hadn't careened out of control like Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters, or lost touch with reality at all. They seemed to be the ones creating the new reality we now all live in. Computers and games and virtual reality. I was happy for them

Except David. He was the quietest, most pensive of the group. He had bushy hair and looked like an overgrown Hobbit. His family lived on a large farm, and it must have been a shock to them that he had fallen so far from the tree. He had joined the Marines after getting an advanced degree in nuclear engineering and joined the for lack of a better term, and this was how it was termed in the obituary I read, germ warfare program. He died of cancer a couple of years ago. It's hard to say if Dungeons and Dragons continued to be a part of his life. It wasn't much a part of mine until recently. It seems there is a resurgence of interest  with shows like Stranger Things. 

I'm guessing and hoping it's a lot safer to play Dungeons and Dragons in the open now. I never got my books back, but I have new ones now. The one I would trade them all for is the one Brett gave me when I was a new teenager all those years ago. Unlike all those other guys in the group I did go through hard years, long stretches of trying to find myself. I've landed on my feet solidly and prefer reality to fantasy by wide margin now because the last few years have been a fantasy come true. 

In October these gates open, and I want to thank Brett and David for leading the way for me. Introducing me to not only a game, but a way of approaching life that is not by the book: challenging the untruths and stereotypes people try to impose on us if we diverge from the beaten path. 
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