by Valeen Gonzalez.
We all know the stereotype. The image that comes up when we hear Dungeons and Dragons is a morbidly obese, unkempt, extremely hairy man whose body odor precedes him. He likely lives in his mother’s basement, uses his arm to wipe the fluorescent mucous that oozes constantly from his bulbous nostrils, and drinks soda straight from the bottle. The closest he has come to a vagina is in his disturbingly vast collection of nudie magazines and the pornography he watches late at night with his hand buried deep in his underwear. To say he is socially awkward would be a gross understatement. Everyone knows that only the most socially inept pariahs, who lack any and all respect for social graces, play D&D. But how accurate is that stereotype? I set out to find out by seeking out a player.
Dungeons & Dragons, also known as D&D, is a tabletop fantasy role-playing game that has been in production since 1974. It involves people sitting around a game board and pretending to kill enemies and accomplish quests. These people create characters and they take on the role of their character in the game.
I have some experience with role-playing games because of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game called World of Warcraft, or WoW. Although I have created a character in WoW and enjoying taking her through the world and killing things, my main draw to WoW is that other people play too and I have made friends from all over the world. And although I am a little embarrassed for playing WoW, at least I don’t role-play like people w ho play D&D
Michael seemed like a normal 25-year-old man. A friend of a friend, he was articulate and quite normal over the phone. He works at an Amazon distribution facility where his Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions earn him laughs from his fellow warehouse workers. He lives in his grandparents’ house in Fontana because they asked him to move in to make ends meet, resulting in a win-win situation for all involved. Although he is single right now, he has had girlfriends in the past, and has even engaged in the art of cohabitation, meaning he has, at a very minimum, seen a vagina. He’s really just a normal guy — well, aside from the fact that he plays D&D.
I planned to interview Michael and then attend a D&D game so as to observe my subject in his natural setting. Unfortunately, Michael didn’t have any games coming up. Aren’t those people supposed to eschew all normal activities and meet in a dark, stuffy basement for hours on end at least four times a week to play with figurines? I was starting doubt that this guy actually played D&D.
In moment of sheer
insanity brilliance, I decided to fully immerse myself in this project and become a test subject. Michael agreed to lead me and some friends in a game of D&D. The date and time were set; all I needed were victims players.
Naturally, I gave first dibs on this titillating experience to the people who live in my house. I appealed to my
long-suffering handsome husband with a genuine and heartfelt plea of “You’re playing D&D with us on Saturday.” He was annoyed flattered that I thought of him first. His eager and supportive response to my thoughtful invitation was a rousing “Can’t you find anyone else?” I smiled at him through gritted teeth and thanked him for volunteering to play.
Next up was my 19-year-old sister, who is thin, has long wavy hair, is pretty but doesn’t see it, while also being totally into comic books and “Star Wars.” She likes things that are part of geek culture– this should be an easy yes. Her eager and supportive response to my thoughtful invitation was a rousing “Can’t you find anyone else?” Since she isn’t legally bound to love, honor, and obey me, I let her off the hook and told her I would ask someone else.
I convinced my sister’s boyfriend, Adrian, to fill in. He’s a sucker for trying to make a good impression on our family. Why else would he take out the trash every week and willingly join us in the nerdiest game ever?
Sunday afternoon arrived and so did Michael. I had scrubbed the house clean and inoculated it against the stench of D&D with the overly scented, bright purple Fabuloso. Oddly enough, it was the doorbell that alerted me of his presence on my porch, not the smell.
I steeled myself for the sight and odor of this strange creature. I was quite surprised by what I found. Standing on my doorstep was a smiling young man in his twenties dressed in the usual clothing of a male of his age: jeans and t-shirt. His shirt, a nod to the geek comic book culture that has infiltrated pop culture through big-budget blockbuster films, had an image of Captain America’s shield. He had light brown hair that wasn’t cropped super short, but was just long enough to comb and touch his ears. His glasses made him look smart, but when combined with the shirt gave the impression that he was a comic book nerd, not a mathlete. He had an oblong pink birthmark on the left side of his face that was about as wide as a quarter. I wondered if that made him feel like an outsider in school and led him to D&D. Kids can be cruel and often don’t understand that things like birthmarks can’t be helped.
The Captain America shirt was definitely a clue about his interests. “I’m into anything that people consider geeky or nerdy,” Michael said . “I love sci-fi, comic books, super heroes. I was psyched when they announced the Avengers movie. Seeing all these people on the screen is like a nerdgasm.”
What did I just invite into my house?
Before the game started, we sat and talked for a bit about what led him down this road of social suicide. It was time for him to really let his D&D flag fly. This was where the normal guy exterior would be shed and I would see the true D&D stereotype within.
“When I was very young, my grandfather bought me this VHS game called Dragon Strike,” Michael explained. “It was meant for someone much older than me. The acting was cheesy and 80s. As a kid, I was like ‘this is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen.’ It had a board and dice and it was basically like Dungeons & Dragons except they made stuff up already for you. Once I played that a little bit, it got me into the table top genre.”
Just as I had suspected! He has been playing games since he was young. That’s how it starts. I supposed most young boys enjoy playing games. Even I enjoyed games when I was young. But, of course, I have outgrown board games. Actually, I love breaking out a board game and playing with friends. And I do enjoy games on my phone. And there’s also WoW, which I enjoy playing when I have spare time. Do I actually have some things in common with this guy? No way. Maybe if we delve into how he started playing D&D, we’ll see that I’m nothing like them.
“A few years ago, I bumped into a couple guys who were playing D&D,” Michael said. “They let me watch them and invited me to play with them the following week. They were starting a new level 1 game. That’s basically how I got started, a bunch of people let me play. It’s basically a game that anyone can play if you’re old enough to understand the concept.”
Well, how nice that D&D players can be so welcoming. Maybe it’s really a pyramid scheme and they recruit others to somehow bring themselves financial gain in the game?
“I’ll go to comic book stores and just sit down with random people and we play and have fun,” Michael said. “Some people are shy at first. The owner of the comic book store told me that you see a lot of people who have stuttering problems, or they’re not the popular kid. A lot of people get shunned and we know what that’s like. So there’s no judgment. There was one guy that was a jerk and the rest of us plotted to kill him so that he would have to leave.”
Far from the twisted nerd world I initially imagined, Michael was making these D&D people sound like really nice people. Was I wrong? What about the stereotypes?
“People put these weird stereotypes on it. Stereotypes exist for a reason. I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve never played a game with a morbidly obese guy with a huge neck beard who had a big 2-liter of Mountain Dew,” Michael said with a laugh. “It’s happened. The stereotypes are out there. But, don’t judge things at face value because you’re gonna have fun. You may look at this guy and think he must be a loser when he’s actually a pretty cool guy.”
There it was! The stereotype! But, it sounded like maybe the stereotype was actually the exception. And, even the stereotype sounded like more of a nice person than the monster I had initially imagined.
“Some people will put a stigma on this,” Michael said with a pained look. “They say ‘You’re almost 25 and you still read comic books and play Dungeons & Dragons? OK, are you still a virgin and where do you live? Do you live in your mom’s basement?’”
I was one of those people who put a stigma on D&D. I started to feel humbled.
Michael was helping me see that far from being better than D&D nerds for not giving the game a try, I was being small-minded and judgmental — and he did it all while being a really nice guy. I was starting to feel bad about having made so many assumptions about him and his kind.
“Don’t judge stuff as soon as you see it,” Michael said passionately. “Life is short and just have fun. Don’t stop yourself from doing something because you think somebody else is gonna judge you for it. Just do it anyway. If you’re having fun, go for it.”
Michael’s perspective on life made me wonder if I have been missing out on life experiences because of my fear of being judged. He was really making D&D sound like a fun experience, especially for someone as imaginative and into video games as I am.
“You have to think of it as you’re playing a video game in your mind. It’s all about imagination. If you have a good imagination, you’re going to have fun.”
That was it! I decided it was time to play D&D and see what I had been missing.
To start off the game, Michael laid out the board, had us each pick a character from the three he provided. Normally, we would create our own characters, but in the interest of time, Michael created some for us that he thought would go well together. The character books are thick and I’m indecisive, so that was good call on Michael’s part.
I picked the cleric because clerics can heal and I play a healer in WoW, so I figured it would be easy for me. Andrew picked the Swordmage because he tends to like mages. That left the fighter for Adrian. Adrian seemed happy enough with the fighter and started to get into it when Michael told him, “You’re the fighter. Your whole goal is to get in there and fuck shit up.”
Michael explained that the point of this encounter was to conquer the enemies together. “It is cooperative, you’re playing with each other. You’re on a team.” This would be interesting since Andrew is a much more intense game player than me and has gotten frustrated with me when we have played video games together.
Dice would be an integral part of the game. We would roll for every turn. If we rolled high enough, we could hit or heal something. Then we would roll to see how much we would hit or heal for.
First, we rolled to see what order we would play in. Adrian had a good roll and would go first, then the enemies, then Andrew. The dice I had borrowed from a friend were pretty unlucky and landed me dead last.
The game started out a little clunky. We were all unsure about our attacks, but Michael, serving as Dungeon Master, was kind and helped us along.
I surprised myself and started to think like my character, who was a lawful good person (“the most goody two shoes you can get, the good of the good” was how Michael explained it) and corrected Michael’s math during Adrian’s turn, which meant that Adrian’s hit missed and hurt our whole team.
Andrew’s competitiveness started to show a bit when I gave a bonus to Adrian instead of Andrew. His face was both annoyed and shocked that I didn’t give him the bonus just because he happens to sleep with me. At the time it made sense since Adrian was the next one to go. Unfortunately, Adrian had a bad dice roll and missed the hit, rendering the bonus I gave him useless. “Thanks for the bonus,” Andrew said sarcastically when something attacked him next.
Michael made the game fun by giving the enemies personalities. When his wolf rolled high enough to attack me, he said, “A little morsel, I want to bite you.”
We all got more comfortable with our attacks as we watched each other play. We tried to work together to kill things and keep each other alive. Michael was also nice enough to stop me from putting myself in precarious positions on just about every turn.
Through the whole game, we were all plagued by bad dice rolls while Michael’s enemy characters had great dice rolls. We were getting attacked left and right while missing hit after hit. Michael took pity on us and let my heals hit when they shouldn’t have. I was so desperate to not let my team die that I didn’t let my lawful good personality stop him. We commiserated with each other instead of getting frustrated and we all celebrated when one of us finally rolled high enough to hit something.
We spent two hours, with a break for pizza and pot stickers, killing three enemies and had just one enemy left. It was my turn and I barely rolled high enough to hit. It was a bit unclear whether Michael added correctly or not to let me hit hard enough kill that last wolf.
And then it was over. The dust on the battlefield was settling and we looked around at each other. Andrew had taken some hits, but was still doing OK. I didn’t have much life left, but I was alive and that was all that mattered. Adrian was lifeless at our feet. Michael let me roll to see if I could revive him, but I didn’t roll high enough. How was I going to tell my sister that I had to leave her boyfriend on the battlefield? Luckily, Michael took pity on us and gave Adrian just enough life to lean on us and hobble — broken, bloodied, and tenuously clinging to life — to town.
And that’s the major difference between D&D and WoW, the human element. In WoW, when a group doesn’t have a healer alive, they can try to resurrect their fallen compatriot, but if they fail, there is no human running the game to take pity on them.
But, the human element goes even deeper than that. Yes, I play WoW with other people, and we’re friends, but we are hundreds or thousands of miles away from each other. We can hear each other’s voices sometimes and we can read each other’s words, but it’s not the same as playing in the same room.
As we sat around the table playing D&D, my feelings about D&D changed. Far from the simultaneous embarrassment and superiority I felt at the beginning of the game, I ended that game feeling that I had fun. I also felt more connected to the other players and more invested in the game than I have ever felt in WoW. Because a lot of the game is luck based, I never felt like I was responsible for holding the group back with my inferior skills. If everyone had died, I don’t think there would have been an assigning of blame as there is in WoW. Yes, there was confusion, but there wasn’t stress. We could all shrug and laugh about a bad roll, then move on to the next turn.
Much like when we do anything for the first time, whether it’s a first kiss or a first breakup, there was a loss of innocence that afternoon. But it wasn’t the loss I expected. I lost the innocence of thinking that I had enough connection in my life.
I didn’t realize how much I missed sitting next to Andrew and playing something together until the game was over and I felt a twinge of sadness. The more I think about our life, the more I see that between school, work-study, homework, being editors of a newspaper, and carving out time for family, friends and gaming, Andrew and I aren’t leaving much time to just have fun with each other. In our minimal free time together, we talk about the news, debate issues and watch “The Daily Show.” We laugh and have fun together, but not the same kind of fun that we had around the dining table. It reminded me of the early days of our relationship when we would do puzzles and play board games together. At some point we stopped doing things like eating, talking, and playing together around a table, and it took a game of D&D to realize how much I missed that.
As Michael left, I found myself inviting him over to play again and we’re all really looking forward it. There may still be the stereotypical D&D player out there, but for the most part, people who play D&D are just like everyone else. The only difference between them and all the rest of us, is they have found a way to have fun with friends and strangers through a face-to-face game that builds cooperation and human connection. And, honestly, couldn’t we all use a little more connection in our lives?