This fantastic New Yorker article, The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons, came out literally a week after my son’s 13th birthday where he hosted a Dungeons and Dragons party at our house for 5 of his best friends.
I’ve played D&D since I was ten. I wanted to introduce Eli to a game I have loved all my life, despite the fact that D&D was considered decidedly uncool where I grew up. I took a lot of flak from my peers, as a result – something no one wishes on their son.
Nonetheless, in the past year or two, I’ve led him in a few small games. In turn, he’s led his friends in a few small games. Usually, they lose interest within 90 minutes, but my son was determined that everyone would play far more seriously at his birthday party.
Like an experienced Dungeon Master, he encouraged his friends to create and develop their characters during the months leading up to his birthday campaign. He helped them craft back-stories and weave those stories together into a familiar tale starting with some inexplicable occurrences in a small town in the mountains. When the big night came, they were ready to play seriously.
All 5 boys spent the night at our house. They consumed huge quantities of pizza and played D&D for nearly 5 hours. Eli didn’t entice them with massive treasure or easy levels. He challenged them. At the end of 5 hours, they had only reached the 2nd level. He created a compelling storyline and engaged his friends in telling that story – just like my buddies and I did 35 years before.
Mid-game he texted his girlfriend: “Me and my nerd boys having a blasty blast.”
Like the New Yorker article spells out, boys and boyhood have sure come a long way since I got my first Basic D&D Set while I was in 5th Grade in 1982:
At my elementary school in Rapid City, South Dakota, that’s when class divisions started. Many of those divisions were created by the selection of the Meadowbrook Eagles competitive basketball team. Kids that made the team were considered “in” pretty much all the way through High School. Kids (like me) that tried out and were not selected were branded outsiders – or at least that’s how we felt. It didn’t help that our PE teacher / basketball coach favored his elite players in every way, just like Richard Vernon from the Breakfast Club.
My classmates Jimmy, John, and Brian didn’t even try out for the team. I remember them sitting at the same table every day during lunch and after school. Armed with character sheets, maps, lead figures and dice, they were creating a world of powerful characters: fighters, magic users, thieves and clerics vs. all the creatures invented by the fantasy writers – goblins, orcs and dragons. They were telling stories and living part-time in a world of fantasy that I found intriguing. One day I joined them at that table, and was hooked.
I played D&D seriously until I was sidetracked by video games and soccer in High School, but I eventually returned to the dungeon in college. I continued playing in Grad School and after Grad School. In fact, I’d probably still be playing if a pretty girl I met in my thirties hadn’t made a dismissive comment about my D&D habit to one of her friends.
These days, given my work and family commitments, I know that spending hours engaging in a fantasy world isn’t realistic. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
Or if I didn’t confess that I am still more than a little scarred by not being a part of the “in” crowd in school.
That’s why I love how my son and his friends navigate social divisions. Although they recognize that there are kids who are definitely “in,” the kids who aren’t on top of the social heap are seen as “different,” instead of “less than” their peers. Being a nerd is no longer the same thing as being a pariah, and playing D&D is now a blasty blast. How cool is that?