2014 marks the 36th anniversary of my life as a gamer. It is also the year that Wizards of the Coast published Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and most important of all, it is the first year my sixteen year old son has embraced Role Playing Games (RPGs).
I was introduced to gaming while standing in line to see Star Wars (just Stars Wars back then). I was the new kid in High School and having literally just moved down from the mountains to the big city, my brand new friends had been stunned to learn I had not seen the film yet (over a year and a half after release). Yes, even eighteen months after Star Wars premiered, it still had ninety minute plus lines. But I digress.
While standing in line, one of my comrades asked me if I wanted to play Melee. I’d never heard of it, but loved games so I agreed. I was hooked. Soon after came Tunnels and Trolls, Traveller and the big daddy – Dungeons and Dragons. I was sixteen when I began playing D&D and have played pretty much non-stop my whole life since then.
Always the odd bird, the one with red hair, freckles and a weird sense of humor, I never really fit in. My family moved around a lot so I was always the new kid in school. D&D opened a gateway to a social world I would never have shared. I had friends who liked the same books and movies that I enjoyed, friends who had wild imaginations and really wonderful artistic sensibilities. It is no exaggeration to state that without D&D my life would have been a lot more isolated and lonely.
So imagine the joy I feel, watching my son embrace a hobby that has enriched my life to such a profound degree. My son is not neurotypical and therefore has challenges dealing with the unwritten rules of social interaction and relationships. As a parent I worry about how he will find his way in life and who he will associate with (if anyone). I think such worries come with the position of Father. Unlike my childhood, his has been one of stability – he is attending high school with the same people he went to pre-school with. Even so, I can count the number of his real friends on one hand and still have fingers remaining unused. Until this year.
After years of hit or miss (usually miss) trying to inspire a love of RPGs in my son, it was 5th edition that broke through. Now before anyone thinks it was forced allow me to enlighten the issue. As a parent, my job is to prepare my son to live the life he wants for himself, not to be a version of me, some Marzio 2.0 but rather Z 1.0. When people ask me what I hope my son will be when he grows up I tell them – happy with himself and his life. Whatever form that takes. Of course I hope that he lives an ethical existence and falls on the spectrum of good, but outside of that, I only wish to encourage his interests and goals. I wanted him to enjoy role playing to have something fun to share. I had pretty much thrown in the towel on RPGs by the time 5th edition came out.
Then a magical thing happened, he wanted to play. So we downloaded the beta rules and played and played and played. When the final hardcover Player’s Handbook was released, he and his best friend started a D&D club at their High School with eight other students. To say that I was happy is an understatement!
My son has blossomed this year. D&D is a part of it, a big one. He is engaged and interactive, talking with his friends about it. At the table he is creative and has a tendency to create very unusual characters. I enjoy gaming with him as a fellow gamer (when he has had enough sleep). He and his fellow gamers play every Friday and from all accounts they have a blast. They remind me of my games when I was 16. They have a high mortality rate, over the top encounters and dungeon crawls. Most of all they role play their characters. It is a pretty cool time for me as a parent and a gamer.
Until I found out that one of their friends has been banned from playing the game and told to ‘stay away’ from his friends. It seems the boy’s parents believe that playing D&D is the same thing as practicing full-on Satanism. Um, what year is it?
I lived through the modern witchhunts of America’s Satanic Panic period back in the 1980’s when music could make you kill and rolling a polyhedral dice could summon Beelzebub. Playing D&D makes you a nerd, not as much as it once did, but still it is not a mainstream high school social outlet. So when we were accused of practicing the Black Arts by ‘concerned adults’ and a fear-mongering media, we were doubly scorned. Judged guilty without the courtesy of a trial. It was a rough and ugly period to be honest. Not that it stopped us from gaming.
It was frustrating to see people make decisions based upon something they ‘heard’, passing judgments with only one side represented. It was a lesson in disinformation and hype. It was then I discovered that sound bites, hearsay without corroboration weigh more in the community’s perception than critical thinking. We had been taught to be open-minded, to question the ‘official version’ and to understand that there are two sides to every story and that truth lay somewhere in between. And yet, in the courts of public opinion it was cut and dried, D&D = Evil & Suicide.
I won’t rehash the history of D&D Controversy, quite a bit has been written (see recommended reading links below). The primary force behind the controversy was Patricia Pulling and her organization, BADD (Bothered About D&D). Michael Stackpole did a brilliant job analyzing and deconstructing BADD’s claims and arguments by use of facts and logic. If someone was worried about D&D and open to seeing both sides, I would refer them to his report.
Here is the irony, a truth that most role players experience. Role play is a fairly inclusive society. Judging purely from my own personal experiences, role players are the single most inclusive group of people I have ever encountered. It doesn’t matter if you are old or young, who you love, what you look like or where you are from or your politics, religion etc. What matters is what you bring to the table. Are your characters interesting, are you creative, are you fun to be around? We get our share of jerks, but they rarely find themselves welcomed back. Even then, we are still pretty tolerant (I’m looking at you Rules Lawyers). I would be lying if I claimed we weren’t entirely deserving of the epithets nerds and geeks, but it was a badge we wore proudly.
My experiences in High School are somewhat common among my peers. We encouraged each other, whether it was a character sketch or a short story, or painting miniatures. It was more than a game, we got to know when someone was stressed, or sad or having a hard time at home. We talked and became friends, and sometimes even a support group. I never needed research to tell me that role players are less likely to commit suicide than others. A good gaming table is the safest of places.
My son was raised in a different environment than I was. One where acceptance and respect are taught; where color and gender are just part of who a person is and not a summation of their value. So it was shock to see D&D hysteria rear its ugly head. Listening to my son and his friends discuss what happened was eye opening. They immediately recognized the fallacy of the boy’s parents’ thinking. However they also recognized the helplessness of the situation.
They said that closed-minded people should be pitied; they are usually ruled by fear and thus lose out on chances to experience new things. They felt bad for their friend but respected his parents’ wishes, no matter how much they disagreed. They then went on to describe all the benefits of role playing their friend would miss out on. The sense of belonging, the creativity, the reading, research and math. They talked about having to work together to develop solutions, the laughter and humor and the strengthening of their friendships.
And so I have hope. Most of my friendships began at a D&D game. I know of many artists and authors who were inspired by their D&D groups. My best friend and coauthor and I met at a D&D game. We started writing together because of D&D. It began at first as background information for characters and setting, eventually growing into collaborative fiction. Then we discussed doing something with our writing – like maybe writing a novel (not the first D&D players to have THAT discussion). As I write this we are finishing the final chapter of our first fantasy novel. Together we have written over six hundred thousand words for this book alone. It has been a wonderful, stressful, crazy, rewarding journey. One that would never have happened if not for D&D.
Watching my son’s love of D&D bloom gives me joy like no other. He has always had a creative spirit, now it is being shared and appreciated by his peers. The encouragement and support is priceless and I can see that whoever my son becomes, D&D will have had a positive influence. What’s not to love about a game that does that?