June 3rd, 2011 by Darin
When I was a little kid, there was a weird family in the neighborhood. They lived down the street, in the big house beside the creek, and we all knew to stay away. My friends and I had heard the stories: that family was dangerous. They crawled around in the storm drains and through the creek. They kept late hours and had strange parties in their back yard.
Because they played Dungeons and Dragons.
Our parents had heard the rumors, too, and we were a neighborhood of hardline, God-fearing Protestants. My family, in particular, was Southern Baptist, right smack in the middle of conservative Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas. As such, I, like all of my friends, was under strict orders to stay the hell right away from that house and its inhabitants. After all, everybody knew what Dungeons and Dragons did to people. Hell, we’d seen Mazes and Monsters; we’d seen the news about James Dallas Egbert III. We’d had guest speakers in our churches and youth groups—D&D survivors who told us about the rituals and blood sacrifices. The Satanism. And you know those guys tell the truth.
That house was the Center of All Evil Things in our neighborhood, and we knew . . . because our parents told each other (and then us) about each missing cat, each busted mailbox, each act of suburban discord . . . that they were a stain on our communal existence. Everyone was glad when they left. My friends and I no longer had to stay up all night keeping an eye on the place (taking shifts) at every sleepover.
I was a good kid. My friends were good kids. We rode bikes and played with our Transformers and Micro Machines. We took turns going to each other’s churches, to hear the same lessons in different Sunday Schools.
Later, of course, we got into D&D anyway.
It was in junior high school. My mom, innocently enough, bough me a copy of Tantras from the book stand at Skaggs Alpha-Beta (our grocery store)—neither of us had any idea it was part two of three. Neither of us was even really familiar with the whole fantasy-trilogy concept that has become a staple of the industry. Nonetheless, dragging this novel around with me at school caught the attention of another dork, an already-established gamer, and the steps from acquaintanceship to friendship to co-gamership were smooth and predictable. Eventually, I was invited to a game, I played a game, and I became hooked. So hooked that, impatient to play again, I got tired of waiting for another invite and simply wrote my own Dungeons and Dragons-esque RPG, which I promptly introduced to my childhood buddies, who became promptly hooked.
(So far, the prophecies were coming, like, totally true. Remember “Dark Dungeons”—the Chick tract that warned all good fundamentalist Christians everywhere about the slippery slope into the occult offered by D&D? My pals and I called them once to bitch about their misrepresentation of D&D, but they didn’t take kindly, and they started threatening us with harassment this and police that. We caved.)
Time went by. Our parents knew we were playing RPGs, and it was fine because they weren’t called “Dungeons and Dragons,” which was all that mattered.
Eventually, I was invited back to the D&D table, and I learned enough of the rules that I could transition my own game (finally!) into the real deal. We were ready to become full Satanists! Right, Chick?
I needed some books, though, and I didn’t have a lot of money, and my parents for damn sure weren’t going to drive me to the comic store so I could buy D&D rulebooks. A pal at school offered to sell me his older brother’s beat-up copy of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd ed.) Player’s Handbook for $5. Deal! Except, see, the book was in terrible shape, and I was nothing if not a fastidious youngster, so something had to be done. I re-covered the tattered thing with most of a roll of my father’s duct tape. Great, it was in playable shape now, but it looked like crap. My only option was to paint over the tape. Some solid color (it didn’t matter which), so I grabbed my father’s only can of spray paint, took the thing into the yard, and painted it up right proper.
The only problem is that it was black spray paint. And I left it in the sun to dry. To be found by my dear, sweet, Protestant parents.
They found it.
When my father walked into my room holding my precious, now-dry, painted book—a black tome full of lists of spells, deities, attacks, etc.—and asked me if it was mine, I didn’t immediately recognize the problem:
“Oh! Yes,” I said. Excited.
“This. Is yours?”
There was a talking-to, a lecture, some tears, some threats, conjecture about punishment. I did my best to maintain my innocence and the innocence of the game. Mind you, I was still a good church-going kid. I was in the Boy Scouts. I made straight As (like all my other geek gamer pals). Hell, I didn’t even listen to rock music.
Finally, I struck a deal.
“Look,” I said (probably not that coolly), “just, please watch us play one game.”
I took a chance:
“If you see anything you don’t like, I’ll never play again. I promise.”
To their credit, my parents decided to think outside every myth, lie, horror story, propagandistic sermon, and . . . well, their better sense . . . and trust me. So I set it up.
The guys came over, and I transitioned the game (honestly—no puff session) from my own game into Dungeons and Dragons. My mother sat quietly in the corner and watched. For about fifteen minutes.
What did she see?
She saw three early-teen boys, sitting cross-legged in a circle. She saw us carefully arranging our (then) lead figurines, which we had quietly and assiduously painted over painstaking hours when we could have been out causing trouble. She saw a twelve-pack of Coca-Cola. She saw mental math and team work and critical thinking and creative improvisation. She saw boys assuming heroic leadership roles to enforce strict codes of honor and morality. She saw us taking turns and laughing and cheering over the roll of an angular knob of plastic with too many sides to be a die (certainly!). She saw us fighting the monsters, not trying to become them. Knights and priests and wizards who were not very much different from what was already on TV or in the movies anyway.
I swear, I swear, she laughed as she stood up and gave us permission to play all we liked. From that point forward, she and the other moms knew where to find us any given Friday night. We weren’t out smoking pot or vandalizing road signs or otherwise seeking identity through rebellion. We were safely in one of three basements—essentially supervised—and we were content to be there. My dear, sweet mother went on to defend me and my games to the other fussing church-hens, whose sons were going to Juvenile Hall or impregnating their girlfriends or generally causing hell. I was a saint.
It was a gamble, and it worked. Because my parents were smart enough to take a chance on good parenting. I began to engage my mom in questions about cooking (so I’d know how to make it realistic in the game), I talked to my dad about military history and science (I even started watching war movies with him), I had questions about other cultures and governments and traditions. I wanted my parents to go with me to the Renaissance festival or Medieval Times. I was glad they were interested in the names for each plate of armor in a full suit (they weren’t, really) or how I was going to screw over my players in our next gaming session.
Later, when I needed to be open and ask questions about serious high school-age issues, we’d already set a precedent—we didn’t have trouble relating, and they trusted me with their answers.
After that one session, I kept playing. In high school, we played all the time, unless someone in the group found a girlfriend for a little while, which, of course, was an approved leave. In college, we played less, and we started to drink a few beers while we did so, but we still played. After graduation, we played even less often, and we sipped tumblers of whisky instead of cheap beer, but we still played. Nowadays, it’s hard to get our cluster of working professionals together for a game, but we still play—just not as often.
And you know what resulted? From letting adolescent boys have their fantasies? From taking a chance on a weird kid and his weird friends? First, I went ahead and earned that Eagle Scout award, then I made it out of high school on the honor roll. I earned a B.A. and then an M.A. and then a Ph.D., and then I went on to teach at three different universities. I took that imagination from D&D and wrote a bad novel, which taught me how to write a good one, which I then sold to a major publishing house. I got married. I traveled a fair portion of the world. I lived in several different states here in the U.S.
All because of a couple of parents who trusted their weirdo kid instead of essentially everyone else on the planet. Well, their planet anyway.
So for crying out loud, teach your kids how to role-play.