Dalor the half-elf always preferred a spear to a sword. And that was a problem, because despite the ubiquity of magic swords, it is really hard to find a magic spear. I don't think it was until Dalor reached Level 6 that my friend Dave the Dungeon Master (who was notoriously stingy when it came to experience points, by the way) finally found it in his heart to drop one into the game, somewhere in the depths of an abandoned castle.
As I was cleaning out my home office last week, I came across the stacks of books, character sheets, and some meticulously-drawn maps that hadn’t been unearthed in more than twenty-five years. They made me smile about Dalor the half-elven ranger and long summer afternoons on Bedford Avenue, and they brought on some feelings similar to those that washed over me watching the Netflix series Stranger Things.
I'm guessing a lot of people my age—those of us who spent our childhood in the 80's—felt the same potent wave of nostalgia watching the show. The story is compelling, sure, but that isn’t what drew me in. It was how effectively the creators and directors managed to stitch together cultural references, music, and language—it made for powerful reminiscence from the moment the opening credits rolled with their distinctive 80’s sound and look. Just that font, man. That font! They nailed it in the first five seconds.
I found myself immersed—almost submerged—in deep memories. Things bubbled up around me. Velcro sneakers and jeans. E.T., The Goonies, The Neverending Story, Return of the Jedi, The Dark Crystal, and David Bowie and that ridiculous hair in Labyrinth. Our neighborhood bike patrol, the space between the garages, climbing the trees in front of the house, coming home for dinner when the streetlights flipped on, and rushing back out in the dark for games of manhunt, the screen door slamming behind us. It was Rush, Bruce Springsteen, and The Joshua Tree.
But it was one thing more than any other: D&D. You know. Dungeons & Dragons. It was hours upon hours of summer afternoons on the front porch of Dave’s house, imagining worlds and building heroes and testing their virtue, wit, and ingenuity against vicious monsters, treachery, and occasional tough luck. And in the course of it—we didn’t even know it, really—we were engaged in a years-long regimen of intellectual, creative, and emotional training. While our pre-teen limbs grew and strengthened, so too did the various sinews of imagination, virtue, wit, ingenuity, empathy, and emotional resilience.
Sure, we heard about the crazed rantings of misinformed puritanical ideologues who warned the game was really a Satanic cult. That demonic forces were at work, coded into the rulebooks, which bore ominous (err, more like ridiculous!) titles such as The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Fiend Folio and Monster Manual and Deities & Demigods, and they’d seep up from hell between rolls of the dice. From time to time our parents must have listened in to make sure we weren’t roleplaying sordid stuff, or torture scenes, or growing horns or killing small animals.
But our games never got dark—well, not unless you count the massively engrossing gothic-horror jaunt into Castle Ravenloft in pursuit of the vampire Strahd. No. We spent hundreds of hours (yes, really) each summer drawing maps, inventing worlds, and having a lot of fun. I can still recall with vivid clarity some of my favorite characters. They never existed except in our collective imaginations, and articulated in penciled-in character sheets with carefully recorded ability scores, skill ratings, and lists of equipment. I can tell you that along with his preference for spears, Dalor the half-elven ranger had forest-green eyes. And that the greatest treasure he discovered (other than the long-deprived magic spear) was a suit of magical leather armor that only weighed five pounds and didn't interfere with his stealth skill checks but improved his armor class by as much as chainmail. And that Dave, as our less-than-charitable Dungeon Master, tried repeatedly to have him eviscerated by an ill-tempered hill giant named Grungle. (As I recall, Dalor dispatched Grungle with said spear.)
It was more than that, though, and I see it now as a teacher and a father. While we were imagining the adventures and making them real, we were also reading and writing—constantly. We were reading the rules and the guidebooks and the adventure modules. We were writing our own backstories and imagery-rich description of characters, towns, forests, mountains, and brooding castle ruins. But we were also reading great literature. Tolkien helped build our vocabularies as well as our moral dimensions.
But there was more. We were learning the mechanics of chance and risk. We were developing math skills—the dice rolling, tables, and modifiers built a great foundation in everyday arithmetic. We gained a wealth of knowledge about history, mythology, and even the nerdtastic basics of medieval weapons, armor, and tactics. We learned a lot about forms of government and hierarchical systems of power. We learned to draw; we learned about architectural drafting; we learned cartography. We drew a hell of a lot of maps, which is a really good way to develop spatial thinking skills. We learned a lot about commerce, trade, and basic economics. We learned a lot about human behavior, and although we wouldn’t have labeled it at the time, we worked our way through some really powerful moral quandaries. And we did it together, making eye contact, talking in earnest, with no screen in front of us.
Those D&D books did make me smile about boyhood summers. But they made me smile even more about the men that my brothers, our friends, and I have grown into in the years since those days, and the shared adventure of the imagination that played a role in who we would each become.
I think my kids are almost old enough to play. Maybe it’s time to try.