Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

Sometimes, checking out from reality is not just a fun diversion, but necessary.

Posted Sep 11, 2010

The author, circa 1982

The summer before my eighth-grade year, when I was 12, I learned to escape.

This was 1979. My mother had been home from the hospital for a few months, and my sister, brother and I were still coming to understand the “new Mom.”

This new mother had survived a brain aneurysm. Her left side was mostly paralyzed, and she behaved strangely. Sometimes she scared me. We called her the Momster.

I couldn’t tame her, not this beast, and I knew I couldn’t save her, either. I was stuck with a mother I didn’t know how to love.

But later that summer, something wondrous happened—I learned how to face my demons in another way. I learned that sometimes, checking out from reality was not just a fun diversion, but necessary for survival.

A new kid named JP had moved across the street from me. One hot August day, JP showed me a clever trick—how to step away from my own body and mind, my family, and travel to places I’d never even seen. A way out.

“Ever play D&D?” JP asked, standing in my kitchen, eyes bright and magnified behind his extra-thick glasses. He was quite short, frail-looking, but feisty and fast-talking.

“D&D?” I said. “What’s that—a board game?”

“Dungeons & Dragons? It’s not a normal board game. . . . See, you play a character. . . . There’s all these rules.” He rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a pile of books, then poured a sack of colorful objects onto the table. They looked like gemstones. “Check out these cool dice! See, I’m the Dungeon Master. I create a scenario, man adventure, a world. You tell me what your character wants to do.”

An article about that mysterious, possibly dangerous, new game fad D&D

“Character? What do you mean?” I asked. This kid was weird.

Invented by two geeks in the Midwest, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D was only five years old back in 1979. Few had ever played anything like this before. Born of a similar swords-and-scorcery, myth-laden backdrop as J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Middle-earth, D&D was a game where you got to take action, be the hero, go on a quest. The game taught social skills, leadership, and strategy; it inspired creativity and storytelling, and provided rites of passage, accomplishment and belonging, even belief systems. I didn't get it at the time, but D&D and its ilk let people safely try out aspects of their personalities --- often dark, evil sides, or extroverted or flirtatious --- they could not or would not flex in "real life." The games connected folks to magical thinking, to nature, to a primal, pick-up-your-battle-ax and kill mentalities long suppressed by so-called society. All of which would later serve me well in life.

D&D would open up a universe of creative expression to shy, introverted, non-athletic kids like me who felt about as powerful as a three-foot hobbit on the basketball team

But at the moment, I was confused. I had no idea how play. 

JP sighed. “OK, it goes like this. Pretend you’re in a dark woods. Up ahead on the path, you see a nasty-looking creature: seven feet tall, pointy ears, mouth full of black rotten teeth. ‘Friend or foe?’ it grumbles. Its fist tightens on the morning star in his hand, and it begins to heft it. Like this.” JP grabbed a frying pan off the stove. He swung it in the air. “What do you do?”

“What do I do?”

“It’s an orc. What do you want to do?”

“Uh . . . ” I stalled. What is going on? I thought. I didn’t even know what a morning star was. Or an orc.

"What are you going to do?" JP asked again, a little more impatiently.

“Uh, I’ll attack? With my sword. Do I have a sword?”

JP rolled the dice and squinted at a rulebook. “OK, your short sword strikes its shoulder. Black blood spurts out. It screams, ‘Arrghhh!’ You whack it for four hit points.”

“Cool.” I wanted to ask what a “hit point” was, but it didn’t matter. My anxiety, my weird home life, my mother’s limp, all of it began to fade. I was hooked. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dungeons & Dragons was about to save my life.

“Now the orc comes charging at you. He’s really mad.” JP bared his teeth for effect. “Now what do you do?” he asked, a big grin spreading across his face.

What do I do? I was 12. It was 1979. I had just discovered the power of escape, and vicarious derring-do. Later, I would learn much more about orcs and morning stars and a universe of wondrous things. There was so much I wanted to do. 

Who needs varsity sports when you can be a wizard and shoot fireballs from your fingertips? 

Adapted from the Prologue to Ethan Gilsdorf's travel memoir and pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. More info: http://www.ethangilsdorf.com.

About the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, teacher, poet, geek, and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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