Dungeons & Dragons May Have Saved My Life

“In school I was a founding member of the ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ club at my high school. I was in chorus and I was in swing choir. I was an outcast but I was an outcast among a group of outcasts.” 

John C. Reilly

On The Move

trek mapped across the United States

By the time I was ten years old I was living in my fourth state. The summer of my eighth year my mom and dad moved myself and my two older brothers from Michigan to Kansas. Michigan had been home to my family for generations, all the way back to the early pioneering days of the 1800’s. My relatives were some of the first farmers to break ground between the great lakes. Stepping away from Michigan was a big move for all of us, but looking back on it now I realize what a huge leap it was for my parents. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to travel and live in so many places before the age of ten. Even at that young age I realized that I had a lot more miles behind me than many of my peers of the day. But all that moving had it’s down side too. Anyone who has had to move in their lifetime knows that adjusting to new people and new places isn’t always easy. It can be especially difficult when you are young.

A Strong Foundation

Mom & Dad in the 90's
Mom and Dad in the 90’s

Despite the lack of a college education my dad’s career was upwardly mobile one. We were fortunate he worked for a solid company that believed in promotion from within its ranks. Dad took advantage of the opportunities presented to him. All the while he never lost sight of being dad. We were lucky in that regard. We had a stable home and lived comfortably enough. We didn’t didn’t take big trips, dine out a lot or have a club membership. We did have three square meals, presents at birthdays and Christmas, tickets to the movies, clean clothes and affectionate parents. That foundation meant I had a safe haven – too many kids don’t. But it couldn’t protect me from the adolescent bullshit outside my front door.

The Biffs of the World

Bully from Back to the Future
Biff Tannen from Back to the Future

Kids will be kids, and that almost always includes being cruel. Kids can be especially cruel if you don’t measure up to the accepted social norms. You can’t be too fat, too thin, too smart, too slow, wear glasses, bad at sports, pimples, funky hair, a lisp, stutter, big ears…we’ve all suffered our share of ridicule in some form or other regardless of how pretty, rich or smart we are.

All of us have been a bully to someone, but some kids excelled at it. I”ll admit that I did my share. If you stay in one place long enough the pecking order kinda sorts itself out. Through our adolescent years social contracts are established and, aside from some minor tweaks, most people stay within their assigned roles But moving around as much as we each new place meant a new group of kids I would have to prove myself too; new friends, new bullies – new contracts.

Kansas and Washington weren’t really all that bad for meeting people and making new friends. The “True “locals”, the ones who’s names were already on contracts were few, if they were unrecognizable at all. Many of the kids in Lawrence, Ks. and Vancouver, Wa. were “the new kid” in previous years. I still had a few jerks I had to prove myself to, but it was a manageable number. In a numbers game they were likely outnumbered by a flock of new kids each year. This wasn’t the case at the third and final state we moved to. In the summer of 1978 my family moved to a small town in Virginia.

A Very Different Place

Beautifal Fall Colors of Southwestern Virginia

We moved to a small town located in Southwestern Virginia. It wasn’t used to a lot of newcomers in 1978. This part of the country is dominated by small communities that date back to the earliest days our our nation. There is a very long Scots-Irish history here – a people known for being suspicious, and not without good reason, and while not everyone looked at us sideways, centuries of culture has it’s influence on anyone when you’re immersed in it. It’s a “When in Rome Do As the Romans Do…whether you mean to or not” kind of influence. There were others before us that moved from other parts of the country. There were some natives that through some connection understood that there was a bigger world beyond the confines of their little town.

Despite having two major interstate highways running through it, the town was closed off from the rest of the world in many respects, and some of its residents liked it that way. If their little town didn’t have it, you didn’t need it. If you complained about not having it, the response was, “maybe you ought’a move to where they have that- and good riddance” or so it seemed.

Our experience moving into this new community involved less of the classic southern hospitality you hear about and more about people figuring out if “you’re from the right place.” While being labeled a yankee (sometimes a damn yankee) one-hundred fifteen years after the end of the Civil War was usually meant in jest, sometimes it wasn’t. During almost every conversation the revelation that you were from “up north” put at least a temporary pause on the immediate conversation to subtly affirm that being from “up north” meant something different from being from just about anywhere else.

For the first time I found myself attending a school (6th grade) where kids had been attending school together since nursery school! What the Hell! I was blown away when I discovered this. Honestly, every time a conversation included details of a lifelong relationship between peers it would catch me attention. The thought of such a relationship would persist in the back of my mind until something took my attention away from it. Even to this day the concept of sharing ones adolescents with someone not your immediate kin nearly from birth to adulthood gives me pause.

Oddly enough, my own children grew up exactly that way.

The next two years I struggled to find acceptance among my peers. I was a pre-teen boy wearing husky jeans looking for a place to fit in but ill equipped to handle adversity. I didn’t like conflict and it seemed like conflict was coming from every angle, even from some teachers. Not having much of anything else going for me, I used my experiences and knowledge of the world beyond the confines of this little town as a way to impress my peers. I suppose my actions and words could have been miss-understood as me lording my knowledge over my classmates. Maybe of the teachers – the ones that had grown up in that community – felt like I lorded it over them as well. Maybe they felt threatened as well. That seems like a bit of a stretch but I don’t think its out of the realm of possibility for one or two of them. I say that because I had some teachers who actively engaged in conversation about topics outside the local experience.

A Year of Change

Cover of early D&D Starter Set

Jump forward two years to the summer of my thirteenth birthday. the year is 1980. That summer marked my departure from middle school and entrance into high school (my High School included grades eight through twelve). It is also the same summer two events took place that would have a lifelong impact on me. The first impact-full moment was walking into the high school band room for the start of Band Camp. High School band is where I formed friendships that are strong to this day. The friendships I made in band are as much a part of my everyday life as my relationship with my wife and children. The second event is that it’s the summer of my introduction to “The greatest game ever created!”

A Day to Remember

I think Mike invited me to David’s house, or more likely in a desperate attempt to escape boredom I invited myself. It didn’t know who David was at the time except that he was the new kid in town. Mike probably knew him through church, maybe a chance meeting at the town pool…etc. It doesn’t really matter. What mattered at the time was that I was stuck at home. Home was five miles outside of town. There were a few other kids in my neighborhood but we were disparate enough age-wise that we were more inclined to do our own thing. Besides, town always meant more to do. At minimum there was the video arcade. It didn’t matter that town also meant the possibility of confrontation. After two years I had learned who to avoid and where they lurked.

At that time I didn’t know Mike that well. He spent the night at my house once to collaborate on a school project and became friends enough that I could call looking for something to do. I imagine the call between Mike and I went something like this:
“Hey Mike, what are you doing today?”
“I’m going over to this kids house to play some new game.”
“Cool can I come too?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so.”
“Great, I’ll be there….Click.”

I’m sure there was more to the conversation, but you get the idea. Anyway, with that call I escaped a day that probably included rereading comic books, resorting baseball cards or going outside and beating something with a stick. In those days, you had the option of morning game shows and afternoon soap operas (when I started noticing girls the soaps became slightly more interesting). You also had whatever weird/juvenile shows aired in the middle of the day on PBS. As a last resort, you could eat up an hour or two reviewing the Christmas wish-list you made in the Sears and/or JC Penny catalogs. Faced with these options, the awkwardness of a self-invite was a worthwhile risk.

Dungeons & Dragons

I knocked on David’s front door. I distinctly remember his mom answering the door. She directed me to the basement. At the bottom of the basement steps I found Mike and several boys I recognized from school. They were sitting at a roundish table in the dimly lit basement. A couple of them I had never spoken to, but one of them was in my Boy Scout Troop. I took a seat at the table and waited for instructions. In front of me was a pile of funny looking dice, a map scribbled on a piece of graph paper and a sheet with numbers on it with a place for me to write in the name of  my character. David said we were playing an adventure called The Keep on the Borderlands. More specifically we were exploring the Caves of Chaos. After giving me a quick introduction to the character sheet, David went back to his dungeon master duties. After several hours of slaying rats, Goblins, and a creature called a Kobold, I was hooked on Dungeons and Dragons.

†

The Caves of Chaos was a huge dungeon crawl

Looking Back

That was close to forty years ago so it’s impossible to know exactly what I was thinking then, but I can imagine a few things were running through my head:

  • I could pretend I was someone who just walked out of a Tolkien book.”Cool!”
  • I didn’t have to be me. I could escape the real world for a while to become someone people loved and respected – my foes feared me.
  • Acceptance into the group wasn’t questioned. In-Game I am an equal. Out-of-Game I have joined an elite group of nerdy kids who accept me based on attributes that don’t depend on strength, speed, my appearance or social rank.

We would spend the next couple years blazing a trail of destruction across the world of Greyhawk – from the icy spires of the Barrier Peaks to the lonely plains of the Bone March, we vanquished evil.

My move to Virginia might have been easier had I not been so isolated, but living so far from town limited my access to potential friends. It was the first time since moving to Virginia that I felt like I belonged somewhere. The group at that table – David (the Dungeon Master) Mike, Bill, Greg, Tim – I know they know this and I am not sure how much I realized it then, but they were a salvation of sort for me at that time. I know now that at the time I was depressed – clinically depressed. 6th graders shouldn’t think about suicide but they do. I had some really dark thoughts pass through me until that day. That day represented a new beginning and unbeknownst to anyone at that time I would shortly thereafter suffer a physical ailment that would further isolate me for the next two summers. This group of friends was there to see me through it. I don’t like to think about what those years would have been like without this groups of friends and Dungeons & Dragons to see me through it.

Thank You Gary and Dave

Prior to that day I was an awkward, chubby kid who spent two years looking to find acceptance somewhere in his new surroundings. The immediate acceptance I received from my new friends is a witness to their character, but it’s also a testimony to the power of the collaborative game-play that is the core of Dungeons & Dragons. I wish I could thank Gary and Dave in person. I owe him a Thank You for providing me/us with a reason to form friendships – friendships that span decades.