Thursday, March 06, 2008

Any Chance Of Coolness I Had Died With Him

Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons died on March 4. Now before you start warming up your fingers for a furiously typed comment about my dorkiness, I have to admit I was never a huge Dungeons & Dragons dork. I don't feel the odd sorrow and sense of personal loss that I felt for Beer Ayuel (whom I admired) or even Heath Ledger (for unknown reasons). In fact, I didn't even recognize the name and was clueless when posted a list of Gary Gygax jokes they didn't want to catch you making. I did play the game, but the more hardcore among my friends were all annoyed by my playing style, which involved more of the roll playing and less of the game playing. I always played a Halfling (D&D's version of a hobbit, originally, although apparently it's drifted away from that description) thief with a penchant for pyromania, mutilation of the corpses of the monsters we killed, and a short fuse. I even forsook more practical specialties in rolling up my character in each of his incarnations to take on skills that my Dungeon Master required before he'd allow me to walk around carrying medieval Molotov cocktails and other truly old-school incendiary devices. And I took the flaws that I'd worked into my character profile seriously. Very seriously.

I didn't take the game up on my own and also much to my friend's irritation, I didn't take to the game with my usual obsessive study, which meant they were always having to fill me in on rules they thought should have come as second nature to me. The only reason I played was because my friends played and I liked hanging out with them. I also liked the storytelling ability and dramatic flair of my friend Justin who ran most of our games. Plus, the fact that the popular opinion of the games where I grew up was that they were Satanic gave the whole venture a little bit of rebellious flare that my life has always lacked. That's the flip side of Dungeons & Dragons. It's an entirely social activity even though many of its adherents are stereotyped as anything but socially adept. It required group planning and problem solving, and unless you're playing with a bunch of dorks more worried about winning than having a good time, it encourages creativity and empathy by encouraging you to create a character different from you with heroic qualities and tragic flaws and then pushes you to make game decisions in the manner of your character and not your own. At it's best it was a wonderful exercise in literacy, creativity, and team problem solving. It required deeper and more diverse thought than any other game I can think of. Chess goes further with the strategic, logical intelligence, but requires no empathic, social, or creative intelligence. The only problem with its reputation is that it was decidedly removed from the realms of reality, and thus, shunned by the mainstream leaving it to become the haunt of those who themselves felt removed from the mainstream. The stereotype of the gamer ended up being greasy-haired, black-trench-coat-clad uberdorks. It's rather unfortunate. Any kid who enjoys thinking and has a creative side could have easily enjoyed the game. I'd like to think that, since the game didn't become a problematic obsession with me, my social skills were actually improved and my mental muscle exercised by my time rolling the dice.

However, I stopped playing entirely when Justin left for California, the game always having been more important to me for its function as social bonding agent between friends than as a personal interest. My dice have been stashed in their Crown Royal bag for almost ten years now without feeling the shake of my palms. I still look back with fondness on the memories of the game with those friends, but I've never felt the desire to go find another group just in order to play again.

So, in honor of Gygax and his creation, I will regale you with a short history of the adventures of Bluk Skarbottom. Sure, I could break this in half and get two days out of it, but seriously, I don't want to look like a total dweeb, just a partial one.

Bluk had a unique family history. Descended from a great line of heroes, his branch of the family tree had rotted through bad luck and alcoholism. His mother was dead and his father typically incoherent in a gutter in front of some tavern, Bluk was raised by a band of dwarfish thieves in the local metropolis. (Stick with me here, it gets more interesting, but this helps explain his later choices.) This also explains the rather dwarfish name as well. As a young man, Bluk set out to make a name for himself. He was basically a good man, but given his upbringing, certain flaws were inevitable. He was short tempered and quickly roused to violence like many young men raised in neglect, abuse and poverty. His ideas of right and wrong similarly were not always in line with those of the mainstream. However, he never intentionally harmed the innocent or the weak and typically used his destructive tendencies on those more deserving. In other words, in the dialect of the initiated, he was chaotic good.

As mentioned earlier, Bluk was a bit of a pyro. He once burned down the mansion of a wizard after a successful robbery simply because he liked to watch things burn. He rejected his companions objections that this would only anger the magician more with a simple, "Fire is pretty." The most trouble this ever got the poor Halfling and his friends into was in a dark cave during one lengthy quest where they came about an uncrossable chasm with no obvious way of crossing. At the edge of the chasm, there was a niche, too deep to see into with bones scattered at the entrance, the stench of rot and death emanating from within and strange wheezes and growls originating from the unseen inhabitant. Unbeknownst to those of us playing characters, the occupant was a mad dwarf who wouldn't hurt us, but would eventually help us cross. All Bluk, a city boy, assumed the niche contained some violent beast and knew was that this didn't feel like a safe situation, so he quickly lit one of his apothecary-made explosives and watched as the mad dwarf ran into sight, engulfed in flames, and continued over the edge of the chasm screaming in pain.

This had been done in spite of the wise advice of Bluk's partner, a Paladin, but that dude was a stuck-up prick. Wasn't it obvious that blowing shit up was the correct response in this situation? It did not matter that intelligence after the fact showed Bluk's course of action to be unwise. At the time, he acted on the information he had been provided and drew the most logical conclusion possible and acted upon it. He was a man of action, not one of mere words.

And really, that's a lesson we all would have been able to learn had we only played Dungeons & Dragons instead of sticking our noses up in the air at the dorks who usually played it.

Now that you've heard me out, you can commence flaming me. It's OK. I understand your need to do so. That, and you will never, ever hear another Dungeons and Dragons reference on this blog. I swear to Yondalla.


Chris said...


Naturally, there is a part of me that feels compelled to make fun, as I've been carefully trained to do. But honestly, I played a lot of computer adventure games as a kid that were pretty similar to these kinds of story lines --- only involving none of the human social element and less creativity, as you point out.

Cast into the right crowd, I probably would have played D&D, too.

Meaghan said...

My oldest brother was a huge D&D fan (I can't believe I just referred to it as D&D), so I got sucked into playing a few times. It wasn't too bad. Then I moved to Cleveland where you were satan's spawn if you played. Leave it up to the Bible belt to take something and run with it.

Oh yeah, you're a total dweeb though!

Mickey said...

My brother owned a twelve-sided die. Or was it 32? Actually I recall an assorted quiver of dice.

But fuck you anyway. I'm on pace for approximately 365 comments this year on JLBB, and I haven't had a word from you on the Waitress in over a week. Is it because I quit criticizing your work and have been giving you nothing but praise and encouragement for the last few months? Fine, I'll start being a bastard again and nitpick your writing, if that's what you want:

You write too long. Here's how today's post should have read: Gary Gygax died. I'm a geek. The end.


Jacob said...

Meaghan: Thank you for insulting me. I expected more such comments given the topic and my explicit permission to do so. Unfortunately your husband is too self aware and fair to do so. I do find humor in the fact that you played as a kid, but only because you don't seem like the type. Girls who are into it usually make the guys seem normal.

Mickey: Your mom sucks donkey balls.

Actually, I haven't commented much on anyone's blogs lately because between work when I can't access blogger sites and 2-3 hours of tennis practice, I'm pushing it just to get my own post published. I'll try to give your slack ass some attention today while I'm home nursing the strep throat that left me entirely voiceless the past two days.

Chris: I really don't have anything to say in return to yours unless you're interested in a conversation about D&D's influence on the video game industry. (I really shouldn't have to write out the name of the game given its length.) I'm not really interested in that conversation, so consider this your response so you don't feel left out.

Julie said...

Hrmm. You and Mickey have more in common than I thought. You both like to be the jerkhole who goes out of the way to screw others. Mickey was obviously far too cool to play your silly little boy games, but I think he can relate to your actions.