Let’s be honest.
1978 was a wildly important year.
Space Invaders came out, starting everything video game that would follow. A gallon of gas cost 63 cents and Star Wars was playing in theaters. The first test tube baby and the first cellular phone both made their debut.
Most importantly, 1978 was the year I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. I was eight and into Marvel Comic’s version of Conan the Barbarian. Obsessed with it, in fact.
A neighbor buddy took me over to the house of one of his friends, a kid named Sean, and they pulled out this battered old blue copy of the original TSR game that belonged to Sean’s older brother who was now in the Navy.
Every fan of RPG’s knows exactly what happened next—I was hooked.
I played D&D through middle school. I played a lot through high school.
Then life happened.
I went from the infantry to wildland fire crews to fishing boats in Alaska. From there I got married and worked as both an EMT and security on the Las Vegas strip.
All through that time I didn’t play.
I kept buying gaming books of every stripe. I kept running into people just like me who had played a lot when they were younger (and who invariably still had their books) but who had stopped as life paths lead them a meandering route.
Then I had a son. Then I had another. Eventually I’d have another and, as I write this, number four is on the way, and I’m led to believe this one might be a girl. (Thank God for my poor wife.)
I carved out a career for myself as a writer of all sorts of fiction, most recently a Dungeons & Dragons novel for young readers called Aldwyns Academy.
One summer day not too long ago, my then 8-year old came walking out with an original Monster Manual and asked: “Dad, what’s this?”
What was this? What was this?
It was only just the best thing ever for an 8-year old boy.
As providence would have it my son Cameron is born on my birthday, just as I was born on my maternal grandfather’s birthday.
(That day also happens to be the one in 1867 when General Custer had his unfortunate moment at Little Big Horn—but I’m almost positive there’s no correlation.)
The point is that, minus a few weeks, my 8-year old son and I found Dungeons & Dragons at almost exactly at the same age.
My 7-year old wanted to play the game too. And so I agreed to run a game for them.
My oldest son (the gentle giant) became a fighter: alignment chaotic. My 7-year old (the non-emotive pensive) became a magic-user; alignment lawful.
This fits them in real life to such a T that I burst out laughing at the time they rolled up the characters. It’s like a sort of slightly tweaked version of Raistlin and his brother in Dragonlance.
I was the Dungeon Master—for the first time in I don’t know how many years.
The first thing I learned, though it took awhile for it to sink in, was that, rule modifications and incarnations aside, that while D&D hadn’t changed—I had. Put simply, I was a parent and as any parent can tell you, the prism through which you see the world changes.
Dungeons & Dragons is a cultural phenomenon for certain reasons, but those reasons are as varied as the people who experience it. The reason I became enamored with the game all over again, this time through the eyes of my parental glasses was because I could see the great things it was doing for my children.
The book I wrote, Aldwyns Academy, is a book at its heart about choices, how we make them, the external influences that go into decisions, and why we make those choices. Set at a wizardry school, the main protagonist, Dorian, is a somewhat lackluster wizardry student who often doesn’t make the correct choices, but his heart is usually in the right place. He lives in the shadow of his mother who is a respected wizard, and the adventure he has while trying to solve the mystery of why Aldwyns Academy is being overrun with ghosts and dire wolves, helps him to step out of his mother’s shadow and claim his own power as an individual as well as learning to cooperate with his friends.
It wasn’t until I watched my own kids playing Dungeons & Dragons that I realized how much the story mirrored the game.
From start to finish, Dungeons & Dragons is a gaming experience about choices, making decisions under hypothetical pressure. I was able to watch my kids struggle to do the right thing for their characters as they weighed out consequences and risk vs. reward thought processes. And, most marvelous of all, I saw how the adventure gave them confidence in their own choices, even as they turned to each other, to develop as a team in the face of common adversity.
Playing the game, together, was a bonding experience. It didn’t just strengthen their imaginations, it strengthened their relationship as brothers.
And perhaps more selfishly on my part, I realized it did something I was very interested in; it strengthened our relationship.
We understood each other. We were bonded not just by family ties but by common experience. It is a sense of connection you can’t fake, it’s organic and it either happens or it doesn’t.
When it does happen, it’s one of the best feelings a parent can have.
Now, when I’m too busy to run a game (which is way too often for my taste), the boys are likely to bust out the D&D mechanics to jazz up their Heroscape battles.
Toy soldiers are just as liable to be rolled up with stats. The 7-year old is a talented little artist and he devours the new Monster Manual, drawing manticores and ogre mages, and dragons with surprising discipline.
Most significantly to me is the fact that they are now just as likely to do these things as they are to reach for a screen—be that screen a Gameboy, a laptop, or the television. They are just as likely now to use the screen of their own imaginations as they are an electronic one, and that is worth the price of admission every time.
Dungeons & Dragons isn’t something my children play through me, or because of me, anymore. It is simply something, like boogey boarding and watching kung-fu movies, we do together.
If you’d told me in 1978 that I’d still be having this much fun, thirty plus years later, playing the same game with my own kids I’d have been knocked me over so hard my jelly-smeared Han Solo action figure would have gone flying.
The sense of wonder never goes away.
You can suppress it but you can’t kill it, and it’s infectious. It can be passed on and, if my experience is any indication, it should be passed on.
Thirty years from now, it could be my own grandson experiencing the thrill of rolling a natural 20 exactly when you need it.
I think that would be pretty great.