Most conversations between 60-something year-old mothers and their 30-something year-old daughters don't generally go like this:
"Mom, I need your recipe for pistachio cake. I'm DMing a game on Wednesday!"
"Oh Sweetie, you're going to be a Dungeon Master! I'm so proud of you!"
This conversation took place via cell phone while my mom was shopping at Target. She is proud of me being a Dungeon Master, likening it to directing a blockbuster summer movie or that time I ran for Vice President in 10th grade (and lost to Stacy Hendrick's boyfriend, of all people!).
Mom did get some weird looks that day, which pissed her off. She's become very protective of D&D and the people who play.
To the woman on her right pretending to study picture frames, my mom said, "I hope she doesn't kill her friends. Imagine the guilt."
My mom would make a fantastic Dungeon Master.
Guilt aside, my opportunity was coming with alarming frequency. But there was so much to do! Like finding willing and able participants.
Learning a thing or two from my ambush D&D game with the girls, I knew it would be best to:
A. Play with people who already know how to play and
B. Be honest about your intentions.
Even more importantly, they should possess the following traits:
Charisma (15+): Must have the ability do something entertaining to divert the focus off me while I try to figure out which page of the adventure I'm on. (Scott.)
Intelligence (14+): Must have enough knowledge of the game to not need me to explain the little details. (Marty.)
Wisdom (6): IQ aside, this person must be easily won over with food and drinks. (Adam.)
Strength (13+): Must be strong and focused enough to help get the game back on track should I completely lose control. Or drink too much and pass out. Or lock myself in the bathroom out of shame. (Sara.)
Dexterity (15+): Must be nimble, fast-thinking, and able to focus on many tasks at once, such as playing a PC and answering the DM's questions, such as "Can they look in that window? They can? What do they see?" (New DM.)
While most of them knew of my experiment, they didn't all know they'd be part of it. Not sure if this would be considered an honor, I thought I'd employ some reverse psychology tactics.
After months of careful scrutiny, pretend focus groups, and miles of secret footage, you have been selected to take part in a once a lifetime opportunity. I have nominated you to be on TLC's What Not to Wear! Stacy and Clinton will be here tomorrow so look your worst!
Ha, ha, ha, just kidding . . .
Within seconds Adam was at my desk.
"You're not funny," he said.
I hate it when people open conversations with that.
"But yeah, I'll play D&D with you."
Let it be known this was the same day Adam showed up to work in sandals and socks. I'm just saying . . .
Marty and Sara were equally upset, but only because they were not going to be on the show.
Unfortunately, my plan to bribe with food and beverages was foiled. Of the two dates I suggested, it was nearly impossible to get everyone together. New DM told me to go forth without key members, but I couldn't. Using the visualization exercises James Wyatt suggested, I was already picturing Marty hitting his head on the stalactites, Adam taking a wrong turn and splitting up the party (again), and Scott flinging whole-wheat crackers dotted with Norwegian Jarlsburg cheese in my direction. I had to play with this group!
"Then we have to do it at work," New DM said.
At work! Let me check the Employee Handbook, but I'm pretty sure HR has some "rule" about bribing your co-workers with alcoholic beverages. Not to mention that the day care would probably call Child Protective Services if Sara went to collect her kids with a cabernet mustache and a sudden speech impediment.
Adding to my misery, New DM wanted to take our regularly scheduled game slot and use it for my practice game.
"How will I explain this to Tabitha?" I asked.
"Send her to Santa Fe on vacation," he said. "Oso de la Fez wants to learn how to make turquoise jewelry."
Why would a bear who wears a tutu and a fez need tacky broaches and pendants? But I acquiesce. Wednesday afternoon it is.
New DM suggested I run Into the Shadowhaunt. Unfortunately, everyone in my group had already either run or played this 1st-level adventure on Game Day.
"Just turn it into one of your 'What I did over the weekend' stories," New DM said. "They'll be so confused, they'll never recognize it."
That particular weekend I attended a town meeting about unfair efforts to ban certain breeds of dogs, like pit bulls. Our conversation about the poor treatment of pit bulls inevitably led to the issue of dog fighting, which pretty much set the room ablaze. Inspired, I got to work immediately (in the company of a foster dog who happened to be part pit bull).
Our adventure takes place in the town of Charlesburg -- a place known for its peaceful neighbors and welcoming vibe. In a country rife with conflict and hardship, it's almost as if Charlesburg exists under the protection of a magic shield. Charlesburg was also voted "Healthiest Place to Live" due to the fact everyone's blood pressure is spot on . . . perhaps due to the enormous canine population in town.
I used to work at a men's clothing store under the dictatorship of a manager who ranked outfitting men in band collars and boucle blazers up there with feeding the homeless and universal healthcare. I left with $67 dollars in a savings account, a store credit card I didn't need, and this nugget of advice: "Know your s*&t." It's true. The more I mouthed off about the proper care of Donegal sweaters or the benefits of wool trousers mixed with silk tweeds, the more they bought. Figuring the same to be true of Dungeon Mastering, in the weeks leading up to my game I found myself in full-on research mode.
Here's a tip. If you're . . . say . . . a dog lover and easily traumatized by . . . say. . . dogs in unpleasant situations, do not -- and I repeat DO NOT -- do a Google search for something like. . . oh, I don't know. . . dog fighting! Within seconds, I was bombarded with harrowing pictures. What did I expect? justrandomfactsaboutdogfightingringsforyournextd&dcampaign.com?
Emotionally scarred, I made my way to New DM's desk to explain why I was going on sick leave.
Shaking his head, he offered his own nugget of advice: "Use your imagination. Like the rest of the D&D population."
Nestled upon the east hill of Charlesburg sits Howl Haven -- once a shelter for dogs, mostly pit bulls that had been run out of other towns by people who believed them to be four-legged vessels of evil, the shelter was once as famous for its compassion and open-arms attitude as Charlesburg. But the townspeople no longer speak of Howl Haven -- not since it was the subject of a brutal attack and overtaken by a being of true evil. Many lives -- canine and human -- were lost in the battle. The people of Charlesburg had lived in peace for so long they had no idea how to fight back. Until now.
We were all gearing up for Wednesday. Adam kept telling me how excited he was. Marty brushed off my nerves with an offhand, "You'll be fine! You were a theater major!" Scott hovered around my cubicle saying things like, "You better know what you're doing. Are you nervous? This better be fun."
And I invited him why?
I awoke the morning of my DM debut in a fit of anxiety. What was going on here? Was I in a play I hadn't rehearsed for? Did I have a Spanish test I didn't study for? Was I being chased by a pack of rabid goats again? I should be so lucky. Today was the day my prepping, stalking, and elevator interrogating had prepared me for.
"Eye of the Tiger, Shelly," I said to myself as I got out of bed. "Eye of the Tiger."
On the way to work, I skipped my favorite talk show to go over my lines.
This is not the Charlesburg you've heard so much about. The downtown is nearly deserted. No thriving retail economy. No straight-out-of-a-Disney-musical townsfolk. No (gasp!) dogs!
By 11:00 I rewrote my entire adventure.
By 12:30 I copied all my notes onto color-coded Post-Its. Pink for combat. Yellow for perception checks. Green for read-aloud text.
By 1:45 I had already been to New DM's desk six times.
By 3:30 my group had taken their seats around the table. Our table. The table where we've shared many an adventure. The table where things could go horribly awry!
By 3:37 I had run back to my desk three times.
"Sorry," I told the group. "I think I have everything now."
They didn't mind as they were busy chatting about their new characters. Apparently someone got access to the Racial Traits section of the Monster Manual and the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide, because I found myself in a conference room full of shifters, kobolds, and drow. Who invited these people?
"I'm PilaafDokkurFljot," Scott says. "Drow ranger."
"Jerika," Sara says. "Razorclaw shifter rogue."
"Balthazar," says Marty. "Dragonborn paladin"
"Kritter," beams Adam. "Kobold wizard."
"No one wants to be an elf?" I asked.
Even New DM folded to the powers of a new supplement: Player's Handbook II. He created a warforged of a top-secret leader class that I can't disclose yet. His character travels with a "buddy" who keeps the party in tip-top shape but that's all New DM was willing to disclose. I picture him somewhere between Deepak Chopra and Trainer Bob from the Biggest Loser.
"Look at you, traveling with a personal trainer," Scott says. "Who are you playing? Christina Aguilera?"
"I'm Turducken," he says. "This here is Pabst."
And I'm screwed. What was that I said about being over-prepared? I'm not even sure I can get this group within spitting distance of the beaten path.
I'm no James Wyatt. I'm not even sure I know James Wyatt, given how out of the zone I feel right now. My group is chatty and unfocused. There are about four different conversations going right now, and none of them involve my read-aloud text. Have they not just spent the past 8 hours together? I focus on the screen in front of me, my props in neatly organized piles, and my color-coded Post-It notes. Even my notes have notes!
Eye of the Tiger, Shelly!
"Continuing on," I say, forcing the group to zip it momentarily and focus on me. Props help. I hand out the flyers the characters notice taped to lampposts in Charlesburg.
Only the tavern shows signs of life . . .
"TO THE TAVERN!" Turducken shouts. "WE NEED SOME CLUES!"
"Inside voice," I say.
"Sorry. Turducken has volume control issues."
"Don't eat the mystery meat special," Pila says. "Woof woof, if you know what I mean."
"Order the hummus," I say. "I hear it's good. And vegetarian."
With that, I place a large bowl on the table.
"Is this the Middle Ages or the Middle East?" Marty asks, taking a handful of pita chips.
"It's fantasy," I say. "They also serve pizza." Gorgonzola, cranberry, caramelized onions, and thyme pizza, no less.
"So far you're a very good DM," Adam says as he takes a slice. His Wisdom drops to 5.
Inside the tavern, you see a handful of people plus a bartender. One of them looks familiar.
I brought along my Astrid mini for moral support and decided last minute to cast her as "Concerned Townsperson 1."
"Astrid!" Sara says.
"Hey blondie," Pila says. "This town's a major buzzkill. What gives?"
"We could use some help," Astrid says.
Our beloved dogs are falling victim to a rash of dognappings. They vanish from their homes in the middle of the night. No signs of their whereabouts. Our mayor, Queen Charlene, is second only to the dogs in the townspeople's esteem. Her beloved dogs, two pit bulls named Paco and Peanut, have been taken!
"It's on!" Kritter says.
Naturally, she's beside herself. Inconsolable. The only hope for this town is to rescue her dogs and bring the culprit to justice. A psychic was consulted who believes that the dogs are still alive but in grave danger. She believes they traveled to the east. Toward Howl Haven.
"Any idea who's behind these dognappings?" Jerika asks.
He was a member of the town acrobatics troop called The Ravens. He was loved and adored by the town, but he became impatient with his starting salary and wanted more. Falling victim to his own greed and desires, he left the Ravens and betrayed the town in the worst way. He destroyed Howl Haven and turned it into a sporting den that housed suspicious events. Suddenly Charlesburg was infiltrated by evil. And evil wanted a front row seat at these events.
"Here is his picture." Astrid hands a wanted poster to the group. "Perhaps you recognize him."
"Don Tijuana?" Pila says. "Interesting."
"He looks KIND OF FAMILIAR!" Turducken partially shouts.
"Suspected dog-fighting ringleader," Balthazar reads.
"What a bastard," Jerika says. "Let's kill him."
"Wait," Astrid says. "Take this for your travels. Journeybread." Or rather, my mom's famous pistachio cake but they're willing to go with it.
"Excellent DM," Adam says, Wisdom dropping to 4. "Which way to Howl Haven?"
Oh look, we're out of time. We'll pick up next time on the road to Howl Haven.