I have this friend we'll call Nate.
Nate is a successful attorney who owns a home with a view of Puget Sound, has a cute girlfriend, two dogs, and volunteers for the organization Big Brothers Big Sisters. But Nate keeps a dark, ugly secret. He's been playing D&D for years.
He's the Dungeon Master for a group of six. He's got more dice than all the storage rooms on the Vegas strip. His books go back to 1st edition. He still finds himself humming the theme song from the old D&D cartoon series. Yet no one, outside his group of six, knows he plays Dungeons & Dragons.
I know this about Nate only because he knows where I work and apparently feels safe divulging his secret to me. But Nate will not talk about D&D in public. If you call to ask him something about D&D and he is not alone, he will pretend you are a telemarketer and hang up on you. He keeps his D&D paraphernalia in a locked, fireproof filing cabinet. He keeps the key to said cabinet locked in another cabinet.
You might assume Nate's non-D&D friends are reminiscent of the meathead jocks portrayed in a John Hughes movies from the '80s. Will they give him a wedgie and scalpful of noogies if they find out his secret? Unlikely. His friends skip work to wait in line for The Dark Knight tickets. They debate (in the most gentlemanly and nonsexist way possible) the hotness factors of the women on Battlestar Galactica. They have been known to spend entire weekends "on tour" with their Rock Band. Yet, at the risk of being "exposed," Nate once flipped an entire table over during his D&D game, sending minis, pencils and dungeon tiles soaring across his dining room and commanded everyone to "destroy the evidence!" because he thought he heard a car in the driveway.
"I don't want anyone to know, okay?" he tells me.
Okay, I guess. But I have to ask. Which group looks weirder -- the ones sitting around the dining room table talking or the ones standing on their sofas, playing plastic mini instruments, and pretending to be in Motorhead?
I know my view is skewed as I spend the bulk of my day with people who talk about, think about, and play D&D on a regular basis. At my office, people think you're weird if don't play D&D.
Didn't Harry Potter make fantasy palatable to everyone? Are we not evolved enough as a society to concede Dungeons & Dragons is a perfectly acceptable hobby?
"Absolutely not!" Nate answers. "And if you're writing about this, don't forget I can and will sue you."
If Nate is right, then more "Nates" are exactly what this hobby needs. Plenty of good people like Nate play D&D everyday. Tax paying, smart, socially conscious, well-mannered people! Why should what they do in their well-deserved spare time cause them embarrassment?
"What do you think will happen if someone found out you play D&D?" I asked Nate.
First he tells me to lower my voice. Then he admits, "They'll treat me different. D&D is not a socially acceptable hobby."
"Cannibalism, shooting cats with BB guns, and public urination are not socially acceptable," I argued. "D&D is a game."
But it was no use. Nate has actually broken out in hives over someone asking what he liked to do for fun. This saddens me, as Nate can't be the only one out there experiencing game shame. But if he's not willing to represent D&D players, someone else has to. Someone like me. That's right. Me!
What would happen if I did all my normal activities and frequented my usual haunts while bringing my not-so-secret pastime to the people? Unlock your character sheets and dice, Nates of the world! Quit hiding in your bunkers of self-imposed shame! I will make the world a safer place for you!
I gathered up all the D&D gear I could find around the office and prepared to spend the next month literally wearing my hobby on my sleeve.
We had tons of shirts around the office, so I even sent a couple home to my parents.
"Oh honey," Mom said, calling to thank me. "Do you really wear this? Outside?"
"I'm wearing it right now!" I told her. "I'm bringing D&D to the masses!"
This disturbs Judy a great deal, since she likes to believe I tromp around Seattle in Chanel suits and loafers.
"Couldn't you just hand out those cute little pink dice?"
"Dragons aren't supposed to be cute, Mom," I tell her.
"Puff was cute," she counters, and I concede. Puff was pretty adorable.
Location: Nordstrom Cosmetic Counter
Gear: Dice bag and bounty of dice
Seems every beauty product I own is A) stored behind a glass case and B) needs to be sold to me by a woman wearing a white lab coat. I load up my favorite dice bag with my keys, cell phone, debit card, and dice and meet up with my girlfriend, Kristina.
"Cute ? satchel?" she says, examining the polka dotted satin pouch. "What's all that jiggling in there?"
"My dice," I say, explaining my true motives.
"Fine," she says. "But if someone beats you up in the parking lot, I'll be in the car."
As we approach the counter, our sucker lights must turn on, because the salesgirl is all over us with lotions, potions, powders, and brushes.
"You're in luck!" she squeals. "It's gift with purchase time!"
"All I need is eyeliner," I say, trying to run interference.
"Oh pooey," the girl says, puffing out her perfectly lined lips. "That's not enough to qualify for a free gift."
"Oh well," I say, trying to sound disappointed. I make a big production out of pulling my debit card out of the dice bag, much to the mortification of Kristina. I accidentally on purpose grab a handful of dice and throw them on the glass counter.
"Oh pooey," I say, tapping into my theater major background. "There go my dice!"
Kristina rolls her eyes and busies herself with some lipstick samples. She was part of my informal focus group when I was writing Confessions, so she's familiar with my research tactics.
The salesgirl rushes to my aid, plucking misshapen dice from the polished tiled floor and dropping them back into my dice bag. A d12 catches her eye.
"What is this?"
"Don't ask!" Kristina laughs. "It's ridiculous."
I'm pretty sure she's talking about my acting skills, which, admittedly, might be a little rusty. By now, she's sporting a smeared ring of awful red lipstick nowhere near her lips.
"This is ridiculous?" I ask. "You look like a blow-up doll."
To the salesgirl I say, "It's for a game."
"Like Yahtzee?" she asks.
"Not quite. Dungeons & Dragons."
"Dungeons and …" she repeats, and then jumps back like someone jammed eye liner in her eye. "People still play that?"
"Leave her alone!" Kristina commands. "I want my gift with purchase!"
"Sure! Lots of people play D&D." I point to Kristina. "Even she does."
Kristina leaps off the stool and charges me like an orc in drag. "No I don't! Not that there's anything wrong with it."
"Do you act it out?" the salesgirl asks. "Like in costumes and with funny voices?"
I want to tell her YES! Of course! Chainmail bustiers, giant, magical mascara wands, and masterwork skinny jeans, but that would defeat the purpose of my experiment. The point is to bring D&D to the mainstream, not get us kicked out of Nordstrom.
"Sadly, no," I tell her. "It's really just hanging out with your friends, sitting around a table, making up adventures for characters who are way cooler than we'll ever be."
Maybe she's trying not to lose a sale but to our surprise the salesgirl says, "Sounds more interesting than my usual Friday night. Maybe I should learn how to play."
"No way," Kristina says. "Is she a plant?"
I give the salesgirl some tips, and Kristina and I pay for our purchases. She even gives me the free gift I didn't qualify for.
"If you do decide to dress up in costumes, come back and see me," she says. "I'm really good at fairy makeup."
Score: 1 for cosmetics girl, 1 for Shelly, 1 for Kristina's husband
Location: Friend's House for Dinner Party
Gear: D&D Logo "baby doll" T-shirt (circa 2006)
My friend and co-worker invited me to dinner at her house. There'd be eight of us, all women, who were ripe for the D&D pickings. My t-shirt inevitably sparked lively conversation (mostly because everyone else was dressed up).
"You know," one of the girls says in the tone of voice used only when you're about to unleash someone else's dirt, "Kevin still plays D&D."
I don't know Kevin, but everyone else is appropriately shocked. They burst into incredulous laughter and a chorus of "No ways!" I even hear an "Ew!"
"I believe it," says the girl I liked least. "Maybe if he came out of his mom's basement and stopped pretending to be a hobbit he would find a girlfriend."
Wow. I don't know what I found more shocking. The fact that she managed to include so many stereotypes in one sentence or that she did it in front of two people she knew worked for the game's publisher.
"Careful," I say. "You're in mixed company."
"Oh please," she scoffs. "You're both in marketing. It's not like girls actually play that game anyway."
Now it's our turn to laugh.
"Remind me to give you a really good book," my co-worker tells her, winking at me.
"And while you're at it, give Kevin my phone number," I say.
Score: 0 for mean girl, 1 for Shelly, 1/2 for Kevin
Location: Trader Joe's
Gear: D&D Tote Bag
The worst thing you can do at Trader Joe's is not bring your own grocery bag. I always forget and subsequently leave the store in my non-hybrid automobile, feeling like a big pile of compost.
Today I remember, because my D&D tote would serve two purposes. After stocking up on soy nuggets and roasted pepper hummus, I survey the cashiers to determine whose mind looks ready for opening. It's a tough call, as everyone at Trader Joe's looks ready to hug you, regardless of what you're wearing. I settle on a young female with braids, an eyebrow piercing, and faux hawk because she resembles the half-elf in The Player's Handbook.
She is friendly and chatty and makes me feel like I single-handedly saved the environment by bringing in my own bag. And, score! She gets even more excited when she sees what it says.
"Totally rad!" she shrieks. "I love vintage clothing."
"My friend just got this awesome Smashing Pumpkins shirt from Goodwill," she goes on. "She would totally dig this."
I debate whether it's worth it to tell her I got my bag last year. New. And if Smashing Pumpkins is vintage, then I'm … too old to fight with her. I leave the store feeling like a big pile of compost.
Score: 1 for teen cashier, 0 for Shelly, -12 for anyone born in the '70s
Location: Animal Shelter
Gear: D&D 4th Edition Logo T-shirt
On Saturdays, I volunteer at a local animal shelter. I'm a dog volunteer, which is much different from a cat volunteer. Cats are great and all, but when you sign up you must choose your alliance. But sometimes I break barriers and sneak into the cattery for a little peace and quiet.
Nancy, a forty-ish woman dangerously close to being a stereotypical "cat lady," was also volunteering.
She barely looks up from her Nora Roberts novel but acknowledges my presence by blowing the apparently now-soiled air loudly through her nose and moving her left hand back and forth in front of her face. The twelve cats in kennels meow in agreement.
"Something smells like wet dog," she says.
"Hmm … that's odd coming from an animal shelter on a rainy day. Maybe Animal Control can look into that."
If there's one thing Nancy apparently hates more than dogs, it's sarcasm. Without looking up from the pages of her book she asks if I'm interested in adopting a cat.
"Oh no," I say, "I still have plenty of kibble left at home." Ha ha!
I was clearly kidding, but judging from Nancy's expression, I thought maybe I had crossed the line. Her mean, gold eyes are boring a hole into my chest, presumably where my cat-loving heart should be.
"Dungeons & Dragons?" she asks.
I felt the most enthusiasm I ever had in Nancy's presence. Nancy knows D&D!
"Yes!" I say. "Do you play too?"
Nancy is so taken aback, Nora Roberts hits the floor. This is apparently more shocking than the whole cat-as-kibble comment. "Are you kidding? Of course not! Way to wave your freak flag."
Now it's my turn to be taken aback. Did this woman actually say, "freak flag"? Me-freakin'-yow.
"Nancy," I begin. "Your shirt says, 'You can never have enough cats'. While my flag may be gently waving in the breeze, your freakiness is filled with helium and riding down the Thanksgiving Day parade of crazy."
I leave Nancy to lick her wounds but not before explaining you can, in fact, have too many cats.
Score: 0 for Nancy, 1 for Shelly, 1 for each of the cats in kennels at risk of going home with Nancy
Location: Green Lake
Gear: D&D Logo Skull Cap
Even on not so nice days, this very popular walking spot is hopping. I have a foster dog, so I take this opportunity to bring her -- and D&D -- out for a stroll. We meet up with my friend, Marin.
"What's with the hat?" she asks. "It's 60 degrees."
"My t-shirts are dirty," I explain. Marin is a librarian and therefore familiar with researching articles, so she barely gives it a second thought.
Ruby, the black lab, gets us noticed, but her black lab charm gets all the attention. No one bothers to look up from those soulful black eyes to notice my sweaty, D&D branded head.
Finally an older woman interrupts her power-walk to give Ruby and I some kudos. She's zeroed in on my head, so I focus on my spiel about the animal shelter, hoping she's making the connection between "girl who plays D&D" and "girl who spends Saturday afternoons walking orphan dogs around a popular Seattle lake."
I must really be hammering this whole "D&D players equals good community members" message home because she looks like she's about to pull me into her bosom and embrace me. Instead she lunges forward and swats me upside the head, knocking my hat to the pavement.
"Lady! What the…?"
Marin and Ruby are greatly amused by this turn of events.
"I'm so sorry!" the woman says. "I thought that thing was a spider!"
"That thing was my hat!" I say, picking up my cap and stuffing it in my pocket. "It says Dungeons & Dragons, not 'Aim Here'!"
She apologizes a few more times and power-walks out of sight.
"It doesn't look like a spider," my friend tells me. "She just wanted to hit you."
If I had a dollar … .
Score: 1 for the power-walker, 0 for Shelly, 0 for Ruby
Sadly, I lost a d4 at Nordstrom, a teenager made me feel old, and I was publicly assaulted by a skinny, middle-aged stranger at least three decades my senior. Worse, I don't think I made the real world any safer for Nate. (Especially not at Greenlake.)
But the more I think about it, the more I wonder, did I need to? The most consistent reaction I got was no reaction. Either no one noticed my ill-fitting advertisements, or they were indifferent to it. Just as I'm about to call my research inconclusive, I get an email from my mom.
"We've decided to conduct our own experiment."
She attaches pictures of herself standing outside of Saks 5th Avenue, my dad having lunch at Ruby Tuesdays, back to Mom again in the frozen food section of Price Chopper, and then Dad one more time in his living room watching football with his "mainstream" buddies. In every photo, they're wearing the D&D t-shirts I sent.
"We couldn't tell if people were looking at us funny because we were always dressed alike, or if it was because we had dragons on our shirts. Dad met a couple of college boys who said they'd be glad to roll up a character for him. They even bought us lattes! We don't know what "rolling up" means, but Dad is meeting up with them on Friday! I hope it doesn't involve drugs. Love you!"
Hmm. Perhaps I need to reassess my hypothesis. People without ties to D&D are very much like cats: They can be indifferent, aloof, and oblivious. But people who do have a connection to D&D are very much like black labs: generous, welcoming, friendly, and passionate.
Nancy was right. We should all be waving our freak flags if for no other reason than to attract the flags of other freaks. And if on some remote chance someone does think you're weird, or lame, or socially inept, let them. They're probably at least one cat over the limit.