How Dungeons & Dragons Revealed My True Character
The Dungeons & Dragons Episode (Podcast / Transcript)
The roots of capital-c Creativity run deep.
Mine grew wild and tangled ’til squeezing tight at the sound of rolling dice.
Role-playing. Escapism. Fantasy.
Call it what you want, son. The rest of us called it…D&D.
Dungeons & Dragons pushed my burgeoning imagination in strange and exciting new directions. But, as this story (embedded above and transcribed below) will show, it also taught me something essential about myself. About my deeper nature. My character, if you will.
Turn down the lights, pop in some earbuds, kick back, and making your Saving Throw V Nostalgia — it’s a brand new episode of Buddha and the Slut.
(Oh, and be sure drop by the new PODCAST page — stats and presskit goodies and Season 2 teases aplenty!)
Hey friends, welcome back to the summer series on Buddha and the Slut. Horrors of climate change aside, I’m hoping the current climes and times are treating you right, and blessing you all with warm waves of creative inspiration, spiritual elation, and, just maybe, a little romantic persuasion.
But no naughty tales this time, children. In fact, today we go digging for some dirt of the creative kind – rummage around the mess of weeds and roots to hopefully uncover another key moment in this old rogue’s storytelling journey. ‘Cause that’s where the real treasures are buried; we just gotta be brave enough to roll the dice, don our robes, and embrace the adventure.
Of course, I’m talking about Dungeons & Dragons…D&D…ADVANCED…and how I discovered a pretty major piece of my own puzzle – a facet of my ‘true calling’, if you will — through playing this weird, and wondrous, and unabashedly geeky role-playing game.
My first taste of D&D was harmless enough. Pretty typical actually, for a kid in 80’s suburbia. Now, this was before most folks, at least in small-town Canada, shied away from adult supervision for their pre-teens. ‘Cause we didn’t have Playstations and smartphones and Netflix as our nannies. Probably a good thing, depending on the ‘babysitter’. I was lucky, though…’cause my guy was a frizzy afro-sporting, thick glasses-wearing, bad skin-having, brace-face owning, boy-scout-trouping, adam’s apple-a poppin whiter-than-white NERD….LORD…STEPHEN. And he was nicer to me than most in that ‘let’s just microwave some hotdogs and watch crappy movies’ kinda way.
I remember him asking if I’d read THE HOBBIT, which I had. Lord of the Rings? Not yet…but I really liked the animated movie. Cue the eye-rolling and the smug nerd sigh. But you dig fantasy, right? Swords and sorcery? All that stuff? Of course. What self-respecting kid with a 10-speed bike and shelves full of comics and action figures didn’t like that?!
Cool…I’m gonna teach you how to play a game. Just the basics for now….if you really get into it? It’ll blow your mind. But first – do you have some dice?
Did I have dice? DID I HAVE DICE?! Bitch please,…I’ve been playing Yahtzee and rolling large straights since I was 4. Do I have dice…
Sure…but only 6-SIDED dice, right?
I had that look dogs get when you tell them to do your taxes.
Fine, he said..we’ll just make characters today. We can start the campaign with my dice next time.
For the uninitiated, this is the classic entry point to the world of D&D, or any oldschool role-playing game. Character creation. You role three normal dice and assign scores to various attributes like strength, intelligence, etc. From those totals – numbers between 3 and 18 — you then figure out the kind of character that makes the most sense, based on the perceived strengths and weakness of the rolls you made. This is where creative freedom and your imagination really start to blossom in the game, as it all comes down to your choices at this point. Are you gonna be your run-of-the-mill human? A sprightly elf? A lumbering orc? A hairy-footed halfing?Bearded dwarf captain? These are just some of the RACES you can pick from, of either sex, each with inherent advantages and flaws.
And then there’s your ALIGNMENT. How is your character going to interact with the world? Are they good or evil? Lawful or chaotic? Neutral/indifferent? Devoted to a flag? A king? A god? Or just flagons of wine and mountains of gold?
But more important than these is your CLASS. Not ‘social class’ like the Indian caste system or Downton Abbey shit…I’m talking about your character class! What are you going to BE once the adventure starts? What’s your ‘job’ in the world – your ‘purpose’? This is where you take your personal whims and preferences and factor in those dice rolls you did. Got a high score on Strength? Then some kind of Fighter is a good choice, since you’ll be breaking down doors and bashing goblin heads. High intelligence? You could be the Magic User/Sorcerer/Gandalf the Grey floppy-hatted wizardy type. Decent Dexterity? Then Thief could be your calling, as those nimble fingers are perfect for picking locks AND pockets…
And there are more, but I think you get the point — it’s a lot of pre-amble. But the reason I’m telling it this way is ‘cause my geek babysitter had the same kinda pitch on how the whole D&D thing worked, how to approach it, how to prepare…so, by the time I had a basic character rolled, and figured out their race, class, alignment, what armour they had, spellbook, beard or no beard, horse or no horse, and whether they used their right or left hand to wipe after dropping a brown troll in the woods….?
My parents got home.
He got paid. Til next time, buddy. But there never was a next time with Steven. He got a real job, and I guess dating actual girls and getting actual handjobs at the Pefferlaw drive-in was infinitely more important than showing a buck-toothed gomer how to do imaginary things like saving throwsvs poison or the best time to cast a fireball (hint: NOT in a closed 10×10 stone chamber if you’re hoping never to die from mystical third degree burns).
Be that as it may…the ‘burning’ may have waned, but it did not DIE. For it wasn’t long after this that my dear cousin – yup, Tobias Tinker, the one from episode 4 of this show, and the creator of the Buddha and the Slut soundtrack — came all the way up from Victoria Square to Sutton for our annual weekend sleepover. But it was a rainy weekend….a rainy weekend years before we had videogames and VHS tapes to soothe the indoor blues. We literally had nothing to do…until he dumped a small velvet bag of brightly coloured 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided plastic polyhedrons on the dining room table and asked…
‘Have you heard of D&D?’
Those next two days were an imagination-stirring, heart-gripping, and mind-nuking blur. Tobias was more than happy to play the role of DM – Dungeon Master for the uninitiated, like I was. Without delay, he deftly guided me through the process of creating a character, explaining the basic ‘rules’, and diving straight into the game.
Since I was playing a solo campaign, and he knew my not-so-secret longing to swing big swords AND kick no small amount magic ass, I embarked on my quest to slay the evil red dragon atop a mountain of treasure as GARANTHRAX – the not-yet-legendary Chaotic Good half-elf Fighter Magic-User, esquire. And sure…young boys have power fantasies, and this bumbling weepy nerd now had steel-bending 17 Strength and a super-genius 18 Intelligence. Sure, I wasn’t so wise, and my overall health and healing factor (constitution) was average at best, but my 16 Charisma smoothly swayed the nervous townsfolk to my worthy cause.
Oh, that weekend. That glorious weekend.
We started playing before noon and only stopped around 7 to crush a bag dill pickle chips and two homemade pizzas – thx Ma! The blinds were drawn. Candles were soon lit. There was a hush in the room as the Dungeon Master described everything. The mythic, war-torn, landscapes. The ominous clouds, rumbling overhead. The battle-scarred rogues who joined my cause in search of platinum and infamy. The dark cracks in the mountainside, beckoning the brave and the foolish deeper underground. Piles of bleached bones in that first hallway, bones of man and elf and dwarf, who had tried and failed in their quests.
And the enemies I fought. Hearing inhuman voices. Tensing with each footstep. Trembling in their hulking shadows. Rolling for initiative to see who would strike first. Screams and shields and the hellish stink of goblin and orc and ogre breathe on my face as I rushed to launch a volley of magic missiles before being slashed or stabbed or sleep-spelled into nothingness.
I remember the first time I ‘died’…just a few levels down in the mountain…a collapsing wall or spiked pit or booby-trapped door…
I was sad. Palpably sad.
But my DM said that the gods were pleased with my efforts. Said I had more to do. Whisked me back to the realm of the living with a gasp and a shriek. I wondered aloud what I had seen on the ‘other side’…but Tobias would only whisper:
We don’t talk about that. We don’t ever talk about that.
More battles came. More monsters. Magic potions and +3 swords and magic scrolls with powerful spells. I was on the verge of snaring some great treasure in a vast chamber with an underground river running through it if only I could figure out a way across when Mom came out and told us, in no uncertain terms, to GO TO BED. I didn’t know what the big deal was til I saw the clock. 2AM. Where had the time gone? Where had WE gone for all those hours..?
A restless sleep. Strange dreams. Orange juice and a bowl of cheerios and straight back to the quest. We neared the big battle just before lunch. Entered the dragon’s cave and stood in awe at the mound of treasure it crouched upon. We called a false truce with it, flattered the beast and sang songs to it whilst sneaking closer and closer only to snatch a glowing sword and staff from the treasure pile. Sneak attack! ROLL 20s! Lightning bolt Lightning bolt!!! KICKED THE SHIT OUT OF IT, finishing the campaign just before my cousin had home.
Hooked on this secret world that had been opened to me. This heroin of imagination. But I would have to be patient. It took a few more years for my little town to catch up. For me to walk into the high school cafeteria in Grade 9 and suddenly hear that familiar clatter of strange dice being rolled. Of stats being furiously scribbled. Of magic swords being drawn and terrible foes being slain. Of epic stories being told. Stories you can PLAY…
ROLE CALL: Jim Johannssen. Scott Johnson. Ed Grassie. Jim Cloughly. And Marty fuckin’ Short.
We weren’t all friends, not by a long shot, but we were brothers in arms for years every day at lunch, and some weekends, too. Fuck the jocks and the skids and the bubble-gum bitch brigade: WE WERE LEGENDS. And sure…pre-teen male power fantasies gave way to actual TEEN ones. Some of us kept kill counts, the gorier the better. Some rolled 20-sided dice to seduce maidens or score a magic dick enhancement. We scoured villages and started wars and summoned demons and trekked to the astral planes to challenge the gods themselves. And when the D&D satanic panic struck in the mid-80s? Shit, we attended a ‘concerned parents’ meeting in force, at the little town hall where they held religious indoctrination nights once a month for local kids that loosely masqueraded as ‘dances’. Oh yeah…we spoke up and waved our DM Guides and Player’s Handbooks and Tomb of Horrors modules in their faces and bragged that our group had FOUR honour roll kids, a track and field star, and at least two ‘entrepreneurs’ before it was technically legal.
They were speechless. Hearts were opened and minds were blown. And not just minds, ‘cause two hours later I was getting my first beeej from a pious young thing who dug the passion in my voice and the stonewash denim on my ass.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS MAKES MEN!
Well…not really. But it sure can teach about yourself. All those choices to make. Kind or cruel or complete indifference. Man, woman, non-binary before it was cool. Religious? Agnostic? Atheist? The path of brute force? Superior Intellect? Of deceit and trickery? Grand illusions…vs the wisdom that comes with faith. Like I said in the beginning, it all boils down to CLASS.
WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BE?
Thieves and Assassins…they never spoke to me. I just wasn’t the steal and stab type.
And bards — the ones who sing their stories and spells into being – guys called them a joke. Losers.
As a sorcerer, I got addicted. Obsessed with better magic. More spells. More power. It always cost me.
And fighters? Well…it’s the classic boy thing, right? I played as fighters and knights and even a paladin a few times, but never did so well. Played with too much bravado, or not enough. Tried too hard…or thought myself into a corner.
I remember…one of the guys at our table…he said it best back then. After some punk kid in the cafeteria slapped me down for my smart mouth, when I tried to defend myself or some girl or whatever with my words. I hit the ground awkward, wailing and flailing. It didn’t make any sense. On paper I was twice his size. I was ten times smarter.
It was in the aftermath…wiping the tears away and wearing that crimson handprint on my face like the scar from a dragon’s claw/claw/bite…that’s when the whole table laughed, and Marty fuckin’ Short said:
You’re hilarious. You’re like a wizard with 18 strength. Face it…you’ll never know how to fuckin’ USE it.
And that…stuck. It went in deep. Something changed then, as I pondered the words. The concept. The truth of it. What I meant to be smart. What it meant to be strong. What it meant to be ME.
I took a break from D & D for a while. Joined the volleyball team. Did a musical. Got a summer job at the arcade. Kissed a girl or two by the lake. And when I came back to school that fall, I came back to play one more game…
Whatcha gonna be this time, Burgess?
I rolled my dice and tallied the scores. Above average overall, but with two standouts: a 17 and an 18. I put the first on Strength, and the second on Wisdom…the key trait for a CLERIC.
You’re gonna play a CLERIC, man? Seriously?
“Yeah. He’s chaotic good, so he doesn’t fight for a flag but will for a worthy cause, like his friends. He’s not the bravest, so instead of leading the charge, or bringing the firepower, he’s there for support. When you’re hurt, when you’re back’s against the wall, and you’re getting ready to meet your maker…? That’s when he’ll strike the foes down with his hammer, and HEAL you all if it’s the last thing he does.
“For the record, he’s a half-elf. His name is GARANTHRAX. He’s died in battle before…but the gods always brought him back…said it wasn’t his time…
“They said he still had work to do.”