Playing Dungeons & Dragons for the First Time


“Nerd Curious” is a new AV Club column by Todd VanDerWerff in which he tries all of the nerdy things that he was unable to do as a child. First thing on the list? Play some Dungeons & Dragons.

My name, for the session, at least, is Lenore. I’m a cleric whose abbey was overrun by the undead horde at some point in my recent past. I was one of the few survivors, and I still bear a burning desire for revenge. That desire has carried me here, to a city built of bone, filled with evil spirits, dark shadows, rats that turn into men, and vice versa. Earlier, I nearly died when facing off against a giant spider. I grabbed hold of a book filled with evil spells. And now I’m at the lowest levels of the dungeon, where the lich who holds me prisoner has offered me a choice: Stay imprisoned in here with him until my companions find a way to release me, or be freed, only to have my alignment turned toward pure evil.

I’m not going to lie. The idea of starting out as kind of an irritating goody two-shoes – indeed, playing a character I designed myself to be specifically that – and ending up as a traitor to my own god and a dark terror whose thirst for revenge warped her beyond recognition appeals to me. But at the same time, I think “No, Lenore wouldn’t do that.” Lenore is both me and not me. She has a lot of the same qualities I have – that goody-two-shoes thing, namely – but she’s also a woman and a cleric and adept at all manner of things, while I’m sitting here, clutching a die I’ve only recently learned how to interpret, and trying to place myself in her headspace.

It’s possible, I realize, to put myself in two different places. Todd thinks it would be cool to see what happened if she turns evil. Lenore knows she’d never take that deal. And in that instant, I can see what this whole role-playing thing is about, why it holds so many in its expensive thrall: For an instant, you aren’t seeing with your eyes. You’re seeing with someone else’s eyes. And it’s intoxicating.

But VanDerWerff’s article is much more than just a description of rolling dice, etc. He discusses his religious childhood that saw Dungeons & Dragons as evil — something with which I’m familiar — and the ways in which role-playing games can tap into, and unleash, our imagination.

…all role-playing games are about worlds that shouldn’t exist, and they’re also about essentially banishing any concept of cheating – and attendant punishment – from the game’s reality. I’m not gay or a woman, yet I play characters who are both over the course of the weekend, including a Japanese schoolgirl who gets everything she wants through sheer power of cuteness, which is about as opposite from me as you can get. But there’s also no set scenario, no game board, no comforting limit to where the reality stops. You can’t put things in boxes, because the only boxes that exist are the ones the GM and the players invent for themselves. Give four players the same sets of tiles consistently in a game of Scrabble, and they’ll probably play markedly similar games. Give those same four characters a basic D&D setup, and they’ll likely play incredibly different games each time. This notion is about as hippie-dippie and left-wing as they come. It’s a breakdown of the natural order, an installation of a new one that exists only in your head. But like most things that exist only in your head, it’s more powerful than just about anything else. Put that in the hands of adolescents, who already question everything placed in front of them, and who knows what happens.

If Carman had known this, instead of seeing D&D as a generic “bad thing,” he might have been even more terrified. The fictional witch who invited him over to his house was a familiar, friendly construct, someone who kept rubbing his “otherness” in the singer’s face, taunting him with his lack of salvation. But in a way, that fiction is comforting because it suggests that the sinners out there are just filling a precise role in the drama of the believer: They’re there to remind you of how good you are. That’s less possible for those who simply reject the game entirely, be they progressive political activists, Occupy Wall Streeters, or D&D players. You can’t yell someone into submission if they aren’t playing the same game.

I grew up in a Christian culture that definitely saw games like D&D as an evil from the pit of hell. I remember coming home one day from junior high with Unearthed Arcana, which I borrowed from my D&D playing friend — not because I had any desire to dabble with demonic forces but simply because I’d always loved stuff about knights and chivalry and the book had some stuff about knights and chivalry. (The book’s illustration of a cavalier still sticks out in my mind.) My mom, however, expressed a great deal of concern over the book. Later, I found that my parents had purchased a book on the evils of role-playing games. That book, however, only made the stuff more fascinating. (I experienced a similar phenomenon with the books on the evils of rock n’ roll.)

At the same time, I was devouring books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Tower of Geburah, and I immediately saw the disconnect. Those books conjured up imaginative, fantastical worlds that were not all that far removed from the world(s) of D&D. What’s more, they were written by Christian authors who saw the unleashing of their imagination — or “sub-creation” to use Tolkien’s term — as an act of worship. Christians shouldn’t at all be surprised that our hearts, minds, and souls yearn for something more, something bigger and grander and more adventurous. And our imagination is a primary way in which that desire is expressed, even if that expression takes the form of distant lands populated by magical creatures, mighty warriors and wizards, and unspeakable evils.

I make no assumptions whatsoever regarding VanDerWerff’s current beliefs, or lack thereof. However, his discussion of the tension between the rigidity of his Christian background and the freedom offered by D&D is something very, and sadly, familiar to me. I hope that VanDerWerff, and others like him (and myself), ultimately come to realize that that tension need not be so great. That Christian faith need not be so rigid, and that the imaginative possibilities represented by D&D and other role-playing games are not inherently a stumblingblock to Christian faith.

Oh, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more “Nerd Curious.”

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