What D&D means to me


I love my summer camp memories above all. But I hated—feared actually—my summer camp while I was there. Away from home and love and comfort, and living in a cabin with many strange others, I was scared. Boys meet boys as variables and challenges. On the first day, Ara Zeitz showed me his knives and talked about knife fighting. That scared the shit out of me. I was ready to leave.

I was a freckled kid with awful allergies who loved being clean and wearing white socks to my knees. The camp was my opposite: dirty, dark, deep, chaotic, and uncomfortable. Fishhooks hung from branches around the lake and floated in the water. Crayfish attacked our toes when we swam. We swam, fished, and canoed in the same cold, stinky lake.

There was a wasp nest on the slide—if the splinters didn’t violate your sensitive baby flesh, the wasps would. When I finally got stung, a kindly counselor, a long-haired mountain man from Deliverance, mashed his wad of chaw into my wound. I have no idea if it helped.

During horseback riding I was kicked in the head. To make sure the stirrups were even I squatted in front of the horse to check them. “Are they on the same horizontal …” Bam! Twelve hours later I awoke in the infirmary. The horse punched me with his left fist and I had flipped backwards, witnesses said.

So Camp Minnehaha was a challenging environment for me.

My copy of the Children’s Living Bible. I bought it after camp ended.
My copy of the Children’s Living Bible. I bought it after camp ended.

Anyway, one night they announced that they were playing D&D in the mess hall. One of the CITs, a guy who was always there and a good friend of the Worths (Jim, his father Jim, Sr., and sons James and Jed), had set it up. This was unprecedented. It had never happened before. This was the first night of D&D at Camp Minnehaha. And I was there.

D&D. I learned about D&D from David Redding, a nerdy kid who looked like Buddy Holly. He had the books, and let me borrow them. I was so fucking enchanted that I, or the first and only time ever, intentionally skipped my scheduled activity. Risking getting in trouble.

I went to the rocket launching field and, for the first time ever, intentionally positioned myself as a quaint boy in an illustration. I sat under a (huge) tree and spent the sunny day reading what felt like forbidden, magick, fantasy, danger, and sin.

I remember thinking:

What is this?
Are there many people who do this?
You become another person … in the imagination.
If this is merely fiction, why is there a rulebook?
There must be experts, then, or professional make-believers. But can one be a scientist or researcher of make-believe?
This is a game. But it requires so much research. So … is it really just a game? Would anyone spend so much time writing all of this if it were just made-up?
No, this reeks of deception. People cannot love this like they do, and there cannot be a market like there is, if it were just fluff. There is math here. Probability. Reality.
The actual page I was looking at under the tree in 1978. A watershed in my reflection and an expansion in my allowance. This cannot be a mere game.
The actual page I was looking at under the tree in 1978. A watershed in my reflection and an expansion in my allowance. This cannot be a mere game.

I decided that it must be a like a drug. Or a religion. So much information about stuff that is fun and (apparently) fictional. A few years later, during the American Satanic Panic, swathes of low-brow Protestants would feel the same way. How could so much attention for accuracy be paid to something allegedly fictional? This could not be mere fiction. It must give you access to something pretty damn special if there’s that much work in it.

So I felt chills as I read and consider that through reading I might be palpating the other side. Read about the rules of fighting, buying, wearing, eating, and living in the other side. That was my great hope: to find a Middle Earth-like place that I could inhabit with my mind’s eye. To dwell in a fantasy world that was real due to the attention paid to rules, detail, and amazing illustrations, like the one here:

A clarified blow-up of the races image on the page that changed my life. I remember thinking, Someone put a lot of time into organizing all of this.
A clarified blow-up of the races image on the page that changed my life. I remember thinking, Someone put a lot of time into organizing all of this.

I think that sums up my feelings at the time.

But before that fateful afternoon (or morning) under the tree with the Players Handbook, there was that announcement. There was a special event? In the mess hall? At night? Unprecedented. A game? I was told it was a game with no board, no cards, just paper and pencil.

I can't remember if I went or not, but it was amazing. The dice. The dice! Boys and men sitting around large green tables with dice-jewels. Getting excited about happenings in an invisible world.

People wrote numbers, erased them, and then wrote new ones. Emotionally. They were accessing something powerful but invisible.

They found a way to inhabit the happy world of The Hobbit. In 1981 I finally bought a copy of The Hobbit. I'd watched the Rankin/Bass cartoon when it came out but had never read the book. I will never forget the startling forward. It was a confession, by an adult, that he would live in the Hobbit World if he could. Describing the 60s, he wrote that they

were the years when millions of people grew aware that the industrial society had become paradoxically unlivable, incalculably immoral, and ultimately deadly. In terms of passwords, the Sixties were the time when the word progress lost its ancient holiness, and escape stopped being comically obscene. The impulse is being called reactionary now, but lovers of Middle-earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot.
For in the end it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien's considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day's madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers—thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.

Even later I found out that all those indecipherable lyrics by Robert Plant were about the Hobbit World. Led Zeppelin meant drugs, sex, Satan, and more sex. That the heaven of teen lust and the Hobbity heaven of childhood overlapped was great news. I would love this world. I would love it and embody it and become a magickal boy!

So I wondered.

How far could someone go into the Hobbit World? And what would it feel like to be there? I later found out when I spent a whole summer eating M&M Peanuts and playing Ultima IV on my Franklin Ace 1200.

By all appearances, it must feel pretty good. Kids and adults are friends and coworkers. Boys get to sexually service gorgeous barbarian women like the ones spotted by Richard Corben and Frank Franzetta. There is community, due in large part to lack of television, because people meet in public spaces together. Lots of shared cooking over fires in public. (My favorite aspect of the Ultima games were the cookouts in the towns). Loneliness is not possible inside primitive interdependence.

Also important: medieval technology is transparent to the understanding. What things are and how they work are pretty much the same. It's easy to see how a swords and arrows kill. You can see how fire cooks food. We are not alienated by our tools, as we are today.

But there was still mystery aplenty. Magick, for example.

So … cookouts, cool clothes, real team-feeling, and lots of people together being busy with their earnest and understandable labor. Utopia, for a naive-realist understanding at least.

But what I loved most of all were the creatures. Amazing creatures. Monsters. Lots of different monsters. D&D became the sanctuary for Monster Kids after the Monster Craze died in 1978.

I was a card carrying Monster Kid. On the bookshelf next my bed were nearly all the Aurora Monster Models.

Box art from the 1972 “square box” glow-in-the-dark editions of the models. I had them all except for The Creature, The Mummy, and The Forgotten Prisoner. I got, but never assembled, Franky.
Box art from the 1972 “square box” glow-in-the-dark editions of the models. I had them all except for The Creature, The Mummy, and The Forgotten Prisoner. I got, but never assembled, Franky.

I also had the Renwal Visible Head, a skeleton, and a normal glow-in-the-dark skull. The RVH I named Skully and he was a well known and liked by the children in the neighborhood.

I also had both the Dick Smith Horror Makeup Kit and the Dick Smith Monster Makeup Kit. These were, by far, and without a doubt, the best toys I ever had.

The monster density in D&D is extremely fulfilling. Plus, although very rare, there were miniatures you could buy and paint. Lame compared to the 1:8 scale monsters of Aurora, but you were putting your consciousness into them now, a la Perky Pat, and that more than made up for the small scale.

Monsters. And all the sexy, strong women of Heavy Metal magazine. 90% of D&D is the artwork. And the dice!

No one had seen dice like this before. Just fondling them was enough to transport me.
No one had seen dice like this before. Just fondling them was enough to transport me.

I stood next to them, these 20-somethings, teens, and kids, and wondered. Is this the avant garde of human genius? Can they really get into the game? And the qualities they grow while playing—can they bring these back to this reality? Is this the Great New Religion? Can we live here and in a magickal world of fun and togetherness? Can I learn to get into this other world? And if I did, how happy would I be? How convincing is the translation into D&D reality?

The next year I entered fifth grade. Christians were already fanatically against D&D. This once again made D&D important to me. Did these Christians witness a miracle? Have some of them seen evidence of real cross-world transport? They said it was a gateway to Satanism. This was music to my ears: a game that attracts the interest of Satan? If not carnal knowledge of His goat-lust then perhaps at least some kind of perceptual contact? Even a glimpse of Satan, or a demon, would have been a life-changing and faith-strengthening experience. How could anyone not play D&D if it was really a gateway?

After camp I hadn't played anyone. Even during camp I didn’t play, but watched and admired. But I had the books and read them religiously and even designed my own module.

I tried to believe that D&D was very important and powerful. If the Christians idiots were correct, I would have adventures unimaginable. And if they were wrong, then I would have adventures untoppable, for what is better than scaring the crap out of adults that are stupider than children? Studying D&D would either be reality-bending or political performance art of the highest order. Win-win.

D&D also connected me with others. If there were even a 10% chance that D&D could be a gateway to my sexy and scary monster friends, then it was my duty as a Monster Kid to bring as many people into the Satanic game fold as possible, preferably the children of Fundamentalists. But I found that non-Christians were scared of the game as well. They thought it was “unhealthy” because you might “lose touch” with “reality” and go crazy and ultimately kill yourself. A game that was so great you’d kill yourself over it? What could be a higher honor for a game? (Today marketers use the phrase highly addictive, as in This website is addictive, so the idea still has traction, because the implication is that if you stop visiting that website or eating those Doritos, you will want to die.) This would made the game possibly better than real life, which is a nightmare and people still don’t kill themselves.

To review: I was in possession of a game that many (stupid) adults thought was a gateway to other kinds of being, an instigator to devil worship, a slope towards suicide, and a promoter of belief in the occult (and apparently therewith an increase in occult powers). By playing a cleric or a wizard in the game, you yourself might gain the power of your character. This was precisely the premise of the movie Mazes & Monsters starring Tom Hanks. Hanks is a cleric in the game, and so stops having sex in real life.

For low-brow Protestants, any kind of magickal ability that does not explicitly arise from prayer to Jesus is ipso facto Satanic. Since people have magickal powers in D&D, they are indirectly worshipping Satan.

When I heard these things, I devoted my time to learning the game. Not playing, but learning—just memorizing the information—so that I could become a gateway, a living temple, and have access to the other side 24/7. I knew there was only a 1% chance that the idiots were right, but a 1% chance of enlisting demon servitors or merely witnessing non-physical persons is worth the effort. And if the idiots were wrong, then I’d still have fun scaring them.

Finally, after plenty of thrilling self-hypnosis sessions alone with the books, I made a presentation to my fifth grade math teacher, at Alexander Montessori School on Ludlum Road in Miami:

Ms. Greenberg! I’d like you to consider bringing a game called Dungeons & Dragons into our school. This game is highly mathematical. You learn about bell curves and probability. You have to add and subtract. You quantify everything and then roll dice in order to determine outcomes. It is a mathematical model of real life. It makes learning fun!
Please—help the children help themselves. We ought to form a D&D club or group. For the sake of the children!

She declined.

But I am proud to say that I tried to bring the Dark Lord into my fifth grade class. It was a thrilling mission, even though I saw it as high comedy and performance art. The reactions were real. The entertainment—for both of us—was real.

If there is an afterlife, I hope that my efforts will not go unnoticed and that I will receive a crown—or a badge, or at least an appliqué—at the time of my departure to the His Paradise.