As we walked out of a role-paying game store in Vancouver, my 10-year-old son asked if I had ever played Dungeons and Dragons.
He was holding his birthday present. It was a hardcover edition of the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. I stopped. I straightened my back. I placed my hand on his shoulder and said, “You, my friend, are looking at the president of the MacGregor Senior Public School Dungeons and Dragons Club.”
Now, for those of you who sat way at the other end of the school cafeteria, that’s like being asked by your son if you played high school football and you could proudly say you were the quarterback.
In truth I was not the president of the club. It was more a collective than anything else. But I was for sure one of the founding members. We created the club around the same time that Toronto’s Mr. Gamesway Ark set up a satellite store in my hometown of Waterloo, Ont. The store raised the geek flag pretty high. It had a vast collection of role-playing games in addition to Dungeons and Dragons. It had, as well, a full-scale replica of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
In grade 7 and 8, my friends and I worked there. (At $2 an hour, it might be better to call it volunteering). When we weren’t wrestling each other for a place in Captain Kirk’s chair, we did various jobs, including stocking shelves, helping customers and cleaning what was probably Waterloo’s most disgusting back-store toilet.
Our other job was to set up tables and play Dungeons and Dragons. That might be considered a dream job, except the mid-1980s was a tumultuous time for those of us at the forefront of the D&D movement. I am not saying we were bullied, or that every roll of the 20-sided die essentially rolled away any chance of us finding girlfriends.
But we were, for lack of a better word, demonized. We were demonized because the game promoted devil worship, witchcraft and satanic rituals, and led us kids down a path to suicide and murder. At least that’s how Dungeons and Dragons was portrayed in most news coverage. So I remember being stopped mid-game by parents wanting to buy the increasingly popular game for their kids, but scared to hell they would have a little devil worshiper on their hands. At the very least, D&D looked like something that might create antisocial children unable to separate fantasy from reality.
So in a way, our playing the game was selling the game. By all appearances, we were like every other awkward, somewhat elfish-looking, pimply-faced kid playing board games in the neighbourhood.
We didn’t look inclined, or let’s admit it, physically able, to sacrifice any real thing at the altar. And with our hand-drawn dungeon maps and coloured dice it all looked innocent enough. Put another way, our job was to help these parents separate fantasy from reality.
Now, we’ve come a long way, baby. The geeks have inherited the earth. Most of our modern heroes look more like Clark Kent than Superman. And what’s cool is thick-rimmed glasses, watching Game of Thrones, or the woman from IT who can defrag your hard drive.
Looking back, the only dangerous things we did in that store was handle lead figurines, drink an obscene amount of Dr. Pepper and inhale a lot of second-hand smoke. (I can still picture Petra, who worked the cash, French inhaling while we broke up cardboard boxes to the sound of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody blasting in the background). In fact, looking back, as I was forced to with my son’s interest in the game, I actually think Dungeons and Dragons was a good thing.
I learned a lot about … well fantasy, about using my imagination and about being creative. The game also taught me to work with others. D&D is non-competitive. You can’t get very far unless the wizard does his thing, while the elf goes and does his thing and the paladin steps in with his thing. Basically, if you don’t work as a team, that Minotaur is literally going to eat your 12th-level magic user alive.
But this is not about me. This about my son Will, who is getting into the game. I notice, for one, he’s adding and subtracting in the triple digits at lightning speed. And he’s ploughing through an enormous amount of reading material. Perhaps most of all, he is learning to use his imagination. And in this world that counts for a lot.
The only bump in the road is that he’s having trouble finding enough kids to play with him. So as we continued our walk down Vancouver’s Main Street to go for noodles, I suggested he put up a flyer at school, inviting people to start a club. As he moved his Monster Manual safely away from the dripping noodles, he said, “Dad that’s so embarrassing I could never do that.”
I straightened my back and said: “Son, I saw what you did to that acid-spitting seven-headed Primordial Hydra. I think you have enough courage to do that.”
Ross Bragg lives on Bowen Island, B.C.