1. A Long-expected Party.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: my annual comic book reviews included a promise of a future entry inspired by Die, the new Image Comics series by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans that I encapsulated like so:
What if you took the structure of Stephen King’s It, but instead of fighting a murderous super-clown, the kids and adults in their respective eras were reliving the ’80s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon as a horror story, and the Big Bad was Tom Hanks from Mazes and Monsters turned into a truly mystical, manipulative interdimensional overlord?
Painted art by Stephanie Hans is like a high-end gallery showing on every page, while writer Kieron Gillen is engaging in ambitious, phenomenally detailed world-building, worrisome in its six-digit word count and rising. He’s exploring fantasy tropes and toying with them from within, but he’s also designed an entire RPG from the ground up to facilitate his vision, one that’s dredging up so many childhood memories for me — some I would dare label “definitive” in regard to my personal backstory — that I’ll need to devote a separate entry to this series in the near future. I have a lot of baggage to unpack here, and I blame Gillen for wheeling the baggage cart right up next to me.
I had the pleasure of meeting painter Stephanie Hans at this year’s C2E2, where I gave her the elevator-pitch version of this entry and she encouraged me to share it. I got a kick out of meeting Kieron Gillen at C2E2 2013, where we briefly chatted about his Britpop-magic fantasy Phonogram and he asked me which character I identified with most. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to it and was ashamed to have no answer, either prepared or improvised. I’m not used to pros at a con asking me a question beyond “Where are you from?”
(Having had time to think later, my answer came to me, obvious if twofold. As a young adult from 1989 to 2000 I imagined myself Seth Bingo, self-anointed tastemaker and DJ, bringing my boom-box and tapes/CDs to entertain at work after-hours — no requests allowed, sharing my collection with peers who just didn’t get me or my nightly playlist. For my life 2000-present I’ve been closer to Lloyd, engaging with music intellectually via long thinkpieces written only for the audiences in my head, but rarely physically and never socially, thus arguably denying its greatest powers. If only I could’ve written all that on an index card before approaching Gillen’s table. Or narrowed my answer down to just one of those two alienating dudes.)
The farther I’ve read into Die, the more I’ve found myself reflecting on my own experiences with Dungeons and Dragons, an integral part of my preteen years. It was a compelling confluence of entertainment and imagination. It was a big hit with the other kids who joined in. It also ushered in the end of my circle of childhood friends.
As with any role-playing game, a fair amount of setup is required.
2. The Shadow of the Past
D&D entered my life on Christmas Day 1981. I was 9 years old. I didn’t get it.
Two boxes, the red Basic and blue Expert sets, 1981 editions, were a dual gift from Mom. She’s always had a knack for creative gifting, often in a good way. It was a natural extension from her primary hobby, which was shopping. Mom was born a mallrat before Indianapolis had malls. She often had to settle for window shopping till she advanced beyond entry-level at her office job, and till Grandma aged into qualifying for Social Security and could help with the bills. Every so often Mom could afford an indulgence, whether at Lafayette Square Mall down the street or infrequently at malls in other parts of town. Faraway malls were her favorite road-trip destination.
I have no idea what led her to choosing D&D or how much she knew about it. She knew I liked games because, well, I was a kid. Both boxes were labeled “Ages 10 and up”. I don’t know if she read the fine print that closely. Maybe she’d had faith that I could handle it. Objectively speaking, I was the local smart kid. By age four I was solving standard word-search puzzles. By age six I’d grown into a prodigious reader with a weekly comics habit folded into our grocery budget, back in those halcyon days of not-yet-vintage “HEY KIDS, COMICS!” spinner racks, when DC titles were forty cents and Marvel’s covers boasted “STILL ONLY 35¢!” Maybe this was her way of challenging me. Or maybe her line of thinking was as superficial as “Oh, my, a game with dragons on it!”
Each box contained softcover rulebooks and a six-pack of dice — one standard six-sider and five with incorrect side counts. That was it. End of inventory. No game boards. No game pieces. No fake money. No cards to shuffle or draw. Just lots of assigned reading homework to do. Some “game”.
I relegated both boxes to the back of my toy closet under the stairs, where they sat in dust for months.
On a subsequent, distant day of boredom, I stumbled over them while digging through the closet. Reminded of their existence, I reopened them and grew curious enough to do the reading.
An integral part of many 20th-century childhoods was some version of competitive playacting involving kids pretending to harm each other with toy guns and other weapons capable of dealing tremendous imaginary damage. The nature of such conflicts varied by region, neighborhood, or clique. Some kids played “cops and robbers”. Some played “cowboys and Indians”. In our neighborhood we just called it “Guns”. No imposed artifice of good-vs.-evil, David versus Goliath, government versus outlaws, or blue-collar macho men versus oppressed minority. Divide into two sides; murder the other one; repeat until attentions wander. Half the game was spent arguing whether shots were hits or misses depending on which opponent argued more loudly and threatened to be the bigger baby if they didn’t get their way. The constant arguments of “I got you!” “Nuh-uh, I got YOU!” were tedious. The “Guns” honor system worked in favor of the most stubborn and obnoxious.
The first of many attractive qualities I saw in D&D was that it was “Guns” but with structure instead of guesswork. The rolls of the dice determined your destiny in accordance with the structure of its universe. Arguments with objective numbers were invalid. Anyone yelling “I GOT YOU!” while clearly rolling a 1 either was a cheat or hadn’t learned counting in school yet.
And when splitting into two teams, one team had but a single member: the Dungeon Master. Everyone else was on the other team against the DM. But the DM controlled the world. Though beholden to the dice rolls same as the other players, the DM had to be narrator, thespian, backstage technician, referee, conductor, improv comedian, mediator, and sometimes mortician all in one. Opportunities for other players to cheat or dominate gameplay were next to nil. If someone threatened to ruin the game, force majeure them.
Also, there were monsters. The handbooks provided handy stats and backstory for creatures from countless mythologies, many of them new to me, along with new creations and thinly veiled homages to beings from specific, famous fantasy works. Not until seventh-grade English class did I learn “halflings” were just hobbits with extra fur covering the “© Tolkien” tattoos on their soles.
Regardless, I saw possibilities in this game. Maybe we didn’t need a board after all.
3. Journey to the Cross-roads
My long-term research-and-development phase hit a slowdown when I discovered the existence of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It was the same game but with more rules, fancier hardcover manuals, more choices of modules (read: missions for your players to undergo, sold separately), more monsters, more weapons, more treasure, more everything. Lafayette Square had a kiosk that sold books and other materials for D&D, AD&D, and the other games at the dawn of the tabletop RPG era. Over the course of months I saved my weekly allowance, paused my toy collecting, and bought the AD&D manuals one by one. It meant much more reading and sorting out, but I suspected the rewards — in-game and in reality — would be worth it.
Then I complemented the project further with Dragon Magazine, TSR’s official companion to D&D and to a lesser extent its other RPGs. In addition to her shopaholism, Mom was a major supporter of magazine subscriptions. Between her copious women’s beauty magazines, tabloids, and astrology guides, along with my vast array of children’s magazines for varying age groups — most of which I never asked for — our mailbox was full six days a week. I can only hope she and Grandma tipped our postal carriers well at Christmastime. It wasn’t hard to ask her to add Dragon to the list. Every issue added more optional pieces to the mix, from new character classes (the cavalier!) to monsters to mini-modules, not to mention some of the funniest April Fools issues of any publication ever. Value-added bonus: comic strips! Phil Foglio’s “What’s New with Phil and Dixie” and Larry Elmore’s “SnarfQuest” became my favorite parts of every issue during their respective runs, even though I was supposed to be reading it for the gaming stuff.
One more hurdle concerned me: teaching the rules to anyone else. I was among the oldest kids in our weird little gang. I couldn’t ask all of them to sit down and read the manuals one by one. I needed to be able to explain the rules to everyone myself. Kids can handle learning a complex new board game just fine (otherwise Monopoly would’ve died decades ago), but listening to me summarize several dozen pages of boilerplate across multiple volumes sounded like a dicey proposition. I was too young and quiet to be teaching classes.
I, the Dungeon Master soon to be in charge of a whole new world of friendship and monster murders, therefore resolved to ditch all the most boring rules, for my own sake as well as for everyone else’s. That way I had less to explain and gameplay might be a little looser, better suited to rambunctious rapscallions than to college students.
The following changes were therefore made by DM fiat:
- No movement rules. Period. If characters traveled to Point A to Point B, then they did. It just happened. No one would care how fast they walked, which characters walked more quickly, how many days passed between towns, or whether monster proximity should affect combat logistics. Wherever they went, there they were.
- No encumbrance stats. Limitless carrying for one and all. Modern video games have perpetuated this realistic but annoying quality and love limiting players to a maximum number of weapons and items upon their persons at one time. I loathed the idea then and grouse about it now as an adult currently playing through Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel on PS3 and gnashing my teeth whenever my item storage is maxed out and I have to leave treasures behind. Far as I was concerned, every robe or suit of armor came with a free infinite Bag of Holding.
- No spell durations or limited spell slots or one-time spells or whatever. By my estimation, Magic-Users seemed unfairly handicapped and fragile, especially on lower levels. Once they used up their two or three starter spells, all they had left was a dagger and a pointy hat to keep them alive until they reached the next level and earned more spells. That made their entire flimsy class unattractive for its first several levels. Spell duration limits were a tangential hindrance, judged uninteresting and ignored.
Once all that had been distilled and funneled into my then-10-year-old head, eventually I felt I was ready.
4. Many Meetings
My first two volunteers for testing purposes were Randy and Jason, the next-door neighbors who’d been my friends since I was 5. Randy was a year younger than me and the first person I ever knew to share my name. Jason was another year younger but sharp for his age. Their mom was (I think) a medical professional; their dad, out of the picture like mine, was from Indonesia. We developed multiple interests over the years. I watched my first R-rated horror films at their place over summer break when their mom was at work, until Grandma caught on to us, interrupted Psycho II ten minutes in, and saw to it that I did not have a good day.
Our initial D&D exploits have faded from memory, but the short version of that missing chapter is they created their first characters, they fought monsters, we had a blast and the resulting fun exceeded everyone’s expectations. A new neighborhood pastime was born.
Soon other friends joined in our sessions and created their own characters, coming and going with the flow of their own schedules and whims. There was David from the next block, a few months older and taller than me, odd like me but in his own way, who always bugged me by calling the game “D.D.” Scott was Randy’s age, blonder and shorter-tempered. His gruffer brother Ronnie, two years older than me, deigned to join a few times. Carl was a quiet black kid from across the street. Pat and Brian were brothers, virtually twins born a year apart. Pat was the younger and more redheaded of the two. They lived farthest away of anyone, but happily made the journey when they could.
Players came and went at will. Whenever three or more of us gathered in the mood, the game was afoot. Grandma would stay out of our way while we gathered around the rickety kitchen table and used every available chair, sometimes dragging in lawn chairs from the patio or borrowing her sewing-machine stool with a removable cushion that covered her sewing supplies. If someone wanted to play, we found room for them.
We all shared the same section-8 apartment complex. We all had absentee fathers. And we all had Dungeons & Dragons.
No, there were no girls. Of course girls lived in the neighborhood, but I doubt any of us ever mentioned the game to one. Maybe I could’ve managed a coed arrangement at that age — I tended to be the lone boy in my reading-class groups, so I got used to girls on a friendly basis — but none of us hung out with girls outside school, so no invitations were extended. Our loss, in my hindsight opinion.
I once tried tutoring Mom in a separate session, just me and her and a few starter fights. Her expression of awkward boredom after fifteen minutes told me it was not her thing.
Sources of gameplay inspiration varied. Sometimes we ran through TSR-approved modules. Tomb of Horrors was the all-time greatest because it came with pages of illustrations for various scenes throughout the story, designed to be shown to the party as they came up. That saved me some exposition and meant we didn’t have to reach for the dictionary quite so often to learn new vocabulary words for Middle Ages objects. The coolest-looking module by far was Ravenloft, starring a sexy male vampire. Sometimes we used the mini-adventures published in Dragon. Some days, if I wasn’t in a storytelling mood, I would just flip through the Monster Manual or the much weirder Fiend Folio and they’d just fight monsters for a while. Unlike your adult RPG groups, we had no overarching storylines connecting the various modules and arena battles, instead keeping things largely episodic like the TV shows of the day.
D&D was a great activity for those winter months whenever temps were freezing and there was no snow to to play in. Sometimes in the summer we’d find ourselves stuck on D&D, playing more indoors than outdoors anyway. I was fine with that. In fourth grade I’d begun fattening thanks to a young and generous teacher who used candy as positive reinforcement and got me hooked on the concept of snacking between meals. Grandma was concerned, but Mom allowed it. Even when I was younger and of average girth, I was never one for athletics. I joined in the occasional physical activity with the other neighborhood kids, but was happier whenever our attentions turned to action figures, Hot Wheels, board games, or the great escape that was D&D.
In all the years we played, I never actually got to be a Player Character like everyone else. I was always the Dungeon Master. The manuals were all mine and I never got the impression anyone else wanted to do all the reading, or would’ve been able to handle all the moving parts behind the Dungeon Master’s Screen. It bummed me out a little, but I saw no good way around it. Besides, that left me, the chubby four-eyed kid who was introverted by nature and didn’t stand out much in most outdoor activities, always in charge and at the center of attention. All those roles the Dungeon Master had to fulfill were a bit much for one preteen to perform. But the cast, the audience, the team kept coming back for more.
I craved other ways to improve, bolster, or otherwise extend the D&D experience. I watched the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon on Saturday mornings, unaware that Eric the irritating shield-bearer had the voice of Ralph Malph from Happy Days. I found a few of the D&D action figures (Strongheart! Warduke! the Hook Horror!) at the Kmart where my aunt Debbie worked. For a change of pace, as Christmas and birthday suggestions I asked for genre board games such as Shadowlord (the most complicated of my childhood, bar none), and TSR’s own Dungeon!, complete with exclamation mark. For changes of pace we’d drag out oldies such as Dark Tower, the gaming sensation of 1981 with its noisy, electronic, tower-shaped centerpiece.
The Lafayette Square kiosk didn’t last long, but I found an alternative source for gaming supplies when a new shop called the Game Preserve opened at Glendale Mall on Indy’s north side. They were my gateway to more AD&D goodies and to other RPGs — Star Frontiers (space-faring SF, obv.), Top Secret (you too can be James Bond), Marvel Super-Heroes (first edition, with box art costarring Monica Rambeau, my favorite Captain Marvel), and, my only non-TSR RPG, DC Heroes, released by a fledgling publisher called Mayfair Games a good decade before they struck gold with Settlers of Catan. I loved Top Secret’s martial arts system, I respected Star Frontiers for daring to turn Kubrick’s 2001 into a module and make sense of it all, but Marvel Super-Heroes is the only one we romped through more than once.
A few supplements were bought but never used. Exhibit A: the D&D Companion Set, the third non-Advanced D&D box, irrelevant to us by the time of its release in 1984. I learned in retrospect hardcore fans loved the deep-dive setting that was The World of Greyhawk, but to me it just looked like a stack of extra maps and thin, dry encyclopedias — a bit like some of the lesser Tolkien works I once found on my aunt Marilyn’s bookshelves and then put right back.
Our quote-unquote “campaign” went on for years, the free-wheeling escapades of our young bunch of fantasy heroes obviously named by kids. Baron! Ryvarius! Claden! Zern! Vince Cenwell! Kybar! Hawk Mann! (I was never sure if li’l Pat was trying to be funny or sincerely thought that was a cool warrior’s name.) Many modules and plotless melees later, the kids who came around most often found their characters earning the most experience points and growing practically super-powered with their vast collection of magic spells that were never used up, personal arsenals they could tote around countrysides without sweating or hiring a caddy, and hundreds of pounds of treasures and magic items per person, none of which were ever drained or broken. Such were the benefits of my careful dismantling of select rules.
We eventually found being unstoppable wasn’t as fun as it sounds, not to mention having long lists of possessions that required them to staple an extra page to their character sheets for overflow stock. The majority agreed a fresh start was in order. One of us (not necessarily me, but maybe?) had a clever idea: roll up new characters who were the sons of the retired originals. Baron begat Baron Junior. Ryvarius begat Ryvarius II. And so on. Randy and Jason became such frequent-fighter MVPs that, after a time, I also let them generate stats for their grandkids, Baron 3 and Ryvarius the 3rd. If no one else showed up to play, the two of them would play two characters at a time, dual father-and-son teams. Long before rules for multi-classing were codified, our little generational saga was the next best thing.
Those gaming sessions we shared were the absolute, unequivocal Best of Times.
Then, slowly, naturally, they ended.
5. The Breaking of the Fellowship
Temporary childhood friendships were a fact of life in a neighborhood where the rental agreements were month-to-month, residents weren’t trapped in long-term leases, destinies changed in the blink of an eye, and parents could encounter financial hardships without notice or find a better job that earns them a class upgrade and a ticket to someplace nicer or bigger. Some folks find stability in a life of renting. Many don’t.
Carl and Ronnie straggled and drifted away after a few sessions each. Pat never came around as often as Brian did, but the two of them mysteriously disappeared from our lives one day and were never seen around again, not even on the school bus. David stopped hanging out with us after we started junior high, and…I’m not sure what happened. I still saw him at school fairly often, but we never talked about it. I still have my eighth-grade yearbook which in May 1986 he signed, “To Randy, a real smart guy who I use to play D.D. with.”
The biggest bombshell dropped at or near the end of seventh grade, summer of ’85 give or take a month, when Randy and Jason told me they were moving. Their mom, possibly but not necessarily with her boyfriend’s help, could at long last afford to buy a house. Had a new one built, in fact, in another township miles away. I’d known them for eight years. I was crushed. But they had to leave and I had to accept it. Before moving day, Jason gave me one of his toys, which I still have to this day. It’s the kind that would do well on eBay, even minus the original box, if I cared to part with it.
After the move, we talked on the phone sometimes. We stayed in touch through at least the end of 1986. They invited me for a few overnighters. I tagged along when their mom took them on tours of their new schools, which were experimenting with “open concept” classrooms that were relatively new to Indianapolis. Instead of D&D we found other things to do, other games to play, because I didn’t want to lug all those manuals and other materials with me. In the back of my mind, I think I knew that was a thing we no longer shared, a bond that their moving away had severed.
They kindly introduced me to all the new friends they’d made around their lovely new house and their still-developing, middle-class neighborhood. All the kids had bikes and loved playing outside. With sports equipment and everything. If any of these better-off kids dabbled in cerebral hobbies on the side, none of them revealed themselves to me.
The last time I came over, I remember being really excited to show them this new comic I was reading called The Question that was totally mind-blowing and I had to tell someone about it or else I’d explode. The opportunity never came up. On the ride home I could feel tiny explosions inside my head, like fireworks lit to mark a holiday celebrating disappointment.
Eventually the phone calls stopped. There was no internet back then, no Facebook for effortlessly keeping in touch. Fading away was easier, but no less depressing.
That left me and Scott. One Dungeon Master and one player.
6. The Scouring of the Shire
Scott had lived there for years, at least since I was in third grade. We’d gotten along better as part of a group. As a duo, we had a little in common, not a lot. By 1986 I’m not sure he had many friends left, either. Then there was the part where he was unwittingly responsible for one of the most psychologically damaging moments of my childhood. That’s perhaps a separate set of baggage to unpack another time.
Neither of us wanted to quit. He kept showing up. I kept throwing monsters at him. He coped by exploiting a loophole I’d inadvertently created.
The classic Charm Monster spell (superior to the lower-level Charm Person) was meant to be a handy, short-term lifesaver. Cast it upon a foe; roll the dice; if successful, your foe becomes your ally and does anything you ask for however long the spell lasts. Scott changed his tactics and began to use “Charm Monster” on every other opponent. Because I’d waived spell usage limits, he could cast it as many times as he wanted. Because I’d waived spell duration limits, any monster he successfully charmed was thereby his servant until death. The more monsters he fought, the more he added to his growing monster army.
Soon our battles became unwieldy dice-rolling marathons. I would roll for my small horde of kobolds or wyverns or wights or what-have-you, and then Scott would roll for each of his attacks — one for himself and one for each of his fifteen or twenty enthralled minions. Anachronistically speaking, he groomed himself into the grand forefather of today’s Pokemon trainers. And thanks to my bending too many rules, which had seemed like a good idea when we were younger, now he had all the Pokeballs he wanted and all the Pokeballs he needed.
These escalated one-on-ones bored me senseless. And I realized D&D reduced to nothing but one-on-one duels denies the game its greatest powers. Worst of all, I just wanted the ol’ gang back.
But Scott kept coming back to my place. Either he was wildly entertained in his capacity as the Pied Piper of Dungeonland or he was desperate to hold onto the status quo. Either way, I couldn’t go on like this.
I believed I’d found the perfect solution in a magazine. In 1986, emboldened by the continuing success of Dragon, TSR expanded their print output with a second title called Dungeon Adventures, whose content would entirely comprise new modules. It wasn’t hard to ask Mom to add Dungeon to our still-huge subscription list.
The first issue (whose entirety is now online) had such a work called “Into the Fire”. After much preamble and padding, I could see the Big Bad and his lair were Smaug and Lonely Mountain but with the totally different and original name “Flame” and with extra scales covering the “© Tolkien” tattoos on his hide.
Per the module’s instructions to the DM, once players reach the mountain and enter the most obvious entrance, a long tunnel with seemingly no turnoffs or recesses, the exaggeratedly high-level Not-Smaug unleashes a blast of fire-breath that fills the tunnel, engulfs the party, and delivers severe damage to anyone who didn’t think to invent two million SPF sunblock during the walk up the mountainside.
As designed by its original writers (one of whom would later work on visual effects for Star Trek: Voyager and Titanic), the tunnel had one saving grace, a pit into which players could drop and take lesser falling damage if they were lucky, while minimizing the devastating blow to their hit points from the burning tsunami in their faces.
When running the scenario with Scott, I may have failed to include the pit.
“Into the Fire” remains the biggest massacre I’ve ever orchestrated. Once I’d announced Flame’s response to his team’s intrusion, Scott dutifully rolled for damage for each and every underling, crossing them off his overflow sheet one by one as the mighty dragon’s Godzilla-breath consumed them whole, his pencil marks darkening with each new fatality. Strictly speaking, it was a legal maneuver. The rolls of the dice determined their shortened destinies in accordance with the structure of our universe.
The survivors were few and surely wobbly. It no longer mattered. Once he’d tallied his casualties, a furious but frighteningly silent Scott put down his pencil, walked out the front door, and never talked to me again.
And with that, the Dungeon Master was the last boy on stage. The keeper of rules and dealer of fates had no more heroes to guide, no audience to entertain, no one to share the experience.
Dungeons & Dragons exited my life in fall 1986. I was 14 years old. I was alone.
I never played a tabletop RPG again.
I never played outside again.
I never made another friend in that apartment complex.
The other kids at the bus stop were okay with the Local Smart Kid in general, but nobody invited me to hang out or struck up conversation, apart from one of Randy’s old classmates, a kid named Andre, who asked me for homework help a few times.
Today as an adult, all that loss in such a short time frame is an underlying part of why I don’t even talk to neighbors.
7. The Tale of Years
Eighth grade would prove to be one of the most miserable years of my life. Having friends outside school could’ve helped, but that’s not how my life went. Apropos of all of this, among my least favorite memories from that year was a day when our health teacher took it upon himself out of the blue to warn us at length about the dangers of Dungeons & Dragons and the harm that could befall our impressionable minds from its Satanic aspects that might warp our very minds and souls and turn us juvenile delinquents or leather bikers. This unsolicited screed was neither referenced in our health textbooks nor asked about on any health class quizzes.
By ninth grade I wiggled my way into the small “bright, working-class-clown misfits” micro-mini-clique and things got marginally better until high school devised new ways to wound me or drown me out.
I asked Mom to let the Dungeon Adventures subscription lapse in ’87. She graciously kept Dragon going for another year beyond that because I still liked reading it even though I couldn’t apply any of it. I had been collecting the hardcover manuals as they were released, but kicked the habit after 1986’s Wilderness Survival Guide.
I was so depressed and in denial at once that I made a go of D&D as RPG solitaire. Me as Player Characters vs. me-as-DM as monsters. Some board games could amuse a single, isolated kid that way. That didn’t work for D&D. At all.
Instead I set about working through my emotions by turning our D&D sessions into amateurish comics. This hobby crossover first happened for me during a module that required the party to climb up, around, and through a gigantic tree that harbored dangers at every level (what if Lothlorien had invented The Raid centuries early). With one set piece involving a rope trap, they were struggling to visualize the situation from my descriptions. I began drawing the scene for them, and drawing, and drawing, and adding jokes, and drawing, and suddenly they were stick-figure comics a la Matt Feazell. In my solitude I returned to making comics for a bit, expanded my efforts, showed them to no other living soul, and regret mentioning them.
Later in high school, as a side benefit of my subscription to Comics Buyer’s Guide, I used a free classified ad to sell all my D&D-related paper materials — hardcovers, modules, blank character sheets, DM’s Screen, everything — to a dealer in New Jersey for $100. I didn’t tell them that in my youth I’d gone through the manuals with colored pencils and added flourishes to some of the black-and-white artwork, faithfully rendering any colors explicitly specified in the monster descriptions. I never heard back from him one way or the other if that was a problem.
All the other boxed RPGs stayed in the closet for several more years until they were given to Goodwill. I kept one (1) module because it combined nostalgia for two things I once loved: D&D and one of the greatest DC Comics characters of all time. Technically he abandoned me too, in the sense that he and his creators haven’t reunited in ages, but his back issues are still there for me.
In 2009 with the real-world help of a relatively new magic item called Facebook, I reconnected with Randy and Jason. We reunited in person one afternoon for lunch and video games. Twenty-three years had passed. We had so much to catch up on that I don’t think we got around to rehashing the D&D experience.
Carl and I also recently found each other on Facebook. We haven’t reached a deep conversational level yet, but according to Facebook, this piece was over halfway finished on his birthday.
The last time I saw David was the day of our high school graduation. That morning he gave me a ride to graduation practice and back in his teen jalopy. We didn’t talk much. As I recall, in the fall he left Indiana to attend a prestigious college and never returned.
Scott’s family moved not long after our acrimonious parting. They stayed in Indiana at least long enough for Ronnie to graduate locally, but he cheerfully lives elsewhere now. The last time I saw Scott, I was in high school and working drive-thru at McDonald’s. One day he drove up as a customer, paid for his order, glared at me one last time in bitter recognition, and drove away without comment.
The whereabouts of Pat and Brian remain unknown to me. Their names yield far too many search results and not enough qualifiers to narrow them down with certainty.
I remember enough about D&D that I got most of the jokes in Felicia Day’s The Guild (MMORPGs aren’t that radically different from tabletops) and smile whenever I run across D&D tributes in pop culture (e.g. Community, the Borderlands 2 DLC). In recent times I’ve visited and shopped at the Game Preserve, whose Glendale storefront was shuttered before the millennium’s turn but lives on in three Indiana locations. I attended Gen Con, the Holy Land for tabletop fans, four times between 2008 and 2013 after it relocated to Indianapolis, but I couldn’t in good conscience identify as a Gamer per se. Nostalgia and mixed feelings nagged at me up and down the aisles, and the ticket prices escalated beyond the point where I could justify attending solely to witness their next-level cosplayers.
My D&D interactions have been intermittent in the three decades since then. The first several Dragonlance novels held my interest until I got my first job and my free time and hobbies were significantly hampered ever after. A while back I found the complete D&D animated series on DVD at Walmart and threw it on my viewing pile. John Rogers, co-creator of TV’s Leverage and DC’s most recent version of Blue Beetle (both of these were great things), once wrote a dozen issues of a frequently hilarious D&D comic relaunch that, big surprise, used the game’s trappings to stage a solid fantasy heist caper. Leverage with swords, as it were, which worked for me.
And speaking of my D&D connectors today, that brings us back to Die.
8. There and Back Again
We’re five issues into Die; the first trade hit shops last week. Die resonated with some part of my psyche that today’s entertainment rarely tags, probably the part with the most childhood scars on it.
Once upon a time six teenage friends gather to celebrate a birthday shared by two of them. One of the birthday kids, Sol, introduces them to a new game. All he shows them is a box with six dice in it. Next thing they know, they’re warped away from their everyday lives and dropped in another dimension full of strange beings, deadly monsters, heroic quests, exotic scenery, and untold dangers. Literally “untold” because we’re only five issues in, but I trust flashbacks and/or further confessions are in our future.
The character classes are original, none from D&D itself. Ash the Dictator, who controls emotions like a puppeteer (vaguely similar to Jesse Custer from Preacher with a different power angle). Matthew the Grief Knight, who can channel sadness into super-swordsmanship (for once, a hero fueled by any feeling besides rage). Angela the Neo, mistress of cyberpunk forced to scrounge for special arcade tokens that are her power source; Isabelle the Godbinder, haggling with deities and demigods for her deus ex machina needs, with a caveat of quid pro quo. Chuck the Fool, the stupid jerk whose stupid jerky power is his mastery of stupid jerkiness.
What D&D calls a Dungeon Master, many RPGs used to label a Game Master. In the world of Die, Sol is simply the Master. It’s his fault Our Heroes lose two years of their young lives to this game and its supernatural consequences. Their long quest pits them against the Grandmaster, presumably sinister and all-powerful and other challenging adjectives to be delineated later. Once victory is theirs, five of the six friends make their way back home after the world thought them dead. Sol, who got them into this mess, is left behind, not by his choice.
Like It, there’s a time jump and the teenage cast become traumatized adults, muddling through ordinary life with deep regrets for their history, but doomed to share it with no one but each other. They reluctantly gather once more, only to realize too late it’s a trap and they’re sucked back into the fray. And waiting for them is Sol, now promoted to Grandmaster, creepier and wickeder than before. And by his command, the game is once more afoot.
The first five issues cover a lot of ground, deftly sketching in their pasts in both worlds, setting up the basic rules and, in Die #5, clarifying the stakes for Our Heroes and for all the ostensibly non-player characters populating the lands around them. The final, most terrifying rules pack a dramatic wallop like projectiles from a trebuchet.
On a more upbeat note, I got a little too excited when issue #4 introduced us to Angela’s cyberdoggie Case (named after the Neuromancer hacker, I’d wager) — borne of her otherworldly skill set, cast in metal, high-level adorable, and surely a very good dog who will reappear again and again throughout the rest of the series. Ever since our family dog passed away in April, happy loyal pets like Case have been my anti-drug.
It’s too early to know every protagonist in depth, but it’s not too early to know which character reminds me most of me. Phonogram took a bit more introspection to dig into, but I could feel the hooks of Die in my brain even before subsequent issues expanded on the realm at large.
Though we’re not yet aware of the full scope of his 25 years in exile or what long-standing issues led to his present mental state, early signs point to Sol being the living incarnation of teenage me in the darkest timeline possible, the bitter eighth-grade loner who would make everyone keep playing forever if he could. Sol has a sort of breakdown when the universe won’t bend to his whim, so he makes it his life’s mission to subjugate that universe. Then the game will go his way and it’ll be awesome. All hail the great and wonderful game. Sol’s devotion is perhaps a tad shy of Tom Hanks’s obsession in Mazes and Monsters, but the gap between them isn’t wide.
Thank the Lord real life led me in a direction away from game-based treachery. I miss dice-and-paper RPGs, longstanding friendships, hours of camaraderie around a rickety kitchen table, and giving amateur stage performances in my living room. I don’t miss being in charge, being deserted, reacting poorly to bad news, or lashing out at those willing to stay by my side.
Sol might disturb me more if I hadn’t spent the last thirty-three years trying to be a slightly less petty person as an adult than the Local Smart Kid ever was in junior high. He was “nice” and “sweet” according to classmates’ testimonies in his school yearbooks, but introvert or no, he had a lot to learn.
If revelations in future story arcs bring new light to Sol from unexpected angles, obviously I reserve the right to change my mind on the question of “Which Die character is you?” Secretly I hope Gillen sneaks in Medieval Seth Bingo so I can identify with him instead. But if anything happens to that very good doggo Case, I may just go full Grief Knight and, at least in my own mind, become the Player Character I never had the chance to be as a kid.