Monday, March 10, 2008

Remembering the Elves and Wizards

A friend from seminary passed on the sad news that Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. Many have written eloquently on D&D’s importance in the geek world, and credited it with being the genesis of everything from video games to Microsoft. As wonderful as all the techie stuff is, though, I wanted to take a minute to share some reflections on D&D from a less “geekly” perspective.

In high school and college, I ran the only girl's D&D game I think I've ever encountered -- D&D tends to be a masculine world, with most games overwhelmingly male. But when the boys didn’t invite me to play, I rounded up a few girlfriends, bought some books, and started my own game. It was soon infiltrated by boys, but they had to play by our rules -- relationships mattered more than the numbers, role playing was more important than dice rolling, and the DM (that would be me) was god. (Or I suppose, god-dess.)

D&D's rules were flexible enough to let you could create a game like that, as well as a numbers-driven game like the one the computer geeks ran in college. (One or two of my friends played in both -- a comment on their versatility or possibly their weirdness.) It was always the role playing that drew me, though. I loved the chance to be someone else, and to play out the most outrageous scenarios with others. Maybe the computer geeks stuck with formulaic characters, but in my game, for every goody-two-shoes Lawful Good priest there was also a Klingon-type Lawful Good paladin. (Think honorable Klingons in Star Trek: Next Generation: You will give courageous opponents a clean death, not shame them with mercy. Effective and within the rules, but rather shockingly different from the sweetness-and-light version of Good.) In role playing, you got to explore what it meant to be good -- and evil. My favorite character was a neutral-evil assassin, who hid from her enemies by joining a good-aligned party and got co-opted by them. (I wonder what the diocesan psychologists would make of that?)

Over the years, D&D was the beginning of many deep and lasting friendships. Twenty years later, I look around at my closest friends and discover many of them had alter-egos in my D&D world. I think those friendships lasted because we learned as much about each other in those choices between good and evil, between flight or fight, as we did about the rules of fantasy. The first world I shared with my husband was the one populated by Citgo Mobil the Mage and Chester the Paladin; how could we fail at building a life together, when we had already shared divine rulership of an entire world? And when I grew up and moved away, D&D gave me a way to find a new home and community in a far-off land. (Ok, Philadelphia, but to this girl who had never lived outside of the town where she was born, that was far off enough!)

I recently started playing with my children, creating yet another generation of elves and warriors, paladins and assassins. My parent’s generation worried that D&D would corrupt its children: I only hope that it will shape my children in the same way it shaped me.

So I will raise a glass to Gary Gygax tonight, thanking him not just for hours of delightful escapism, but a world that introduced me to leadership, living with ambiguity, and the love of my life. Not a bad legacy.