Wonder, Joy, and the Far-Off Country: A Defense of D&D

I was never one of the cool girls.

I still remember when I first knew this. I was in 3rd grade. At recess, the boys were outside, running around, climbing up things, having adventures. The girls were inside, in the bathroom, gossiping and putting on makeup. At 8-years-old, all I wanted to do was play make-believe.

So I played with the boys.

When I switched from Catholic school to a smaller Christian school, things changed. I met Kjerstin, with whom I developed a passion for Scandinavian mythology, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Wallace. “Death and Lady Marion!” we would yell, running around the house at night, swords drawn. (Yes. I had a sword. I bought it in France. It was not sharp, but apparently sharp enough to put a hole in my parents’ ceiling). I met Sara, who would teach me how to ride her horse bareback through the woods. I met Tamara, my beautiful theater friend and muse.  

I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. This was a parental decision that I resisted at the time, but have since come to be grateful for. A lot of girls, as I understand, spend high school getting their hearts broken over and over. But I remember high school as one of the happiest times of my life. Instead of boyfriends, I had four of the very best boy friends. They encouraged my instincts for imagination and mischief and adventure.

It was the boys who – during rehearsal one day – discovered the secret tunnels below the theater. It was said they led to catacombs, so of course we had to explore them. We got caught of course, but that was part of the thrill of it all. It was the boys who showed me how to make boffer weapons (PVC pipe wrapped in duct tape): not just swords, but axes, flails, shields. Anything you could imagine. One of them gifted me throwing stars for my birthday. They have since been lost – a fact which still sometimes worries me a little.

And it was the boys who taught me about RPG’s.

Mark was my friend from theater. One day, during shop class, as we were painting a set, he oh-so-casually asked me if I had heard of the Star Wars roleplaying game. Little did I know – he was scheming. He already had the rest of the group ready to go.  All that was left was me.

At first my parents balked at the idea. But they eventually came around. I think they realized that, as far as high school pastimes go, this was a pretty healthy one.

So I joined. We played at Mark’s house, every two weeks. His mom would make cookies; I can still remember the smell of them, fifteen years later. We sat around a table, and created characters. I was a Irulan, a rebellious Jedi padawan on a quest for revenge. Mark was a Kibur Blastblade, a scoundrel (think Han Solo, but force-sensitive). Mike was Kami’atra, a Miralukan priest, without eyes but the ability to see through the Force. Nathan was Lt. Alan Page, a soldier, brave and stalwart.

We sat around a dining room table. But we weren’t there, really. We were the crew of the Iron Dawn, one of the fastest in her class, heading on missions to save the galaxy. We rescued chancellors, fought dreaded Sith lords, and had each other’s backs time and time again.

Best of all, after the game, on some nights, we would take our boffer swords and go out into the neighborhood. There we would stage epic battles, sometimes splitting up into teams, hiding, and hunting the others down. I learned new methods of swordfighting, and grew better at it, with their help. It was idyllic. We were the Loser’s Club, the gang from Stranger Things. We were adventurers and fighters and dreamers.

But then life moved on, as it does. High school ended, and we all went our separate ways. College came and went. Jobs and marriage and babies and adulthood arrived.

Then one day, ten years later, the gang found each other again – on Facebook. And Mark had the ingenious idea that we should continue the story. So we did – in a play-by-post forum online. But because this new platform wasn’t mechanics-driven, we were freed up to simply tell the story. And tell it, we did.

It was an epic story. Our characters developed bonds as real as any human ones. Irulan and Kibur, after years of enmity, fell for one another. Lt. Page, despite his sense of betrayal (for he had first told Kibur he loved the Jedi), still protected his friends at every turn. Kami’atra was the source of wisdom and hope, and the one thing who kept them all from turning to darkness.

Writing this story felt so very vivid – like we were truly part of this world. When it was finished, we put it together into a book form. We have yet to publish it.

Many years later, and I am still playing D&D, with a new group of friends. And it is still as amazing as I remember it. Instead of Star Wars, we are the motley crew of a steampunk airship: the Wheeling Automaton. Our adventure has only just begun, but I know it’s going to be amazing.

D&D has a stigma, but it’s wrong. All the best parts of childhood are encapsulated in D&D: the make-believe, the passion for adventure, the stretching of imagination. C.S. Lewis says that if we have a longing in us for a place that does not exist in this world, it’s because we were made for another world.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder and harder to experience the longing of my childhood, because of the weight of daily life. But I do get glimpses of it now and then. And D&D is one of them. I’m sitting in a living room with friends, but suddenly we’re no longer there. We’re on an airship, sailing off into unknown worlds, to explore and fight and rescue and defend.

It brings the wonder back.

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