I hadn’t used my dice in years. Wasn’t sure I still had them, even.
I used to carry them in a small, brown leather bag. It was rough, like coarse suede, and drew closed with simple strings. My father bought it for me one summer at a gift shop in Albuquerque.
That was 15 years and three states ago. I took the bag home with me to Texas, and it may have traveled with me to California, but I’m damn sure it didn’t make it to Massachusetts, where I lived in the fall of 2003. Then, as I scoured my rented apartment outside of Boston for the dice I’d been carrying, unused, for so many years, I was fairly certain they were tucked into a velvet whiskey bag. A sign of something, perhaps.
I found the dice in the closet of a guest room, tucked into a red velvet bag that had once contained an academic achievement medal. I still have the medal, in a case with all the rest, but the bag must have, at some point, been reallocated for the purpose of holding dice. I must have found the dice before, cradled them, thought about them and put them into a new bag. I must have dreamt about using them again, rolling them as I set off on new adventures.
It must have been recent, the bag change, but I didn’t remember it. Maybe I did it in my sleep. Seems to me I did a lot of things in my sleep back then, like I lived in my sleep.
Dice found, I prepared myself. It had been a long, long time since I’d played a roleplaying game, and now I was off to play with a group of people I hadn’t even met. It felt a little bit like the first day of school. I was nervous, and in spite of the fact I’d been playing since I was 10, I didn’t know what in the hell to expect. I was, to be completely honest, a little scared.
I must have used the bathroom ten times before convincing myself to leave the house. I had a drink to steady my nerves and screw up some courage – a bravery potion – and even after another it was questionable whether I’d actually go through with it.
I discovered the campaign by accident, talking to a coworker. I’d spent about 15 months slumming it in Boston, pretending to write a novel and getting nowhere, when the empty ache in my bank account convinced me it was time to suck it up and get a job. So I applied for a position as a production manager at an outdoor theater, and that’s where I met Neil.
Neil was a boisterous, obstinate geek from Maine whose CD collection consisted mainly of Lord of the Rings soundtracks, Enya-esque harp and voice orchestrations and Jethro Tull. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine he played D&D, but we never talked about it. Folks our age didn’t. It was like being gay in the 1950s. There were secret rituals, handshakes and signs one undertook to covertly alert one’s fellows of his preference. The normal folks couldn’t spot the signs; they would never know. But if they did, it would not be pleasant. We grew up in a time when normal people didn’t understand roleplaying. Feared it, and sought to destroy it. Where I grew up, Dungeons & Dragons was banned by civil ordinance, and playing it was a crime. You just didn’t admit you played, even if you did.
I got to know Neil over the course of the following months, and when the summer theater closed up, we moved together to a new gig, teaching technical theater at a local college. It was only there, after almost a year, we finally spoke of gaming. And only then, by accident. He’d asked me to hand him a screwdriver, and I did, explaining off-handedly that it was my favorite. That it was +2 to awesome.
“Ah-ha!” he shouted. “I knew you played!” He laughed, and then showed me his dice. They were purple and opalescent. Glittering and strangely dark. They fascinated me. He had multiple sets, he said. He bought them like candy. We talked for a long time about dice, about gaming and about life. Slowly, we became friends.
Ultimately it wasn’t the whiskey that convinced me to leave the house and go to Neil’s to play with his friends. It was the dice. The idea of them sitting idle for another year shamed me. The idea I’d pass up a chance to do something I loved, and looked forward to, because of nerves and anxiety. I decided I was better than that, picked up my dice and drove the 15 or so miles to Neil’s house.
Just getting there was a hair-raising experience. I’d been in New England for over a year, but I still wasn’t used to the way New Englanders drove their cars. Quickly, aggressively, rubbing fenders like NASCAR drivers. They didn’t blithely float across lanes, expecting you to get out of their way, like L.A. drivers. No, they assumed you wouldn’t get out of their way, out of spite, and actively took steps to disabuse you of that notion. Driving in New England requires focus, skill and a skin thicker than the mounds of snow plowed off the highway. It took me two years to master it.
By the time I found Neil’s house, my stomach was in knots, my hands were shaking and I was desperate just to get out of the car. Unfortunately, getting out of the car was what I was most afraid of. It was a lose-lose scenario. I double-checked the address, took a deep breath, clutched my dice and opened the car door.
The first thing I noticed was the swords. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Where I came from, we didn’t roleplay with swords. Didn’t own swords, even. Texas is gun country. When you grow up holding a firearm, bladed weapons seem silly.
Neil and his game group owned swords. Multiple swords. They talked about them, held them and wore them. Took them to Renaissance faires. Yes, they also attended Renaissance faires. I’m pretty sure they didn’t actually use the swords, perhaps didn’t even know how, but they liked to pretend. I’m not sure where the line exists between roleplaying with swords and doing so without, but there was one, and I was on the other side of it. Call me a roleplaying conservative.
Neil greeted me at the door, wearing his sword – and a full costume. Yes, they also had costumes. Cole, Neil’s friend, sewed costumes. Professionally. He was a professional male costume sewer. My head was on the verge of exploding when I met him. We’d later work together, he sewing costumes, I building sets, but I never got over the idea that this wasn’t a thing a man was supposed to do. Like wearing shorts or carrying a purse. Not a straight man, anyway.
I made my introductions and took a chair at the table. Neil sat next to his wife, who was dressed like a princess, complete with tiara. Her dice were pink. Cole’s wife was also there, along with his child. And they each had a set of dice, although the kid didn’t play. She just watched cartoons and drank juice. The wife wore a Japanese-style schoolgirl outfit, complete with striped stockings, and her dice were a rainbow of colors and sizes, as if she couldn’t decide which she liked best. Cole wore strange, large, round goggles and a T-shirt printed with Japanese characters. His dice were jet-black, and he fondled them as if they were alive. He was the dungeon master. He giggled a lot, like Mozart. The kid seemed the most normal of the bunch.
Cole introduced me to my character, a druid. I’d never played a druid, but I’d always wanted to, so I was thrilled. The other characters were tailored to the players’ tastes, I learned. This was, apparently, Cole’s M.O. Neil always played a large, boisterous fighter. His wife, a magic-using princess; Cole’s wife, a coquettish thief. Cole played the parts of all the non-player characters, introducing each with a flourish, creating strained, squeaky voices for each. He fidgeted constantly, reaching out and touching people when he talked to them. I started the game sitting in a jail cell, accompanied only by my animal companion, a stark white, large-eyed, cat-like character, played by Cole, that could turn invisible at will and only said one thing: “Miyew?”
What I remember most of that night is Cole, his goggled face turned sideways, peering up at me in a way I can only describe as “kittenish” and saying “Miyew?” his warm, slightly damp palm resting on my arm. I’d ask a question, he’d answer “Miyew?” I’d make a statement, he’d answer “Miyew?” I’d swear at him to, no really, just tell me what to do, and he’d respond “Miyew?” I’d known Cole for less than 20 minutes before deciding we’d never be friends. He was as alien to me as if he were actually from Japan, not simply an otaku.
Adding to my confusion were the changes to the game itself. When I last played D&D it was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, some of the battered, plain dice in my little red bag had come from that original boxed set. I’d read the books on lazy Saturday afternoons, doodling new dungeons on spare paper and preparing for the next play session. I studied AD&D the way rocket scientists study calculus and most kids my age studied porno mags. I knew that game backward and forward. And then they changed it.
Cole and company were playing something called Version 3.0. I knew nothing about it. Gone was the THAC0, the foundation of all combat encounters. Now there were extra races, extra classes and they’d even screwed with armor class. It was almost too much to bear. But the rolling of dice was the same, and a 20 was still a 20.
The differences slowly resolved themselves in my mind, with the game and the people, and I eventually started having fun. My druid was taciturn, foreign and distrustful. Cole had, in a stroke of genius, tailored a character to someone he’d never met. I admired him for that, and threw myself into the character, using my animal familiar to solve seemingly unsolvable puzzles, and the druid’s abilities to get the party out of jams they’d have otherwise had to fight their way through.
I don’t remember much about the adventure itself. I’d come into the game in the middle, and the details of the plot escaped me. But I remember having fun. I remember, after long absence, allowing myself to leave myself. To inhabit the persona of another person entirely, in another time and in another place. Something I’d done repeatedly in real life, but without the distance and fantasy the game allows. The key components of making the transition fun. Most of all, I remember letting go of my inhibitions, my reservations, my cultural bias and my arrogant assumptions and having fun sharing an adventure with like-minded people.
Cole and I never became friends, per se, and Neil and I eventually had a professional falling-out, ending our adventures. But for the few, brief months we played together, I reveled in the chance to get out of my own way – out of my own head – and have fun.
As I write this, my dice are sitting on my desk, beside my computer, still inside the red velvet bag. There are more of them, and I’ve rolled them in many adventures since, but for now they’re waiting patiently to be picked up again and rolled. To carry me outside of myself and to new adventures. That day can’t come soon enough.