In all the stories I’ve heard, the most dubious and dangerous decisions are made at midnight, in the rain, near a crossroads. One of the parties involved is usually wearing a trench coat. At this point, the reader is ready to punch the unsuspecting person about to accept the deal, saying, “Don’t do it! It’s a trap!”
I’ve participated in a deal like this, albeit slightly less shady. It was around September or October 2016; my then-partner, now-fiancée Kinsey and I were on our way home from a class that had ended around eight. We’d stopped at the intersection of sidewalks to talk to a classmate, just for a few minutes, to exchange compliments on each other’s writing. A few minutes turned into about three hours, and, near the end, as I stood there in my trench coat in the early fall mist, he gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse.
“I’m thinking of starting a Dungeons and Dragons campaign; would you be interested in joining?”
And so—since, aside from each other, we had few friends—we accepted. And it began.
At first, there were five of us, six counting the DM (Dungeon Master). There was our human paladin, Yarrick, possessed by a demon named Erik. Next was our wizard, Aluwyn, a gnome college student, and her fox prince familiar Sir Paddington. Afkhare was our elf rogue, who has now acquired a dragon, lovingly called Weesnaw. We also had two bards. The first (played by me) was Beau Jeangles, a gnome who played the accordion and wanted to become a crime boss. And then there was Darek, who fell under the category “bard” solely because there’s no category for “motivational speaker.” At first, Darek just wanted a trident. Then he wanted to start his own religion. Now, he’s essentially the god of chaos. (It seemed impossible to the rest of us too. We were fools to doubt his powers.)
I had my doubts at our first session when I sat down at the table to a pile of papers to fill out and stats to determine. How many health points would each character start with? What about backstories? How charismatic or strong or intelligent was your character? After nearly four hours of rolling and adding and dividing and brainstorming, we completed our character sheets. I had failed to realize going into this endeavor that I would have to create a complex and well-rounded character with goals and ambitions and a backstory—one of my biggest struggles in writing. I must have revised my novel plot and characters at least three times before and forcing myself to—for the love of Sarah Waters, woman!—just stick with a version and start writing. As for developing backgrounds, let’s just say I understand why so many Disney movies have absent parents: it’s one or two less characters to develop and incorporate into the plot.
Thankfully, once we established our characters and their stats, the second session was much more entertaining. It took all of us a while to get used to the game’s acting element—it’s not easy to assume another persona around people you’ve known for a grand total of five hours. I think the moment we truly warmed up to each other was when we bonded over our sympathy and incredulity at Darek’s feat of rolling five critical fails in a row.
For those of you who’ve never played: in Dungeons and Dragons, an action’s outcome is determined by rolling a d20, or twenty-sided die. To this number, you can—with the exception of a one—add your ability modifier (gained by points earned from leveling up). If you roll a twenty, or “critical success,” you get the best possible outcome. And, of course, the reverse is true: if you roll a one, or “critical fail,” you get the worst possible outcome. Darek rolled five ones in a row.
Coming from a family where one of the favorite mottos is, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I’ve since come to think of my life in D&D outcomes, which has been surprisingly helpful.
I used to be terrified of driving. I didn’t trust myself to pilot something that was, as my Drivers’ Ed instructor called it, “a moving death machine.” My solution? (begrudgingly) learn to drive, and then never drive anywhere. Buy everything at the CVS you can walk to. Ask Kinsey to drive you anywhere else. Needless to say, that didn’t last very long, since Kinsey is not always around, and one can only live off of cereal and canned soup for so long.
That’s when I started thinking in terms of D&D. The fiery death explosion I feared, the reason for my reluctance to drive, was only a one in twenty chance, in theory. Besides, my ability modifier for driving had increased to at least a solid eight after my forced daily commute to my summer job up the street. Suddenly, “the worst thing that could happen” didn’t seem as threatening. Combined with Kinsey’s reassurance that “no one else on the road wants to get into a car crash,” I didn’t know what I had been so afraid of.
It applies to all aspects of life. That Renaissance Lit final you’re anxious about? Roll for “Knowledge (History).” You have a plus ten modifier in the category as well! You’ll be fine. Trying to get the cat to behave? Roll for “Intimidation.” You roll a two, and you have no modifiers. The cat is unfazed by the spray bottle you’re wielding. She continues to deliberately and systematically push your books off the table.
In addition to being something of a cure-all for life’s anxieties, D&D has led me to some of my closest friends. All of us are artists; visual, literary, or musical. We’ve bonded over a story we’re creating together, each of us contributing new plot developments, characters, and our own styles of storytelling. The story wouldn’t be suspenseful if Afkhare didn’t unearth the government conspiracy that led to the murder of her best friend. It wouldn’t be bittersweet without Aluwyn’s reunion with her parents in the ghost realm. It wouldn’t be complex without Yarrick’s gradual understanding of his (literal) inner demon. And, of course, it wouldn’t have the same, constant, “What the hell?” emotion that accompanies each of Darek’s many, many questionable decisions (the decision to disguise himself as “Steve Buscemi dressed as Jessica Rabbit” stands out in particular).
What have I contributed to the story? Beau watches, listens, and flirts (unsuccessfully) with Afkhare. She is, much like me, driven by ambitions that may be out of her league. She is, much like me, someone who would rather watch and listen and calculate before taking any risks. When she does take those risks, however, they usually pay off.
On that fall night when I stood in the rain near midnight and was asked if I would join the campaign, I took a risk. I was stepping into a genre I had only just come to enjoy, and into a game I had never played before, with people I barely knew. Should I say no, preferring the safety of not having to interact with people? Or should I say yes, make friends, and end up becoming part of an experience that has been one of the most rewarding of my life?
I took a similar risk when I replied to an email asking me if I would be interested in interning for The Great Smokies Review. I had had little serious editing experience, but knew that this would be an invaluable opportunity to develop those skills and progress in the field. I’ve had so much fun working with the editing team; it has been a truly amazing experience. Elizabeth, Julie, and Marie, thank you all for sharing your wisdom with me over these past two years. You three are real miracle workers to make the Review the wonderful publication that it is.
In conclusion, I would first of all encourage anyone who enjoys storytelling and writing to join a tabletop gaming group if given the chance. I would also encourage everyone—particularly artists of all fields—to take those risks you’ve been waiting to take. Make new friends. Go new places. Experiment with new genres and forms. The odds are in your favor, and besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen?