Monday, March 19, 2012

Memoir Monday: Behind the d20

When I told Dan the story of my first gaming group, he said it sounded like a VH-1 "Behind the Music" special, in which a band goes from rise to demise and back again. I laughed at the time, but the more I look back, the more insightful his comment seems. Although it would be cooler if we'd been musicians instead of D&D geeks, here's the story of our road to ruin.

I'd started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was fourteen, and from the first I was absolutely hooked. Back then, D&D was cool even though geeks really weren't, and I had a (very) small amount of notoriety for being of the few kids in my class who knew the game well. I played the game right into college, and when I was 19 was introduced to my first gaming group of adults.

And we had a blast. Burt was bold and fearless, ready to pit his character against any foe, no matter how fearsome. His chutzpah was infectious; in one battle he rallied the entire group against a dread underwater spectre, turning a near-rout into a smashing victory. Dennis was careful and calculating, and never committed his full resources to any battle unless he was certain we could win it. James was shamelessly power-hungry, but in such an endearing way that no matter what trouble he got us into we could never stay angry at him. He knew how to use power, too, which brought woe to more than one of our enemies. Sam was nearly telepathic in battle, able to tell just when an enemy at the point of exhausting his strength and willing to push him/her/it beyond that limit and into defeat. I was the sort-of leader, always coordinating efforts and concocting some crafty scheme to gain advantage over our foes, and more often than not, my schemes were successful. Our individual styles complemented each other, and we were a force to be reckoned with. We spent many an evening wiping out hordes of orcs, goblins and sundry critters, and matched our wits against craftier foes like warlocks and demons.

Back then our individual foibles were things we appreciated, and we got along equally as well outside the game, and quickly got to know each others' families and other interests. For me, being in a group in which I did not feel like an outsider was completely new...and completely welcome.

Going back to the "Behind the Music", it's been said that the same chemistry that can make a band rule can also make it explode, and so it proved for us. For each of our strengths there was an equally formidable dark side. My tendency to take charge sometimes manifested as an inability to accept and appreciate limitations and to release control. Burt's fearlessness could very easily give way to stubborn sullenness, and he seemed almost to delight in causing disruption and resentment. Dennis was as cold as he was cautious, and had little problem taking advantage of others by fair means or foul. James and Burt were having unrelated problems that added significantly to the tension around the table, and I was spinning slowly down into an ever-deepening well of depression. After a few years, these fault lines began to cause big ol' quakes. In-game difficulties became real-life problems, and attempts to resolve the various issues that arose often degenerated into grudge matches or on one occasion, a shouting match, which was one of the two times in my life I have ever raised my voice in anger. None of us was innocent, and no matter who started the fight someone else, often me, managed to make it worse.

We should have had a real talk about what was going on, but each of us was prevented by our individual issues. Burt was not the kind of guy to confront issues in a helpful way, Dennis too coldly self-interested to bother, and Sam and James, younger than the rest of us, were just unable to cope with the rising tension. As for me, I was too emotionally guarded to open up, and secretly fearful that the others would recognize me for the loser I feared I was. We tried again and again to recapture the spirit of those early years, but you can't make amends for mistakes you don't know you've made...and are still making

Before long we were all talking behind each other's backs, and knowing we were doing so, but after awhile there wasn't much we could say that hadn't already been said. We'd known each other for years and were as familiar as family, but less like the Bradys and more like the Bundys. I don't know why we stayed together for the years we did. Maybe, like any dysfunctional family, we just didn't think there was any other way for us to relate to each other. Relationships often run from scripts, and no matter how unhealthy those scripts may be, they offer comfort. Given where I was for so much of my life, I needed all the comfort I could get.

My engagement in therapy and subsequent recovery from depression sparked a realization that I needed to throw that script away. I decided – finally – that I was capable of building better relationships, ones that would not vacillate between familiar camaraderie and angry frustration. Not long after, along with Sam, I walked away, and before long the group collapsed. Looking back I see how sad it was, but at the time I was just relieved to get away from that emotional maelstrom.

Most “Behind the Music” specials end with the profiled band putting the past behind them and reuniting for another album and tour. I'm afraid this story does not have so rosy an ending. Sam and I are still close, and we both still see James, but Burt and Dennis went their own way. Dennis I was not sorry to see the back of, although Burt and I later – much later – made amends via email. I'm sad to say that missive was not the introduction to a renewed, healthier friendship. The five of us inflicted a lot of emotional wounds on each other, and time doesn't always heal those. There's some music you can make only once.

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