The Topic At Hand: Blank Slate

Back then, say 1985, there were rules. One of them was, you didn’t say the words “dungeons and dragons” when a girl was within earshot. Similarly off-limits were “role-playing game” or any other anachronism bound to be a dead giveaway, such as “sword,” “armor class,” and “hit points.”

In fact, if you didn’t want to get your ass kicked, you couldn’t say or do anything that implied you were talking – or even thinking – about D&D in a situation where you were officially supposed to be doing something else. Which is to say, every situation. For example: eighth grade gym class.

Now and again, I meet other adults who tell me that they, too, were uncoordinated and awkward as children. But most of the time, upon further investigation, these people turn out to be complete fucking posers.

It’s certainly true that I could not throw, catch, swing, jump, climb, or run without looking and feeling ridiculous. I have never traversed a set of monkey bars from one end to the other, not even when I was less than five feet tall and my stomach was flat. But it’s also true that I always felt like these activities were taking place on another plane of existence, one in which I was not fully invested.

Speaking of other planes of existence: the D&D Player’s Handbook goes into detail about this. There’s the prime material plane, where all the mundane stuff like our own universe exists, and then there are the more exciting planes, like the ethereal, the astral, the seven heavens and the nine hells. After my character, Jonathan, had accumulated over ten billion gold pieces, he obtained his own plane of existence, which he pretty much used as storage space. His castle was there, and some treasure, and some dragons he’d become friends with and then captured and basically turned into his slaves.

The Planes Of Existence, as depicted in The Player's Handbook

But regarding events on the prime material plane: When I was about ten years old, I was enrolled in a weekly after-school physical therapy class. The class consisted chiefly of two activities. First, there were four inner tubes suspended by elastic cords from the ceiling of a gymnasium. I put my arms and legs through the tubes, so that I was suspended prone a few feet above the floor, like Tom Cruise in that famous heist scene in Mission Impossible (I was first, Tom). Then the therapist would give me a push, and I would bounce around the gym at various altitudes, pretending to be Superman, or some variation. This was supposed to improve my dexterity. It didn’t.

A D&D character’s dexterity is determined at the moment of his or her creation, by a ritual known as 3d6, which is to say, a six-sided die is rolled three times. Eighteen is good, three is bad. Rolls like this determine all six core character attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Eighth-grade me sat alone on the orange carpet in my bedroom and rolled the d6 repeatedly, writing down attribute numbers in pencil next to a column of letters:

S 18
I 15
W 12
D 9
C 13
C 16

After I had all six numbers, I would think about whether this character actually had a chance of survival and happiness in the world that awaited him. If not, I would abort him by crumpling the paper, and try again.

Character attributes are random, but they are also viscerally connected to the player. It was my clumsy hand dropping that d6 onto whatever hard surface I had put on the carpet, maybe the Monster Manual, or perhaps its supplement, the Fiend Folio. If I rolled an 18 for Dexterity, then there was, at some level, the thrilling feeling that the 18 in question had come from me, from my body, my real body. The “random” dice roll was the universe’s opportunity to correct an imbalance. The fact that it was me who rolled those stats made the character truly mine.

The original Monster Manual.

The dice-as-divine-intervention idea is important inside the game, too. When you swing a sword, dice determine whether you hit the target, and whether the target’s armor withstands the sword, and, if not, whether the target survives.

By the way, first and second person pronouns in a discussion of role-playing games can be problematic:

me: You’re in the tavern. The innkeeper indicates that the drink you asked for is on a high shelf. He exits to get a stool.
you: I grab it with my tentacles.

Which is to say, the “you,” according to the way D&D is supposed to be played, is really not you. It doesn’t just not look like you, it’s also supposed to have a different personality than you. There’s a whole spectrum of moral alignments, such as Lawful Evil (respects the law, but is nonetheless evil) and Chaotic Good (pure of heart, but hates rules). And you are supposed to choose your character’s alignment. But I never met anyone who didn’t choose their character’s alignment based on their own morals.

Speaking of alignment. After I swung around the gymnasium in the inner tubes, I was placed inside a large blue plastic ball, with a hollow inside big enough for me to assume the fetal position. The therapist then spun the ball until well after I had become nauseated. This was supposed to help improve my inner ear balance. Many years later, I read a medical history on myself in which this treatment was discussed, with a note added: “It was determined that further therapy would not be useful.”

Here’s something else that I gradually came to realize wasn’t useful: dice.

The Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual contained extensive tables noting the appropriate die rolls for endless levels of detail in play, such as how fast a character consumes food, or how much sleep he needs, or how encumbered he is by the adamantine plate mail armor and the ten quintillion gold pieces he’s hauling around. There might have been some group of boys, somewhere on the planet, who took all that stuff seriously, who actually played by all those rules. There must have been, right? Or why publish those endless pages of numbers, fastidiously referencing every kind of die there was?

From left: d8, d10, d20, d12, custom d10, d6, d4.

According to the rules, there are many ways to win at D&D: kill the big monster, collect the treasure, save the town, or just make it to the end of the adventure alive. But the way my friends and I played it – and the way everyone I knew played it – there was only one way to win, and that was to fulfill one’s fantasies via the character. There was only one way to make that fulfillment believable, and that was for a sympathetic friend to introduce obstacles that were just barely surmountable, not by the character, but by the player.

So: in the fantasy world, Jonathan fights a dragon. I control Jonathan, and my friend Boaz, playing Dungeon Master, controls the dragon. There are no props, no papers, and no dice. Boaz and I are whispering to each other in the back of the class during Hebrew school, or bumping shoulders as we walk on a Boy Scout hike, or sleeping over at one another’s houses, talking in the dark.

But it’s still a game. There is a way for each of us to play it well, or poorly. Boaz plays it well by creating a situation that will be difficult for me to imagine my way out of. The dragon has cornered me at the back of a cave, and I have no weapon. It’s about to breathe fire and roast me. What do I do? I hesitate. Boaz lets me have a moment to think about it. In the game, time freezes.

A similar moment from gym class: An indoor volleyball game in which the teacher played on my team. He had the center front position, and I was to the side in back. The other team served a volley directly to me (on purpose), and I stood there motionless while it hit the floor in front of me. Normally, my physical incompetence was fodder for an immediate joke. But in this case, the sheer obviousness of it had everyone in shock. The whole class stood there looking at me, saying nothing, not smiling, not laughing. The gym teacher turned around and looked at me with genuine disbelief. “Are you with us?” he asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I allowed the pause to lengthen while I carefully considered my answer.

Transcendance on the volleyball court is a rare but acheivable state. Here, a Chico State player attains inner peace while her teammates remain lost in the hustle and bustle of the actual game.

Just before the dragon moves in, I (Jonathan) see a pile of bones and treasure belonging to its former victims. On the pile is a scroll, and on the scroll is the phrase “Are you with us?” I (Michael) have told Boaz about my mortification on the volleyball court. He has put my gym teacher, or some medieval otherworldly version of him, into the game, dead. It is both a clue and a gift.

I consider the clue. My gym teacher’s character apparently died out of stubbornness for thinking too linearly. He must have tried to fight the dragon using plebian strategies such as swinging his sword at it. I (both Jonathan and Michael) being a more sophisticated and thoughtful person, will not repeat his mistakes. I stand my ground and observe. I allow my mind to drift, to pick up any nuances. And wait, what’s this? I hear the dragon speaking to me. It’s psychic. We are communicating telepathically. The dragon has been waiting centuries for a human with a mind as finely attuned to the deeper nature of existence as mine (or Jonathan’s). We become friends. He gives me all his treasure. I relegate him to my private plane of existence and make him my slave.

It will turn out that the dragon was holding captive a princess. She is not merely symbolic, she is also made just for me, with a combination of characteristics that Boaz knows I like. Basically, she is customized masturbation material.

I didn’t really quit D&D so much as lose interest in it gradually. My lack of interest was less about Michael growing up, and more about Jonathan’s world turning into a sort of utopian mush. After he had killed, befriended, enslaved, or fucked everything in the Monster Manual, he found portals to the future and to other dimensions, some of which conveniently contained the entire plots of popular movies and novels. Over time, Jonathan acquired an X-Wing fighter, a light cycle, and a TARDIS. He had a harem of exotic women who, despite being geniuses with mysterious powers, were content to spend their time roaming the infinite halls of his ever-expanding castle until he had need of them. It sounded good in theory, but after a while, Jonathan’s limitless paradise and godlike powers started to become less interesting than Michael’s mundane adolescent life.

My TARDIS, circa 1985. The X-Wing fighter and the light cycle are inside.

I often think about the fact that Jonathan isn’t dead. His story didn’t come to an end. He’s in his castle, riding his light cycle, or something. D&D Version Four now exists. There are a hundred times the number of rules and charts that there were in the eighties. I could play again, do it right this time, follow the rules, use dice. As I walk past those new hardback books in the gaming aisle of a bookstore, I visualize Jonathan stirring awake from underneath some pile of exotic furs, blinking, smiling, gesturing to the wall of magic and high-tech weapons that could annhialate the earth a thousand times over. Do you need me? he asks. Are we back?

But the truth is that I don’t know what I would have him do. I’m not sure if I ever definitively established Jonathan’s age, but the man I imagined must have been in his mid-twenties. Been there, done that. As it turned out, my twenties were not as glamorous as Jonathan’s, and I lost a lot more money than I accumulated, but the places I went and the women I loved were real and interesting and beautiful enough that everything he had done finally started to seem like something that hadn’t ever happened, and wasn’t going to.

Instead, I want to play a game where my character is an awkward eighth grade boy. I want someone sympathetic to lie next to me in the dark and to unfold before me the world of Prairie Village, Kansas, 1985. What do you want to do? she asks me (it has to be a she this time, so that the girls in the game are more realistic). I make choices. I refuse to get into the blue ball. I read books that aren’t science fiction and fantasy.

And that moment with the volleyball. There must have been a way to avoid it. The teacher says “Are you with us?” And I say, No, I am not with you. And then I play again, and make different decisions, so that I’m not. I refuse to take to the court. I refuse to attend the class. I call a reporter from the Kansas City Star and announce that I’m a conscientious objector. I meet with the head of a local yoga studio, and the school counselor, and my parents. I become the test case for a pilot program to bring transcendental gym classes to the Shawnee Mission school district. There must be a way to keep it from having happened. If I keep going back over it long enough, I can find it.


Planes of existence image via Wizards Of The Coast.

Monster Manual image from David Faulhaber.

Dice image from IndyStar.

TARDIS image from Kasterborus (caution: link auto-plays sound).

Volleyball image from rysac1.

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    9 responses to “No Dice”

    1. amandaemerson says:

      How finely woven! I was actually coordinated and competitive (and probably simply mean) enough to enjoy gym class, but I would have liked transcendental gym class, too. Your contemplations at the end of the piece bring this together beautifully. –Mandy

    2. Matt Staggs says:

      This is just outstanding work. Well-written, pensive. I like.

    3. sara nickerson says:

      My mother wouldn't let us play D&D – she said heard about kids who went down to the basement and lost their minds. Love the piece, Mickey.

    4. kyleeberle says:

      A great article that brings my D&D memories flooding back in. I too had storage space in the form of a bottomless satchel, devised by my trusty DM. In this were stored my dragon(which I won after melting an ice island full of barbarians), endless coins, over-sized weapons, and a pirate ship. This bag would surely come in handy today for storing items like real estate, bank loot, vacation locales, top-secret plans, and targets of my jealousy.

    5. 1rebeccacoffey2 says:

      A tricky narrative to weave, and you did it so nicely!

    6. heatherauthor says:

      This is really good. I appreciate holding the image of the awkward eighth grade boy!

    7. Lizad says:

      Not a part of my growing up or my kids' growing up, I don't know much about D+D, but this is great. Your narrative is engrossing.

    8. randall says:

      Nicely done.

      One interesting and persistent theme of our adult relationship that has been amplified by your writings (and the the way in which RF seems to nurture a particular kind of reflective personal narrative, perhaps), has been the slow revelation of the complex and often fraught origins of the interests and idiosyncracies which, as your younger brother, seemed to me not only as just-so manifestations of your character (Michael, not Jonathan) but as minor but important revelations that, along with baseball cards and Hawaiian shorts and model rockets and Depeche Mode, described for me what the world was, how it worked, and where I fit in it.

      That is to say, I never really bothered to get as deeply into the D&D world as you, and your AD&D manuals were as about discernable to me as the phone book or the Torah (which were about equally ubiquitous and (not) interesting to me as a child) were. I never really understood what all of the dice were for, and I specifically remember trying to reconcile talk of Jonathan's 'plane' of existence with the only concept of a 'plane' that I had available to me at the time, and thus being introduced to the new confusion of homonymny. But because you were around and because I looked up to you and coveted your attention, the basic D&D character that you helped me develop and DM'd for me (Arthur, I believe, from the animated feature The Sword in the Stone) was formative for me nevertheless. I loved playing that game and others that you initiated, precisely because of the ways they brought rich and carefully constructed fantasy universes into close proximity with my daily experience without requiring me to do any work.

    9. spectre69 says:

      My cousin had ALL the D&D paraphernalia and would play with his group of friends. I was invited in when I’d visit but never allowed to touch the Dungeon Master’s Guide (although I was allowed, at times, to savor the Monster Manual). I didn’t really understand the rules and my character was always the first to get clobbered, but I vividly remember the few times that I played. Thanks Michael.

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    The Author

    Michael Bennett Cohn

    Michael Bennett Cohn has a range of experience in online publishing that spans creative, business, and technical aspects of the field. His former employers include Microsoft, CondeNast, and Federated Media. He also ran the online marketing campaign for the release of the first Amazon Kindle. He has an MFA in Cinema-Television from the University of Southern California. Michael is the publisher of Revolving Floor, which he also produced.

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