Dungeons and Dragons Dice as the Colorful Caltrops of Our Childhoods
How do games function for you?
We play games for different reasons. Some play to compete, endeavoring to best other players, or other teams. Some play a pub quiz, for example, to learn, feeling that when they have done well, they have bested a younger version of themselves. Some play to explore, to reach out, asking what new topics might we investigate? Some play to circle the wagons, to hold on, asking do I still know what I have learned in school? Some play to justify all the unassigned reading they do, imagining the rewards of recognition from others, as well as the gratification that comes from knowing that the investment in one’s self has been made relevant in the arena of the game, such as a pub quiz.
A pub quiz is a game of skill, but it also depends upon chance. What are the chances that you have traveled to New Orleans, studied the history of pockets, or made friends with Republicans? Any of these topics might come up, as you regulars have already discovered. Once I attended a pub trivia event hosted by current Davis City Councilmember Will Arnold, and Will asked us a question about a relatively obscure professional wrestler who “won” a number of important bouts in the early 1980s. Sitting with two university colleagues whose acumen and wide-ranging knowledge I admire, I was almost embarrassed to step forward with the answer. Did they look on me with admiration, or with pity, suspecting the worst about my misspent youth?
One game that I played often in that same time period, the late 1970s and the early 1980s, was Dungeons and Dragons. I read and digested the core rulebooks, the lists and statistics of the monsters, the dungeon modules that one could use to challenge players. And challenge them I did. Somehow, even back then, as is the case now, I was always the host, the dungeon master, the guy in charge, in this case tasked with imagining and describing worlds and the creatures that would confront the armed adventurers who would courageously seek out battles and treasure. Surely such activities helped to prepare me for a lifetime of teaching at UC Davis.
As I was a child and then later a teenager when I organized and ran these games, I’m not sure I did a very good job. We had far fewer video games back then, so many of the modules we played were substitutions for the sort of aggression that geeky kids would later explore in the arcade at the cost of a quarter. As a result, the unimaginative dungeons I home-brewed rewarded the style of play that I later read to be called the “murder hobo,” a terrible term for a player character who would rather fight monsters than negotiate with them.
(In a different sort of game, a thought experiment, I imagine my current self spending some therapeutic, academic, and life-counseling sessions with my younger self. Now that I meditate regularly, march for peace and justice when given the opportunity, find tranquility in ten-mile walks around town, and read books such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (A Language of Life), I’m sure I would have had a lot to share with young Andrew, but he would not have had the patience to spend much time with someone he would see as a self-satisfied and altruistic pedant. What would you say to your younger self? And would your younger self listen?)
So in those distant years of playing, I was always the Dungeon Master, just as in this era, before Covid, if there is a crowd, whether it be of bargoers or students, I’m probably the guy standing up front with the microphone, asking annoying questions with a smile on my face. The subtext has always been this: I have planned some tricky adventures for you!
Like chess, Dungeons and Dragons is in a resurgence (thanks perhaps to Covid, Zoom, and Discord), and sometimes we must resurge ourselves with the changing times. This coming Wednesday evening I will be playing Dungeons of dragons with a group that does not include a blood relative (which has rarely happened), and I will be playing as a player character – in this case, a monk – instead of as the dungeon master (which has never happened). I hope the pedantic blowhard in me will not be tempted to take hold of the proverbial microphone.
That said, the poet in me cannot be silenced. I will conclude this week’s newsletter with a poem I quickly wrote about the oddly-shaped dice that are associated with the world’s most famous role-playing game (if you don’t count running for political office).
The dice themselves
are monsters, beasts
with numbered backs,
colorful pratfall experts,
Those with many numbers
aspire to be marbles,
harnessing the jerky
momentum of latitude;
whereas the short dice,
a child’s caltrops,
provoke abrupt halts,
into the desert
by Egyptian gods,
tombs inviting explorers,
the exact locations
of the cursed treasures
left up to chance.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks to all the subscribers who support this effort on Patreon, including especially those who have upgraded to one of the higher tiers of Pub Quiz fun! They pay extra to keep this whole enterprise afloat, and I really appreciate it.
Here are three questions from last week’s quiz:
Current Events – Names in the News. Sworn in today, what is the name of the new junior U.S. Senator from California?
Sports. To what NBA team was shooting guard James Harden recently traded?
Shakespeare. Which character in the Shakespeare play The Tempest says “My library was dukedom large enough”?
Be safe, and stay inside, no matter what you hear from the Governor of California today!
P.S. "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it." Margaret Atwood