Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why My Teachers Feared I Might Be a Witch

I sure didn’t weigh the same as a duck!

I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) via the basic boxed set back in 1979 or 1980. I’d looked at it at Kay-Bee Toy Store in Fairmount Fair Mall for months before asking my mother to buy it for me. My friend Tim Kinney and I read the rules, rolled up some characters, and tried in vain to entice others to play with us. We never actually did play a game of that original D&D set, but it was my first exposure to the fantasy Role-Playing Game genre that I’d go on to enjoy in various ways for many, many years.

For the uninitiated, “pen & paper role-playing games” are unlike just about any other kind of game that a group of people can sit down and play. The players are generally all on the same side and there’s functionally no winner or loser. Instead, the goal is for the players to experience what amounts to an interactive story that takes place largely in their imagination. The story is “told” by the Dungeon Master (DM), whose job is to referee the rules of the game, to establish the basic plot of the story, and to operate all of the creatures and characters (friendly, hostile and indifferent) that aren’t controlled by the players. Each player generally controls only one character in the story, and is responsible for everything from what the character says and does to how he looks and – ultimately – rolls the fancy multi-sided dice that determine their degree of success or failure at a variety of different combat moves and special abilities. The game is augmented by everything from carefully-painted miniature figurines to maps drawn on graph-paper to various props crafted by the clever DM to add spice to the game – drawings, cryptic notes, or even models of wizard towers or haunted castles.

I ended up buying three or four different D&D boxed sets and read each of them cover-to-cover, inside-and-out, repeatedly, until I knew the rules by heart. But I never did (and never have) played Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, I ended up discovering the hard-cover rulebooks of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. It’s similar to D&D, and was created by the same people - originally E. Gary Gygax and his cohorts, who went on to form Tactical Studies Rules or TSR. Sadly, both Gygax and TSR have since passed away, though D&D is alive and well as a product of Wizards of the Coast (whom you may know as the creators of the Magic, the Gathering card game. Or you may not – how do I know what you know? You know?). Instead of being released in boxed sets of paperback rulebooks covering different levels of achievement within the game, AD&D’s hardbound books are segmented by topic – there’s a handbook for the Dungeon Master, another for the players, and a third describing all of the monsters you could encounter in the game. My friend Art Prest sold or traded his copies of those books to me when I was about thirteen and, at the time, those three books were the extent of the AD&D game. Once again, I devoured them, reading every page over and over. I was dying to play, but I still didn’t have anybody to play with.

Then my family moved, and suddenly I was in a new school with new friends – and before long I’d found some gamers! There were around six of us, give or take, and to my recollection none of my fellow players had much experience with the game. But for a couple of months, we took our books and papers and pencils and dice to lunch with us every day, laid out our crudely-drawn maps, and launched ourselves into wild adventures fighting Harryhausen-esque skeletons and goblins and all manner of evildoers. But this was the early 1980s, and the movie Mazes and Monsters had helped to fan the flames of paranoia that D&D was evil, a gateway into witchcraft and satanism and other variously bad behavior.

One day, my gaming group and I were called into an office with several teachers. They expressed their deep concern about what we were doing every day at lunch. They strongly implied that they believed we might be doing something deviant. They thought we might be witches, and I don’t mean they thought we were dancing round the bonfire at Beltane. Or maybe they did – they probably didn’t know any more about Wicca than they did about Dungeons & Dragons. But they were clearly as concerned as they were ignorant. But I was a kid – a fairly smart, fairly mature for my age, smug, smartass teenager – so I did what any kid would do… I laughed in their faces. I told them flat out that they were ignorant and paranoid, and I probably didn’t put it much more nicely than that. And even better, these weren’t MY teachers. My school had two “teams,” and all of my friends were on the other team – these were THEIR teachers, which meant that technically they had no authority over me. Which made me laugh all the louder.

I didn’t just mock them, of course. I did articulate that there was absolutely nothing demonic, satanic, or otherwise sinful about the game we were playing, and I believe I even invited them to play with us and see for themselves. They shut us down. We could no longer play at lunch, and had to move our game to the library after school, after registering as a “club” with the school (which I couldn’t swear to, but I think was my idea). I probably should be grateful they didn’t subject us to a trial by dunk for witchcraft. But we went on to play for most of the rest of that school year, and while I don’t remember a thing about the gaming sessions themselves, I remember being thrilled with finally getting the opportunity to play. I never played with any of those guys again after that year, but it was just the tip of the Dungeons & Dragons iceberg for me.


  1. Michael - This article brought a smile to my lips. It's amazing that they got so worked up over your game-playing since neither your Dad nor I were ever concerned in the least. Must be in spite of all the negative publicity towards the game we thought you were pretty grounded in reality.

    It's truly a wonder that I didn't get a telephone call from someone in authority at your school to come and get my evil kid and take him home and keep him home until he came to his senses.

    I used to say ignorance is bliss but in this case I don't think you had too many blissful teachers.

  2. Well, now that I think on it, there's probably a good reason you DIDN'T get a call about your "evil kid." Remember we moved to that new school because Dad was da boss there. If I were one of those teachers, I sure as heck wouldn't have been in a big hurry to tell the Superintendent that his kid's some kind of demon-loving warlock. :D

    Other than the hassle of not being able to play at lunch, this was actually an enjoyable experience. Arguing with people in charge, especially when I know with complete and utter certainty that I'm right and they're being dumb, has always entertained me.