How I Failed My Saving Throw and Learned to Love D&D by Michael Channing

How I Failed My Saving Throw
and Learned to Love D&D

by Michael Channing

There are a lot of role playing games available. I’ve played a few of them. Top Secret, Heroes, Champions, GURPS, Marvel, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Heroes of Olympus. But the granddaddy of all RPGs, the system that to most people is the very definition of role playing game, is

Space 1889.

No, wait, that's not it. I just remembered another RPG I used to play.

The real granddaddy of them all is, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. D&D. It has been a long time, but I have played my fair share. I got into the game because of my friend Joe. Joe was a D&D enthusiast, and like any good nerd he wanted to infect his friends with that enthusiasm. And he did. Eventually. He just went about it the wrong way at first.

My first D&D experience was in the woods. Yes, that does mean I began my nerd career as a LARPer. LARP stands for live action role playing. Those who take part in the dubious pastime are called LARPers, in the same way the people who join cults are called cultists. At gaming conventions, LARPers are the ones running up and down the corridors dressed in leather, yelling at each other in faux British accents, and waving around floppy cardboard swords. Yeah, I know it's a little hypocritical to judge someone at the same gaming convention as me. I might have a dice bag around my neck and giant, yellow DEVO/Bootsy Collins sunglass-goggles on my head, but at least I'm not LARPing.

No. That's not cool. This nerd-on-nerd prejudice must end. D&D players in general and LARPers specifically have gotten a bad rep, and we should band together in support. Back in the 1980s, D&D players were portrayed as satanic or insane by religious dum-dums, and their prejudice was confirmed by the exploitation movie Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters. That's a movie wherein a group of kids go LARPing in a nearby cavern, and one particularly weak-minded kid believes he actually is his character and takes a vacation from reality. When confronted on a rooftop, he proclaims he has the power to fly, and his friends barely save him from RPG-induced suicide. Fuck that movie. Fuck Rona Jaffe. And you know what, fuck Tom Hanks, too. I know he was a kid when they made this movie and he was just taking whatever part he could get, but fuck him a little. Nothing​ like that​ ever happened. The movie was nothing more than cash-grab, fear-mongering bullshit.

Because of this movie and the paranoid, small-minded viewpoint it expounded, D&D took a hit. Players were viewed as godless at best, and anyone who ventured out beyond the kitchen table and pretended to cast a spell ran the risk of being shipped off to a home for troubled youth. So, LARPers, no more flack from me. As I said, for a brief moment--one afternoon to be precise--I was a LARPer. Which means I am one of you forever.

I was certainly not led into satanism or driven insane on that fateful day in the woods. Mostly I tripped over things as I read the hand-written character sheet Joe had made for me and yelling to him, “Why is my THAC0 only 5? Will I be able to properly thac should the need arise? Why is my armor class -1? What did I ever do to you, Joe?”

Turned out Joe actually gave me pretty strong character, I just didn't know it at the time. How could I? Only Joe knew the rules, and he tried to teach us as we all ran in different directions through the woods, swatted mosquitoes, detached ourselves from briars​, and continually picked up and then abandoned fallen sticks in search of the perfect piece of wood to represent whatever weaponry Joe had supplied our characters with. So while I had fun that day, I was not stricken with the D&D bug. Joe had failed to infect me. But never-the-less, like a good nerd, he persisted.

My road to Damascus was the carpeted floor of seventh grade Health class. Always a lot of downtime in Health class, and one day, Joe brought some dice and his D&D Player's Guide. For the first time I began to understand the gist and the draw of the game. Everything was based on hard numbers, measurable, logical, categorical yet still susceptible to random chance. This was how I wanted the world to work. When it came to creating my very first character, starting at level one, I decided that instead of picking my profession, I would roll the bones and let luck determine my fate. As the rules were back then, your physical attributes-- strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc.--fell somewhere in the range of 3 to 18. Anything over 10 was above average, anything 15 and up was considered heroic. There were several ways you could go about rolling your stats, ways to pad or otherwise finagle the numbers. But I wanted to go hardcore random. Joe smirked, knowing I would either have to reroll one or more results or just start over completely when my hero became a glue-sniffing simpleton with an intelligence of 4.

The first attribute was strength. I picked up three six-sided dice, threw them to the carpet, and they all came up smiling sixes. Natural 18. Looked like fate wanted me to be a fighter.

Now I could have chosen to be a particularly muscular wizard, but I decided to lean into my talents. A fighter with a strength of 18 had a further modifier, a number from 1 to 100, which determined if you were simply football-player strong, of if you could spar with Hercules. How do you roll a number from 1-100? You roll two ten-sided dice (yes there are such things, non-gamers). The first roll is the tens-place of a two-digit number, and the second roll is the ones-place. Joe only had one ten-sider available at school that day, so I had to throw it twice. A heavy and palpable disappointment fell on my shoulders as my first roll came up zero. Joe and I both groaned at my misfortune. That meant my best possible roll would be a nine. Unless, of course, I did what I'm sure you're already anticipating. Why else would I be dragging it out this long if not for the big reveal? I threw a second zero. I rolled a hundred. A strength of 18/100 had its own separate listing on the bonuses table. Keep in mind, I rolled that naturally. I picked up four dice and threw the maximum with each. With no cooking or cherry picking, I created the strongest character the game would allow me to use. Yes, there were monsters far mightier, and magical items and spells could produce stronger individuals, but I, by random luck, rolled up one of the strongest natural-born humans in the D&D universe.

To a kid made entirely of knees and elbows, this was the perfect piece of escapism. The rest of my stats were average to above average. The dice were good to me that day. I named my hero Kane. I had a fascination with that name ever since I watched​ a bunch of old Kung Fu episodes with my dad years before. I could slip into the role of Kane, kill monsters and bad guys, pick up heavy objects and put them back down, smash open doors, flex, pose, and generally be a hero. When I was regular, wimpy Michael, I felt deflated and couldn't wait to return to the pretend might and real glory of my D&D persona. I was hooked. I wanted more. I tried my hand at running campaigns, at designing worlds. I tried to pass along the fascination like any good nerd would. My brother wouldn't take it seriously and named his character Poot. I was so eager to bring others into the fold that I let another friend play as Kane while I ran a less powerful character.

During this particular session, our party was on a dungeon crawl, and we were stopped by a very deep and very wide pit. Our path continued on the other side. The floor of the pit, some twenty feet below us, was dotted with tall, sharp spikes. Our plan to cross was pragmatic, if not a little strange. We determined that while none of us could make the leap across the chasm, Kane had the upper body strength to throw the smallest member of the party across. That happened to be my new character, a low-level, armorless wizard. So my old character, under the guidance of someone else, chucked my new character across a pit. Oh, and I was holding on to one end of a really long rope.

I landed with no major abrasions and hammered a piton into the rock wall and secured my end of the rope to it. The rope stretched across the pit where Kane secured it by piton there as well. And one by one our party shimmied hand over hand across the pit. We had to roll skill checks to see if we made it. We let the dice decide our fates. The dice giveth and the dice taketh away.

Kane was last. He was also the heaviest. The friend who was playing Kane rolled a twenty-sider to see if he successfully crossed the pit. The higher the better. He rolled a one.

Critical failure.

Kane fumbled, lost his grip, and fell. A spike pierced his right arm just below the shoulder, and he slid down the full length of the shaft, tearing his arm completely off. Blood spurted from the wound as he lay unconscious and dying next to his severed limb.

Our cleric used another rope to lower himself to the floor of the pit, which is probably how we should have crossed in the first place, but perfect hindsight never solved anything. The cleric cast enough healing spells to stop the bleeding, but there was nothing he could do for the mutilated arm other than bury it in a shallow hole and say a prayer.

We all heaved together to hoist Kane out of the pit, and we left the rest of the cavern unexplored. Kane's glory days were over. I continued dungeoneering as a wizard, and I can't say it wasn't rewarding, but playing an average wizard just wasn't the same as playing a living legend.

There was no one and nothing I could blame. The rope didn't come loose from its moorings, so I couldn't say my wizard character caused my warrior's downfall. I can't say Joe was a cruel Dungeon Master. It was dumb luck, the same luck that gifted me with the strongest character in the first place. I had to accept the dice, even when they were not in my favor. Not to do so would be spitting on the good fortune they had granted me before.

As we finished up that session, putting our dice in their drawstring bags, our character sheets in their devoted Trapper Keepers, I saw a glimmer of the silver lining to the bleak cloud that was Kane's crippling. Our heroes inhabited a magical world where anything could happen. Maybe there was a blacksmith somewhere who could forge a metal appendage for Kane that would make him even stronger than before. Plus he would have a rad silver arm.

Joe hinted that might be possible, but it never came to pass. I never played as Kane again. It wasn't the idea of playing a disabled hero that turned me off. I'm actually not sure why I never picked up that character sheet again. Maybe I felt guilty for having placed him into someone else's hands. Maybe I just wanted the experience of playing a different character class. Druids had a really cool hierarchy within their secret society. Wizards started pretty weak but gained spells powerful enough to reshape history itself. Monks developed super human abilities at higher levels, assuming you could keep them alive long enough. I think I wanted to try something else, and Kane's injury gave me the excuse to walk away from my initial character and into something else.

The experience of creating that first character hooked me on D&D and roleplaying in general. Joe had passed along the obsession. And like a good nerd, I want to tell the story again. So I have. If anyone reads this and takes it to heart, if it makes you smile, if it makes you remember your first gaming experience, if it spurs you to pick up the dice for the first time, then I've succeeded. Or maybe it will fail. I will have to let chance decide.

The Making of a Nerd

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

April 13, 2017