Through the Looking Glass: A Place Where I Can Rage Late Into the Weekend

by Nicholas Thyr | 4/23/15 7:00pm

4.24.15.mirror.Nicholas-Thy_Eliza-McDonough
Nicholas Thyr ’17 denied that he was a nerd for years. After discovering Dungeons and Dragons novels, though, he became a proponent of the game.
by Eliza McDonough / Eliza McDonough/The Dartmouth Staff

Like many of us here, I rage every Saturday. Once 6 p.m. rolls around, I grab dinner with a couple of my friends and then head off for a series of escapades, often stretching into the wee hours of the night. In the interest of transparency, however, I should let you know it is not me, per se, who is raging, but rather my level 12 dwarf-barbarian — he wields a greathammer, name of Einar.

Einar Larssen, to be precise.

Perhaps I should digress a bit to explain, for the benefit of you unlucky souls who have not been inculcated in the mysteries of role-playing tabletop games, of which the ne plus ultra, the nonpareil is, without a doubt, Dungeons and Dragons. “Raging” is one of the core features of the barbarian class, and...

Wait. I’ve lost you, haven’t I? Don’t shake your head. I can see the glazed look in your eyes, even from my picture here, on page six of this magazine.

So why don’t we begin again?

For a long time as a kid, I told myself that I was most certainly not a nerd — this despite my casual usage of “juxtaposition” in normal conversation, my brown laceless leather clogs that I wore every day to school and that, when my friends came over, our preferred activity was to read books, silently, sitting next to each other.

The upshot of this was that I refused to touch D&D with a 10-foot pole, certain that its mere presence would tarnish me forever with the black brush of nerdiness. (I believe the official term for my state in those years is “denial.”)

Fast forward a couple of years. I am with my same friend (let’s call him “Patrick”), sitting in his same bedroom, reading side-by-side, and I finish my book. It is ninth grade, I do not have my license and the temperature is 28 degrees below zero, so I am there until the indefinite hour when my father finishes putting people to sleep. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) I wander over to his bookshelf, pry out a promising-looking book and start flipping through it. It is interesting — fascinating, in fact, detailing the sundry adventures of a certain Tanis Half-Elven and his motley and ragtag band of adventurers. An inveterate, Hoover-like reader of fantasy (cf.: “denial,” above), I instantly fell in love with this world — Krynn, as it is known, with its three moons, its absent gods and the vast, blood-red whirlpool swirling, swirling in the north — and I resolved, then and there, to read every single book in the series.

When I asked to bring the book (and the other two on the shelf) home, Patrick looked at me with an odd gleam. “Finally,” he said without elaborating. I shrugged, went home and powered through the entire series over the next week.

When we met again, at the same time to do the same age-old routine, I returned the books, mentioned how much I liked them and Patrick said, “Yeah. So that’s all D&D. Wanna make a character?”

Dear reader, how was I to say no?

* * *

So here I am, deep into a Saturday night, infuriated, berserk and on fire. This, alas, is a common occurrence — in the records of the current campaign, I am in the pole position for “number of times immolated.” The reason for the current conflagration? There are a lot of spiders, there are a lot of webs and trying to set spiders on fire can sometimes involve collateral damage.

At the same time, of course, I am nowhere near a spider as big as a baby elephant (a fact for which I am, and shall ever be, eternally grateful). I am in Collis 211, I am holding a green 20-sided die in my hand and I am looking at a series of lines drawn on a grid, figurines of dwarves, elves and giant spiders placed on top. I am going about my move (“Attacking — got a 13 — plus 12 — 25. Hit?” “Yes.” “So that’s... 5, 11... 21 damage...”), discussing with the other players possible means of extrication from my spider-beset, flame-engulfed state, commenting on other aspects of the battle (“Hughes took 40 bludgeoning damage — Myles, can you heal him? Paul?” “I’m unconscious...” “Right.”) and making as many “Monty Python,” “Star Wars” and “Princess Bride” references as is humanly possible. Any gaps in the conversation are filled with commiserations about linear algebra.

Somehow, after many arguments about the proper application of the grapple tables, the correct wording of the witch trial of the Holy Grail and the dispatching of many an eight-eyed arachnid, we all survive and come to the conclusion that Math 24 is harder than Math 22 — but more rewarding and just more interesting in general.

In other words, going to D&D is as much about D&D as going to class is about the class. Yeah, you could do it all online and still get what you needed out of it, but when you get down to it, it’s the discussions and the people that matter.

How, though, did the group come about? I’m not really certain. Most of us were in Physics 15 together, to be sure, and Math 24, but I walked in after overhearing a whispered conversation about Pathfinder (a variant game) and — with all the social graces at my disposal — asked if I could be part of their group, too.

I had been seeking a group for some time — not actively but passively, in an “if-only-there-were...” kind of way. I wanted something — anything — social to do on a weekend night when I wasn’t hiking. So when the opportunity presented itself, I seized upon it with both hands — rather like Einar when he goes for his battleaxe.

I must admit that I am not the most involved member of the group. I tend to appear only on Saturday nights, and I can be a bit flaky. (Make that a lot flaky.) I have a whole host of myriad conflicts, busy-nesses and commitments, as do we all. Saturday nights can be difficult to schedule around. But it gives me great comfort to know that the group is there — to have another community to say hi to as I walk through Baker-Berry Library, to know we have something shared in common.

Of course, we argue — a lot. There are many, many rules, all subject to textual exegesis by us college students. We finesse the rules for flying, argue over the next course of action for 10 minutes when six seconds of “game time” has passed, disagree whether acid would quench fire, especially fire of a magical variety... It can all get rather frustrating. Yet it is the frustration that arises out of actual interactions with actual people about fiction — it passes quickly, like the autumn fog under the sunlight or an April snow (too soon?). It is all part and parcel of creating a world together, through little shards of not-yourself manifested on an imaginary place.

This, I suppose, is what I view as the essence. The core of D&D is the way it allows you to ‘be yourself’ (those hoariest of hoary old words) by not being yourself. You can take all the baggage of the everyday pressure of being and being around people and let it have its release. Watch the luggage keep circling the conveyor belt and don’t pick it up. There are many things that I am, and have the potential to be, but a brawny exemplar of derring-do is not one of them. I have trouble splitting wood with an axe, much less skulls.

In our own little fantasy world, though, I can. I can build a whole new persona. I can make him charismatic, brainy, surly, sociopathic, cowardly. I can craft a Jenga tower of a backstory, or I can outline him in a few deft strokes. I can try to convince Ulghar the orc-lord that killing me is not in his best interests (Look! I can juggle! You can keep me around!), and my success or failure is up to the whims of the many treacherous faces of the die.

It’s almost reassuring to know that whatever happens is so dictated by chance, that how one rolls is just how it is. There’s a special feature, of course, that allows one to reroll, and pick the better of the two — how nice would that be in life?

So it seems that I have finally outed myself as a nerd. Of course, this comes as no surprise to any of you who have actually met me — I enjoy writing papers about Gertrude Stein and my ideal of a sunny afternoon is to sit outside and read a good book — but, in some ways, it comes as a surprise to myself. It feels rather like I’ve dropped a mask, like I’ve stopped declaiming a role, even to an empty theater.

There is, I must admit, something a little silly about D&D — escapist, impractical (“Shouldn’t I be doing x instead?” the little voice in my head says) — but that, of course, is no reason not to do it. A little silliness is a good thing, far better than the dread seriousness of work. To paraphrase deceased Shakespeare scholar Frank Kermode, fictions are the lies we tell ourselves to turn existence into being.

In a way, we’re all role playing. “I’m fine,” we say. We smile. Oh, yes, we’d love to do that, but oh, I just can’t make it that night, sorry...

Since we have to do it anyway, why not have fun in the bargain?