Back To The Dungeon, Happily… by Steve Safran

We were any group of nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons in the ‘80s: four or five of us at a time, notebooks full of character and quest information, and two-liter bottles of orange Shasta. In the early ’80s, if you were a young teen, “D&D” was a revelation. The games we had played until then were conventional, predictable, and fit inside primary colored boxes in the den closet. You started at GO with a generic plastic pawn, and you moved your piece around the board. First person to the finish, wins. (Unless, I maintain, you were playing the game of LIFE, in which case I now recognize the real goal is to finish as slowly as possible with a car full of pin-sized children.)

Most of the cliches about D&D players were earned. Many (but not all) of us were socially awkward. We didn’t have any other plans for weekend nights, but in our defense, we also didn’t have driver’s licenses or access to mom’s station wagon. We were original nerds; we were awkward and goofy before that became mainstream, if not occasionally cool. I’m happy to see everyone embrace today’s Golden Era of Nerdiness, but let’s not forget how many of us heard this grand advice: “So don’t provoke him.” Our mere existence was often “provoking,” and carrying around velveteen bags of dice and pretending to be wizards didn’t help.

But we had D&D. It was imaginative. Part of its appeal to us what that you couldn’t really explain it to someone who hadn’t been initiated into a group. 20-sided dice? Hit points? A “Dungeon Master?” That would have sounded kinky, if we knew what “kinky” meant. (We did not.)

D&D games were card nights for the (mostly) boys of the under-18 set. We didn’t have the cash to make poker interesting, but we were an imaginative bunch, and this was an interesting game that tapped into our fascination with sci-fi fantasy worlds we found in beloved books and movies. But as the years went on, our group waned. We left for college, we acquired friends who didn’t attach a velveteen pouch to a belt loop… some of us started dating. The game stopped as our nascent adult lives began. But memories of epic 1984 games recently popped up in a Facebook Group Chat and the reminiscing began.

Scattered across the country and over time zones in the midst of a lingering pandemic, getting together for a game would be impossible. But, thank you Internet, we can assemble together virtually now. Remember– nerds founded the Internet, so D&D is practically baked in. It’s not hard to find sites that are the equivalent of Zoom D&D. However, though all of us were enthusiastic about setting up a game, nobody was volunteering to be the Dungeon Master. Simply put, it’s a hard job, and in the digital world none of us quite knew how to do it.

Enter Izak Safran.

My son, (bragging Jewish father here) who is about to graduate from Rensselaer and really has better and less nerdy things to do during his Senior Spring, answered my entreaties to be our Dungeon Master, and did so with good humor. Izak is a longtime D&D player and has “DM-ed” some great games. He was patient enough to take our wandering tribe through the three-hour trouble-shooting process that plagues most Zoom meetings in our demographic. “Can you hear me? Do you see my screen? YOU ARE ON MUTE.” He was patient with this bunch of old guys, and set up each of our characters– hit points and all. Whatever that means.

So, nearly 40 years later, we’re back. Our first quest is stolen straight out of the movies. We’re an old team of mercenaries called back into action because of our uniquely compatible powers. And that feels true to us. We are back together. We’re brothers. We’ve fought together in those shag-carpeted, wood-paneled ‘80s basements. We’ve argued passionately about a course of action, celebrated a completed quest as heroes, and together battled and endured evils both imagined and real (“don’t provoke him”). And somewhere lurking under the facade of these 53 year-old men are boys, pretending we’re mystical beings of our own making, working on clever names for our characters. I’m Botwulf of Thorney who you may know as St. Botolph, for whom Boston is named. And– Britt will like this especially– Botwulf is very religious. (Ed. note, Britt does like this.)

That’s the power of fantasy made sweeter with the tinge of nostalgia. Grab your Shastas, boys. It’s time to defeat the monsters. Together.