Men Teach Me How to Play Dungeons & Dragons
The first rule is to listen. This is a game of imagination, so players don’t simply move plastic tokens—no, they create unique characters with personalities and rich histories. The man explaining this to me on New Year’s Eve, for instance, is an academic Wizard. He is very smart, words carefully selected from the thesaurus and therefore a little clunky in his mouth, like he is wearing a dental guard. I’m the one with the PhD, a professor—of storytelling, actually—but in this world, the Wizard speaks to me verrry slowwwly. He interrupts to clarify. He has a mighty staff.
The Wizard informs me about the character I’ve imagined. Apparently, I am to be a druid healer—I exist to take care of others, fix those who are damaged fighting. Like Wizards.
“Are the creatures winged? Do they have blue scales and sing opera?” I ask. “Why don’t I have a mortar and pestle to grind healing herbs into a poultice?”
“That’s not how we play,” says the Wizard. He repeats himself in case I don’t understand. I want to ask what color his robes are, if he wrote his dissertation on palynology. I want to know if he studied spores from rare mushrooms like the ones that grow at the foot of the mountains near my village, glint ocher-furred in the morning light as I pick them with my spindly purple fingers, hang them to dry while the Vlla-Vlla beast chortles beside me.
The second rule is to follow directions.
I choose my name from a pre-selected list the Wizard provides. We begin the quest, two men and their female partners counting down the end of 2017, though we must all be men in this game. The character I imagined is neither male nor female, but gender, like names, must be selected.
Our band of travelers moves through the map in a straight line. I hear a stream and want to detour. “That’s not the right direction,” the Wizard says. We come across two paths diverged, but cannot explore the woods I imagine salmon-colored and scented of marshmallow. The other former-female is tasked with choosing the path. “Are you sure you want to do that?” the Wizard asks in the tone he probably uses while doing their taxes.
We walk the Wizard’s way.
Suddenly, we are surrounded by wolves. It is my turn. “You want to attack,” wises the Wizard, holding the dice out to me like jewels or a child’s treat. I want to cast a spell to talk to the animals, feed them some squirrel meat, rub soothing salve on their hurt paws.
“They’re wolves,” says the Wizard. “Just kill them.”
We do. Rain beads off their pelts as we leave, and I want to cast a spell to see the future, watch pink flowers become their eyes, vines tendril around their bright bones. As we travel away, the Wizard and his staff at the lead, a melancholy wail follows us. I want to cast a resurrection spell.
“Watch your dice, woman!” the Wizard cries when I toss them in a way that takes up too much space. I’m confused, seeing as my character is a man. I hold myself quiet, still. This is what a druid healer does, after all, for it is better to hear the beat of the bird wings or the sound of a snail, the glisten it leaves behind as an antidote to loneliness.
I hurt from the effort of holding motionless.
“I’ll do the talking,” he says when we get to the imaginary town. He asks lots of questions, repeating the answers back to the rest of us even though we are also in the goblin pub. I did not even want to go through the town—a nearby cave was calling.
“Go to the cave,” say the goblins.
“We must go to the cave,” the Wizard proclaims.
There is a skirmish with blood bears on the way to the cave and the Wizard is hurt. I almost feel for him there on the forest floor, his bloodied robes billowing.
“You must heal me,” he commands before I begin my turn. Maybe his injury is the reason he’s stopped handing over the dice, flings them across the table at me instead, or uses his hand to scatter the tower I make with the dice each time I conclude my turn.
“I built you to heal me,” he insists. Even though I am a man, I can feel the rib I sprung from, a twisted root in my side.
“What are you waiting for?” cries the Wizard as the clock lurches towards a new year where everything will be the same, people desperate to craft themselves different, circle from the predetermined path led now by an orange ogre, words clunky in his mouth, his club—he reminds us—huuuge.
I grip the dice in my hands. I put them down.
“I’m going to rest,” I decide.
“You can’t,” disapproves the Wizard, much smaller now that he is writhing on the ground. He crushes ocher-furred mushrooms beneath his protest. Later, I gather them to make a stew.
“I rest,” I repeat, studying the map. I am looking for places to deviate from the path. I am tired of walking in a straight line, and would like, instead, to explore. To build my character. This rushed climb to climax is tiresome. I spin instead, holding my hands out to summon velvet-flavored leaves.
I rest again on my next turn—perhaps I am a woman after all, deserving of rest the way I am deserving of extra instructions. The Wizard takes off his celebratory cardboard top hat and sighs, crossing his arms.
The Wizard is near death, pale and weak. He doesn’t have the energy to summon fancy words, though plenty for condemnation. He will not look at me.
I collect flowers, befriend a furious blood bear, and trick a dragon into revealing its secrets and treasure without injury, despite the Wizard’s protests that “This is not how you play.”
At last I announce, “I heal you.” And because he has not looked at me since I began moving in circles, I add, “You’re welcome.”
All game, the Wizard has kept the gold for himself. He needs the armor, he insists, because he is the most important warrior. I motion to the dragon treasure I’ve captured. “Buy yourself something nice,” I offer.
The New Year’s ball drops. Auld Lang Syne. A toast, though like his eyes, he will not bring his glass to mine.
Strength newly summoned, he purchases a larger rod to lead the way.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery (@SF_Montgomery) is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Brevity, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.