Male bonding is a funny thing
Men bond over shared experiences – fraternity brothers reliving their college days, sports veterans recalling past glories, and war buddies fondly remembering harrowing moments and absent friends. When you spend time as a “nerd,” “geek” or “freak” in high school, it’s sometimes hard to find that kind of bonding, but for my crowd, there was D&D.
A few years ago, I wrote about a book I read by Paul Bibeau called Sundays with Vlad, which is about his life-long and often humorous fascination with vampires. While it’s a great book to read in its own right, his experiences mirror those of many of us who have ever been labeled as a “nerd,” “geek” or “freak.” And having spent my own childhood and adolescence in the “non-conformist” crowd, I always feel a great amount of kinship towards anyone who can relate to the characters on The Big Bang Theory. In his book, Bibeau offers a quote that strikes a very sympathetic and humorous chord for me:
"There are four things I'll be embarrassed about for the rest of my life, and here are three of them: losing an arm-wrestling contest to a girl when I was a kid, being sexually harassed by a female boss in my early twenties and not doing anything about it, and the time just after 9/11 when I actually gave $20 to the Republican party. But the fourth stings more than the rest…I've played role-playing games before."
And thus, my own tale of male bonding comes into play here (no pun intended).
Why does this quote strike so close to home?
Back in high school, I was a smart but introverted kid, and feeling a little isolated at the time because the person I considered my best friend in middle school was off at a military school (but that’s a different story). I wasn’t exactly fitting in with the “in crowd” whom I had an almost instant dislike for. I didn’t do drugs, smoke or skip classes, so I was summarily rejected by the Future Prison Inmates of America. I wasn’t athletically inclined at the time, so I wasn’t making friends in any of the school athletics, and I hadn’t really figured out what clubs I wanted to join. It’s sufficient to say that except for neighbors, my circle of friends was pretty small, but part of that was from my army brat background (i.e., you didn’t get too close to anyone since you would lose them when you moved again).
For years, I had a copy of the Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set, which included the infamous The Keep on the Borderlands, a D&D adventure that any experienced RPG player will tell you is where they either cut their teeth in the game or avoided like the plague for being the painfully generic adventure that is was. Thing is, I didn’t really know what to do with it since I didn’t know anyone else who played. However, with study hall in the middle of the day (in my World History classroom, which is still my favorite high school class by my favorite high school teacher…even if he did turn out to be a bit of a freak),* I had some time to myself at school. Like the other kids, I rarely did much studying in study hall – it was usually sneaking comic books inside textbooks or sketching on notepads for me. I don’t know what came over me one day, but I brought in my copy of the The Keep on the Borderlands and was reading through it during that time.
Little did I know or realize that someone was observing me reading that little piece of D&D lore. I forget if it was that same day or later on, but as I was waiting outside for a late bus to go home, a guy who looked vaguely familiar walked up to me. Besides the inherent awkwardness of any random stranger walking up to you, he opened up with the most original opening line I’ve ever heard: “There’s a big zit on your face, can I pop it?” As luck or fate would have it, that was my first encounter with Stephen H. (jharish), and as time went on, we became friends and I was eventually invited to join his D&D group. This gaming group were all fellow high schoolers – a good group of guys, and as it turns out (and not too surprisingly), all part of the same social class of nerds, geeks and not-quite-normal types.
June 1990 – one of our last official D&D sessions. Clockwise from the Bottom: Stephen H. (in the red shirt), Keith,
Spyke, Neil, Alex (a.k.a., “Dungeon Master” and “Great Conqueror Wyrm”), Dave, Vic and Erik. I’m not in the
picture because I was the one taking it, and Jon wasn't there for that session. In the middle is the map of
“Quillanor,” the world we played in.
Every Friday afternoon, we gathered at whoever’s house was hosting that week and spent from late afternoon to well into evening on whatever quests and adventures Alex had drummed up for us. The popular spots to play were in Alex’s, Dave’s or Erik’s parents’ respective basements, but sometimes my parents would let me host. Steve’s parents allowed us to play at their home from time to time just so they could observe what they considered a satanic game. While we genuinely enjoyed playing, there were times where we’d fall into chatting about whatever, putting Alex on task to bring us back on mission (sometimes using more Draconian methods like dolling out “random damage” to whomever was taking the group off topic). Occasionally there were petty fights and temper tantrums over disputes and irritations (especially over some dumb ass things considering this game dealt with absolutely nothing tangible),** but it was these sessions where we all bonded. It was out small circle of friends and we reveled in hanging out at school and our beloved Friday nights, as well as playing other RPGs from time to time and our “Laser Tag” craze that had us out in the woods day and night trying to shoot each other with toy ray guns. Of course, eventually it came time for us to part ways for college or go off into the real world, but somehow, we managed to keep in touch (a few less so than the rest of us). We’ve even reached the point where we experience mini-reunions at each other’s respective weddings, and share congratulations as several of our group are having kids.
As the years have gone by and I’ve gone from emotionally-distraught teen, to trying-to-figure-out-who-he-is twenty-something, to man-child-trying-to-finally-grow-up thirty-something, those days of RPG playing have been a pleasant memory. Not that any of us veered too far away from our collective geeky and dorky roots. We still love or had our fair share of sci fi movies, science and eclectic/eccentric misadventures and odd/weird/what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-you people we’ve encountered over the years. Maybe I just outgrew my interest in it, maybe I found other distractions like work, dating and my artistic endeavors, but I haven’t even touched anything related to D&D in almost 20 years. The closest I’ve come to any of it is a quick glance at the RPG books in the bookstore. Funny thing, I’ve noticed in my love life that admitting you used to play D&D isn’t always the most enticing thing a woman wants to hear. Many women I’ve met who discover this about me usually follow up with “But do you still play?”
It’s About Time for a Real Reunion
As the years have trudged by, this small circle of friends kept in touch. Sadly a few disappeared or lost contact for whatever their reasons, but a core of us always kept in contact and saw each other whenever the opportunity presented itself. In a group email to all of us in February, Alex pointed out that the D&D campaign we played began 25 years ago as of Fall 2012. That was a sobering and nostalgic reminder to us that a lot of time had passed and we all had fond and vivid memories and lasting friendships thanks to that fantasy game.
In the bevy of emails that followed, a plan emerged for a reunion, a chance to get all of us together to reminisce and catch up. Ideas for meeting were kicked around – everything from meeting at a fun destination like Las Vegas (though most of us weren’t fans of that place) or Dave’s cottage in Canada (logistically not easy to coordinate), but ultimately, it made sense to get together where it all started – Northern Virginia. Fortunately, several of us are still in the area, so it was easy to get to and make accommodations. As Spyke had the largest living space (i.e., a house, complete with an entire wall dedicated to all things gaming and sci fi), he volunteered his home as the hang out for the weekend. Our original idea was to meet in the Fall, but there were too many conflicts with that timeframe, so we decided to go for an earlier date over the summer. As an added bonus, all but one of missing former game players were back in touch and equally excited to see us all in one place again (although Dave and Neil had to drop out because of work commitments).
This past weekend was the big reunion. Alex even prepared a small mini adventure to play around in, but I think we were more excited to just be together again and enjoy the camaraderie. It’s a strange experience to see some of them after a very long time, even if I've seen some of them with a bit more regularity. In many ways, you see how we’re all basically the same geek guys we remember, and how time and maturity have molded and changed us. There was a lot of “remember when…” conversations, some old and fondly remembered in-jokes, and a Hell of a time trying to remember how that damn game worked.
As Dave observed when he Skyped in for a few minutes, those gaming days could’ve been yesterday. The only difference now was our hair was thinner, we were a few pounds heavier, and the beverages of choice involved alcohol instead of soda. Even now, we’re all abuzz about getting together again next year (one or two wish it could be even more often), and some hopeful that we’ll see more than a few more reunions in the future. Personally, I'm less interested in the game and more with being in their company again like old times.
June 2013. Top (From Left to Right): Alex, Jon, Spyke, Erik. Bottom (From Left to Right): Steve, Keith, me.
* My World History teacher (who I’m keeping anonymous on purpose) had a great way of putting major events in perspective to modern day. He was a fantastic encyclopedia of what happened and when, and encouraged students to keep open minds. Unfortunately, he was allegedly a bit of a pervert (e.g., he enjoyed re-arranging the class seating assignments by making the cheerleaders in their very short skirts sit at the front of the class) and was consequently “invited” to retire a few years after I graduated.
** Having some notorious anger management issues back then, I was often guilty of these, some of which were encouraged by the others for sheer entertainment value.