C’mon, admit it: that got y’all’s attention. But it’s a true story, and I’m about to tell you how my mother, of all people, managed the trick.
I mentioned before that my Mom was raised uber-Catholic, as in I have relatives who are nuns and priests, we had a super-antique dress-up doll of Toddler Jesus we put special costumes on for the holidays, I still get presents of Pope-blessed rosaries and vials of holy water un-ironically which I value for all those times I must dress up in leotards and high-heeled boots and fight vampires, and I very literally considered becoming a nun myself, a life plan that only narrowly got derailed by my discovery of boys and novelty earrings.
You can take the girl out of Catholic School, but it’s harder to get the Catholic School out of the girl than it is to get that awful Baltimore accent out of anybody at all. My mom went to what I found out later is still one of the most prestigious private girls’ parochial schools on the East Coast, and whatever they taught in their homemaker classes was made of weapons-grade stickiness. Something happens to sheltered women who have kids anyway, I think, so who knows exactly why my mom at first was so very obsessed with hygiene and proprietry. I remember once I fed a stray cat milk out of one of the toy cups from my tea party set when I was like 5, and she freaked out and threw it away because it could never ever be clean enough for a human to use even in pretend-tea-drinking ever again. That clean streak faded only slowly. By the time she was ready to depart this good dark earth, she was pouring heavy cream directly on the kitchen counter for her 21-year-old toothless old cat to lap up. But it took her decades to get from Point Anal-Retentive to Point Idontgiveashit on that subject. She was very typically suburban and she had this idea of how a proper suburban family ought to function that wouldn’t have looked out of place on “The Brady Bunch.”
Knowing that, you can imagine she wasn’t completely thrilled about me getting into Dungeons and Dragons when I was in middle school.
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was one of the original pencil-and-paper roleplaying games. If you’ve never heard of it, you should probably get out from under your rock more often to get some sunlight, but basically the idea is that you pretend to be a wizard or fighter or priest or thief or something (the person you’re pretending to be is a Player Character, or PC), and the leader of the game, or “Dungeon Master” (DM) takes you verbally through an adventure involving fighting something, fetching something, or figuring something out. Usually it’s all three. Games like World of Warcraft and Skyrim are like D&D with computers, animation, and a lot less graph paper. All of this is verbally done or sketched out on paper; the DM says something like “There’s a chest in this dark stone chamber,” and someone in the group says “I’ll check it for traps” and rolls one or two or more dice. Depending on the number rolled, either the player found something or didn’t, and gets to decide what his/her PC will do next in response. Then the DM tells the player(s) what the results of that next action are. It’s like community theater, just a nice group exercise in storytelling with a bit of chance thrown into the mix.
The only reason D&D was ever a problem was that someone decided it involved demons and evil sorcery or something, and let’s face it–it was kind of weird to have a bunch of people just sitting around a table or around the living room for hours at a stretch and there not be a television, card deck, or oil-slicked Twister mat involved somewhere, and from then on, anybody who played it was seen as a pervert, weirdo, nerd, sex fiend, and Satanist all rolled together.
Did I mention I was like 13 when I got into D&D? And still quite, quite Catholic?
I was at a really awkward phase physically, hated my new home and school, and was on the verge of becoming a total hermit; about all that kept me entertained were comic books and Atari games. Then during a shopping trip to the PX on base, my mom found the Brown Box D&D set, and my sister and I immediately asked for it on the grounds that we thought it was like Risk. Board games were interesting and I especially loved one called “Dungeon!” which was a sort of D&D-meets-Monopoly weirdness (and if you even vaguely like either game, find yourself a copy of this one immediately as it rocks), but this new thing turned out to share only a passing similarity in name to that game I’d adored for a couple years already. We were a little surprised to discover what was actually in the box, which was a couple of paperback staple-bound booklets and a packet of plastic dice and a crayon, but we set ourselves to learning this new game with our usual zeal. Well, I did. My sister got bored right after realizing that learning this game and practicing it required both reading and writing as well as math, neither of which interested her in the least at that stage. But I was fascinated.
Mom didn’t seem that worried at first. The stuff inside the box didn’t seem too harmful, I’m sure she reasoned; it was all graph paper and dice whose numbers you had to color in yourself with the provided white crayon. Some of the line drawings were maybe a little racy for kids my age, but my mom had been a bit of a hippie in Hawaii, so that didn’t bother her too much either.
I’m not even sure how I made friends who liked D&D, but somehow I did. By 8th grade, I had a small circle of acquaintances who played, all boys of course, and we’d meet at alternating kids’ houses on the weekends and play for six or seven hours till our parents had had enough of us. I was the only girl until my mom forced me to take my sister along. For a while I couldn’t imagine why she’d do that to me. My sister didn’t actually like or enjoy the tabletop version of the board game she’d actually kinda liked, and she really didn’t like my gaming friends. At the time I thought Mom just wanted her there as a sort of fuzzy chaperone in case these sheltered nerds were in fact staging gangbangs in their parents’ houses, but now I think she and Dad just craved some alone-time.
Whatever the reason, I was able to overlook my sister’s presence. I blossomed in this storytelling environment. I learned how to convey information and assimilate it; I learned how to cooperate and negotiate; I learned how to think outside the box and be skeptical of things. I’d already loved reading, but now I was reading to learn things, not just amuse myself, even if they were things I was learning for the purpose of later amusing myself.
Most of all I learned how to cast spells to summon dark entities from beyond our nightmares and how to properly ritually sacrifice and cannibalize innocent cats and guilty infants–oh, wait, sorry, no, actually, I didn’t learn a single bit of magic or become violent in any way. About the most destructive things I ever did while gaming was set fire to pencils and scratch the crayon-marks out of my dice with my fingernails (because if you have lighters and pencils anywhere near tabletop gamers, those things are going to get combined by the end of the session; it’s a rule. And nobody could resist those dice).
My mom one day presented me with brochures she’d gotten somewhere about D&D being Satanic. I wish I still had these cheap blue and brown tri-fold brochures. I have no idea where she got them; at this point nobody in my family including me was attending church anywhere and my mom didn’t go out or belong to any social groups outside of work, so maybe a friend from work gave them to her. Wherever she’d gotten them from, these brochures were the first brush I ever had with religious propaganda, and it wasn’t a good first impression. They were very earnest in insisting that kids involved in D&D were not only endangering their souls via possession but just one flip of a light-switch away from getting involved in drugs, Satanism, crime, and sexual excess.
Right before I had discovered the game, you see, a lady named Pat Pulling had lost her son Bink to suicide. It was a horrific loss no matter how you looked at it, but Pat decided that her son’s involvement in D&D had been a direct cause of his death. She immediately went on the warpath against the game, calling her new action group “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons.” She was going on talk shows and writing books and pamphlets and appearing in courtrooms as an “expert witness” in the sudden explosion of Satanic-themed criminal trials, and nobody really figured out that she knew about as much about the occult as I knew about fluorine azide solutions. Here’s a link to a paper detailing Pat Pulling’s activities; unfortunately, she wasn’t always entirely ethical in how she went about alerting the world to the danger that had, in her rather skewed vision, taken her son from her, but nobody questioned her closely enough to realize that.
About all I could reliably tell that day from the strident calls to action I read in the brochures was that whoever had written them had not only never actually played or seen played a single session of actual D&D, but had a really active and suspiciously perverted imagination. From the titles, which ran along the lines of “Is YOUR Child Learning How to Summon Demons?!?” and “Innocent Game? Or Occult Recruitment Tool?” to the back panels, which featured handy checklists to see if a kid was heading down the sourcebook-laden primrose path to murder and Satanism, I felt like I was reading about a whole other game. Nothing in it looked like what my pack of barely-teenaged friends were doing on our weekends. Nothing. We weren’t dressing up like our characters or calling each other by our PCs’ names. We didn’t even follow the game’s rules for spell components, gestures, or incantations (we just said “I cast Magic Missile!” and rolled if necessary). None of us were violent or any more maladjusted than any other kid was; for all my truancy, I’d never even jaywalked in my life and I was unfailingly polite and obedient to my parents and teachers. Most importantly, despite a year or two involved in this game, I still had no desire whatsoever to worship demons or pray to anybody but my god. Clearly I was doing something wrong here.
I’m sure my complete bewilderment showed; I’ve been told often that I’m incapable of maintaining a poker face. My mother let me keep the brochures, but she kept a watchful eye on her girls to ensure we didn’t turn into freaks. But we didn’t.
A couple of years later, my family moved to Texas, and I got into normal girl stuff like drama club and dating; without anybody to play with, my D&D involvement dwindled till I got into the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical re-enactment group, but even though I took up D&D again, it just wasn’t like it’d been before. This time, I was playing with adults who seemed, to my mother, to be fairly stable people with real lives, real jobs, and no obvious inclinations toward murder, rape, cannibalism, or Satanism.
The next disaster for my gaming hobby hit when my mom got all shaken up by a movie called Mazes and Monsters. It had been out for a few years (it came out in 1982), but while my family was on vacation to visit my grandparents, it came on network TV one night and my mother forced me and my sister, who’d gotten back into playing on a casual basis, to watch it. We both thought it was just horrible, and it was: it’s about a disturbed kid who plays a D&D clone called, well, “Mazes and Monsters,” goes crazy, and starts thinking he’s really his character. In its way, it would remind you of that classic Chick tract released not long after the movie called “Dark Dungeons” that had roughly the same plot centering around a disturbed young person who has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. In Chick’s deranged hands, though, a fairly innocent game spun into a vast Satanic conspiracy backed by real live witches, warlocks, and demons, all out to corrupt and destroy young people’s minds. Between it and the “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons” brochures, parents had every reason to be panicky about what was going on in their dining rooms every weekend.
We’re going to have to talk at more length someday about this idea that toxic Christians have that roleplaying can somehow suck someone into insanity, but for now, just know that no, nothing in either one of these awful, pandering, fearmongering pieces of bullpuckey resembles reality in the very least. Thankfully, after interrogating my sister and me after the movie ended (it was one of those movies that had a “discussion panel” afterward, and that panel was just as excruciating as you are guessing it was), my mom could see that this movie didn’t resemble reality either, so my gaming survived another test intact.
Then I became a fundamentalist and broke the combo.
I don’t know if non-fundies know about this, but in my neck of the woods, it was very common for converts with unacceptable hobbies to burn the stuff they’d bought for that hobby. People who liked heavy metal music broke and burned their albums. Women into romance novels burned their novels–indeed, I had a friend who went through this exact routine like three times in the few years I knew her. Biff had already burned all his art supplies and his gorgeous original art as it had obviously been created while he was under a demon’s influence (remember, he thought he’d been possessed). And as you might guess, gaming nerds were supposed to burn all their demonic gaming books.
So obviously, my gaming books should have been toast. And since I never expected to use them again, I was actually on board with the idea. Here, however, an unexpected obstacle stood in my path.
She might not have been totally enthused with me being a gamer, but she was even less enthused with me being a fundamentalist, and no way was she letting me destroy hundreds of dollars’ worth of gaming books over a fit of zealotry. Finally she got me to agree to wait till after college to do the deed, after which time I promptly forgot about it.
A few years later, right after I’d graduated, while visiting my folks I saw my gaming books.
On a bookshelf.
In their living room.
Along with them were the cheap cardstock folders that any D&D player would instantly recognize as repositories of old maps and character sheets. I opened one of the folders up and realized I was looking at my mom’s handwriting. Dad’s, too, for that matter. They’d made characters! “Mom,” I called, “What’s all this about?”
Well, she and my dad had gotten into a tabletop group at the base, she told me a little sheepishly, and asked if she could continue using the books.
You could have knocked me down with a feather! I let her have the gaming books, since by now I was heading out of the religion anyway, and she and my dad probably played more even than I had. I had no idea what to think.
The year before my mother died, she came with me to DragonCon in Atlanta, one of the larger comics and gaming conventions in the United States. It was a bit of a drive for her, but I think she knew–well before I did–that this was probably her last chance to see it. We sat in the audience at a panel hosted by D&D co-founder Dave Arneson, who was talking about the game’s early history. He mentioned the religious backlash against the game and its rumored Satanic involvement, and I got to proudly show off my mom as an example of a parent who’d handled things sensibly and gracefully and was now totally on board with gaming and even doing some herself.
I was so proud of her and so happy to be there with her. There were so many kids in that panel whose parents thought of gaming as weird and demonic. There were so many families that were divided over this pastime. I could tell that seeing my mom there gave these embattled young people hope of one day finding a common ground with their own parents.
After she died, I got my gaming books back, and more besides. She had gotten her hands on what was going to become one of the rarest of all rarities in the D&D world. Yes, you heard me. I inherited a copy of the Deities and Demigods Cthulhu Edition, the one that featured the Lovecraftian mythos that had to be removed later for copyright violations.
But you know what I treasure even more than that? Her folder full of old character sheets. You see, there’s a secret in there that, when I saw it, reduced me to a blubbering mess and still does.
My mother, the sweet Catholic schoolgirl who never broke rules or did anything to hurt anybody in the world, who considered charity giving an absolute requisite, who couldn’t say no to anybody, my mother liked playing thieves.
Whatever she got out of such a strange choice–and let’s be clear, one could easily argue it wasn’t that strange a choice at all–D&D gave it to her despite her earlier misgivings, and if she had reacted the way Pat Pulling and the Religious Right had wanted her to react, if she’d bought into the hysteria, if she’d trusted these zealots over her own daughter, she wouldn’t have gotten to experience that secret vicarious life. She refused to let religious nuts dictate how to raise her kid, and I think we both benefited dramatically from her bravery in ways that neither of us could possibly have imagined that day in the PX.
So yes, this time of year is very bittersweet to me, and for all of DragonCon’s current troubles, it’s hard for me to think poorly of it when I think of the memory of a roomful of sharp sweet intakes of breath, and the sight of hundreds of young people looking at me and my mother with sudden wild hope in their eyes and sudden dreams of reconciliation in their hearts. I hope some of them managed to find healing from the rifts that zealotry can cause.