Last weekend was the semi-yearly “Sports Card Show” at the Cross County Mall in Mattoon. If you’ve never been, then let me fill you in: picture about 30 tables of bored dudes in stained T-shirts sitting behind glass cases full of faded cardboard pictures of sports dudes with big mustaches.
I tease, of course. I’m a perpetually ketchup-stained geek too, just one of a different stripe. Which is why I always take a breezy spin through the sports card show anyway, eye open for the one booth where my geekery might overlap theirs. First, look for the booth where the vendors are arguing about lady wrestlers, because that’s the booth where you might find, amongst the old packs of Topps and Fleer, an old pack of Magic the Gathering cards, and if you find those, well then maybe, just maybe, you’ll also find a beat up copy of a Dungeons and Dragons player guide. If you don’t remember Dungeons and Dragons, let me help you. It’s what your sons were doing in the basement all night in 1985.
Which is why I bring to you, from the 1985 Journal Gazette, one of the very few times Dungeons and Dragons was ever mentioned in the paper, a passionate defense of the game from exactly who you’d expect a such a thing to come from: a Mattoon High School student writing as part of that week’s MHS Press Page defending their favorite hobby from the massing hordes of PTA moms who already had their hands full carrying boxes of their kids’ heavy metal records to the burn barrel.
And wow did “J. Kroencke” bring the high heat; defending his favorite game (apologies for assuming you’re a guy, but c’mon…) by bringing up not only the Salem Witch Trials and the freaking Masons but by referencing “Mazes and Monsters” a TV-movie of the era which could best be described as the “Reefer Madness” of Role Playing Game movies, starring a very green Tom Hanks as a straight-laced college student who experiences every worried mom’s nightmare: going away to college, falling in with a group of role-playing gamers, and promptly losing his mind after they all decide to start earning their "experience points" by playing the game “for real” in a nearby system of caves. It also stars Chris Makepeace, who has some pretty substantial ‘80s movie cred with “Meatballs” and “My Bodyguard,” and a young Wendy Crewson, one of those obscure actresses I’ve always had a thing for (if you have Lifetime, you’ve seen her in stuff). Looking at the film today, and I can say this because I just rewatched it, it’s ridiculous hand-wringing of the most parental sort. It would be like if you made a movie today about the son you just sent off to college throwing himself off a roof in delirium mere seconds after taking his first sip of a strawberry-lime La Croix.
You may have noticed that I haven’t actually talked about the game all that much. Well, there’s a reason. I’ve never been able to figure it out. It’s not like I didn’t try. I bought the classic “red box” Basic Set from the now shuttered Waldenbooks sometime around the early ‘90s. I was already obsessed with board and video games at that age and now here was a game that promised unlimited possibilities and didn’t even have a board? Just a couple books and some dice? Sure my mom had to pull me aside later that night to doublecheck that it wasn’t all some kind of “brainwashing thing”, but hey, it’s not like I didn’t have a track record of sneaking horror-related movie magazines and comic books into the house, so I was probably due for a check in.
And let’s just say that if there was a brainwashing component to the game, its effects were nullified by the fact that my adolescent brain just couldn’t understand how the game was supposed to work. I was used to memorizing instruction books from front to back before you played a game, but trying to do that with Dungeons and Dragons would be like trying to learn to read by memorizing the dictionary. It also probably didn’t help that I was an only child and had no one to play the game with. I sure liked the dice though.
Fast forward almost, what…20 years (gulp) and there I was, in grad school at EIU, agreeing to play my first actual game of Dungeons and Dragons with some of my writing center compatriots; folks who would often while away the night shift hours kicking back in those uncomfortable chairs reminiscing about their previous Dungeon-going experiences with the same zeal that I continue to crow about the time in high school I “rolled over” the high score tables on Nintendo Pin-Bot while chatting on the phone with that cute girl from my art class with the butterfly patch on her jeans.
A few hours later there I was, sitting on the floor of a grubby Charleston basement apartment with shag carpeting best described as “extra burnt sienna”, and thrust into an adventure where our characters visited a village, fell through a hole, walked through a tunnel, and stood on a protective bolder fighting a zombifying sandworm. Just for the record, everything you read in that sentence took five hours to happen, a process that ended with me stumbling back to my car, still parked across the street from Coleman Hall, just knowing I probably wasn’t going to be invited back. Although the part where I screamed “you’re the worst [expletive] wizard ever!” at the one player who seemed to just sit there leafing through countless player manuals probably didn’t help my case.
So to J. Kroencke wherever you are today, know that Dungeons and Dragons is still being played today by folks here in town, maybe even by your kids (possibly grandkids). If so, take it upon yourself to mosey on down into that basement, belly up to the card table, whip out your velvet dice bag, and show them how it’s really done. And may all your “20s” be natural and all your hits be critical. I’m going to keep an eye on the Masons though.