When you’re into comics, science fiction, role-playing games and the rest, people will make assumptions about you. These assumptions are that you’re a nerd (not in the liberating sense that we use here), a geek, a wimp — somehow different or less than the folks who consume and participate in mainstream popular culture. And this applies to white people. When you add race to this, you get doubly othered quite a bit of the time. You like “white shit” and you’re soft. In many cases, you become an ass-whooping magnet. We won’t get into how all of this stuff is now mainstream or how fantasy sports leagues are about as Dungeons and Dragons as you can get, just minus the swords, gold, and magic.
And it is D&D that I want to talk about here. I’ve played for over thirty years. While I am not participating in an active campaign, I would in a heartbeat if I found one that interested me.
After about five years of playing the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, in the early to mid ’80s, I became restless. Something was missing. That it that so enthralled me evaporated. I had a character I loved, on a campaign that was well thought out and ran, and I was with friends who were different in race and gender. But the dissatisfaction metastasized to the point that I dropped out. The overwhelming role-playing ennui had colonized me and robbed me of my interest. I went looking elsewhere for that same creative charge. I surveyed the role-playing landscape and bought (well, actually, boosted) games that I thought would feel like home the way AD&D did:
Marvel Super Heroes:
Nothing helped. They all felt like poor imitations. My first year of high school, the love was rekindled.
I had a teacher, Mr. Gregson, who brought AD&D into his English class. He would read a fantasy scenario, or a description of a monster as a writing prompt, and he’d give us the first ten minutes of class to write as freely as we wanted. What I found out later was the he was a Dungeon Master who was refining his adventures via our class. Mr. Gregson made me realize what was missing. I was tired of “walking down a circular stone stairway slick with a partially glowing slime. In the darkness all around you, you can hear various sounds. Water dripping. Heavy breathing. Footsteps coming from impossible angles…”
I didn’t want to adventure anymore. I wanted to create them.
Becoming a DM was hard. Finding folks who wanted to play with someone untested was difficult. Finding a space to host the game was even harder. It couldn’t happen in my house because my family believed that Dungeons and Dragons would lead to demonic possession and it was “white people shit.”
Our local community center was more accommodating. But the most difficult for me was finding my DM voice and style. I didn’t want to be the heavily affected voice attempting to do accents guy, nor did I want to be the zero emotion, information only kind of game leader, and I for damn sure didn’t want to be the kind of DM who set out to torture his players.
I was lucky that my renewed interest in playing Dungeons and Dragons sprang up about the same time as Hip-Hop became the lens through which I saw the world.
Slick Rick and Dana Dane:
And the Native Tongues influenced my performance and storytelling style:
They provided me with multiple cadences and tones. And they exposed me to the idea that blackness could have a surreal and whimsical quality. When I first began playing, all of my characters were black. I didn’t have to try and mentally insert black skin under Spider-Man’s mask, or bask in the overwhelming whiteness of Superman or Batman, or wade through the crap portrayals of Power-Man, the Falcon, or the Black Panther — D&D allowed me to create a character that looked like me, shared my values, and without being anachronistic, sound like me. I rocked a brown-skinned (no Drow) half-elf fighter that sported ‘locs and brandished an assegai. #TooFly
While that was cool, as a DM, I could now create black-centered worlds. I could draw from Southern black, African, and Caribbean mythology and folklore. I could be directly responsible for making the African Diaspora the setting of our adventures.
While I didn’t run campaigns that included Jamal the Hip-Hop Dragon, Hip-Hop assisted me with developing a voice, a storytelling style. My becoming a DM who created campaigns that centralized black culture and my presenting them through black cultural vernacular, enhanced my confidence to the point where I took risks in public speaking and got into poetry slams and solo theatrical performances. Hell, it even made me brave enough to take a stab at stand-up. Dungeons and Dragons and my becoming a Dungeon Master was a gift that I pass on whenever I can.
For thirteen years, I worked with “at risk” youth. In group homes, juvenile hall, in their home communities, I made sure that I was on the front lines of this work. And when I wasn’t working, I’d volunteer. I was a project kid from a violent home who became successful. I earned some advanced degrees, had a stable relationship; I was generally in a good space. I wanted to share that with youth. I wanted to show them that there was another story out there, and that they could author it. Yes, it was arrogant. But I live by my grandmother’s words” If you can, help.”
Several years ago I volunteered at a diversion program. Basically, if the youth (sadly all African American) completed the program without missing any days or getting into any further trouble, their records would be expunged. I was meant to teach literacy. I gave them Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, and comic books. Nothing worked. There was disinterest and damn near mutiny. One day, I brought in Dungeons and Dragons. I was feeling the urge to play again, so what better way to knock the creative dust off than with a captive audience?
I stacked the Monster Manual, Deities and Demigods, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide on the table. I rolled out an intricate dungeon created on graph paper. I spilled multi-colored and multi-sided dice. I asked them to choose from an array of finely painted pewter miniatures — all faces and hands painted along the black/brown spectrum. I could have stripped butt naked and ate peanut butter from a jar and the kids would not have been more shocked than they already were.
“Yo, Shawn. What the hell is this?”
I told them about D&D and what it meant to me. I got clowned so badly.
“Shawn is a nerd, bruh. This dude is on some Lord of the Rings shit.”
I challenged this last insult, and I asked how he knew about LOTR. “I like that movie.” I explained that it was a book series first. He looked like I killed hiscat when I charged him with being on some ‘Lord of the Rings’ shit right along with me.
In the 12 weeks I volunteered with that program, we never really got a full campaign going — just a series of micro adventures. And we for sure never really got into the literacy milestones I was supposed to achieve. What did happen was that some lives were changed.
A few of the young men resisted to the end. Nothing I said or did was worthy of their time and energy. The rest really took to the whole adventure. Through character creation I was able to introduce vocabulary words like ‘dexterity,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘constitution.’ They learned how to work as a team from adventuring as companions. They learned how to express themselves in various ways by speaking through their characters. And they got the opportunity to learn about the multiple streams of blackness and how they could narrate their own blackness, and how this was valid.
About a year ago, I was walking around Lake Merritt when I felt a pretty stiff jab in my ribs. I turned to smack the hell out of who just jabbed me. A young man I didn’t know or recognize was almost doubled over with laughter. He said, “You ain’t got no hit points left.”
He was much bigger, super fit, and taller than when I last saw him. After concentrating on his face and voice, I recognized him as one of the young men from the diversion program. We made small talk and he showed me some wonderful sketches — to a one, inspired by fantasy or science fiction. He just finished college and wants to design video games that “Black kids can play and see themselves using magic, or flying, and all that.”
We made more small talk and I thanked him for reaching out to me and just as I was turning to leave, I jabbed him in the sternum.
“Now, who ain’t got no hit points?”